Volume > Issue > Briefly: June 2004

June 2004

Genetic Engineering: Christian Values and Catholic Teaching

By Paul Flaman

Publisher: Paulist Press

Pages: 138

Price: $12.95

Review Author: Tom Ellis

The idea of engineering human beings with specific traits and strengths is by no means a new thought, nor is it merely the stuff of science fiction, which, since the cloning of Dolly in 1997, seems far less fictional than many are comfortable with. As Flaman points out in this work, even one of the earliest and most respected philosophers placed great importance on a crude, but definite form of eugenics. Plato’s Republic hinges partially on having rulers supervise and control who may marry and produce offspring so that the human race is strengthened by the passing of good traits and kept pure from the weak or bad traits. The moral questions raised by eugenics, then, are really nothing new — but they have become more pressing, as the advances science has made in the understanding of the “informational building blocks of life” have allowed for new techniques that push the ease and scope of eugenics far beyond that imagined by Plato.

Genetic Engineering is an excellent work that ought to be read by everyone who believes in the inherent dignity of man. Though the genetic engineering of humans is his primary topic, Flaman insightfully discusses the genetic engineering of plants and animals as well, and provides arguments from both sides of each issue. One of the most interesting questions in the discussion of engineering plant and animal life stems from a desire to find medicines and cures for improving the human condition. Due to the great expenses involved in engineering various life forms, companies that have invested heavily in this type of research have sought patents on the life forms they have developed. In 1980, 17 years prior to the cloning of Dolly, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that genetically engineered life forms could be patented. This patentability extends to all genetically engineered multicellular living organisms, including whole animals and even parts of humans such as altered genes and organs, but draws the line at a whole human being. It has also been ruled that the genetic mapping of an organism is itself a patentable item. Needless to say, many Christian churches, including the Catholic Church, have expressed their disagreement with the idea that any life form, whether engineered or not, should be able to be patented.

The distinction between somatic and germ-line gene therapy provides the real moral fulcrum of this work. Germ-line gene therapy, which affects not only the recipient of the therapy, but all of his offspring as well, is almost universally condemned by religious and scientific oversight groups. The risks involved make up only one reason for the condemnation. The main cause for the condemnation lies in the fact that those affected by the therapy, save the immediate and direct recipient, have not and cannot give their consent because they do not yet exist. Given that future offspring cannot but be affected by germ-line gene therapy, it is considered contrary to the dignity of man to artificially force a specific trait into their genetic pattern.

But what if germ-line gene therapy could wipe a genetic disorder from the human gene pool? It would seem a wonderful act to eliminate, say, sickle-cell anemia or cystic fibrosis. Would this not be a gift to future generations? Though at first glance this may seem so, the fact is that when these genes play a recessive role they provide great benefits to the holder, such as immunity from malaria and protection against cholera. Given these considerations, ridding the gene pool of “dangerous” genes may come at a costly price.

Somatic gene therapy affects only the body cells of the direct recipient of the procedure and leaves offspring entirely unaffected by the genetic change brought about in the subject. As such, the main moral objection raised against germ-life gene therapy would seem to be, for the most part, inapplicable to somatic gene therapy. The potential benefits of such therapy are vast, since almost any genetic defect or shortcoming is theoretically treatable. The moral dangers lurk in the way the therapy is actually practiced and in the view of humanity it engenders. For the most part, somatic gene therapy is conducted on pre-implanted embryos in a Petri dish. This fact alone precludes the action from receiving the Catholic Church’s blessing. Yet, aside from this consideration, Flaman asks what constitutes a valid reason for somatic gene therapy. Is a couple’s wish to have the procedure performed so that their child has blue eyes and blonde hair a valid use of the therapy? What of a couple who discover that their child in utero has a crippling gene disorder that can be reversed through somatic gene therapy? Why are we so inclined to say that the latter presents a valid use of the therapy while the former does not? In both cases, are we not passing judgment on what an acceptable quality of life for our offspring is, and aren’t we supposed to be “nonjudgmental”?

Therein lies the dilemma Flaman explores with great acuteness and compassion. For, if we focus so much energy on trying to physically “perfect” man, what are we implying about the inherent dignity that is concomitant with simply being human, regardless of one’s inherited physical condition? As Flaman points out, many “cripples” today feel as though the world looks at them as though their lives are not worth living because of a “defect” in their genes. Indeed, parents today are encouraged to abort their children if any abnormalities surface prior to birth. The mentality that surrounds both germ-line and somatic gene therapy serves to buttress the eugenic principles so strongly embedded in our current culture. Echoing Jeremy Rifkin, Flaman poses the most important question underlying any form of genetic eugenics — “to whom should we entrust authority to decide what is a good gene and what is a bad gene?”

Genetic Engineering is a great work on a hugely important subject. Buy it. Read it. Learn from it.

The Message of Heaven and Hell

By Bruce Milne

Publisher: InterVarsity Press

Pages: 351

Price: $16

Review Author: Dale Vree

One picks up this book, written by a Canadian Baptist pastor and published by a moderately Evangelical house, to get a sense of how Evangelicals are dealing with the issue of Hell these days.

The author notes what virtually all evangelical Protestants affirm about Hell. For example, (1) “Not all will be saved.” This is in obvious accord with what the Bible teaches. The goal is to help save as many souls as possible, and no time is wasted on “hoping” that all men will be saved, as we see in some diversionary Catholic circles. (2) The “assignment to hell is irrevocable. There will be no ‘second chance.'” This is fully in line with Catholic doctrine.

But there is disagreement among Evangelicals on something that is settled Catholic doctrine, namely, that the suffering of Hell will last forever. There are Evangelical “conditionalists” (AKA annihilationists) who hold that the damned will suffer in Hell only for a period of time, and then they will cease to exist altogether. For those who’ve contemplated the fate of the damned, this is a comforting thought. On the other hand, it takes a good deal of the bite out of Hell. Imagine an unbelieving and unrepentant sinner contemplating Pascal’s Wager: If the pains of Hell are forever, he’d likely think twice about proceeding in his ways. But if Hell isn’t forever, he’d likely just take his chances.

While the author does come out against conditionalism — and in doing so makes some good arguments — he says his book is “irenic,” and so he goes easy on the conditionalists and is willing to include them within the Evangelical fold.

There’s been much talk about how Evangelical theology is getting softer and softer. So, although the author makes it clear that conditionalism is contrary to the traditional Christian position, one wonders if the author’s irenicism is itself a sign of weakening Evangelical principles.

Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity

By Leon R. Kass, M.D

Publisher: Encounter Books

Pages: 314

Price: $26.95

Review Author: Patrick O'Hannigan

This book deserves a wider readership than it is going to get, if only because Leon Kass is one of the few people near the upper echelon of public policymaking with education and gumption enough to confront ethical issues as thoughtfully as they should be. While many researchers approach the prospect of cloning humans with confident excitement or feigned nonchalance, Kass summons the ghost of Aldous Huxley to warn against the dangers of “rootless and narcissistic self re-creation.”

Drawing on Huxley’s Brave New World, Kass faults the reverence for technique above all else. Never mind the fixation on how things work, he says. We ought to be asking more about “why” than “how.” Absent attention to motive, we stumble ignorantly toward what C.S. Lewis called the “abolition of man.” If we persist on our current course, Kass fears, nothing will save us from dehumanization. The eugenic redesign of future generations will obliterate the important differences between procreation and manufacture.

Kass regards cloning with a suspicion that his peers find aggravating or incomprehensible. “Although most of us profess opposition to cloning,” he notes, “we don’t recognize or admit the degree to which cloned children would fit perfectly into the postmoral ambience in which we now live. Thanks to our belief that all children should be wanted children…sooner or later, only those children who fulfill our wants will be fully acceptable.” That many of his colleagues have no patience for conversations about the dark side of “quality control” performed on humans demonstrates how necessary these conversations are.

Kass wrote this book before Terri Schiavo, and the controversy whether to withhold the feeding tube from that “persistently vegetative” but indisputably living woman, made news. But Kass quotes John Locke on self-ownership to make the point that “my body and my life are my property only in the limited sense that they are not yours.” Unlike, for example, such “alienable property” as my house, my car, and my shoes, “my body and my life, while mine to use, are not mine to dispose of.”

Oddly, Kass claims that his difficulty with current attitudes cannot be traced to any particular religious teaching. Although he means to argue from reason and natural law rather than faith, this denial — and his cursory treatment of abortion — are weaknesses in an otherwise strong book.

His claim to be non-sectarian seems disingenuous given that he quotes freely from the Old Testament. Kass also devotes an entire chapter to the meaning of the toast, “L’Chaim” (to life!). By the time Kass unpacks “L’Chaim,” any reader hostile to religious motivation has already lumped him in with the usual suspects.

Kass avoids discussing abortion forthrightly. While affirming the need for a boundary that defines “protectable human life,” Kass observes that current birth and viability boundaries have been “gerrymandered for the sake of abortion.” Rather than use that apt phrase as the launching pad it could have been, Kass relegates his few words on the impact of Roe v. Wade to a footnote.

Reluctance to underscore positions on faith and abortion would be unremarkable but for the fact that both subjects are tough to avoid in essays aimed at the intersection of life and worth. When a man has argued forcefully that proponents of euthanasia do not understand human dignity, that cloning is an extreme if unrecognized form of child abuse, and that many bioethicists are no more than cheerleaders for their colleagues in lab coats, one hopes for straight talk across the board. That his courage falters is no cause for despair, and no reason to pass up this important book.

Creed and Culture: A Touchstone Reader

By James M. Kushiner

Publisher: ISI Books

Pages: 254

Price: $15

Review Author: Brad Stetson

Since its humble beginnings in 1986, Touchstone magazine has been a clear voice of ecumenical Christian orthodoxy amid the cacophony of confusions that is contemporary American intellectual life. Standing in the “Great Tradition” of historic Christianity — essentially C.S. Lewis’s concept of “Mere Christianity” — the magazine has been a haven for traditionally minded Protestants and Catholics who see in their own communities the addled cult of “relevance” steadily corroding the theological and ethical substance of their faith. Witness the Episcopal Church, as its capitulation to secular liberalism has manifested itself, most recently, in the elevation of an open and active homosexual to the episcopate.

With these 21 readable essays, all drawn from the pages of Touchstone, James Kushiner, the magazine’s Executive Editor, provides a record of that organ’s attempt to speak timeless truth to the power of the Zeitgeist. The contributions are uniformly good, with a wide range of intellectual and human concern. From James Hitchcock’s fresh reflection on H. Richard Niebuhr’s deeply influential five-fold typology of Christ and culture to Leon Podles’s paean to the advantages of homeschooling to David Mills’s defense of the perspicuity of Scripture and its enduring authority in sexual ethics, the polemics are vigorous but not harsh, penetrating but not tedious.

Among the more remarkable pieces is James L. Sauer’s “An Everlasting Life,” a meditation on the life and meaning of his baby daughter, Mary, who was born with a chromosomal abnormality and died less than two months later. Sauer sees in her brief life on earth not a pointless, random tragedy, but rather a manifestation of the redemptive purposes of God, teaching through Mary’s life and legacy truths about human helplessness, human interdependence, and the preciousness of human life. Sauer creatively uses the Apostles’ Creed as an interpretive vehicle for understanding Mary’s short time with her family, going line by line through the Creed and relating its truths to his and his family’s experience with Mary. Following mention of “the communion of saints,” Sauer writes, “One of the things that the short life of our daughter Mary taught us was the doctrine of the ‘communion of saints’…. Our own church…rallied around us, as did scores of others. During her frail life, Mary was the focus of notes, meals, visits, prayers, gifts, and acts of kindness — all done in the name of Christ.” Sauer’s poignant recounting of his child’s life, which, according to contemporary functional and conditional definitions of personhood was without significance, is a moving testimony to the intrinsic value of human life and the paradox of God’s glory being made apparent in what outwardly appear as the darkest, most purposeless circumstances.

Also of note is James R. Edwards’s devastating deconstruction of the contemporary quest for the “historical Jesus” as found in the Jesus Seminar, the pretentious conclave of radical “scholars” who meet twice a year and sanctimoniously vote on the historic accuracy of Jesus’ statements recorded in the four Gospels. Edwards sees in this always well-publicized exercise not authentic textual analysis and objective historical investigation, but rather the indulgence — under the guise of responsible, critical historiography — of a hostility to Christian orthodoxy and its affirmations about the divinity of Jesus, the inspiration of Scripture, and the supernatural reality of the Church as the body of Christ on earth.

For those Christians who look at the manifestations of their faith in popular culture or in their own churches and are disheartened by its existential lightness and theological superficiality, this volume will remind them that the phrase “Christian intellectual” is not an oxymoron, and that discipleship to Jesus of Nazareth and the life of the mind are a natural union, indeed, the supremely human way to understand the world and all that it is.

Callista: A Sketch of the Third Century

By John Henry Cardinal Newman

Publisher: Four Faces Press (P.O. Box 834, Springfield VA 22150)

Pages: 236

Price: $

Review Author: Lynn Campbell

Four Faces Press has released a softcover edition of Callista. It features a cleaner typeset than earlier hardcover editions and an attractive and detailed color map of third-century North Africa, with an inset of the entire Roman Empire.

For the first fifty years of the third century, Christians lived relatively free from persecution. During this time bishops became less concerned about their flocks, priests became lax, and the people were less faithful. As St. Cyprian says of the period: “a long repose had corrupted the discipline which had come down to us from the Apostles.”

Thus it was that the young Roman citizen Aegellius — living in North Africa on a farm outside the city of Sicca, near Carthage — found being a committed Christian difficult. Although baptized as a youngster, he did not have the opportunity to receive the other Sacraments since there were no priests in the area. Many Christians had abandoned the faith; even his brother Juba had given into the powers of darkness. Aegellius’s loneliness was lessened by his friendship with Aristo and Callista, a brother and sister from Greece working as artists in Sicca.

The plot thickens when Aegellius falls in love with Callista and proposes marriage to her, but is turned down because she thinks that if he really loved her he would have tried to share his extraordinary religion with her. Because of this, he realizes how lukewarm his faith has been. He meets the bishop, who has been in hiding — persecution had broken out once more — and begins a series of conversations with him; he is also able to receive the Sacraments, and his faith is revived. Callista eventually comes to know the faith through the same bishop and ends up a martyr, while Aegellius escapes to the catacombs and ultimately becomes a priest and then a bishop. His brother Juba is exorcised of the evil spirit that has possessed him when he touches the corpse of the martyr Callista.

Callista is a moving story that is relevant to our own troubled times. Although most of us do not have to die for our faith, Cardinal Newman teaches that it is through prayer, the Sacraments, and living the Gospel, even when we are persecuted for it, that the faith takes root and grows in a pagan culture.

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