Sentences with the two words “Pope” and “bioethics” are normally accompanied by a “not”: prohibitions of therapies and criticisms of theories. Pope Francis’s latest remarks mark a refreshing change in style, though not in substance.
In an address this week to the Italian National Bioethics Committee, the Pope set down priorities for bioethicists.
1. “The inter-disciplinary analysis of the causes of environmental degradation.” This is obviously a topic dear to his heart, as he devoted an entire encyclical to it last year. But it is not a conventional topic for bioethicists, Catholic or not.
2. “Disability and marginalization of vulnerable subjects”. This appears to be a new way of approaching the traditional Catholic insistence on protecting life from conception to natural death. “It is the challenge of opposing the throwaway culture, which has so many expressions today, among which is treating human embryos as disposable material, and also sick and elderly persons approaching death.”
3. International regulation of medical and biological activity.
One interesting aspect of his brief discourse was his assertion that “the Church does not claim any privileged space in this field, rather, she is satisfied when the civil conscience is able to reflect, discern and work, at various levels, on the basis of free and open rationality and of the constitutive values of the person and of society”. In other words, Francis seems to be claiming that a Catholic bioethicist should not use arguments drawn from faith but from reason. However, as always, he insisted that the ultimate purpose of bioethics is the service of the human person:
“the person in his singularity, always as an end and never simply as a means. This ethical principle is also fundamental in regard to the bio-technological applications in the medical field, which can never be used in a way that is harmful to human dignity, and even less be guided by industrial and commercial ends alone.”
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