Center for Ethics and Leadership

Monday, July 28, 2008

Help me Understand, Mr. President

President Bush has approved the first execution of a member of the military since President Eisenhower did so in 1957. Ronald A. Gray was found guilty of four murders and eight rapes in 1988. Does anyone remember when candidate Bush said that his favorite philosopher was Jesus because he changed Bush's heart?

Is Human Embryonic Stem-Cell Research Really the Issue?

At the Life, Justice, and Family conference last weekend (see my previous post), discussion naturally turned to to the matter of human embryonic stem-cell research (hESCR). It is certainly an issue, but after a conversation at the conference about the matter of stem-cell research generally, I wonder if attention should be turned to what is already much more heavily underway. I am referring to the genetic and embryonic stem-cell research being done with non-human embryos.

I see three ethical issues: the purpose to which the research is directed, the safety of employees and society generally, and the beneficiaries of successful research. Regarding the first, will we be directing our research to the discovery of genetic manipulations that can cure human disease? Can we be sure that this science will not be used to create horrific diseases designed to be used in biological warfare? Who is monitoring this research? As far as employee safety, how strict are the OSHA regulations? Do they even apply? What if engineered viruses find their way out of the lab and into the world? And who will be able to afford these cures? However much we try, we continually return to the issue of health care allocation in the U.S., costs, and insurance.

Some have argued that if we allow federal funds for hESCR, we then can regulate it. We need not do so. This is for-profit interstate commerce. Congress can regulate it. Perhaps before we allow the great research corporations even to think about using human embryos, we ought to require satisfactory answer to the fundamental ethical questions: what purpose, how safely, and to whose benefit?

A relatively new but good source on the issues is The Center for Public Awareness in Bioethics (http://www.cpab.info/). Check it out.

Camden Diocese Hosts a Historic Pro-Life Conference

July 25 marked the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae. This is the papal teaching that forbade artificial birth control. It is unnecessary to repeat that the teaching was not received by the overwhelming majority of lay Catholics (about 90 percent) and by the majority of the Church's moral theologians. Nonetheless, Paul's successor John Paul II continually articulated the rightness of the teaching and developed it over the many years of his papacy. His work is now referred to as the "Theology of the Body."

This weekend, the Diocese of Camden, NJ, in cooperation with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) held a leadership weekend designed to educate diocesan family life and pro-life employees nationwide about the Church's sexual and reproductive ethics entitled "Life, Justice, and Family." It was an impressive gathering. People came from as far away as Hawaii to spend the weekend at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cherry Hill, NJ. The speakers were A-list. Helen Alvare and Tadeuz Pacholzyk spoke on law and philosophy, respectively and were superb. Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, CT, and Carl Anderson of the Knights of Columbus also addressed the assembly.

Most of the speeches were well prepared and well delivered. Two stand out in my mind. A physician from suburban Philadelphia, Lester Ruppersberger, impressed with his sobering facts about the patients he treats. For example, he has already treated 19-year-old women for cervical cancer brought on by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). He also brought forward many statistics arguing a link between increased levels of hormonal contraceptives and breast cancer, and outlined other medical indications. Most impressive was his personal statement that nine years ago, when he was about 50, he changed his ob-gyn practice from one that prescribed contraceptives to one that offered Natural Family Planning (NFP) only. That's gutsy.

Mark Chevalier, Ph.D., an executive with American Water, spoke of the effects of increased level of synthetic estrogen in the nation's rivers and streams. The estrogen not absorbed by the body is passed in the urine. It seems to find its way into the water and there are now instances of male fish being hormonally feminized. Male alligators have been discovered to have undescended testicles, and so on. Who would have thought that the pill would have a measurable environmental impact?

Those were only two of the excellent presentations that gave food for thought. Not every argument was convincing. Once too often came the simplistic statement that the ubiquity of the pill has been a significant cause of adultery, illegitimacy, STDs, and the breakdown of the family. And now and again the us-against-the-world argument was grating. In fact, the pill is both symptom and cause of these social problems, along with many other causes, some of which are political and economic and others cultural. And the attendees seemed solidly middle-class or better, so they are doing just fine in the world. More significantly, even when it is recognized that the conference's stated purpose centered on Humanae Vitae and related matters, too little attention was given to the Church's social teachings. They are pro-life in a profound sense of the word. That said, it was still a good weekend.

Seminary Makes a Bad Decision

A few hundred years ago, the Westminster Confession of Faith declared Scripture to be God's infallible word. About 100 years ago several professors of theology from Princeton wrote the Fundamentals (five of them) in response to the growing popularity of critical methods of reading Scripture championed mainly by German scholars. About eighty years ago, some Princetonians founded Westminster Theological Seminary in suburban Philadelphia, a seminary dedicated to teaching the Fundamentals. About a week ago, a solid Scripture scholar, Peter Enns, resigned from Westminster after a career of nearly 25 years because the Westminster board has decided that his work violates the Confession. Below follows a headline from Enns's website that states his methodological assumption clearly:

The Authority of Scripture is a Function of Its Divine Origin, not Its Cultural Expression, Although the Bible that the Spirit Has Given the Church is a Thoroughly Encultured Product

There is nothing theologically objectionable about this statement. It does not compromise the principle of Scripture's infallibility, nor does it cast all Biblical theology into the murky waters of modern scientific contingency. On the other hand, the refusal to move forward on the part of any of our Christian churches threatens the faith's credibility in an age of increasing epistemological eliminative materialism.

The Church, especially those denominations which emphasize the primacy of Scripture, needs more scholars like Peter Enns, not fewer. Here is a sincere wish that Prof. Enns quickly finds another position in clerical formation at an institution in his ecclesiastical tradition. And here's Enns's URL: http://peterennsonline.com/

On a related matter, Christians must always be careful about how they apply their creeds, confessions, and canons to contemporary questions. Again, the Church's preservation from error provided by the Holy Spirit does not encourage simplistic correlations from one age to the next.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Alternative Fuels Debate Heats Up

Natural gas and wind, or sun and wind? Former Vice President Albert Gore has been working hard to raise our awareness of the climate crisis and to convince us of the need to develop solar and wind power. I did not see his movie, but he acquitted himself well with Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press last Sunday. T. Boone Pickens, noted oil man and investor, has now also gone on record in favor of developing wind power and more uses for natural gas. Pickens has created a few television commercials during which he makes his case. The two men disagree on the use of natural gas; Gore points out that it is not a renewable source of energy and produces carbon-based emissions. Pickens also owns companies in the wind power and natural gas sectors.

I'm just happy we have started talking about it. It's a lot better than making fun of Al Gore. We have a serious problem, and I wonder just how quickly we could make progress if we marshaled our ingenuity the way we did when President Kennedy challenged us to put a man on the moon in ten years. Technology can advance even more quickly than it did nearly a half-century ago -- if we want it to.