Volume > Issue > Briefly: July-August 2008

July-August 2008

The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering

By Michael J. Sandel

Publisher: Belknap Press

Pages: 176

Price: $18.95

Review Author: Dan Flaherty

The world of bioethics pushes forward at a dizzying pace, with new technologies and breakthroughs that stretch not only the envelope of man’s knowledge, but of morality. The debates over genetic engineering and eugenics bring crucial questions to the forefront regarding man’s position in the created world and to what lengths man will go to improve his own life and the lives of his children. Harvard professor Michael Sandel articulates the unease that non-Catholic liberals feel about these developments in The Case Against Perfection. “The problem with eugenics and genetic engineering is that they represent the one-sided triumph of willfulness over giftedness, of dominion over reverence, of molding over beholding,” writes Sandel in a concise clarion call for all genetic engineering opponents.

Sandel’s subjects can be roughly split into two categories. Eugenics refers to the desire to control the caliber of children born. The term itself means “well-born.” San­del explores the history of eugenics, a practice that found admirers in Adolf Hitler, as he sought to create his master race, and Margaret San­ger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. This involved not only controlling who was born, but who wasn’t born, via abortion and sterilization laws. Modern proponents of eugenics argue that the problem in the past was the use of government coercion. In modern times, Lee Kwan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singa­pore, was concerned that less-educated women were having too many children, and adopted a policy of paying poor women not to reproduce. While this policy was not technically coercive, the limited options available to poverty-stricken Singa­porean women made it all but certain they would follow Yew’s path.

Sandel explains that genetic engineering can be broken down roughly into four areas — muscle enhancement, memory enhancement, height enhancement, and sex selection. Sandel reports that researchers have developed a new gene that makes muscles grow and prevents them from deteriorating in old age, and that biotech companies are in “hot pursuit” of memory-enhancing drugs that have proved successful on mice. Growth hormones, customarily restricted to children with a genuine deficiency, could be given to others to make them taller. And of course, all expectant parents can choose to find out the sex of their child — and to abort that child if he’s not what they want. All of this threatens to introduce a culture of “made-to-order children.” Proponents of genetic engineering, however, prefer to call it “enhancement.” But, as Sandel points out, widespread genetic engineering would splinter society into two classes — those with access to enhancement and those without.

There are several key fault-lines at the heart of the debate. The first is what constitutes legitimate enhancement. Parents of academically brilliant students hire private tutors for their kids, they look to master the ins and outs of the SAT system, and do anything to get an edge. Parents of athletically gifted students hire private coaches and get extra training for their kids. No one questions their right to take this course. Why, then, should we raise a fuss if they use modern medicine to enhance the memory of the rising math genius, or use growth hormones to make their prospective basketball star a couple inches taller?

Sandel cites the movie Chariots of Fire, where a runner was chastised by his school for hiring a coach. This was said to violate the ethics of the game. Today, hiring a coach is legitimate. Can we not presume, then, that opposition to genetic enhancement will also benefit from a future changing of norms? This situation is one of many in which Sandel’s book would have benefited from a discussion of the Thomistic teaching that grace builds on nature. A runner who hires a coach isn’t looking to essentially alter his nature; he is looking to develop the talents that exist naturally. A student who has hired a tutor isn’t having his memory cells artificially altered; he is just having his natural talent further developed. These actions don’t violate the very essence of nature.

Unfortunately, Sandel’s book doesn’t include this discussion — Church teaching does not inform his view. (Sandel is a supporter of embryonic stem-cell research.) Nevertheless, Sandel’s book is proof that the disquiet over genetic engineering spreads even into secularism’s sacred tabernacles at Harvard.

First Saturday Devotions to Mary: A Handbook

By Deacon Roy Barkley

Publisher: Alba House

Pages: 200

Price: $14.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

At Fatima in 1917, our Lady asked that on five consecutive First Saturdays we should go to confession, say the Rosary, attend Mass, and receive the Eucharist to make amends to her Divine Son for the indifference and hatred He receives from mankind. Considering the tsunami of blasphemy and atheism today, this book couldn’t be timelier. In First Saturday Devotions, Roy Barkley writes from the heart on the 20 mysteries of the Rosary, offers 13 meditations before the Blessed Sacrament, and ends with advice on how to make a detailed examination of conscience before confession.

Calling the Rosary “an unmerited blessing in my life,” Barkley invites us to enter the mysteries and “occupy the same spiritual space as the Virgin Mary, whose interest and attention are always focused on God.” Basing his writings on Scripture and Church teaching, Barkley approaches each mystery as not only historically true, but infinitely profound. He concludes every chapter by recalling Mary’s role in that mystery and applying it to our times.

In these reflections, Barkley calls special attention to our Lord’s divinity, and rightly so, considering the creeping Arianism of our times. Of our Lord’s baptism he writes that “according to the Fathers, Jesus cleansed the waters themselves” and so “made water a fit sign of the great sacrament of Baptism.” On the institution of the Eucharist he marvels at “the astonishing imprint of God’s very heart, as He makes Himself present on our altars,” and adds, “A mere human mind could never have imagined the Eucharist, and we can’t fathom it. Nevertheless, we must enter wholeheartedly into it, for God chose the way of bread and wine to stay with His Church, and through it to point the way to divine splendors beyond our imagining.”

Barkley cites Mark 10:32-34 at the start of the Sorrowful Mysteries to remind us that “the Messiah knew in advance the main elements of His Passion,” for He who suffered as an outcast was “the true King of Kings, the Lord who made heaven and earth.” Later, reflecting on the Resurrection, Barkley exults, “Was He truly the Son of God and the son of a Virgin? The Resurrection says so. Did He have the right and the power to forgive sins? The Resurrection says so. Were His miracles true interventions of divine power into the laws of nature? The Resurrection so attests.” Ringing words!

In his meditations before the Blessed Sacrament, Barkley speaks in fresh, inspiring language: “You [Christ] are the Life. Not a sign pointing to life, not a symbol of life, not a mere teacher about life. You are the Life. Inasmuch as I remain in you — inasmuch as I draw my vital nourishment from the Bread of Life — I have life.” Later he speaks to our Lord on the altar in these moving words: “I lack all health until I kneel before you. And so I bend my knees before you, Lord, and await the Spirit and life that you alone can impart to me. Your Body, lifted on the cross, shapes the cross over me. Your Body, Blood, soul, and Divinity will abide with me even when my flesh declines and my senses fail.”

In the last section of his Handbook, Barkley aptly calls an unformed conscience “a free-floating permission machine” that leads to “the spiritually dead condition of those who sin without worry.” After instructing us on “how to confess,” he offers a chapter on each Commandment, ending with a series of trenchant questions to help us determine how we have sinned. Among the questions on the First Commandment are these: “Have I rejected His rule by denying any teaching of the Church? Have I thus made myself an idol?” “Have I sunk to such a level as to seek supernatural knowledge or help from magic or astrology?” And on the Second: “Have I used the name of God for mere verbal emphasis?”

While pondering the Fifth Commandment, Barkley laments the killing of over 40 million unborn babies, whose “blood cries to heaven for justice.” Even though it is “terrible” to have “a feeling of guilt for abortion,” he says it is “justified” since “I ought to feel guilty if I have killed my unborn child.” We are worse off if we feel nothing. He assures us that our Lord forgives any repented sin, but “will not force us to repentance.” In the chapter on the Ninth Commandment, he makes this astute observation: “To look back with longing on a missed opportunity to sin is itself sinful.” Throughout the entire section, Barkley turns the Ten Commandments — deepened and refined by our Savior in the New Testament — into a “surgeon’s light, in which my corruption is clearly visible.” Thus does he raise compunction for sin and help us prepare for a good confession.

I heartily recommend Roy Barkley’s Handbook. It gives new impetus to the First Saturday Devotions begun at Fatima three generations ago — devotions now languishing perhaps, but surely more needed than ever in these increasingly anti-Christian times.

Some Catholic Writers

By Ralph McInerny

Publisher: St. Augustine's Press

Pages: 154

Price: $23

Review Author: Pieter Vree

In this short, simple book, the eminent Ralph McInerny, professor of philosophy and medieval studies at the University of Notre Dame, offers brief, broad sketches of some Catholic writers — novelists, poets, playwrights, polemicists, primarily though not exclusively of the 20th century — 35 in total, all in alphabetical order. He discusses their literary achievements, the milieu in which they wrote, and why their written works remain important to Catholics today.

Included are, of course, the “usual suspects” in the lineup of great Catholic writers: Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Etienne Gilson, Flannery O’Connor, Jacques and Rais­sa Mari­tain, Evelyn Waugh, et al. Also included are Catholic greats not known foremost as writers: Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and St. Edith Stein among them. Lesser luminaries of Catholic literature who rate mention by McInerny include Maurice Baring (a contemporary of Chesterton and Belloc), Baron Cor­vo, Francis Mar­ion Crawford, Ford Madox Ford, Bri­an Moore, and J.F. Powers. Three of the writers McIn­erny examines have written for the NOR: Walker Percy, Msgr. George A. Kelly, and Piers Paul Read.

For some, these names will all ring a bell; others may have no idea who some of these writers are. Such is the richness of this little book: McInerny whets the appetite of veterans and novices alike: Those well versed in Catholic literature will be moved to revisit old favorites with a new eye; those just entering into awareness of Catholic literature will find this book a worthy platform from which to dive in and explore its breadth and depth.

A small caveat from the author: Not all writers he discusses are confessing Catholics; some are marginal or lapsed Catholics (Graham Greene, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Anthony Burgess) and, McInerny warns, “at least one of the writers discussed was not a Catholic.” That being Willa Cather, whose nine-page entry is the longest of all. Although Cather’s biographers, McInerny writes, are often seen “claiming her for feminism, and even sexual aberration,” she was “a church-going believer all her life; she was confirmed in the Episcopal Church.” Why then does he marshal her for the cause of Catholic literature? Because she wrote “two of the most Catholic novels in American literature” — Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock. “The writers considered in this little book,” McInerny writes, “have a Catholic alertness to the ways in which we damn ourselves or accept the terms of salvation.”

McInerny has not set out to create an exhaustive list of all the great Catholic writers — such a project would best be taken up by the Oxford Dictionary folks — or even of the great Catholic writers of our times. He has simply written about the authors whom, he says, “are personal favorites of mine. In discussing them, I have given reasons I trust are not merely personal for that liking.” Each of us, McInerny acknowledges, could easily come up with our own list that includes writers he bypasses. Such a thought makes him “glad.”

As the written word falls by the wayside in contemporary culture, replaced in large part by hyperactive graphic-image technology, we Catholics would do well to cleave to those great writers — alas, a dying breed — who give effective expression to the Truth found in our Faith, and to the glories and failures of those who’ve tried to live it. With Some Catholic Writers, McInerny has given us an excellent starting point.

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