Last week I attended a conference in Dallas, Texas, on bioethics sponsored by the National Catholic Bioethics Center and the Knights of Columbus. There were a number of cardinals, archbishops and bishops from across the Western Hemisphere. The theme of the conference was “Bioethics through the Eyes of Faith,” serving Christ in the sick and vulnerable.

John M. Haas, president of the NCBC stated: “When the church provides her charitable work, from education to health care, she does so ‘in Persona Christi’ in the person of Christ himself. We are so blessed that the Lord has called us to share in his own redemptive ministry. Because it is his ministry, it must be carried out with uncompromising integrity even when social customs and institutions might throw up significant challenges. Our Lord faced similar challenges and yet was faithful to the end, even embracing the cross for our sake.”

The subject of bioethics may seem like a rarefied academic area, but it is a field which interacts with every aspect of our culture. It was interesting the theme should reflect Pope Benedict XVI’s declaration of the Year of Faith. Certainly ethics could be discussed solely from a philosophical or behavioral context, but when one adds the level of faith, the ethical analysis becomes complete in addressing the human and spiritual dimension. Some of the subjects addressed were End of
Life Issues, Use of Biological Material of Illicit Origin, Same Sex Parenting, Fertility and Infertility Treatments, Abortion, Contraception and Responsible Parenthood, Health Care and Conscientious Objection, Principles of Cooperation, the Bishops and Catholic Health Care, just to mention a few.

When we were young, many of us watched with fascination movies about the mad scientist who attempted to play God with human life. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein frightened us not simply because of the monster but by the depiction of a scientist who experimented on a human subject without concern for the dignity of human life. In the end, there is pity for the monster that was violated by the uncensored use of science. The monster was used as a means to achieve an end.
The church has often been depicted as an enemy of science, in large part because of the Galileo affair. Actually, the church is a friend of human dignity and embraces all scientific knowledge that serves the person. The church’s responsibility is to defend the person from being treated as an object or commodity.

The questions that medical science poses today impact the entire culture and our view of human life. The area of scientific discovery encompasses every dimension of our world, economics, religion, government, business as well as medicine. Think of some of the phenomenal advances made in health care.

In the field of genetics, adult stem cells provide treatment and cure for a variety of diseases and injuries. Chemotherapies treat cancer and other illnesses. Transplantations of organs give life to those who would otherwise die from a deteriorating or diseased organ. The church applauds these scientific achievements when they serve the dignity of the human person. Sixty years ago these advances in medical science could only be dreamed of.

However, the church recognizes it must challenge any science that seeks to experiment on embryonic stem cells because the experimenters ignore one small fact: namely that the cells are human lives. Yes, the earliest stage of human life but nonetheless human life. Everyone reading this article was an embryo.

The church will question the use of drugs when they are used not to alleviate pain but to end a life through assisted euthanasia or drugs that may be used not only to cure but to manipulate the emotions of human beings, seeking to control a person by taking away their freedom.

The church warns that transplantations can become big business as the need for organs increases. This can drive unscrupulous people to sell their organs and lead others to prey upon the poor and exploit people in Third World countries. So with each discovery comes a responsibility to ensure that it does not do any damage to the dignity of the human person.

Perhaps we should just let scientific discovery continue unchecked. If we remove the constraints that society places on science, we would create a brave new world free from the fears that plague human beings. Remember, shortly after the splitting of the atom, releasing one of the greatest energy sources the world has ever known, the atom bomb was developed and ever since the fear of atomic war has stalked humanity.

There was always a hope that society would stand in the way of an unbridled accountability of science but who draws the line challenging the rightness of the action when the society is unwilling to take up the cause asking the question, is this truly good for humanity? We should remember that just because something could be done does not mean it should be done.

The NCBC Conference impressed upon me the responsibility that I have as a bishop in the area of bioethics. It was obvious to me that our Catholic hospitals and health care clinics are needed more than ever to assure that the total person is cared for in an environment that respects and promotes human dignity.

As a bishop, one thing that I can trust is that a Catholic hospital is asking the critical ethical questions that treat the patient not as an object, but as a person made in the image and likeness of God.

This is the 40th anniversary of the tragic Roe v. Wade decision. More than 50 million human lives have been lost to abortions. As Catholics, we must be promoters of a culture of life that seeks to promote human life and challenges science to support human dignity.