This article appears in the May 2005 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

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An Alternative Route

The recent confrontation of the Italian Catholic politician Rocco Butiglioni with the European Commission opened a great window to the underlying philosophy of that august body. As a Catholic, with firm traditional views, he was regarded as unsuitable for appointment to the Commission. In a subsequent interview with Edward Pentin in the Catholic Herald he outlined his view that the future development of Europe should be based on Natural Law principles rather than attempting to paper over religious differences.(1). Indeed Vatican correspondents inform us that there is increasing concern in the Vatican how to respond to the increasing politicisation of religion. Cardinal Martino has spoken of the ‘lay inquisition’ that is causing Catholics in public life to be vilified for voicing their beliefs. In Spain, the government has put forward legislation radically opposed to Church teaching, resulting in many outspoken comments from Vatican officials but little opposition from Spaniards.

In America, the presidential election became so polarised on abortion that there was a threat to refuse John Kerry the Eucharist because he refused to ally himself against pro-abortion Catholic politicians. It would appear that, under the banner of multiculturalism which has taken over Western society, religion is being used as a sanction.

But as Edward Pentin points out, Pope John Paul, in an address to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in February, put the cause of humanity’s lack of common ethical foundation, to rejection of the Natural law, which he said was ‘accessible to every creature’ and ‘points to first essential norms that regulate moral life’. Not only is it held by Catholics but also other denominations, faiths and even atheists. As the concept of natural moral law has been eroded for the past 30 years, John Paul called this a ‘crisis in metaphysics’ leading people no longer to ‘recognise a truth engraved on every human heart’.

To rediscover this truth, he called for the establishment of a platform of shared values around which can be developed ‘constructive dialogue with all people of good will and, more generally, with secular society’.

Fr. Brian Johnstone, professor of moral theology at Rome's Alphonsian Academy, would like to see not only education in the natural law but also more rigorous levels of debate that ‘challenges the position of others’.

Fr. Di Noia argues for greater understanding of papal encyclicals, particularly Veritatis Splendor and Fides et Ratio.

The manner in which parliament dealt with the Mental Capacity Bill has left many feeling that ethical issues affecting us all are not being adequately dealt with by confused and party driven debates. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recently published a report on reproductive technologies, reviewing the operations of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. It adopted a user's perspective on the technologies and concluded for example that future parents should be free to avail themselves of sex selection and other genetic services. Reproductive cloning and the blending of human and animal cells should be seriously considered and adopted if done for the right reasons. But the report was met with a barrage of criticism: half the committee took exception and refused to be associated with it. The dissenting members issued a statement of opposition, that the report is ‘unbalanced, light on ethics, goes too far in the direction of deregulation and is too dismissive of public opinion’. While welcoming the attitude of the dissenters, the report is a perfect illustration of how these parliamentary committees are constituted.

Does the attempt to influence members by extensive and repeated lobbying change their views? Does the provision of more scientifically originated information help them to a more balanced judgement? Not when the government can impose a three line whip as it did on the Mental Capacity Bill.

Twenty four of the members who regularly receive the Quarterly voted in favour of the Bill.

The call for a national bioethics committee has now been voiced by Cardinal Murphy O'Connor. On the same day the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks said that the issues raised by the pre-selection of embryos ‘constitute a strong reason for establishing a national bioethics committee, including representatives from Britain's faith groups’.

The broad lines of division in society, seen in scientific researchers, medical practitioners, philosophers and social scientists, would also be included. It might be better able to see and register the public's concern over these issues.

Above all it would surely present an opportunity for the presentation of the principles of natural law leading to more rigorous levels of debate.


1. Edward Pentin The Catholic Herald, 21 January 2005