Yes, I know today is officially Saint Patrick’s Day, its having been transferred from next Monday because nothing takes precedence in the Church’s calendar over Holy Week. That makes sense. I thought of doing an item on how Irish Catholicism, which Tom Cahill tells us once saved civilization, is now being saved by Polish immigrants, but then thought better of it. I’ll save my Saint Patrick’s Day thoughts for next year, when it gets back to its proper date of March 17, where I understand it will stay for the next hundred years or so.
Approaching Holy Week, the mind is concentrated on the suffering and death of Our Lord and why we human beings were deemed worthy of the death of God. That is not exactly the subject of a big new 550-page collection of essays issued by the President’s Council on Bioethics, Human Dignity and Bioethics, but it is the subject that undergirds a Christian way of thinking about what is so very special about human beings.
The collection includes my essay “The Politics of Bioethics,” which also appeared in First Things. There I accent the ways in which the idea of the dignity of the human person is the foundation of Catholic anthropology and ethicsand, I would add, of all Christian morality that has carefully thought through what can and cannot be done to human beings. That idea is unapologetically what John Rawls would call a “comprehensive account,” the kind of account he says has no proper place in properly public discourse. Whether or not it is publicly displayed in its fullness, however, it is the account that informs the Christian defense of the humanum and all the members of that unique species.
It is an idea of human dignity forcefully set forth in the statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, “That They May Have Life.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes no fewer than twenty-three pages to setting forth the concept of human dignity and its implications. Although most people may not have had occasion to reflect upon it in any detail, the great majority of Christians in America intuitively affirm this concept, and it is my point that they should not be inhibited in advancing public arguments grounded in that understanding.
In this view, the dignity of the human person means at least this: A human being is a person possessed of a dignity we are obliged to respect at every point of development, debilitation, or decline by virtue of being created in the image and likeness of God. Endowed with the spiritual principle of the soul, andhowever healthy or impairedwith reason, and with free will, the destiny of the person who acts in accord with moral conscience in obedience to the truth is nothing less than eternal union with God. This is the dignity of the human person that is to be respected, defended, and indeed revered.
Many of the contributors to Human Dignity and Bioethics dissent, and dissent radically, from that understanding. These arguments engage life-or-death questions. Abortion, doctor-assisted suicide, and embryo-destructive research are obvious issues involved. But biotechnological progress todaywhich is certainly not to be confused with moral progressraises many other questions. (In these discussions it is always good to keep at hand C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man.) The scientific campaign to conquer nature has now turned toward also conquering human nature. Already now, and increasingly in the future, we will be able to isolate and manipulate the biological factors that determine human attributes that were previously viewed as natural and received as either blessing or curse. The elimination of negative attributes would seem to be an obvious good, but the lines between blessing and curse are sometimes anything but obvious.
We are learning to control the development of human embryos in vitro, which may make possible the cloning of human beings, the manufacture of human-animal chimeras, and the gestation of human beings in animal or artificial wombs. The cloning of human, or human-like, beings for spare parts, why not? What would be tantamount to slave labor is no longer a matter of science-fiction fantasy. Who is to say just how human such a creature has to be to count as a human being whom we simply know cannot be treated as a thing?
Then there is the ever-larger arsenal of psychoactive drugs that modify behavior, as well as attention, memory, cognition, emotion, mood, personality, and the most intimate aspects of our inner life. As Leon Kass of the President’s Council regularly reminds us, it is not George Orwell’s 1984 but Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World that has turned out to be prophetic. Why live a life of struggle, inquiry, anxiety, and all that accompanies human creativity when you can take your dose of soma and feel happy? Psychopharmaceutical manipulation is the perfect accompaniment to the unending flood of self-help books published under the generic title of Be the Wonderful Person that You Are, many of them authored, sad to say, by putatively Christian preachers.
Science is acquiring the ability to screen out unwanted gene combinations in preimplantation embryos and may be able to manipulate genetic germ-lines, thus fulfilling Lewis’ nightmare of a manufactured humanity in control of the would-be controllers. We modify the human genome to increase resistance to disease, optimize height and weight, augment muscle strength, extend the lifespan, sharpen the senses, boost intelligence, and, more generally, create more satisfactory human beings. At what point does “enhancement” result in a different understanding of what it means to be human and, needless to say, our intolerance of those who, by our heightened standards, are subhuman?
Years ago, Christopher Lasch wrote that the reason we no longer have freak shows at county fairs is not because we are more sensitive and compassionate but because we have created, or aspire to create, a world that has no place for freaks. I regularly pass on the way to work the New York center for cerebral palsy. It is both touching and inspiring to see caretakers gently helping hundreds of childrentheir eyes rolling, limbs flailing, and grunting speechgetting in and out of the buses that transport them to the center. Prenatal testing and the unlimited abortion license will make sure that there is not another generation to burden us with the need for such caring.
To be sure, there is much in the promise of biotechnological progress that would seem to be morally unproblematic and an unqualified good. But the dark side of such alleged progress is already upon us and is gaining momentum. In his essay in Human Dignity and Bioethics, the estimable Gilbert Meilaender makes a convincing case that the resources for warding off the dark side and providing moral guidance in defense of human dignity depends on the religious traditions that provide a comprehensive account of what it means to be human.
Which returns us to Holy Week and a humanity worth dying for. The psalmist asks, “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” And in these coming days of Holy Week, we ask, What is man that you died for him? At a particular moment in time, outside the gates of Jerusalem, the God-man Jesus Christ is nailed to the cross, and it is true to say that God is dead. For a time, the light that came into the world was extinguished, followed by resurrectionnot as a happy ending but as a new beginning. The whole world beginning anew in resurrection glory and the promise of the oncoming Kingdom of God.
Against the many faces of the dark side, including the dubious promises of biotechnological progress, we are able to saysometimes defiantly, always gratefullywith Gerard Manley Hopkins:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God . . .
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
and all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell; the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent:
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last light off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with, ah! Bright wings.
Man remains: the caretaker and cantor of the universe. In the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has invested himself in the human project. Therefore it cannot, it cannot finally, fail.
A copy of Human Dignity and Bioethics, a government publication, is available free, while supplies last, by emailing email@example.com.
“The Politics of Bioethics” by Richard John Neuhaus
“That They May Have Life”: A Statement of Catholics and Evangelicals Together
The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis