Bishop Laffitte's Address to White Mass

Event Recognizes Health Care Professionals

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BRIDGEPORT, Connecticut, APRIL 3, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is the address delivered March 14 at the 17th annual White Mass for Catholic health care professionals in Fairfield County by the guest of honor, Bishop Jean Laffitte, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family.

The talk is titled "Building a Culture of Life."

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The subject matter which I wish to speak to you about today, Building a culture of Life, can be considered in the following manner: deepening the relationship between Church and Science; Science and Life; Church and Life. The Church sees as her first duty to promote and defend human Life and has the intention of building an authentic culture of Life.  

However, because the actual theme of this talk is so vast, my intention is not to expound on these notions fully, but instead, to present to you some key principles of interpretation, in order to help you understand better the salient issues affecting the current debate concerning the relationship between Church and Science, and from there, to arrive at a greater appreciation of the Church’s stance on human Life.  

What is the reason behind the common debates concerning the Church’s stance on Life? It comes from a widespread idea that, in view of the manner in which the Church exercises her Magisterium, she is, people believe, almost without exception, one step behind the achievements or projects of science. It is for many as if the Church reacted always in a defensive manner whenever it involves scientific issues; as if the Church were afraid of risking something. And so they say: “Has not the development of science gravely contradicted the secular affirmations of the Church? Indeed, with this kind of thinking it is easy to join with those who assert that the advances in social science and psychology, revealing the complexity of the human will and psyche, have seriously put into question the doctrines on evil or sin; or even that the widely accepted theory of evolution is totally irreconcilable with the simplistic creation accounts found in Genesis. In short, it often seems as if we are dealing with a continual debate and confrontation between Church and Science, as if it were a battle between irrationality and reason, between obscurantism and the enlightenment.  

Amitdst all this upheaval, it is important to tackle basic ideas in order to bring clarification. I therefore propose the following three topics in order: First, the relationship between Science and the Church; secondly, the rapport between Human Life and Science; and finally, in the form of a brief conclusion, the relationship between Human Life and the Magisterium of the Church.

Church and Science

In the medieval era, “science” (or scientia) signified everything which constituted rational thought, such as facts about nature and its own internal laws, as well as philosophical deductive judgment and theological reason.  

It implies a study of the actual causes of beings and their respective nature. From a philosophical point of view, it is understandable why scientific reasoning not only claims to have possession of truth but also the tools to arrive at a reliable analysis of that truth, that is, its own conformity with the thing under consideration (adaequatio intellectus et rei). In this sense, science does provide certitude, namely, that of scientific judgment. It is a well known fact that this certitude is based on the one hand upon the harmony which this judgment has with other judgments, among which we may find the principles of judgment (that is to say, the absolutes). On the other hand, the judgment is based upon facts in themselves, that is, the facts which are described and formulated in scientific conclusions through the employment of concepts, and therefore, in conclusions which can be referred to constantly. Each science rotates around a compendium of data which constitute its own material object. But each science does this according to its own vision which is its own formal object. For example, one may be dedicated to studying the genetics of the human body (that is to say, the science of genetics), or even the specialization of individual organs of the body (disciplines which therefore involve multiple medical sciences). What ever the case may be, if the strict conditions for examination are respected (especially the correct use of reason), the scientific conclusions are considered universally valid.  

Nowadays, science is no longer equated with the knowledge of all things, that is, of ultimate questions and primary causes. It is not attached anymore to the being of things as such (for science proceeds necessarily in the classical conception toward a metaphysical thought) but, in diversifying itself, it has generated determinate practices and methods. There is no longer one science, scientia (as if we had a unified and coherent domain of rigorous and verified knowledge), but a plurality of sciences with different objects, languages, levels of intelligibility, and diversity of methods. The formal object is more and more specialized, the knowledge derived is extraordinarily multiplied within a very large number of fields of inquiry; at the same time, the communication between the different sciences is at times problematic. Two different sciences, for example can depart from different experimental observations to lead to divergent hypotheses of explanation (for instance neuro-psychiatry and psychoanalysis, philology and hermeneutics of a text). This leads us to accept the idea that science is limited in a certain way by its own scientific rationality.  

The danger exists to unduly transform a scientific theory into a metaphysical or religious principle, that tries to give account of the functioning of a certain level of reality. To know the functioning of the human brain from the biochemical perspective does not permit one to conclude that there is a determinism of human behavior. This last affirmation, thus, departs completely from the biochemical arena and yields a philosophical thesis contrary to human liberty. These observations do not express a complete distrust of science, but only imply a realistic approach. Science provides certitudes in a great number of fields of study; but because of the diversity of its approaches, it cannot claim to give a complete and ultimate explanation of the mystery of being, particularly regarding that singular being which is the human person.  

Allow me to give you some examples of how the culture of life is threatened today. First example, the condition of the embryo and the creation of the fallacious term :pre-embryo.  

The so-called “gradualistic theory” has followed the Warnok Report in England when the term “pre-embryo” was invented. However, it is important to note, that the biologists who formed part of the Committee confessed that the term “pre-embryo” was the fruit of a “decision” which based itself on factors that were not defined and therefore not scientific. In their own words: quote “While, as we have seen, the timing of the different stages of development [of the embryo] is critical, once the process has begun, there is no particular part of the developmental process that is more important than another; all are part of a continuous process, and each stage takes place normally, at the correct time, and in the correct sequence. Thus biologically there is no one single identifiable stage in the development of the embryo beyond which the in vitro embryo should not be kept alive”, end quote.  

Another example is the misuse of the principle of precaution, which departs from the correct application of Tutiorism. The principle of precaution, introduced in the works on biotechnology (in particular, those dealing with Genetically Modified plants and animals) has a major part to play within the doubts regarding the eventual health risks involved in certain technologies. Understood properly, the principle is not an absolute, and therefore does not involve an absolute abstention concerning all interventions. Accordingly, face to face with any given doubt, the principle of precaution advises that any action ought to be taken with due care and attention, but must cease from pursuing further action if at any given moment a risk arises. This therefore, means that caution is a moral obligation which is always in proportion to the magnitude of the risk involved.  

As opposed to the above, the theory of Tutiorism, which is referred to within morality, is not equivalent to the principle of precaution, neither should it be interpreted as a kind of systematic moral rigorism. Instead, it is applied to those circumstances where, faced with the possibility of a destructive action over a particular object or thing, one is presented with the doubt of whether that object or thing which is about to be destroyed is or is not a human being.  

In such circumstances, Tutiorism would seek to follow the safest course of action, which in effect, would entail abstaining from the destructive act itself. As an example, let us consider a hunter who finds himself caught in the dilemma of whether or not to shoot as he first needs to discern correctly if behind the hedge ahead of him there is a fawn who is eating or a child who is playing. In such a case as this, the principle of abstention is absolute: unlike the principle of precaution, Tutiorism automatically gives greater weight to the most serious and dangerous of the two possibilities. From this perspective, we can say that, faced with the serious doubt that an instantly fertilized ovum may well be a human being, it would thus be absolutely immoral for one to proceed with freezing or for a law to allow freezing and its subsequent effects. This, in fact, is the moral concept that was introduced by Donum vitae in 1987. I think these two aspects, being aware of the impossibility for any particular science to give an answer to the ultimate questions of being, and the personal moral responsibility in abstaining from any action that could threaten a human life, are for any scientist two first steps on the way of building a culture of life.  

A brief remark regarding the development of science should be given. Historically it is within the context of Christian thought that science developed itself. This development proceeds from the traditional Christian understanding that God did not only create the world, but also has entrusted it to mankind to govern. It is true that the departure from this classical system of explaining the world has been followed by a process of grand diversification of scientific disciplines, but, at the same time, the knowledge derived has ceased to be unified in a coherent whole; they are often deprived of all communication among one another, such that often a partial approach to reality has tried to substitute a hypothesis advanced with conviction in place of the historical conception of the natural order and its causes. It is impressive to see the manner in which the Church has articulated and classified the diversity of conclusions brought about by science and faith. The first key text is taken from the second Vatican Council: "if methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith, for earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God. (6)"

This text develops that which the first Vatican Council already stated, namely, that by recognizing the ability of human reason to know God, one thus affirms the necessity of Revelation: "The same Holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason: ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. It was, however, pleasing to his wisdom and goodness to reveal himself and the eternal laws of his will to the human race by another, and that a supernatural, way. It is indeed thanks to this divine revelation, that those matters concerning God which are not of themselves beyond the scope of human reason, can, even in the present state of the human race, be known by everyone without difficulty, with firm certitude and with no intermingling of error. It is not because of this that one must hold revelation to be absolutely necessary; the reason is that God directed human beings to a supernatural end, that is a sharing in the good things of God that utterly surpasses the understanding of the human mind.”

We have understood through these texts that scientific truth and the truth of faith do not contradict themselves; in the encyclical Fides et Ratio, faith and reason are presented as the two wings that allow the human spirit to be elevated to the contemplation of truth. The God that created the heavens and the earth, that created humanity capable of knowing and reasoning, is also the God who reveals Himself to humanity. And God cannot contradict Himself. Here we must speak a little regarding the nature of the certitude that faith gives. The knowledge from revealed faith is certain, absolutely certain in reason of the absolutely true character of He who reveals and is revealed. This is the reason for which the certitude of faith has an absolute character, if you will, superior to the truth of all other types of affirmation. The certitude of Faith is no less authentic than the certitude of empirical proof because both are grounded in objective reality. This element will appear to be essential when considering human life.  

Let us now examine the relationship between Life and Science.

Life and its Relation with Science

It has been commonly accepted that when speaking about the phenomenon of life, we are dealing with a movement that is spontaneously original to the being itself. Experimental sciences study the vital phenomenona which manifest themselves amidtst limited quantities of materials which are extremely complex and in constant mutation. Biology gives specific traits to this mutation: metabolism; the individuality of life and that which presents itself as an organism, endowed with various organs of forms and functions that are diverse; the bestowal of life from one generation to another; the variability and the adaptability as a capacity to transform and live in diverse environments and conditions previously known to the organism; the capacity to act from external stimulation; the auto-regulation with which every part develops itself and works for the entire being. The living being appears thus as an open system, in which a complex equilibrium of change is established, gifted with individuality and capable of interaction with the environment.  

The same common observation allows one to see diverse degrees of actualization of life. One can distinguish the “vegetative” state of life in the classical sense which is comprised of the vital functions (nutrition, growth, reproduction); the “animal” life, with its superior vital functions (sense and spontaneous movement). Life presents itself at times with elements of continuity through the relation to the inferior order and with the characteristics of a qualitative leap.  

From a scientific point of view, biology cannot reduce itself to a mathematization of the world. Here there is the question of the finality of life: biology cannot be content to describe the mechanisms of the functions of organs, it must also search their finality at the service of the consideration of the total organism (for example: the lungs are made for giving oxygen to the blood, the eyes made for vision....).  

The individual life represents a true paradox for biology. The character of the individuality cannot be taught to us by materiality itself, but only by a philosophy of being. The coherent unity of the organism evades the experimental method. From only an epistemological point of view, the sciences of life are unable to demonstrate the existence of an order, of an organism, of a unity of form within the living being, but paradoxically, they cannot be disinterested in this either. How can a biologist that analyses a living being not try to understand the form, the manner in which the different elements of being intersect? The structure of living beings can not be reduced to its physiological chemical elements that are at play within it. The identity of a living organism is the identity of a form in time and not the identity of a material. The scientific objectification is a way to interpret reality, but it does not exhaust all the capacities of reason, understood as an entry into reality of being within all of its dimensions. Life is not an object of investigation, but it is the basis of all activity. We see well that the superior form of life is that which has a conscience proper to it. (Quis non intellegit non habet perfecta vita, said St. Thomas. Summa I Q. 18, art. 3). The conscious life of the human person is the place where it should be clear that God is not only the source of life, but also its final destination. The concept of life is thus fundamentally analogical: upon an ascending scale, we can apply incrementally upon themselves the more elementary levels arriving at God: He who has life as His very essence, possessing it in its fullness and indeed fashioning it in creation.  

In the past, there was common understanding regarding the originality and unique nature of the human person. To clarify that which seems obvious is rendered necessary by the tendency today to not contribute to humanity a particular and unique place within the world of existing things. A methodological postulation of an evolutionary type seems to accentuate a continuity with the world of superior animals and that of humanity. Yet every ethical scheme perceives that there is an irreducible qualitative difference here. This is not possible without examining the concept of the person.  

Often the human person is defined by his rational interiority (intelligence, free will, capacity to decide for himself), the social character of his existence and his relations. But the human person is not defined according to qualities common to a species. The human person is not something, but someone. The concept of person indicates a certain originality unique to each member of humanity, in his or her human nature (in a rational nature). Then the concept of man and woman refers to a universal human nature, but by the term “person” the reality is illustrated that a human being is absolutely singular and unique. The person is a subject that has a unique dignity proper to the person himself and that dignity must be recognized in itself and as a finality. Its subjectivity, which is to say, its character as a subject, manifests itself in its encounters with other subjects, other persons, who share the same dignity.  

Thus, what relation is there between the biological dimension of life and the person? To be a person is not some sort of quality that one places extraneously or arbitrarily upon a member of the human species, but is the manner in which a human person is in fact a human person. There does not exist a man or woman who is not a person. This is at the core of a true culture of life: the conviction that each of the individuals in human nature is a person and has an inherent dignity because of his personality.  

We can see the ethical consequences of this approach: it is not possible to treat that which is human as if its personal characteristic was secondary, without knowing that a man or woman cannot be treated as if they were not a person. We can understand also that it is the relation between people, that is the place where the unique dignity of the human person must be honored. The experience of the moral obligation corresponds thus to the perception of the personal character of other human beings and their dignity. This culminates in love, which is the best way that one perceives naturally how the person loved is irreplaceable.  

Human life thus demands, as we have seen, an unconditional respect, not because it is a life, but because it is a person. But then, why does the person who is a contingent being, of such a limited nature and in such a precarious condition, merit such an absolute and unconditional respect? To this decisive question reason by itself struggles to provide an adequate response. Indeed, only from a theological perspective is sufficient light given to elucidate a satisfying response. The theological reason for which we recognize that human life has an intangible value is linked to specific and singular connection that unites all human life to its Creator.

The Church and Life

The time has come to give a last fundamental key principle in order to understand better what is at stake here. This key principle is essential for all believers, specially for those who are active in the various health care professions.  

We can come face to face with an objection which is often presented: all forms of life manifest in some way the richness of God’s life; that is true, there is tremendous difference between human life and other forms of life. While the relationship with God and all other living beings is generic and mediate, all human beings on the contrary find themselves in an immediate personal relation with God. This is profoundly considered in the verses regarding creation in the book of Genesis where man and woman are made in the “image and likeness of God”. (1.26) In the second creation account of Genesis (Gen 2.7), the life of man, is taken from the earth by direct intervention of the Creator, breathing into him life and making him a living being. What does this story tell us? To be made in the image of God establishes a relationship of finalization regarding the human person in respect to its Creator. All humankind is created in view of a personal communion with God, in knowledge and in love. The gift of a human being’s natural life is in view of the supernatural gift freely given, for the sake of a privileged participation in the very inner life of God Himself, as His children: “Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17, 3). As you can all see, the full value of human life, from its initial stages and in its most simple biological dimensions, cannot be compromised and must be viewed from the perspective of its supernatural end toward which it is ordained. Only He who is Life and the Source of Life can reveal true meaning and orientation of human life.  

To understand adequately the specific quality of the individual human life, we need to take into account always the presence of God’s love. The Christian is best enabled to favor a culture of life only if he or she is aware of the sanctity of human life. This sanctity does not come only from the rationality of the human being but from the person’s own loving relationship with God. I would like to quote, here, how David Schindler once described this fact: “The proponents of the sanctity of life often base their arguments on the nature of the person as a spiritual being: the fact that the human being possesses faculties which place him or her far above all animals, is proof enough of the sanctity of human life. This argument holds that, by and large, its logic is universally able to persuade many, as it bases its rationale upon human reason alone. But however, we concur with the Pope when we affirm that aided by grace, human reason is nonetheless enabled to discover certain truths regarding the dignity of the human person: As Pope John Paul II stated:  

‘Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart(cf. Rom 2:14-15) the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree’ (Evangelium vitae, 2).

To conclude, I would like to recall that, which for a convinced Christian, gives also sanctity to human life: the fact that it was Jesus’ humanity that was the instrument of redemption; it is in our human nature that the Word made flesh saved the world. Through this redeeming action, Jesus Christ taught us that a holy use of one’s life could be done by offering his or her own personal life with love, as an expression of love for our brothers and sisters, with love for the truth and in love for God. As the Venerable John Paul II once wrote in his encyclical letter Evangelium vitae: “Jesus proclaims that life finds its centre, its meaning and its fulfillment when it is given up […]. We too are called to give our lives for our brothers and sisters, and thus to realize in the fullness of truth the meaning and destiny of our existence.”

And the text finishes with a prayer: “We shall be able to do this because you, O Lord, have given us the example and have bestowed on us the power of your Spirit. We shall be able to do this if every day, with you and like you, we are obedient to the Father and do his will.  

Grant, therefore, that we may listen with open and generous hearts to every word which proceeds from the mouth of God. Thus we shall learn not only to obey the commandment not to kill human life, but also to revere life, to love it and to foster it.”