January-February 2011

Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal.  By Gregory Erland­son and Matthew Bunson. Our Sunday Visitor. 207 pages. $15.95.

While any ethical crisis within Catholicism necessarily merits perennial interest, examination, and contemplation, none has been more damaging to the Church in general, and to her efforts at evangelization in particular, than the incomprehensibly systemic problem of the sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy. What makes the sexual-abuse crisis particularly evil is the extent to which it was tolerated (and therefore abetted) by various fellow priests, bishops, cardinals, and even some Church administrators at the highest levels of the Vatican’s political establishment. How some otherwise very bright men could think that such a systematic and ongoing program of abuse and corruption of the young people of the Church at the hands of their priests could be kept a secret indefinitely defies reason, and the fallout was tremendous once the lid was finally blown off the whole sordid mess. When the public realized that the problem of clerical sex abuse was indeed pandemic, not merely limited to metropolises such as Boston and Los Angeles, Catholicism as a religion lost most of its credibility in the eyes of the world. In the current era of open (and often quite merited) hostility toward the Church as an institution, combined with the blatant hypocrisy of far too many of her administrators, no well-meaning bit of doctrine or apolo­getics will have quite the same punch when squared with the fact that Holy Mother Church has effectively destroyed her integrity — some might say for good.

Some might say not, and that’s what Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis sets out to prove. Gregory Erlandson and Matthew Bunson clearly lay out the tragedy that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger inherited upon becoming Holy Father in 2005. They point out that, for years prior to his papacy, Ratzinger had been taking positive action to quietly right the horrible wrongs toward which the Church was in large part turning a blind eye. Through researching his writings and a staggering amount of his public statements, the authors make a convincing case that Ratzinger was relatively ignorant of the crisis early on in his religious life. They also explain that, while he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Car­dinal Ratzinger sought to stream­line the cumbersome process by which priests accused of abuse can be disciplined. It is this last point that carries the most weight in the book.

Since becoming Pope, Ratzin­ger has made plenty of frank and unequivocal statements concerning the wrongdoing of the Church and his sincere regret that so many innocents were harmed. This is all fine and good, but one must own up to the reality that not until the abuses were made public did the Church really bother to do anything about the problem. However, after reading Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis, it becomes apparent that measures are being put in place that will increase both the transparency and institutional efficacy of the Church, specifically with regard to making sure that nothing like this ever happens again. Many of these measures were spearheaded by Ratzinger himself while still a cardinal, the most important being an injunction upon every bishop that civil authorities must be notified immediately of any allegation of abuse that occurs in his diocese.

Erlandson and Bunson have amassed an impressive amount of research into two appendices and a rather large section of “Statements and Commentary” that strives to clear up much of the confusion and heated rhetoric that has sadly come to define the entire debacle surrounding the sexual-abuse crisis and the Church’s woeful mishandling of it. For this the authors deserve true commendation. Erland­son and Bun­son’s backgrounds in journalism serve them well, as keen reporting and a balanced and fairly objective interpretation of key events in the history of the abuse crisis help in creating as accurate a picture of the Pope and his role in this crisis as can be hoped for. By the end of the book, the reader comes away with a vivid portrait of Be­nedict XVI as a man driven to reform and ennoble his beloved Church, a man who understands the very real culpability that the Church carries and must atone for, and above all, a man who understands the increasing importance of the institutional transparency the Church must embrace if she is to regain any of the public’s trust.

- Paul Bower



Chimeras, Hybrids, and Inter­species Research: Politics and Poli­cy­making.  By Andrea L. Bon­nick­sen. Georgetown University Press. 166 pages. $26.95.

In Chimeras, Hybrids, and Interspecies Research, Andrea Bon­nicksen tries to explain and justify in layman’s terms the legislative and ethical nuances of interspecies stem-cell research. Though Bonnicksen expertly explains the differences between the various forms of inter­species research (ISR), she glazes over many of the ethical considerations surrounding the combination of human embryos with other species, and fails to address several pertinent ethical issues.

Stating that her goal is to explain “germane policy questions” while weeding out arguments that she does not deem useful, Bonnick­sen outlines the five different types of ISR. The categories include chimeras, which are created by combining cells from two genetically different entities at various stages of development; animal-human hybrids, created by fertilizing a human egg with a nonhuman sper­ma­tazoan or vice-versa (think humanzee); cybrids, by transferring human cell nuclei to an animal egg to obtain embryonic stem cells; cross-species embryo transfers, by transferring a human embryo to a nonhuman uterus or vice-versa; and nonhuman-human transgenics, by splicing human DNA into nonhuman embryos or vice-versa. With the exception of most animal-human hybrids, all of the above at some point require human embryos — no matter how hypothetical the research might still be.

Bonnicksen, who was once the head of the department of political science at Northern Illinois University, curiously focuses more on scientific specificities than on their legislative consequences. While she litters her prose with references to various conferences and congressional hearings, she offers scant analysis of their effects. While Bonnicksen states that her intention is “to direct attention to germane policy questions and separate issues that do not hold up as particularly useful or genuine,” she neglects to define the criteria that make an argument regarding ISR “useful or genuine.” She instead resorts to discounting popular images of the chimera and redirecting concern about the use of human embryos in the creation of new species to disproving the possibility of creating half-human, half-animal, Frankenstein-like creations. She fails to address the ethical arguments that support the human rights of embryos, opting instead to judge hybrid creations on a subjective notion of “repugnance.”

The weakness of the book’s legislative argumentation derives from the lack of synthesis between legislation and the concept of human dignity. Referencing the contemporary social fallacy that legislation does not require definitive morality, Bonnick­sen treats an important crux of bioethical argumentation as a baseless appeal to religion. By avoiding a solid definition of human dignity and relying instead on a vague “repugnance” factor, Bonnicksen’s arguments are left wide-open to the whims of speculation.

Bonnicksen discredits concerns regarding the potential commoditiza­tion of human reproduction, and advocates a controlled future for trans­genics that blurs the physical, moral, and ethical lines between humans and other organisms. Returning to the confused notion that morality cannot be factual, Bonnicksen reverses the focus of her thesis by arguing against “speciesism” (the belief that one species is morally superior to another), using the misappropriation of lab rats as an example of human callousness to posit that there is no discernable ethical difference between humans and other organisms.

Bonnicksen claims that opponents of chimeric research have no strong examples of morally problematic research. Considering the various forms of religious bashing that Bon­nicksen resorts to when claiming that these forms of research uphold human dignity, it is an impressive feat that she is able to overlook the debate that human embryos used for chimeric research are not clumps of cells but are people. Bonnicksen tips her hat to Machiavelli when she insists that current research should ignore ethical, “emotion-based” cries regarding the methods of ISR and focus instead on its products. Ending on an unabashedly and cryptically Darwinist note, Bonnicksen advocates ISR as a technological means to further human curiosity.

Chimeras, Hybrids, and Inter­species Research, while a useful history of interspecies research, functions more as a CliffsNotes-esque approach to the scientific specifics of ISR than as a legitimate discussion of the ethics of an overly sensational scientific field. For a reader who needs a reference to quick facts surrounding the specificities of ISR, Bonnicksen is your girl. For a reader who wants a legitimate and well-defined argument that directly confronts bioethical issues, rather than a string of popular-science fact-spouting, Bonnicksen is to be avoided.

- Lillie Beiting





Back to January-February 2011 Issue


©