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"Laudato si'"

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Laudato Si’: Environmental Ethics and Bioethics

Thoughts on Ecology, Human Dignity and the Danger of Technocracy

Interview with Fr. Joseph Tham, LC, MD, PhD, Dean of the School of Bioethics of the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: What is your impression of the latest encyclical by Pope Francis on the environment?

The long expected encyclical Laudato si has generated much interest in the press recently.  In reading it, I find that many of the subjects are a continuation of previous pontificates, especially writings by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.  At the same time, there is a novelty in the very practical approaches and suggestions that this pope offers.

Q: How is this encyclical similar to the previous pronouncements?

There is a definite continuity with the previous teachings in the Magisterium of the Church. The use of the term “human ecology” began with John Paul II.  It refers to the centrality of the human person in the ecological question.  While human beings are the cause of the present imbalance, thus suffers from it together with the rest of nature, they are also protagonists for change. This places the ecological question on the moral plane, as Pope Benedict XVI has written on numerous occasions.

Another theme developed in the Social Teaching of the Church taken up here is that of “integral development.” This alludes to the fact that the ecological question cannot be isolated from the other related questions regarding social ethics, economics, poverty, bioethics, and religion—they all contribute to the common good. Laudato si quotes Benedict XVI: “The book of nature is one and indivisible.” (6)

Q: How is the ecological question related to bioethics?

Pope Francis is very emphatic of the interrelatedness of these dimensions and how they influence one another.  The ecological problem cannot be separated from the issues of education, poverty and dysfunctional socioeconomic structures.  In the same way, the encyclical includes reflections on issues pertaining to bioethics.   

For instance, he decries the destruction of the human embryos or neglect of the disabled, which at its root is due to the same “throwaway culture” that results in the neglect and exploitation of the environment.  (117, 120, 136)

He also chastises certain approaches of international agencies which promotes population control and “reproductive health” as solutions to poverty. Rather, the problem lies more so in the unjust distribution of wealth and resources—with subsequent ecological impact—than in overpopulation. (50)

In terms of the proper relationship between humans and their environs, most commentators focus on the problem of unjust economic systems.  Surprisingly, the pope inserts in this discourse an imbalance that most commentators choose to ignore—the ideology of gender which disfigures the proper relationship between man and woman.  (155)

Q: Hence it seems that Laudato si relates the ecology question to human dignity?

Certainly, the pope has put the anthropological question at the center of the encyclical. There is certainly a need to recognize that we are all brothers and sisters with equal in dignity. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, humans are considered special among all creatures because they are created in the image of God. Therefore, we should avoid the position of certain environmental groups which advocate against animal cruelty but would paradoxically support the destruction of human lives, especially in their earliest stages. (90)

Respecting human dignity also means to counteract a modern mentality which reduces everything to the level of things or matter at ones disposal, including humans. It has been a common theme of this pontificate to criticize the so-called “throwaway culture,” which treats our surroundings as things to be used, consumed and exploited.  (123)

Utilitarianism and relativism are the most common theories of bioethics today, where the debates commonly revolve around the right to employ novel technologies at the beginning of life, the end of life and human reproduction.  Utilitarianism advocates that such actions are ethical when they yield results and utility. Relativism denies the possibility of arriving at universal truth regarding these dilemmas.

Q: How is the question on technology related to this analysis?

One of the most interesting section of the encyclical deals with the question of technology.  Pope Francis is quick to affirm that modern advances have brought us greater comforts, curing many diseases and prolonging lives. However, while technology has undoubtedly improved the quality of life, we are just beginning to recognize many ecological disasters that came with it.

In this section, the pontiff quotes extensively the thoughts of philosopher and theologian Romano Guardini.  There is certain ambivalence to technology, because of its potential destructive power.  With every power, there is great responsibility which is often forgotten in today’s globalized reality.  In the world of science, medicine and politics, a “technocratic mentality” seems to reign. With this, we have lost the sense of the bigger picture and tend to strive for immediate results or instant gratifications, often with disastrous results. (102-114)

Q: How do we escape from this danger of technocracy?

This is a difficult question that has been posed to philosopher Heidegger in his famous last interview entitled “Only a god can save us”.  He predicted over half a century ago that technology is an all-embracing prison that modernity cannot escape. Being an agnostic, his quizzical response “only a god can save us” does not refer to the “God” of revelation. He later clarifies that it consists in “thinking, poetizing or contemplating” rather than engaging in technological pursuits.   

While his response is not very easy to comprehend, I think Heidegger had an intuition that we can glimpse in Laudato si where the pope invites us to rise toward to our higher calling in transcendence and spirituality.  

Q: What roles can religion or spirituality play in the environmental question?

The pope, true to his namesake and the title of this encyclical, takes on St. Francis of Assisi to offer solution on this thorny issue.  He believes that the novelty and creativity of the human spirit can overcome the temptation of materialism and techno-scientific solutions. (81)

Exegesis of the Book of Genesis and theological reflection thereafter has emphasized the harmonious relationship among humanity, nature, and the Creator. God has given us the gift of nature, something that we have to take care of and cultivate. The relationship between us and our environment should not be one of power of domination, but one of harmony and stewardship.

“Laudato si” is an appeal to praise the Creator in the beauty of his creation.  The pontiff asks us to recuperate a sense of wonder and awe towards our natural surroundings.  In this contemplation, we can reconnect with our rightful place in nature, and rediscover the interconnections between ourselves and others, and ultimately with all creation.  

Q: What is the meaning of ecological conversion?

While the damage to the environment comes from our actions, it is only through growth in virtue and moral strength that we can repair this damage.  The specific virtues he recommends are those of sobriety in our use of technology and resources against a throwaway culture, and that of humility to recognize our place in the universe to avoid hubris and insensitivity towards needs of other and the environment.

Q: What are you doing as a bioethics faculty to address the environmental question?

The 14th International Summer Course in Bioethics will be dedicated to “Bioethics, Environmental Issues and Human Ecology” and held from June 30 to July 10, 2015 at our university Regina Apostolorum in Rome. Our School of Bioethics looks forward to collaborating with a number of international organizations and to welcoming students, young and old, from around the world.

As is typical of our faculty, we will address the complex environmental question with an interdisciplinary methodology. This interdisciplinary approach will enable us to make sense of the concerns that dominate headlines, such as pollution, resource management, the energy issue, climate change, biodiversity, environmental biotechnology, and the treatment of animals. As we have learned in our previous 13 summer courses, it is essential to integrate cutting-edge scientific knowledge with the perennial wisdom of sound philosophy and theology.

The summer course is directed towards a wide range of individuals influential in shaping society’s approach to these important themes. We thus invite physicians, healthcare workers, those involved in biotechnologies, science teachers, priests and religious, jurists and those interested in cultural debates to join us for a stimulating period of study and exchange.

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