National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  March 26, 2004

U.S. offers test bed for bioethics

The rebuttal by U.S. Catholic ethicists of the Vatican’s most recent declaration on the use of artificial feeding and hydration for patients in a persistent vegetative state is intriguing and informative (see story). It points -- as does much else in U.S.-Vatican relations -- to the strain of trying to mesh the world occupied by Vatican officials and thinkers, somewhat removed from the hurly-burly, with of the hands-on reality of Catholics living in the West’s most hedonistic yet innovative culture.

This pontificate sees mainly the hedonism and relativism of the United States and the West, a point of view that often obscures elements of the culture that might benefit the church at large.

For better (and there is some cause in U.S. society for using the word) and for worse (and there are many reasons for that selection), the United States dictates much of what passes for values in the world. Through its almost total control of the visual media, much of it empty, amoral at best, immoral at worst; through its marketing capacity to flood the world with empty calories, health-endangering eating habits; through its swaggering economic and military might; and not least, through its rendering of the individual into little more than a disposable economic entity valued only for its ability to consume, this country can present a fearsome face to the world.

We cheer church teaching that tackles all these things head on.

We cheer the bishops’ conferences when (rarely now) they go up against the United States on these core matters.

All that said, U.S. Catholics also live in a society that is constantly on the cutting edge of everything.

We are what the West and then the rest of the world is going to look like.

We are the test bed, the global case study for the future, not least on the rapidly developing bioethical issues.

If the United States is the selfish, mindless, materialistic, glitzy and empty world leader, it also can be the innovator, the developer, the imaginer and the sparkplug for many creative and utilitarian developments.

Catholics on those frontiers are the ones who know best this culture’s strengths and weaknesses on the church’s behalf, and it is they who know best the friction points between church teaching and practicality in all the myriad enterprises that are the United States.

But because they are on the frontiers and firing lines they often suffer more from “friendly fire” from the Vatican than they do from Americans at large.

That has been the case on issues ranging from inclusive language to challenges on artificial contraception.

Science and technology have pushed medical practice to borders that, not long ago, we didn’t even know existed. It is no surprise that the Vatican takes the most conservative position when confronting new questions of medical ethics. Those issues create a thicket of conflicting claims and competing truths that will require constant reflection and reevaluation on the part of ethicists. It is essential to note that on the question of artificial hydration and feeding, even the general culture is undecided on exactly what to do in every case. From trying to gain a deeper understanding of the medical details, to determining the legal efficacy of advance directives giving others the right to decide life-and-death questions, the discussion goes on among deeply concerned ethical and religious thinkers. There are no quick and easy answers.

The Vatican, certainly, will feel obliged to take a position on those issues. We only hope that its position takes the form of guidelines, recognizing the possibilities of new insights from continuing research.

We hope that Bishop Elio Sgreccia’s comments that appear to narrow the teaching on artificial feeding and hydration were not intended to “close the door” on discussion. It is clear that other opinions, even among fellow bishops, leave many questions unanswered.

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 2004

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