Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Catholic bishops on the "the bill", and the disorientation of ethical value

If you have been following the UK news media over the Easter weekend, Catholic bishops have had a high profile. Cardinal O'Brien in Scotland led off, with a strong attack on the human fertilisation and embryology bill, and was followed a day or two later by Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor in England. They dominated the headlines for the weekend. The reaction took most of a day before they were organised enough to be noticeable in the broadcast media, and are today apparent in the print media. My own thoughts:

1. There can now be no doubt about the Catholic Church's opposition to the Bill. Many ordinary Catholics will welcome the clear lead given by the Bishops. I, for one, would like them to know of my support for their willingness to make such a clear public stance on the issue.

2. The news media are a particular "literary genre"! And to be effective in the media, you have to write or speak in that same genre. The allegation of "misrepresenting" the intentions of scientists, and the claim that statements about "monstrous" experiments are offensive to the scientists intending to undertake the work (these are based on Cardinal O'Brien's reported choice of phrase in his homily) need to be seen in this context. See also points 3 and 4 below.

3. The present bill might well only allow hybrid embryos to be created and kept for just two weeks, allowing stem cells to be taken from them. Some might not like the term "monstrous" being applied to such a two week hybrid (though it could be applied in a completely un-emotive and literal sense). But the next bill might well extend that to three weeks, and to four weeks, and to a month, and to .... And then the term "monstrous" might not be seen as offensive. I know from my own trade union experience how something is agreed for X, and within a month is being extended to include Y. So I think Cardinal O'Brien is quite right to have engaged with vigour in that "literary genre" that is the media.

4. Hidden behind all the public debate is an ethical one that is passed over in silence. The consequences of the proposed research using hybrid embryos is seen as beneficial (an assumption, possibility but not a certainty). In the media debate, the ethical justification of the research is consequentialist. However, that is not a universally held ethical belief system - it certainly is not one that the Catholic Church finds acceptable. But the "literary genre" that is the media does not allow a fuller ethical analysis that will look at the goods of the person, the goods required for genuine human flourishing, the most fundamental of which is the good of life itself. It is this good which is offended against by any form of embryo experimentation and destruction. But the idea that this research is intrinsically evil (ie opposed to the goods of human flourishing) and therefore not ethically permissible even thought it might have some apparently good consequences is not allowed to feature in the media debate. This is why the media coverage of 200 charities supporting the bill rather misses the point of the opposition to the bill.

5. The Catholic community are members of UK society just as any one else is. Just as charities and political parties have leaders who speak for their views, so Catholic bishops are entitled to speak for the views of their community. This is not a "moral blackmail", "dictating" to Catholic politicians as to how they should vote. It certainly makes clear to Catholic politicians where the Church stands on this matter, and this is something that politicians will bear in mind when they vote. But those politicians will still make their own choice of how to vote.

In summary: bravo to Bishops who have clearly stood up for the good of human life amidst a media that is unable to recognise anything other than the total disorientation of value that arises from consequentialist approaches.

1 comment:

miss book said...

And again Bravo to the courageous Bishops!I wrote to Bishop O'Donoghue following his appearance before the Select Committee for Education, to congratulate him for standing up for the truth.I didn't expect a reply [so soon] but received a charming letter of thanks from him.Catholics everywhere in the U.K. have cause to thank him, and to continue to pray for him and all Bishops who are trying to present the face of Christ to a world that apparently doesn't want to see...