Debate over history of US Christian bioethics


One of the puzzling features of the history of bioethics – which is now nearly 50 years old – is that its “founders” were nearly all Christians, but Christian bioethics has become a marginal interest, at least in the US. How did this happen?

The conventional account is that initially Christian bioethicists like Joseph Fletcher and Paul Ramsey (both Protestants) or Richard McCormick (a Catholic) were quite influential in shaping bioethics debates in the 1960s, serving on national committees and helping to draft government reports. However, as society became more secular, they were shouldered aside and their contributions were ignored.

In a provocative article in the journal Christian Bioethics, Tristram Engelhardt, Jr offers a very different interpretation. Engelhardt is a heavyweight in American bioethics – one of the few Christians with clout. He originally delivered this article on the occasion of receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities.

Engelhardt, a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, attributes the marginalisation of “Christian bioethics” to the treason of Christian bioethicists. They capitulated to pressure from an increasingly non-religious environment and betrayed their Christian heritage.

“The result was that a view of Christian morality developed that eschewed a defining Christian content for Christian morality  and Christian bioethics. Scholars rejected the position that there could be moral content in a Christian bioethics not accessible  to a secular bioethics. This meant that there could not be a distinctly Christian bioethics.”

What about powerful messages from the Catholic world, particularly the recent Popes? Engelhardt claims that they too abandoned a distinctively Christian outlook and relied far too much on philosophy:

“Neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI adequately appreciated that what had occurred was, at least in part, a function of  post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism’s attempt to speak and think in a secular or philosophical idiom open to all. Among other  things, this focus on philosophy raised the question as to why one should pay attention to the philosophical arguments of  theologians, who wrote as want-to-be moral philosophers, when the same philosophical arguments were often (usually) made more  clear and better by philosophers.”

Engelhardt insists that “Christian bioethics  is radically different from secular bioethics”.

However, in the same issue of the journal a Catholic bioethicist, Daniel P. Sulmasy, rebuts Engelhardt’s bleak view. In his opinion Engelhardt is reviving an older debate between Protestants and Catholics about the relationship between grace and reason, or between faith and natural law. Protestants tend to be suspicious of reason as a means for reaching the truth while Catholics see faith and reason as the two wings of truth.

“A more reasonable reading of the history of bioethics is that proponents of natural law like McCormick and Ramsey were eventually rejected by a progressively secularizing bioethics that came to view the method they employed, natural law, as inherently religious (specifically, Christian) and therefore suspect in an officially secular bioethics … Although their method did not appeal to explicitly religious sources of argument, their conclusions were always compatible with their religious commitments, so their views (and those of Christian bioethicists who followed them) were dismissed as inherently religious and therefore, to a secular world, suspect.”



MORE ON THESE TOPICS | bioethics, Christian bioethics

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