What Bioethics Is and Isn't

Dentist-Turned-Priest Offers Insights on His New Field of Study

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ROME, SEPT. 14, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Catholic bioethics is not a list of rules, just as Christianity itself is not a list of rules. Rather, bioethics is a roadmap to help us fulfill our vocation to become other Christs.

This is the suggestion offered by Father Helio Luciano of Florianopolis, Brazil, when he was interviewed by Johannes Habsburg for the program "Where God Weeps," in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.

Q: Father Helio, we begin with you: Why the priesthood? And why bioethics?

Father Luciano: Questions on vocation are always very personal, but in a general way I'll say: I was a dentist and a certain moment arrived when I decided that that wasn't my path. I don't think I've left anything for something worse, that is, I've given my life to the Lord in that field and because of my previous formation in odontology, the bishop directed me somewhat to study bioethics, and to form myself in this field, a field that the diocese needs quite a lot today, as well as the Church in Brazil.

Q: If we had to define the field of discussion when we say bioethics, what are the typical fields to which we refer today?

Father Luciano: Well, bioethics is a new science, hence it's not defined yet and there are people who think that everything is bioethics and there are people who think that very little is bioethics. There are topics that aren't controversial, such as the relationship between the doctor and the patient, <and there are> questions of the ethics of scientific investigations which are normal topics of bioethics. Then there are others such as abortion, euthanasia and stem cells, which are the topics that usually appear in the newspapers and the media.

Q: Why are these fields of social discussion important for the Church? What do they have to do with the Gospel? The Beatitudes don't speak of stem cells.

Father Luciano: Often Christ is confusedly thought of as legislation, what we can and cannot do, and he isn't this. Christ is a person, he is perfect God and perfect man, and this perfect humanity implies something in our life. It's not that we must do or not do things; it's that we must be other Christs, it is to this that we are called, in the concrete and practical things of our life, not in abstract things, not in a misunderstood spirituality but in real things that make reality in the concrete.

Q: And also, in some way, Christ reveals to us the greatness of the dignity of human life, no?

Father Luciano: Of course, dignity is a subject, in that sense, of living like Christ, that is, either you have a profound respect for life – not only yours but also that of others – because it is Christ's dignity that you're respecting or you're not a Christian. Christ says: I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. Life is important for Christ and that life isn't an abstract life but a concrete, real life that became life in our lives.

Q: Can we also say that in some way, when Christ says "what you did to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did to me," seems to emphasize even more responsibility toward one's neighbor and toward the human person next to me, also in the field of bioethics?

Father Luciano: Of course, dignity and life are the same for all, the problem is that there are some who defend the dignity of their own life but not that of others. It is the widow of the Gospel, that is, the poor of the Gospel, of whom Jesus speaks, so that they will be more concerned, because <the widows> themselves don't have the possibility to take care of their own life, to defend their own life. Thus, in these fields, for example in abortion: a person who is yet to be born, who has no way of expressing his rights, hence we must defend him.

Q: Therefore, if we also had to define the fundamental criterion of the Catholic Church when speaking on these topics, what are we defending? Why are we going into topics that some would say have "nothing to do with the faith, that are not a topic of the sacristy?" Why is this important and what does the Church seek?

Father Luciano: Two things. One: the dignity of the human being. The Church does not come to defend the Christian or Catholic person. The Church comes to defend a model of humanity. Of course we cannot preach that everyone must receive the Eucharist. The Eucharist is for those who have faith and who live it, but man is man and we must respect life as a natural truth, namely, a human truth that the Church  defends because she defends the person in his/herself. The other more specific field of Bioethics is that it is a dignity with a clear scientific criterion, that is, not everything is Bioethics, it's not about saying general things, it's to speak with a scientific basis: "look, this is part of human nature." Something that Ratzinger said a short while ago was <that we must> enlarge the concept of rationality, that is, if a person weeps at the death of his father it isn't something irrational; on the contrary, if he does not weep over the death of his father it's irrational, as to enlarge that concept, is not only a positive science that can prove mathematically what is science; science is much broader.

Q: Some say: "look, these are questions of faith; you have faith; you believe that life begins here … so, this is your faith, but don't impose on me your religious and faith criteria when speaking of these topics, which are questions of one's personal conscience. If I think that <something> is all right, it's all right. Why are you going to impose one of your ideas on me?" What do we reply to this?

Father Luciano: There is a level, without a doubt, that is a question of faith, but there is a level that is of human nature. That is, for example, why do people get angry when they see a boy attacked, a child being attacked? They don't get angry because he is Catholic, or they won't say they won't attack because he is a Catholic, because those are my values. No, it's because it's something of human nature, because there is something in human nature that says "this isn't right." We don't want to impose, but we want persons to be aware of what they are. I can't say: I want to fly. We have liberty, of course, but this liberty does not reach the point that we can change our nature, that is, we can't behave like animals if we are human beings, and if we are human beings, there is a human way of behaving, and it is in this level that bioethics works.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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This interview was conducted by Johannes Habsburg for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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