Life and Death

 Clash of Civilisations

The late John-Paul II promoted the now familiar narrative of a modern battle between the ‘Culture of Life’ espoused by the Church and the ‘Culture of Death’ promoted by a (supposedly) hostile civil society.  This narrative has had a dramatic effect on the political alignment of the Church in the US, and increasingly in the UK and the rest of Europe.  It has given a comparatively easy set of defining issues for politically minded anti-religious secularists of the liberal-left and politically minded anti-secular religious people of the conservative right to gather their tribes behind.  There is the added advantage for each camp, that, because the issues are about deep ethical questions, being on the side of righteousness gives you a reasonable excuse to regard your opponents as intrinsically evil.  This makes tribal membership much more exhilarating and shortens the time wasted on intelligent discussion considerably.

And this is a pity on several counts.  It makes life unnecessarily difficult for religious people who believe there are good reasons to be sympathetic to other ways of thinking and to secularists who believe that religious traditions offer humanity something richer and more important than fairy tales.  Tribal hostilities, expressed in a language of slogans, stop people talking seriously and honestly and as a result, stop good stuff happening.  As before we are in the perfect breeding-ground for porcupines.  However, now, as we enter this particular area of discussion, we must be prepared to recognise that all our arguments will have a porcupine quality.  Why this is, will (I hope) become clear.

The bundle of issues identified as ‘life’ issues was once a focus for inner church debate in the heady days of the sixties and seventies, before the turbulent debates of moral theologians were safely shut out of popular awareness behind a growing wall of Episcopal univocality.  In some ways, though, the bundle is a curious ragbag.  Abortion, death-penalty, war, euthanasia, seem fairly obvious candidates.  But there are things which often get attached that seem less obvious, sterilisation, eugenics, in vitro fertilization, contraception, gay marriage, family values, women’s liberation, genetic experimentation.   If we leave out war and the death-penalty (much less popular campaigning issues for those on the political right in the US) for the time being, however, we can begin to understand why the rest in some intuitive sense belong together by looking at the narrative background of our religion, and its account of what it means to be human before God.

As it was in the Beginning

When we read the Book of Genesis, we can find ourselves struck by elements of its vision of what matters in human life.  There is recurring theme of family, on seed, succession and reproduction.   Sex is a common event in the narrative, but it is rarely the pleasurable sex of Odysseus, who enjoys sweet Aphrodite with Circe or Calypso, with each in turn enticing him to become her husband.   Rather it is the focused sex of Abram, going to his wife’s slave-girl in order to secure his posterity, or Rachel, giving her slave girl to Jacob, so that she can at least by proxy catch up on her more prolific sister.  Having children is obedience to the first commandment of God – go forth, increase and multiply – and a sign that his promise to grant a posterity is being fulfilled.  This foundational duty to procreate is balanced by the understanding that, however hard anyone tries, conception is not in human power.   Success here is in the gift of God alone.  It is the Lord who gives the barren Sara a child, and who takes pity on Leah because her husband doesn’t like her.

Another striking feature is the way death is presented as a part of the natural order from the beginning.   This reality puts death, like life, in the hands of God.   Here human beings have an inverse duty not to interfere.  Anyone who does take an innocent life will, like Cain, be punished.  Once God drives humanity out of paradise, in spite of the remarkable ages attributed to the generations up to Noah, (nearly) everyone dies.  Being human is about being born, family quarrels, acquiring wealth, establishing a family, reproducing and dying.

We can put this picture of what matters in human life beside the more scientific elements of the narrative.  The text identifies a natural order, created by God with ‘every creature in its kind’.   Now we begin to see why any form of interference with or bypassing of life processes, from creating GM crops to abortion and from gay marriage to euthanasia, seems to many brought up in this tradition intuitively ‘wrong’.  Cold rational arguments run up against this deeply embedded story of what it is to be human in a world order established by God from the beginning.

Some of the elements cannot but have some deep resonances with our inherited human biopsychology.  This is not just a narrative for religious people who follow this particular book.  It is one that anyone can find appealing and ‘fitting’ when they begin to get broody.  We are back in the world of an intuitive sense of rightness that John Paul II appealed to in his theology of the body. So whether we are religious or non-religious, a part of us will understand the attraction of living ‘according to nature’, according to the natural rhythms of our body-selves and in harmony with our environment.  If we are religious, living like this will also be to live according to the will of the God of the universe.

Which bit of nature?

The thorny question is (and always has been with arguments about living naturally) what exactly is nature?  Our religious narratives focus our attention on one set of features.  Do we maintain just that focus that just those narratives seem to give us, on the particular interpretation that we just happen to think is self-evident?  Or do we allow that the world, and its nature, might turn out to be a bigger and more complicated place?  This is the vital question.  Can we learn new things about ourselves and about our environment and can these new things legitimately alter our ‘natural sense of rightness’?

Practically, the answer is yes.  That is what has happened for many people in our collective intellectual and social history on a range of issues (slavery, class structure, people with learning difficulties, foreigners, the role of women in society, anti-semitism, employee rights, homosexuals, environmental responsibility) and it is what continues to happen.   An existing ‘natural sense of rightness’ in some cases desperately needed to be challenged in the light of further information.  Indeed, the insights from religious traditions have often contributed to the change.  But in spite of historical examples of such ethical shift, the answer is still contested in principle (at least in selected areas) by religious groups that lay claim to a holistic (and complete) account of humanity from within their existing tradition.

Here, then is the ready-made fault-line between any religious group and the secular democracy in which it lives.  A democracy, which strives to maximize the reasonable freedoms of its citizens, needs any pressure group to present arguments that all citizens can understand.  But members of religious groups argue from deeply held convictions that not everyone may share.  Without stepping outside the comfort zone of their tradition and engaging in dialogue, no one religious group can have a serious voice in the public arena.   To have a conversation, we have to find ways of talking that we can all agree on.  We have to work to discover the fundamental things that matter that we can all agree on, whatever our religious convictions.

Defining Persons

So how far can we find a common ground for discussing those life issues in the public arena, and one that will allow us to achieve the maximum of agreement?  One starting point is the human person.   If we follow Kant, we will respect the rational self in the other person and their capacity to follow the moral law.  If we follow Rousseau we will respect each person as the subject of common rights.  If we follow Hume, we will acknowledge our fellow-feeling for other human beings and if we follow Bentham we will recognize in the other person the capacity for pain and our duty to avoid inflicting it.  These dovetail with those religious traditions that see each person as an individual called into being and valued by the creator God.  Each insight gives different bits of reason for agreeing that we should not kill or otherwise harm each other, reasons that we all can recognize as worth taking note of.

However the ground is most common where we are talking about mature adults.  All those elements become more problematic when we consider the case of young children, or those who do not exercise reason in any recognizable sense.  And where do such considerations leave the unborn or those whose respiration and heartbeat are only maintained with the aid of technology?

Perhaps we could introduce as a scaled down version of ‘reason’ or ‘sensibility’, a loose (but I hope intuitively comprehensible) ‘capacity to interact with others and communicate in a way that we recognize as human,’ allowing that this will grow and may diminish through the ages of a human life.  The capacities for fear, comfort, pleasure and pain wax and wane through a wider range of ages and conditions, and are bounded by presentience or brain-death.  Together, then, these tests could take us to a potential basis for shared agreement about protecting persons from the sentient fetus to old age, however physically incapacitated.  There are signs that such a line of argument is gaining some ground in public debates about abortion.

The Body as Person[1]

But can we establish a common ground that might justify all the standard responses of the Roman Catholic Church to a wider public?  Some, to this end, have proposed a different definition of personhood, based not on the subjective self, but on the body.  This exploits a rather curious piece of Aristotelian science that was taken up in the Christian tradition in the Middle Ages and has been on the books ever since.  Aristotle defined the soul as a biological reality, something by definition inseparable from the body in which it exists.  His mysterious phrase is ‘the soul is the form of the body’, by which he seems to mean, the soul is what makes this collection of skin, bone and organs a living human, or a living elephant, rather than just a corpse.

This soul is (by definition) only present while the body is living and it ceases to exist when the body dies.  Aristotle himself, while presenting such an ‘animal’ soul, seems to have followed Plato in supposing that there was also a different, separable and enduring soul.  This stable element of our selves is the part capable of contemplating truth.  The Christian tradition develops this  into a ‘spiritual soul’ and (at least the last time it was talked about officially, in the fifteenth century) claims that it is specially created by God and inserted in the body during gestation.  This is what is capable of surviving without a body until the day of the resurrection.

Nevertheless, the ‘body’ definition of person that we are considering begins and ends with a version of Aristotle’s animal soul.  The monistic body-soul is identified as the living person, and what makes them a person is just that they have that principle in them which makes them living, breathing animals.  Note how different this is from where we started.  On this definition actual mental, affective or social capacities no longer come into play in the definition of ‘living person’ (though they do in Aristotle’s original definition of the human soul).  After all, runs the analogy, a person does not cease to be a person just because they are asleep.  Nor does a theologically constructed ‘spiritual soul’ come into play.   This would even seem to be an advantage in a debate on secular terms, because this definition overrides the mind-soul/body dualism of classical Christianity that many moderns find hard to swallow.

If we use this definition of the person, we can now follow the trail of personhood back to fertilization, the moment when that single organizing principle may be taken to become active in the newly formed cell.  By this definition, too, we grant personhood to those who may be medically declared brain-dead.   They are still breathing and their heart is still beating (albeit with assistance).   The organizing principle is still at work.  From this, we can deduce a duty to preserve indefinitely the lives of those on life-support machines irrespective of their capacity for sentience or for human interaction.   This is actually a stronger position that that currently accepted in Catholic medical ethics, and one that would have far-reaching medical, economic and human consequences if acted on.  It also seems, in spite of its interior logic, strangely counter-intuitive – in other words, a potential porcupine.

Porcupines on the boundary

However, the curious thing is that in some way, every argument about such boundary cases (in whichever direction) has porcupine characteristics.   They all run up against our experience-rooted intuitions.  This is not an accident.  They do so precisely because they are on the boundary of our experience.  Only in the last century has it become possible to keep alive people who for the previous millennia of human history would simply and obviously have died in, or shortly after, an original accident.  We have no deeply rooted intuitions for precisely these situations and have to work to find the ‘best fit’ for it from the ones we do already have.

On the one hand, the person lying in a state of brain-death looks like the person we knew, just asleep, and we don’t kill people who are asleep.  But then again a person who only eats and breathes and never reacts and will never wake up no longer behaves in any recognizable way like the person that we knew: they are dead already.   Our technology forces us to choose how we imagine the human body before us and to choose how to legislate on its fate.  We have moved into a new area of experience, a new area of responsibility and our intuitions conflict.   Our technology preserves someone, who otherwise would have died, in recurrent physical and mental pain.  They express a repeated and sincere wish to die.  Have we, with our technology, nevertheless given them an unexpected and indefinite duty to live?   How extraordinary does extraordinary means have to be?  We are in uncharted waters and must legislate as best we can by analogy with the way we legislate in more familiar cases.

At the other end of human existence, new technology has opened up to our gaze life processes that once were almost wholly matters for guesswork, from conception to birth.   This view was not available to earlier people.  Throughout human history abortion and infanticide seem to have been practised.  Children have not always been wanted and different cultures have had their ways of dealing with that, though in ancient times the practices were resisted both in the medical tradition of Hippocrates and in Jewish, and later Christian, lifestyle.   The basis for imagining what these actions meant was quasi-mythical, while miscarriage, infertility and infant death were a constant part of human experience.

How are we then to imagine what is ‘natural’, and agree on how far we should protect the unborn person, when nature itself sends mixed messages?  As said, our imagination has more information to work with.  We can watch the stages of human development.  But such new awareness again forces on us new choices.  When we look at the replicating cells can we see there the child that, if all goes well, will be born?  How do we choose to see the figure with the beating heart on the ultrasound?  Do we simply see an extension of the bundle of replicating cells that can be taken aside and grow no further, or do we see a foreshadowing of the new-born child?

Technology and duty

Technology (human skill) as Aristotle defines it, extends or completes nature.   Our technology has given us a previously unimaginable control over human fertility and reproduction, giving women in particular a revolutionary power over their lives and projects, just as it has given us all a once unimaginable control over life and death.  In this new world, arguments and intuitions find themselves at odds.  We can construct an absolute, logical argument for the protection of life from conception that excludes any form of abortion or IVF, and we can be charged with ruining the lives of living breathing, suffering human beings for the sake of a bundle of insentient cells.  Or we can construct absolute arguments that give primacy to the projects and happiness of mature human beings, and be charged with robbing that which we once were of the opportunity to become what we are now.    Each set of arguments has its interior logic and each argument can seem like a betrayal of something deeply important, while passing over the reality that each choice has a wider human cost.

Here as in many other areas of life, we can recognize that our technology develops at a pace that continually outstrips our power to find a place for it in our existing ethical frameworks.  We can contrast Aristotle’s technology, completing or extending nature, with the technology of Faust, creating new worlds, new habitats, new contexts for being human and perhaps soon, new sorts of human being.   But when we lament the passing of humanity as we know it in the technical revolution, we must ask ourselves how far we would be prepared to give up our vacuum cleaners, our fridges and our vaccines.    And if we proclaim the right and duty of natural scientists to explore nature in whatever way they can, for the good of humanity, we must acknowledge that there may be some prices we are not prepared to pay for progess, some aspects of being human we do not want to lose.  We are still writing our collective script.

Universal legislation or a way of life

So how can the Church contribute creatively to this new script, for the good of humankind?  Perhaps we should distinguish two different modes of talking to people within the Catholic tradition.  In one mode we offer a philosophy, a way of life and a spirituality, and we teach people how to walk this pathway.  Through the relationship with this community they can discover a deep relationship with God and the world, out of which they will go on to live their lives and make their choices.  In the other mode we speak out of an entitlement to legislate on matters of right and wrong, not just for Catholics but for the whole of humanity.

It is the latter mode that is more problematic.  It made some sense in the theocratic social order of medieval Western Europe, but makes much less sense in a modern world where politically the Catholic Church is merely one voice among many.   It can suit our internal politics to speak like theocrats and call for absolute bans on anything we like.  But if we want to make a difference in a secular democracy by winning hearts and minds, then we will have to save our claims to be supreme legislators for those who might believe them, and work in a more nuanced way with other people to find the common grounds of concern on which to build a shared understanding of humanity and a better way of life.  When we engage in this process, it also helps us to remember the honest truth (that we sometimes forget when emphasizing our authority to legislate) that we ourselves can – and need to – learn new things in order to speak better and more wisely.

Clearly the official Church must remain free to speak as legislator for its members.  In so doing it tries to set out the boundaries that educate people into the personal dialogue with God in this community.  Its legislation ideally will arise out of the collective experience of that dialogue and always be capable of learning more.  But its aim is to help all people recognize that God is revealed, mysteriously, in the works of the world and in the moments of our lives.   By entering into that relationship with God, we are thereby invited into that more organic relationship with the natural order.   This is the same relationship that the Genesis myths portray, even though those myths need, in our time, to weave in the complexity and the chaos of the natural order, whose detail we can see more clearly.   It is out of a deep sense of this relationship that individuals are invited to explore and make their choices.  What does it mean for me to live a life that is given from the hand of God?

But, will such exploration necessarily yield traditionally accepted answers to the boundary questions?  Imagine a world in which disease is completely controlled, there are no wars to cull growing populations and new genetic techniques can halt the ageing process and extend human life indefinitely.  On a planet of limited resources and with a theology of the resurrection, do the ancient imperatives about life, death and reproduction remain the same?

Twisting Politics

As I noted at the beginning, John Paul II introduced the exhilarating language of a struggle between good and evil in the conflicts between church and state.  Coming from the Polish experience of fascism and communism, in which the Church provided a rallying point of resistance to anti-religious state terror, this is entirely understandable.  The harshness and injustice of the regime was plain to see for any western voter.  The role of the Church in the resistance was widely admired, by believers and non-believers alike.  The Solidarity movement of the eighties was an extraordinarily powerful expression of a human desire for freedom of expression and freedom of thought, in which the boundaries between religious and secular human aspirations vanished.

In the democratic West, however, the points of contention between Church and state are, as we have seen, much more limited.  Western, democratic states, by and large, do manage to guarantee most of their citizens’ freedoms most of the time – and mostly freedoms that the Church too would regard as legitimate.  There is still a strong collective memory from the fascist and communist eras of how terribly everything can go wrong, and what checks need to be in place to prevent them from doing so again (human rights being an integral part of those checks).   They also, by and large, make efforts (admittedly, highly variable) as a matter of principle to deal fairly with those members of society who are struggling and to make some provision for the strangers in their midst.  This is a pretty solidly biblical agenda, however limited its execution.   It seems odd to label these societies ‘cultures of death’ even if we do disagree about the decriminalization and provision of abortion and the availability of fertility treatment.   But most of all, it seems counterproductive to put up artificial barriers of hostility between ourselves and men and women of good will, with whom in most other respects we would want to be working for the greater good of suffering humanity.   I suggest we share more aspirations for the good of our world than we disagree on and to fulfill those aspirations we need to be able to talk to each other without shouting.


[1] I believe this line of thinking owes much to Karol Wojtila’s exploratory work ‘The Acting Person’ which takes as its starting point, Boethius’ definition of a person as (loosely) an individuating substance.

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