Interview With Physician Father Joseph Tham
ROME, 8 OCT. 2007 (ZENIT)
Recent news on the creation of hybrid
embryos in England, and the U.S. debate on the use of embryos in
research and cloning, all point to an increasingly secular agenda in
Legionary of Christ Father Joseph Tham, a physician and bioethicist who
recently defended his doctoral dissertation on "The Secularization of
Bioethics: A Critical History," told ZENIT that this is yet another
effect of the trend to push religion out of the social sphere.
The author of a book on natural family planning, "The Missing
Cornerstone," he teaches at the School of Bioethics of the Regina
Q: Can you tell us something about the religious roots of bioethics?
Father Tham: Since time immemorial, religion has been an integral part
of medical ethics. Recent studies have demonstrated that even the
Hippocratic oath is a product of a religious community founded by
In the West, Christianity has clearly influenced the founding of
hospitals and the care of the sick. There is a long tradition of medical
ethics based on the sacraments and the virtues since the Middle Ages.
Many of the codes of ethics professed by physicians today were
undoubtedly of Christian inspiration, and Catholics have produced very
sophisticated manuals on medical ethics up until recently.
In fact, if you look at the names of the pioneers in the early days of
bioethics, which began in the late 1960s in America, a majority of them
were clerics or were very committed to religion.
Q: Why has bioethics turned secular?
Father Tham: In part, there has been a struggle since the Enlightenment
to cast religion out of all spheres of society. We can certainly see
this happening in the areas of culture, science, economics, law,
philosophy and education.
Most people would agree that Europe and many countries in the West have
become very secular today, and Benedict XVI has repeatedly spoken about
What happened in the '60s and the '70s was that many theologians and
religious ethicists turned secular. Unwittingly, they have yielded to
the secular culture that was exerting a great deal of pressure for them
Q: What are some of the reasons that caused them to turn away from their
Father Tham: The causes are complex, and some of them are, as I said,
the cultural ambience of the time. Remember, the '60s were kind of crazy
years. Among these, I will mention two crucial events: one is the
secularization of the academy and the other is the theological debates
in this period.
Many Ivy League universities such as Princeton, Yale and Harvard were
originally founded by Protestant denominations. Religion was practiced
and promoted in these schools originally, but at the turn of the last
century, partly because of economic pressures and partly to become
"inclusive" in the increasingly plural culture, many of these academies
dropped their distinctive Christian features.
Catholic colleges and universities were also affected by this desire to
shed themselves of their "sectarian" image. Thus, many institutions of
higher studies became severed from their religious roots. This is still
hotly debated today among Catholic educators, as witnessed by the
question of implementing John Paul II's apostolic constitution "Ex Corde
Since most bioethicists were reared in this academic circle, many of
them moved along with their institutions down the secular path.
The '60s were also a period of theological experiments and
controversies. At the turn of the last century, the Protestant
denominations were embroiled in the questions of demythologization of
the Scripture, Protestant liberalism, the Social Gospel movement, and
the "death of God" theologies. Their Catholic counterparts, around the
same time, were modernism and semirationalism. All these tendencies came
to the fore in the '60s in leading theological currents.
Vatican II sought to address many of these issues as the Church
confronted the postmodern era. However, a major incident that greatly
impacted the development of moral theology was the contraception
controversy, especially with the issuance of the encyclical "Humanae
Vitae" in 1968.
Q: How did this encyclical affect the beginning of bioethics?
Father Tham: As you may recall, "Humanae Vitae" was not well received by
many Catholics. Some 600 theologians signed a letter of protest that
originated from Father Charles Curran. This definitely undermined the
Church's authority in making pronouncements in the areas of morality.
As a result of this rejection of official Church teaching, many
theologians began to criticize natural-law theory, especially its
insistence on objective moral evil and absolute norms.
What came as a result of this discontent has been termed the "new
morality," or proportionalism, which has plagued many seminaries and
theology departments since then. This was specifically addressed by Pope
John Paul II in the 1994 encyclical "Veritatis Splendor." But the
problem persists in many parts of the Church.
Q: Has this affected bioethics directly?
Father Tham: Certainly; proportionalism tends to emphasize the
consequences and circumstances of the moral act. When carried to the
extreme, it could justify abortion or euthanasia because there are more
good consequences than bad ones. It is the common rationale we hear
today in many of these bioethical debates where the ends justify the
On a historical note, many of the founders of bioethics were
disenchanted Catholics who defected from the Church structures to found
alternative secular bioethical institutes, and in the process
marginalized the input of theology.
Q: Can you give us a few examples of people who were affected by this?
Father Tham: André Hellegers was a gynecologist who sat on the papal
birth-control commission established to inform the Pope on the morality
of the pill. He was quite disappointed with "Humanae Vitae" and he
eventually founded the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown.
Daniel Callahan was editor of Commonweal magazine and was very upset
with the encyclical. He co-founded the Hastings Center. Both the Kennedy
Institute and the Hastings Center were influential in the early years of
Albert Jonsen, Warren Reich and Daniel Maguire were all former priests
turned bioethicists, all of them prominent in the field for their
Q: In your dissertation, you mentioned the secularizing effects of
bioethics on theologians.
Father Tham: Yes, a glaring example of this would be Joseph Fletcher. He
started writing in the 1950s when the word "bioethics" did not yet
exist. In those days, he was an Episcopalian priest, but by the 1980s,
Fletcher had left ministry and become an atheist, humanist, and member
of the Euthanasia Society.
In the end, he advocated not only euthanasia but also non-voluntary
sterilization, infanticide, eugenic programs, and reproductive cloning.
He even went as far as proposing the creation of human-animal hybrids,
and chimeras or cyborgs to produce soldiers and workers or to harvest
organs. He eventually died an avowed atheist.
Q: Is there a future for religion in bioethics?
Father Tham: Secular bioethics has been deemed inadequate for a lot of
right-thinking individuals, especially when certain academics are
proposing such preposterous ideas as infanticide and eugenics.
In addition, many people are dissatisfied with the inability of
contemporary bioethics to address the questions of human nature, of
suffering and death, and of what constitutes a good life, health and the
ends of medicine.
Religion has been addressing these issues for centuries. Hence, there
seems to be a ray of hope for theology to play a more significant role
in bioethics debates in the future. However, the challenge is great.
There is a need for theologically trained bioethicists, and this would
also imply the need to recuperate sound theological investigations,
especially in the religiously inspired academies.
I sense that the tide is changing with a new generation of laypeople and
religious who are willing confront this secular and relativistic