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Toward the end of the 2015 synod of bishops in Rome, delegates were invited to submit possible themes for the next such gathering, set for 2018. As part of the U.S. delegation, I offered half a dozen topics. But near the top of my list, I urged a synod focused on Psalm 8. The reason was simple. Few passages in Scripture are more piercing, or more enduring, than Psalm 8:4, in which the Psalmist, addressing God, asks, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” As it turned out, the 2018 synod took a different path. Yet that question—what is man?—has cast its shadow over all of human experience. And it still does, with new urgency.

We’ve spent the last 75 years living with the knowledge that we as a species have the power to vaporize ourselves in war. Nuclear weapons pose a grave threat to human dignity and survival. They provide us with plenty to worry about. But ironically, they may be less worrisome precisely because their danger is so obvious. They will inflict their damage from the outside, and we know very well what that looks like. Hiroshima is stamped in our memory. 

Today we have the ability, or soon will, to rewire ourselves at the biological level; to “improve,” in the sunny language of science boosterism, what it means to be human from the inside out. Genetic catastrophe is not (yet) in our vocabulary. And what harm can a little merging of humans and machines do? Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we’re long on knowledge and ambition, but short on wisdom. This is what makes a new book by O. Carter Snead both timely and so important.

In What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics, Snead—a professor of law and director of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame—notes that “public bioethics is fundamentally concerned with human vulnerability, dependence, frailty, and finitude.” Yet “current law [regarding] American public bioethics is grounded in a gravely incomplete and thus false vision of human identity and flourishing.” He goes on to argue that because of this flaw, our public bioethics “is unable to respond fully and coherently to the challenges intrinsic to the individual and shared lives of embodied beings [and their] natural limits.”  

Our “false vision” of human identity stems from an expressive (and excessive) individualism that privileges personal autonomy, the individual will, and strong cognitive abilities. It undervalues the network of mutual obligation that constitutes real life. It thus subtly threatens anyone who is especially dependent on others: the disabled, the sick, the elderly, and most obviously the unborn child. In Snead’s words,

expressive individualism does not recognize unchosen obligations. The self is bound only to those commitments freely assumed. And the expressive individual self only accepts commitments that facilitate the overarching goal of pursuing its own, original, unique, and freely chosen quest for meaning . . . [As a result,] expressive individualism fails because it is, to borrow a phrase from Alasdair MacIntyre, “forgetful of the body.”  Its vision of the human person does not reflect and thus cannot make sense of the full lived reality of human embodiment with all that it entails.

This results in an approach to bioethics that is subtly anti-teleological. Or to put it more plainly, at the heart of our public bioethics is the assumption that there is no shared meaning to human life beyond that which we freely create for ourselves. This has the unintended effect of undermining our ideas about community and human rights, and intensifying our fear of death.

Snead describes the content and purpose of his book with simple but eloquent clarity in a recent Napa Institute interview. It’s well worth watching and sharing. What It Means to Be Human starts with “A Genealogy of American Public Bioethics,” which explains how we behaved ourselves into our current problems. It moves from there to the importance of recovering a truly wholesome anthropology, or conception of human meaning, to undergird our bioethical policies. It then drills down into the specific issues of abortion, assisted reproduction, and death and dying. Snead makes the point again and again that we’re not merely intellects and wills, stuck in the clay capsules of our bodies. Our bodies are not tools or machines; they’re part of who we are, essential and fully integrated into our human personhood.    

Professor Snead has written a book rich in scholarship but for a much wider audience than scholars. The content of our bioethics will shape the course of our human future. That’s what makes this book so valuable. I wish I’d had it in 2015; but the need for it is even more pressing today.

Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia, served as a delegate to the 1997, 2015, and 2018 synods of bishops. His forthcoming book, Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living, will be published by Henry Holt in March.

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