Thursday, May 19, 2011

"Moral Obligations" and Reproductive Genetic Technologies

A couple of months ago, I read the novel Motherless, by Brian Gail. The book is a sequel (actually the second in a planned trilogy) to Fatherless. Motherless picks up the lives of the four main characters of Fatherless twenty years later. Where Fatherless took place some time in the late eighties or early nineties, Motherless clearly is set in 2008, with thinly veiled references to the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States.

While the story lines in Fatherless were loosely connected, those in Motherless are much more tightly intertwined, with the common arc being the impending life sciences revolution.

After reading Fatherless, it seemed as though related items were appearing all over the news. In a similar way, two items from the May 2011 issue of First Things were clearly related to the theme of Motherless.

The first was an item from the “While We’re At It” section in the back of the magazine:

We should only keep the smart ones. So says Oxford ethicist Julian Savulescu, who recently declared that we will have a “moral obligation” to reproduce via in vitro fertilization and screen the resulting embryos for intelligence as soon as it becomes technologically possible to do so. Embryos not passing the test for intelligence should be destroyed for the good of society – the “economic and social benefits of higher cognition,” as he puts it.

God save us from the “moral obligations” of university ethicists!

The second item was a review by Wesley J. Smith of the book Contested Reproduction by John H. Evans. Evans, says Smith, “searches for common narratives and themes that those with religious views can employ when debating RGTs.” RGTs are reproductive genetic technologies – the life sciences revolution that are the subject of Brian Gail’s Motherless and Julian Savulescu’s “moral obligations.” Smith writes:

Evans concludes his call to find common ground with that he considers an obvious point: “We can all agree that an effective debate about RGTs would be healthy for the human future.”

No, we can’t – not if it requires diluting the discourse to the point that it amounts to forfeiting the game. We should heartken to the wisdom of the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ observation that bioethicists are too often advocates who “professionally guide the unthinkable on its passage through the debatable on its way to becoming the justifiable until it is finally established as the unexceptionable.” A debate sapped of first principles would likely result in RGTs becoming viewed as unexceptionable. In fact, given the thousands of IVF births each year that involve embryo selection and/or “selective reduction” abortion, one could plausibly argue that we are already there.

In other words, as soon as you enter into serious debate with a fringe position, you grant that position a degree of legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve. The moral position is portrayed as repressive and standing in the way of progress.

I have my doubts about the life sciences revolution that Brian Gail envisions, partly based on technological hurdles and costs of implementation, but I also want to believe that there’s enough moral sense left in the world to reject the underlying utilitarian philosophy. There are people working hard to erode that moral sense. We have to work just as hard to maintain and strengthen it..

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

James or James?

Every year during the Easter season, the Lectionary takes us on a trip through the Acts of the Apostles. Yesterday’s selected passage was Acts 11:19-26. Today’s passage was Acts 12:24-13:5a. What got my attention today was the verses in-between, which tell of Peter’s arrest by Herod and his rescue by an angel.

First we learn that “It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also.” (Acts 12:1-3).

Clearly, Peter was arrested after the execution of James. What then, is the first thing that Peter does after his escape? He goes to the house of Mary, the mother of John (also called Mark) where “Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quite and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. ‘Tell James and the brothers about this,’ he said, and then he left for another place.” (Acts 12:17) James also figures prominently at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:13).

If you’re going to have this many people running around with the same names (John, James, and Mary), it would really help to have surnames to tell them apart, especially when they’re mere verses from each other!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Joining Hearts and Hands

It’s always nice to see your own views and practices vindicated by somebody who can actually claim some degree of competence in the matter.

Lots of people in our parish hold hands during the Our Father at mass. I do not. I typically fold my hands in front of me, even when our priest, from the altar, invites us to “Join hearts and hands.” He has no right to do that.

If people want to spontaneously join hands, that’s fine. It’s not part of the rite, though, and Father has no authority to add it. Lest those around me think that I’m a grumpy curmudgeon, I find it necessary to go out of my way to offer a smile and a firm handshake during the sign of peace immediately following the Our Father.

It’s nice to know that Fr. Z of What Does the Prayer Really Say pretty much shares my view.

There is no specific prohibition against holding hands during the Our Father, or any other time at Mass for that matter. However, there is no provision to ask or invite people to do so, and were a priest or deacon to do so during Mass he would be committing a grave liturgical abuse. Priests can’t just make stuff up and impose things because they think it is meaningful.

Friday, May 6, 2011

I Need A Plan

The 2011 5K tour is underway! The first race was Saturday, and I can verify that I finished! I can’t complain too much about my time, especially when I back-calculate the minutes-per-mile pace that was required. When I think about the kind of time that I want to run, I know that I must increase my pace. That requires a training program. I need a plan, and I need to stick to it.

That is equally true of my spiritual life. I’m not satisfied with where I am. I need a plan that I can follow if I want to make any progress toward my goals.

It’s been a while wince I’ve sat down and prepared a program for life, in which I identify what I believe to be my root sin and it’s manifestations, and I establish concrete achievable goals that I can take to attack my vices and develop virtues. Running-wise, I tend to decide on a moment’s notice what kind of workout I want to do on any given day, and I’m as likely as not to decide half-way through to do something else. That’s no way to pursue running excellence. It’s also no way to pursue holiness.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Real Runners

I like to think of myself as a runner. Several times each week, I’ll lace up a pair of running shoes and pound out four or five miles. In addition, I participate in several 5K (3.1 mile) races over the course of the summer, topped off with our Oktoberfest 10K (6.2 mile) race. Ever now and then, though, I am confronted by the traits of real runners, and I have to admit to myself that I’m really just playing at it.

I usually feel like I’ve accomplished something if I cover 15-20 miles in a week. A real runner regularly covers half that distance in a single outing. I am easily deterred by wind, rain, snow, and ice. Not so, the real runner. If the air is cold enough to numb exposed flesh, I’m staying in. The real runner either lets the flesh get numb or bundles up and defies the frigid temperatures. Real runners are disciplined in their training, their nutrition, and their equipment. I have one pair of shoes for running and the cheapest gym shorts I can fine. I eat anything that passes within reach, and I have no real training program.

In short, if you want to see what a runner looks like, don’t look at me!

Have I sufficiently telegraphed the spiritual analogy?

I like to think of myself as a Christian. I participate in the liturgy, say a few prayers, read the Bible once in a while, and try to live a moral life. Every now and then, though, I meet or read about a real Christian, and then I have to admit to myself that maybe I’m just playing at it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Grace of a Poor Run

On the day before Easter, we had a break in the rain that’s been an incessant feature of our Ohio spring this year, and I ventured out for a run. With the start of this year’s 5K tour just a week away, I felt the need for some outdoor miles. The vast majority of my running since Autumn has been indoors. Nevertheless, I was getting miles in, and I was hopeful for a good tour.

I was barely ¼ mile into my 4½ mile loop when the thought hit me: “I am going to be so disappointed next week.” That Holy Saturday run ended up being miserable. At 2½ miles I diverted onto the high school track and ran another ½ mile before slowing to a walk. I was able to tack on another ½ mile of jogging before walking home with my head hanging, hoping that nobody would see my personal walk of shame.

I had no energy that day. I was dead, I thought. Then the additional thought came, “As dead as Christ in the tomb on Holy Saturday.” Shaking my head, I thought, “There I go, spiritualizing my running again.” I can’t help but wonder whether other runners do the same, and I thanked God for granting me the reminder of the day’s significance.

To be honest, I don’t know whether my miserable runs are actual graces or not. They are certainly sources of frustration, and I often wonder whether the causes are primarily mental of physical. Was my Holy Saturday fatigue a result of the Good Friday fast, or was my will to run particularly weak that day?

Whatever the true cause might be, I find that my faith places even my failures within a spiritual context, providing opportunities for growth at least in understanding, if not holiness.