|Interview with Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk
By Giovanni Patriarca
PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania, 17 JUNE 2009 (ZENIT)
A neuroscientist and
ethicist is underlining the need to base bioethics in moral principles,
and is affirming that even people who profess relativism count on
certain absolutes in life.
Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk is the director of education at the
Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center. He writes a
monthly column for The Catholic Herald titled "Making Sense out of
In this interview with ZENIT, he discusses some of the need to base
bioethics in absolute moral principles in light of recent events related
to his field.
ZENIT: In recent years bioethics seems to have become a battleground
where many interest groups try to impose their political views separated
from any consideration of the field's moral foundations. The 2005 U.N.
Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights could be considered
a starting point, but it leaves some questions unanswered. Where is
bioethics going in such a globalised world?
Father Pacholczyk: The declaration is, in my opinion, sufficiently vague
as to be largely unhelpful when it comes to addressing challenging
bioethical discussions and approaching serious moments of decision
The final line of the declaration speaks of how no one should be allowed
to "engage in any activity or to perform any act contrary to human
rights, fundamental freedoms and human dignity," but it does not specify
any of these broad ideas in an applied or meaningful way.
In my own work, when it comes to fundamental human rights, perhaps the
most obvious instance would be the fundamental rights of the human
embryo, the youngest member of our human family.
Yet the word "embryo" is not ever mentioned in the declaration. I worry
that much of our modern bioethical discourse simply "talks around" the
ZENIT: Recently in the United States, human embryonic stem cell research
has been promoted by new federal funding, and the media reports that
this has divided the public. What is the position of the Catholic Church
in such a delicate moment?
Father Pacholczyk: The Catholic Church in this delicate moment, as in
every moment, expounds and authoritatively teaches the natural law.
The moral truth about human embryonic stem cell research can be known by
the light of natural reason.
The issue is a matter of basic human rights. I sometimes remind people
that each of us is merely an embryo who grew up.
Once we grasp this basic biological fact correctly, and once we see the
truth of the proposition that all are created equal, that all deserve
equal protection under the law, human embryonic stem cell research,
insofar as it requires the destruction of embryos, can be seen for what
it is: an action that is always and everywhere immoral.
ZENIT: Can the field of bioethics survive without moral absolutes or
does it face the possibility of remaining persistently adrift?
Father Pacholczyk: Moral absolutes form the bedrock of society and are a
sine qua non for its just ordering.
Moral absolutes also stand at the root of all sound bioethics. The
proclamation that "there are no moral absolutes by which we are bound"
is itself an absolutist moral statement.
Interestingly, nobody really believes in moral relativism today anyway;
they simply believe that when it comes to absolute morality, they
themselves must be the arbiters of what is moral and what is not.
I have never met anyone who didn't insist on moral absolutes of some
kind. Even those of the most liberal-minded, relativist stripe will,
when pushed, insist that certain actions are absolutely wrong, whether
it is polluting and causing global warming, killing polar bears, or
threatening the South American rainforests.
When it comes to killing young humans in the womb, these same
liberal-minded individuals will paradoxically insist that everybody
should be free to choose to do whatever they want, although such radical
freedom of choice will be summarily denied by them to anyone who might
wish to take the lives of pandas or dolphins.
In other words, they exercise a selective absolutism, where they are the
ones to decide, often based on unexamined sentiment, those matters that
are to be held as absolutely wrong. Their own myopic version of the
truth, which is really only a partial and incomplete image of it,
becomes a kind of central focus and obsession for them.
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On the Net:
National Catholic Bioethics Center: http://www.ncbcenter.org/