Editorial: Bioethics and the Paradox of the Human Condition
Issue 33, April 2011
Humankind and the world we are a part of are defined by paradox; we constantly experience life in ways that highlight the contradictory nature of our existence .
The recent earthquakes in Christchurch and Japan serve to remind us of the fragility of human life in the face of the brutal and amoral forces of 'Mother Nature'. Photographic images of the devastating aftermath are permanently etched into our minds as we watched, appalled, the breaking news. We are confronted by our utter powerlessness.
At the same time, as a result of the damage suffered by the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, we have become conscious again of the immense destruction that we humans are able to cause. We are simultaneously confronted by our power to destroy the planet.
We are at once powerless and powerful. We are called to be stewards of the planet we live on even while we recognise that it is part of our human nature to overcome obstacles and to modify the world and ourselves. We also experience paradox at a more personal level. On the same day a family grieves the loss of a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather a young woman goes into labour and a new child is born; death and grief coexist and are intermingled with life and love. Paradox is also something each of us encounters within; we draw on our strengths while gradually becoming aware that they also define our weaknesses. And, through our weaknesses, we discover new strengths.
Because it lies at the heart of human existence, the question of paradox is particularly relevant for the discipline of bioethics.
Understandably, we struggle to make sense of the paradoxical nature of human existence which calls us to hold together contradictory realities. How do we reconcile the cognitive dissonance that characterises paradox and seems to defy rational logic? We do it in different ways.
All too often, in the face of the existential anxiety that flows from the awareness of our mortality and powerlessness, we draw on technology to try and exert ever greater control over the world in which we live. Rather than opting for a simpler lifestyle and reducing our carbon footprint in response to the environmental crisis, we look for solutions that won't interfere with our consumerist lifestyles. Rather than live and struggle with the challenges raised by disability we start to use prenatal testing to deny certain persons the right to life. Rather than caring for people with terminal illnesses in ways that invite us deeper into the mystery of suffering we start to argue for the legalisation of euthanasia to make a pre-emptive strike against death at the time of our choosing. Rather than acknowledging and reflecting on our responsibility to the common good we argue even more loudly for the right of the individual to choose.
What these responses have in common is that they attempt to cope with paradox by seeking to dissolve it. But this approach comes at a heavy price; it demands a degree of disconnection from our own bodies, other people, our environment, our universe and ultimately God. As Daniel O'Leary notes in an article titled " They shall be comforted" (The Tablet , 5 March 2011) , this disconnection results in a state of alienation that causes psychic damage. It is at odds with what we know deep within – that we are part of a loving unity that holds all things together, including those things that we experience as contradictory realities. It is also at odds with the findings of quantum physicists who have recently come to understand that the universe is interconnected in much more subtler ways than was previously thought.
Therefore, instead of dissolving or denying paradox, bioethics faces the challenge of holding in tension what is paradoxical. In our bioethical arguments this calls for us to protect and promote the inherent connectedness that exists between all things. It also calls for us to be wary of those ethical approaches which, in the way they seek to resolve dilemmas, rely on a fragmented description of reality that ignores or attempts to deny what is paradoxical.
The paradoxical nature of our existence offers a useful point of reference for critiquing the different human responses to the many dilemmas thrown up in the world of bioethics. More specifically it gives rise to a key question: To what extent do our reflections and thinking take adequate account of the reality of human paradox?
While the notion of paradox might present a philosophical conundrum for some, it is straightforwardly logical to those who are contemplatives. In the words of the prayer attributed to St Francis: For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
The Nathaniel Centre
Preventing births of the poor: Birth control proposals and welfare reform
More children from the fit, less from the unfit – that is the chief issue of birth control.
U.S. eugenics and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, 1919
The Pharaoh of old, haunted by the presence and increase of the Children of Israel, submitted them to every kind of oppression and ordered that every male child born of the Hebrew women was to be killed. Today not a few of the powerful of the earth act in the same way.
Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae #16, 1995
The idea that poverty and other social problems can be solved by controlling who is and who is not permitted to have children has been a long favoured idea of the eugenics movement. It has been explicitly or implicitly part of global debates on population control as a means of poverty reduction, as well as a significant aspect of United States and European welfare debates. In contrast, the Catholic Church has been a powerful advocate for the rights of the poorest families not to be subjected to coercive birth control.
These debates are unfamiliar in the New Zealand social welfare context. It is therefore shocking to hear community voices advocating not only for beneficiaries to be required to take contraception, but even explicitly using the language of eugenics. “I was raised on a farm,” argued one well-respected social worker recently in support of greater birth control of beneficiaries. “And on a farm, you do not permit the unfit to breed”.
On 22 February, the New Zealand government appointed Welfare Working Group recommended that long-lasting reversible contraception be made ‘available’ to parents receiving benefits. The recommendation also states that further measures should be considered if this alone does not reduce numbers of children born into beneficiary families. Since contraception already widely available in New Zealand, there is a concern that availability may translate in practice into contraceptive use being a requirement of benefit eligibility.
This concern is shared by diverse groups including churches, beneficiary groups, women’s groups and disability groups.
The Welfare Working Group was appointed by the Minister of Social Development in 2010 to consider whether reform of the welfare system would address perceived problems of welfare dependency. At the same time various churches and community groups joined together in an Alternative Welfare Working Group which saw benefit receipt as a symptom, rather than the cause of poverty, and looked for wider measure to address the economic hardship and exclusion of people on benefits.
As a relatively isolated country with a small population, many New Zealand Catholics, as well as our wider society, are somewhat removed from international population control debates and have an impression that Catholic teaching on sexuality and birth control is primarily a private and personal matter. Therefore, the Welfare Working Group’s focus on birth control as a solution to poverty represents a significant shift in our social welfare debates, one that demands consideration of the Catholic Church’s teaching against population control as an imposition placed on the poor.
Historical background: birth control in welfare and international development debates
Debates around sterilization and contraception as requirements of welfare programmes for poor and vulnerable citizens have long been explicit in United States social security policy, as well as in wider debates about population control as a solution to global poverty.
The eugenics movement of the early 20th century was at the forefront of debates around the shaping of populations. It was based on assumptions that society could – and should – be reshaped by promoting more births among ‘desirable’ groups, and reducing births amongst ‘less desirable’ groups. People with psychiatric illnesses, and physical and intellectual disabilities were among those targeted for population reduction. There was also a strongly racist element, with Caucasian people seen as most desirable, while many other racial groups were seen as less desirable or even undesirable.
Despite the discrediting of eugenic theory in Hitler’s extreme application of these ideas in Nazi Germany, involuntary sterilisations of psychiatric patients continued in certain European countries and the United States past the end of World War II. Proposals for compulsory sterilization of sole mothers on welfare benefits were readily evident in the United States during the 1950s and were explicitly justified using racist and eugenic arguments at that time. These days the language of birth control has become more subtle. Nevertheless, the 1950s U.S. stereotypes of ‘welfare queens’ who continue to have additional children in order to maintain their eligibility for benefits continue to the present day. As already noted, these stereotypes have now found their way into New Zealand political rhetoric about beneficiaries.
In more recent times these ideas have been fostered by a population movement that sees reduction in fertility as the key solution to poverty and an answer to overuse of the world’s resources. This agenda has been promoted on the world stage by a number of groups and at various gatherings including the United Nations sponsored Population and Development conferences in Budapest (1974), Mexico (1984) and Cairo (1994).
Pope Pius XI’s injunction against sterilisation for eugenic reasons in 1930, Pope Paul’s encyclical Humanae Vitae were all written against a backdrop of movements and world conferences aiming to reduce poverty by preventing births of the poor rather than by addressing the behavior of the rich.
Within the global population control movement, methods of contraception were sought that could be widely distributed with minimal medical oversight. Matthew Connelly details a flagrant disregard for women’s safety as contraceptives were trialled on the women of the third world despite significant evidence of negative outcomes such as perforated wombs and pelvic inflammation. Adoption of coercive population control programmes reached their extreme in the emergency period of Indira Gandhi’s government in India (1975-77) during which time 1774 people were officially recorded as having died from botched sterilisations, with many thousands more affected.
From the early 1990s, a number of U.S. states introduced family caps, which reduced assistance to welfare recipients with additional children, alongside financial incentives and, in some cases, requirements to use Norplant, a long-acting reversible contraceptive. In response to this, Catholic groups, including the United States Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Charities USA, were concerned that moving people off welfare would not move them out of poverty. Among their concerns was that the intended reduction in births to beneficiaries would not necessarily mean a reduction in pregnancies, but could mean an increase in abortions.
Supporters of United States style welfare reform in New Zealand have pointed to an overall decline in United States abortion numbers since the welfare changes. However, some studies taking a closer look at specific target groups have shown a different picture. Joyce et al (2004) cite an experimental evaluation of New Jersey’s family cap policy as showing an overall increase of abortions by 12 percent among welfare recipients, and by 32 percent for black welfare recipients.
In their own research, Joyce et al observed a fall in birth rates and an increase in abortion rates among poor women in states both with and without family caps. While they found that a link between family caps and abortion rates was inconclusive, they reported an overall increase in abortions among poor women – the target groups for welfare reform – contrary to the general decline in United States abortion rates.
Meanwhile, in response to the persistent argument that the birth rates of the poor need to be controlled, the Catholic Church has consistently argued that over-consumption by wealthy nations is more of a strain on the world’s limited resources than family sizes of the poor. Despite falling fertility rates in developed countries, the wealthiest 20 percent of the world’s population consumes 80 percent of its resources. Catholic social teaching recognises the human dignity of every person, regardless of the situations into which they are born, and also calls for the structural causes of poverty, such as unequal distribution of resources, to be addressed.
Present social welfare reform debates in New Zealand
New Zealand has been substantially influenced by United States views on welfare policy, and since the early 1990s has frequently looked to the United States welfare policies. The current move to frame the New Zealand government’s public policy welfare discussion in terms of ‘welfare dependency’ is a particular reflection of United States welfare debates. A direct consequence of this is that it places the onus for poverty on the behavior and lack of motivation of the poor rather than structural causes.
Similar debates and welfare reforms are currently underway in many countries including Great Britain, Australia and Europe, following the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. It needs to be noted that, both locally and globally, the language of ‘unsustainability’ of welfare systems is taking place against a backdrop of financial institution bailouts costing millions – or billions – of dollars. Looked at like this, the use of such language appears as part of a strategy for (unfairly) shifting the burden of paying for the economic crisis to the poor.
Underlying the welfare reforms aimed at women raising children alone are certain assumptions about sexual promiscuity and irresponsibility. Most New Zealanders would generally agree that a stable married family is the best environment for raising children. However, there is also a realization that there are a wide range of circumstances in which women find themselves raising children alone.
Among the many circumstances that lead to sole mother households are the death of a husband or partner; women pregnant as a result of rape or sexual abuse; women who have escaped domestic violence; women who have been abandoned by husbands and partners; and women who have found themselves pregnant and alone but have chosen not to have abortions. It is nothing less than offensive to imply that sexual irresponsibility has caused the poverty of many of these women and their children.
Even in circumstances where a range of informal and changing sexual relationships mean that children are growing up in fatherless households, it needs to be asked whether encouraging contraceptive use is going to increase committed partnerships. It seems more likely to increase the attitude that women alone are sexually available for men who do not wish to make long-term commitments.
However, allowing the debate to focus on sole mothers overlooks the significant fact that the Welfare Working Group recommendation is not restricted to sole parents, meaning that married couples who find themselves on a benefit resulting from unemployment, natural disaster (such as the Christchurch earthquakes), illness or disability would also be discouraged from giving birth to children. For disabled couples, who may always require some benefit support, this is equivalent to a permanent discouragement of children.
The Welfare Working Group recommendation about reducing numbers of children born to beneficiary families is not the only recommendation which offends Catholic concepts of human dignity and protection of the vulnerable. Also of concern are proposals which would redefine most sick and disabled people as ‘jobseekers’ and force them into a labour market at a time when it cannot currently accommodate those already seeking work. Proposals such as reductions in hardship assistance and restructuring base benefit levels will potentially cut incomes of New Zealand’s poorest citizens.
The argument about the Welfare Working Group’s contraceptive proposals are most critical because they reveal underlying attitudes towards the poor which imply that some people are of more value as human beings than other people. The unstated assumption is that bringing fewer poor children into the world can and will resolve complex social problems. Among other things this absolves other New Zealanders from facing up to the inequalities resulting from historical injustice and structural poverty.
In contrast to perceptions of poor children as burdens on the state, parents in developing countries often choose large families for precisely the opposite reason – because they see them as their most precious resources and their social security in old age. New Zealand society depends no less on the next generation for our old age provision. New Zealand’s superannuation entitlements for current decision makers and voters also depend on the earnings of the children who are being born – or being prevented from being born – today.
It is important to see the Welfare Working Group’s birth control recommendation as being more than a matter of personal choice or personal morality. Proposals to reduce poverty by discouraging or preventing births to the poor have deep eugenic roots, based on the idea that some people have greater value than other human beings. There should be no place for this sort of thinking in New Zealand’s social welfare system.
Lisa Beech is Research and Advocacy Coordinator for Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand
The hidden ideology of technicism
We have come to rely heavily on science and technology. As a result we find ourselves heavily dependent on technical things such as aeroplanes, cars, roads, cell phones, computers, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, power stations, domestic appliances and more. Technology shapes our lives to a major extent. We enjoy its benefits daily.
Such benefits notwithstanding, technology also presents us with significant challenges, many of which raise questions of a bioethical nature. This article seeks to stimulate critical reflection on the meaning of modern technology and our responsibility for its on-going development.
The evolution of technology
Technology can be defined as the activity by which people give form to nature for human ends by means of tools (Schuurman, 1980: 5).
In the past such activity was largely the domain of artisans who used relatively basic tools and worked with materials found in nature. Today it has become much more complicated; we rely largely on scientists and engineers who use already existing technical objects to design the tools and processes to make things. Furthermore, many contemporary materials, such as plastics, are not found in nature.
Many people seem to operate out of an unquestioned belief that technology evolves naturally for the benefit of humankind. According to this view the world is itself an evolving piece of machinery and technology develops as if it were part of nature. As an example of this thinking, the Expo 2000 World Fair held in Hannover (Germany) portrayed the course of technology as an ever widening river meandering through history and bringing forth, naturally, developments such as modern nuclear technology in our age. Thus, nuclear energy has arrived at the precise time when oil runs out, the Internet has come about so that we can cope with the complexities of the modern world and genetic technology will enable us to cure diseases that have so far proved to be incurable. (Assheuer, T. 2011: 44).
The fundamental belief that underpins this understanding of technology is the notion that technological developments are inevitably beneficial for humans. It is not that those who think along these lines don't accept that new technologies may cause unforeseen problems and accidents. However, in line with their unshaken trust in the benevolence of technology, they hold that the challenges created by technological developments are the means that will, in turn, inspire the development of further new and improved technologies.
While there is a core of truth in this stance, inasmuch as new technologies build on preceding ones and yield many benefits, the most basic problem with this view of the world is that it minimises human responsibility for technological developments. This may be seen most starkly in the light of nuclear accidents.
Nuclear power was made possible once scientists had figured out how atoms could be split. By aiming neutrons at Uranium 235 a chain reaction is triggered which releases huge amounts of energy. However, ever since the first nuclear power stations were built in the 1950s, no-one has managed to solve the problems associated with the accumulation of dangerous radioactive wastes or the fall-out of radioactive pollution as has occurred from time to time. The explosions of the Fukushima nuclear reactors are the most recent example of this.
In March this year the tsunami that followed the 9.1 earthquake in Japan crippled the nuclear reactors of a power plant in Fukushima, resulting in the release of radioactive materials. As a result, agricultural land close to the plant has been contaminated for hundreds of years, whilst radioactive water has been spilled into the ocean. Other major mishaps include the 1979 incident in Harrisburg (USA) and the 1986 massive explosion which destroyed reactors at Tchernobyl (Ukraine), causing many deaths and widespread cancer as well as taking a large swath of fertile land out of production.
Assheuer (2011:44) is of the opinion that the recent explosions of the Fukushima nuclear reactors have begun to shake human belief in the notion that technological development is naturally friendly to human well being. While renewed caution in regard to the use of nuclear power is understandable and timely, the key question is whether such caution ultimately challenges the dominance of the metaphor that shapes people's attitudes to technology – namely the idea that the world is an evolving piece of machinery.
The link between science and technology
Scientists, to use yet another metaphor, might well be described as people who use microscopes to focus in on the smallest of details, isolating from the broader context the thing they want to analyse in depth. This process is known as 'abstraction'. The scientists' aim is to present a precise logical account of how things work. Then, armed with such precise knowledge, they find themselves in a position to develop and make new things. This approach typically involves four abstractions, as pointed out by Schuurman (2003: 96-102). Scientists:
- Seek knowledge that is universally valid, abstracting (ignoring) from what is concrete.
- Analyse functions, generally focussing on one function, rather than things in their entirety.
- Ask what sort of law applies to the phenomena under investigation. How do they make sense?
- Abstract from their private interests in the interests of truth.
For example, rather than giving thought to the fact that real cows function in many different ways, scientists might focus on the question of how they digest their food, or how they process grass into milk. Equally, scientists may focus in on the question of how humans learn to speak (lingual function) or how we act economically (economic function).
As a way of illustrating the process of 'abstraction' Schuurman (2003: 98) uses the example of giving four apples to four children. From a theoretical perspective the solution seems easy. In practice, however, because children prefer particular apples, the outcome can be much more complicated. In reality everything is unique, multi-functional, connected to everything else and in a state of change.
The process of analysis and abstraction is enormously powerful. It has led to the development of many of the technical wonders of our age. However, because the world consists of concrete things, plants, animals and humans, rather than abstractions, we must all continuously exercise great care and responsibility in the application of new technologies.
As abstractions are projected into the development of increasingly complex modern technology, the technical objects we use become highly functional and uniform and are typically fabricated in large numbers. Laptops and mobile phones are essentially the same everywhere. In the field of agriculture, where cows are bred to become efficient milking machines, we also find ourselves moving towards more uniform monocultures, a trend which potentially threatens the biodiversity which is so essential for life.
While scientific technology has been seen as the key to controlling and exploiting the world since the 17th Century, we now need to seriously question the ideology of technological progress.
The responsible use of science and technology in a multi-faceted and complex world of interconnected concrete realities requires that we apply our discoveries with a critical attitude. It is a matter of technology being at the service of humankind rather than vice-versa.
Unfortunately, such prudence tends to be lacking. In a world in which technical innovations are often developed by business corporations with significant financial interests, science and technology are too often deployed as instruments to achieve material benefits regardless of the long term human and environmental consequences.
Schuurman uses the label 'technicism' to describe the use of scientific technology to control and subdue the earth for human purposes:
Technicism is the pretension of humans, as self-declared lords and masters using the scientific-technical method of control, to bend all of reality to their will in order to solve all problems, old and new, and to guarantee increasing material prosperity and progress (Schuurman, 2003: 69).
I would argue that technicism exists as one of the hidden ideologies of our time. As an ideology it acknowledges no limits. We are currently experiencing the influence of technicism in all areas of life, including human inter-relationships. The use of telephones and/or computers in rural areas in certain countries for diagnosing medical conditions is a ready example of this.
If it is true, as I believe it is, that many of our problems today have been brought about by the hidden ideology of technicism, then we must seek a more responsible way of developing and using technology.
Technicism can be avoided if we abandon the metaphor of the earth as a machine and replace it by the Biblical metaphor of a garden-city (Schuurman, 2003: 165-168).
A garden is a peaceful, beautiful place, full of variety, in which plants, paths, animals and humans all have their rightful place. In the Bible, the narrative begins in the book of Genesis with a garden and it ends in the final chapter of the Book of Revelation with a city in a garden setting. The biblical view is clear; there is a rightful place for science and technology within the world in which we live.
The reference in Revelation 22 to the river of life-giving water flowing through the new Jerusalem with the tree of life growing on either side whose leaves serve as a medicine for the nations, provides a powerful reminder of the interconnection between the health of the environment and human well-being. Among other things this should inspire us to clean up polluted rivers and waterways, such as the Manawatu and to take all possible steps to minimise the future risks of oil pollution from ships such as the Rena.
There are already many examples that point towards the possibility of a basic renewal of our technological culture. The garden-city metaphor challenges us to use biological science and methods in agriculture in a way that does justice to nature. For example, farmers who have changed from milking twice a day to once a day have discovered that the costs saved make up for the somewhat smaller volume of milk produced. In addition there are encouraging developments in sustainable ways of generating and using energy.
While this path is certainly not easy, it is, nevertheless, full of promise.
New scientific technological developments should be carefully evaluated before they are put into practice. Too often we try to do this only after problems have become apparent.
If we continue without questioning the concept of the world as a huge machine we may seriously endanger life and the planet's ability to feed and house humankind. When king Midas was granted his wish that everything he touched would become gold he died. Similarly, our sophisticated technology has the potential to stifle life on our planet.
The challenge we face is to think and behave as if our society and the earth we inhabit is a garden that is progressing to a peaceful garden-city.
Petrus Simons is a retired economist, with a PhD in philosophy.
Assheuer, T.H. 2011. Tausend Sonnen; die nuklearen Katastrophen von Tschernobyl und Fukushima haben das Vertrauen in eine menschenfreundliche Evolution der Technik zerstört. Die Zeit (Hamburg) no. 17, 20 April, p.44.
Schuurman, E. 1980. Technology and the future; a philosophical challenge. Wedge, Toronto, trans. H.D. Morton.
Schuurman, E. 2003. Faith and hope in technology. Clements, Toronto, trans. J.Vriend.
Editorial: The Church (and bioethics) in the (post) modern world
It is 50 years since the Second Vatican Council opened in Rome. For Catholics, the Council marked a significant transition in self-awareness – from a Church which saw itself as largely set ‘apart’ from the world to one which is deeply connected with – literally ‘in’ – the world.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the Council document “The Church in the Modern World” which sets out how the Church should conceive its activity in the world, scrutinising and interpreting “the signs of the times” in the light of the Gospel.1 It admonishes Catholics who would shirk their “earthly responsibilities” in favour of seeking “a city to come”; rather, authentic faith means they are more obliged than ever to measure up to their secular duties and activities (n. 43).
Importantly, the document acknowledges that the Church has profited richly from the experience of past ages, the progress of the sciences, and the treasures hidden in human culture (n. 44). While the implications of this would have astounded many Catholics of the 1960’s, they are hardly radical today. Yet, they remain incredibly challenging in the post-modern world in which we live: Christians do not have the monopoly on the truth but are joined with all of humanity in searching for it (n. 16); the presence and grace of the Holy Spirit are not confined to the Church, but work in an unseen way in the hearts of all (n. 22).
In addition, the document offers a sober reminder that we are all weak beings who often do things we should not and fail to do what we should (n. 10): “It does not escape the Church how great a distance lies between the message she offers and the human failings of those to whom the Gospel is entrusted” (n. 43). Recent events in the Catholic Church have forcibly reminded us again of this fact – the scandals of sexual abuse mean we should dare to witness to our faith only with a real sense of humility grounded in an awareness that the weaknesses of human nature run through the Church and all its members. If prior to the Council it was the Church that presented itself as a perfect society and was in certain ways hostile to the world, now, at least partly because of the current scandals, it is the world that has become more hostile to an imperfect Church – a situation that is both understandable and regrettable.
Consequently, many Catholics wishing to bring a faith-based perspective to the social and political realms are experiencing a new antagonism; when we speak, we can no longer expect that what we offer will always be welcomed or seen as credible. This state of affairs is surely one of the signs of our time that we are obliged to scrutinise, interpret and respond to. The question arises: ‘How can we best articulate our faith-based perspective in the post-modern world in which we live?’
There are great insights to be gleaned from “The Church in the Modern World”: we must strive to understand the world in which we live (n. 4); we must promote “a living exchange between the Church and the diverse cultures of people” (n. 44); we need to acknowledge that the Church requires the special help of those who are versed in the different institutions and specialties (n. 44); we must extend respect and love to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political and even religious matters and strive deeply to understand “with such courtesy and love” that we enter into real dialogue with others (nn. 21, 28).
Further, taking to heart the document’s claim that nothing genuinely human should fail to raise an echo in the hearts of Christians (n. 1), we need to show that the power of the Catholic moral/ethical tradition lies in the way our teachings are themselves signs – signs pointing to the truth about human existence and allowing that truth to be more deeply penetrated and better understood for human advantage (n. 44). As the document itself notes, faith throws a new light on everything, ultimately directing the mind to solutions which are ‘fully human’ (n. 11). There is, in other words, an intrinsic link between faith and human flourishing (n. 43).
For those engaged in Catholic bioethics there is a clear onus to first listen so as to understand and learn from others while facilitating the conditions for honest and sincere dialogue. Then, within that dialogue, we must convincingly articulate the wisdom of the Catholic tradition in terms of its relevance for constructing a world more genuinely human, all the while using language intelligible to the current generation (n. 4) and remaining faithful to the “befriending Spirit” (n. 3) that animates and guides us all.
50 years on, I find much wisdom and hope in a document that was promulgated before I could even read.
John Kleinsman is director of The Nathaniel Centre
1. "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World." In Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, edited by A Flannery. Collegeville, Indiana: The Liturgical Press, 1965, n. 4.
O blessed fault; an evolutionary reflection on original sin
Not long after the appearance of The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) scholars made nuanced calls on its contents. Some sections were seen as a happy synthesis of tradition and new insights; others were regarded more as summaries of tradition. The coverage of original sin came very much into the latter category. It was as if the writers looked at all the developing insights in this area, saw them as too difficult to locate in a new synthesis so simply summarised what had come out of the Council of Trent.
The last sixty years, however, have produced so much knowledge that can no longer be ignored that a new synthesis is needed. This is not simply to vindicate the traditional sense of Catholic belief but even more to make it a strong and useful instrument for catechists and apologists in explaining the state of contemporary society. A brief list of such advances would include the findings from the mapping of the human genome, the similarities and differences between humans and the great apes emerging from primatology; our new vision of the role of climate changes in world history and how these link to the numerous hominids now extinct (and how homo sapiens very likely came near to extinction about 70,000 years ago); finally, but far from least, the crucial document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (1994) from the Pontifical Biblical Commission. This document marks a definitive acceptance not merely of the very diverse literary genres of the Bible but also how these must be read in the light of the author’s intention and cultural situation. Many scholars would now accept that the same criteria should also be applied to historical documents such as the decrees of the Council of Trent.
This essay is a modest attempt to begin such a study of original sin
A. Beginning From Intimate Relationships
My project begins with a study of the work of two very different writers, Harville Hendrix and Rene Girard. Both deal with anthropology, Hendrix in the field of marriage relationships and Girard in social and cultural anthropology. The former is a popular writer working out of personal narratives, the latter a more academic and controversial figure whose theories embrace literary criticism as well as social and political theory.
Perhaps Hendrix’s central work is Getting the Love You Want: a Guide for Couples (Simon and Schuster, London, 2005). His central theme is stated very succinctly in his preface:
We are born in relationship, we are wounded in relationship, and we can be healed in relationship. Indeed, we cannot be fully healed outside of a relationship. (xix)
After the break-up of his first marriage, Hendrix, a committed Christian, wanted to uncover the dynamics of this failure. His theory arose out of interviews with hundreds of couples. The imago therapy which has arisen from this research has restored and reinvigorated many failing marriages.
The first and more theoretical part of his work examines why couples fall in love. Using modern knowledge of the different sections of the brain he explains how many of our key childhood reactions such as separation, abandonment and betrayal are stored in the primitive areas of the brain, not accessible by conscious effort. The sense of total oneness that we felt with our mothers also remains a profound yearning despite the many knocks it endured as we matured into separate identities. Inevitably we are subject to hurtful and repressive pressures which we strive to contain, so fragmenting our personality into disconnected parts: a lost self, shaped out of society’s demands, a false self – the face we show to the world – and the disowned self, negative parts of our false self which others have found objectionable so we have disowned them.
According to Hendrix’ s research lovers, when choosing a life partner, unconsciously seek someone carrying both negative and positive characteristics of their caregivers, especially the former. This is a reparative instinct, an attempt to reconnect with our lost selves by linking up with a partner bearing similar defects. Unconsciously we create an image (imago) of the perfect partner to bring us back to wholeness. This helps to account for the rosy glow of romance when we see our beloved as the one who meets our needs perfectly and renews our energies.
As the deeper intimacy of marriage develops, however, love seems to cool and anxieties grow. First we notice that our partners have the same negative characteristics as our parents, so stir up old wounds. Suppressed feelings well up, old childhood hurts are rekindled, and our words and behaviour become increasingly defensive. We try harder and harder to get our needs met, resorting to dishonest questions, nagging, even verbal or physical violence.
Reflecting theologically on this theory it is not difficult to see how it engages deeply with the Christian vision of humans (male and female) being together the image of God. Just as the persons of the Trinity reside totally in one another, somewhat similarly we do not have any identity apart from relationship.. God calls us to spiritual and emotional wholeness, but that cannot take place without becoming whole in relationship with others. It is the turning inwards in self-possession and protection that is the basis of egotistic self-diminishment or sin.
B. The Role of Violence; the Work of Rene Girard
Girard’s initial field of research was cultural and social anthropology. Fascinated by the similar structures of violence that he encountered in widely diverse societies, he began to search for the roots of such behaviours. This led him back to the Bible and to rediscover his Catholicism. His work can be classified under three headings: mimesis, the scapegoating mechanism, and the role of religion and violence in societies and how this has been transformed by Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.
Girard’s first insight focuses on how all infants learn by imitation, not merely of behaviours but also of affects or feelings. We discover love by being loved. This makes of learning a triangular process: the thing learned, the learner and the teacher. This seems to be hardwired in the human brain even before understanding, e.g. the way infants learn speech and language. This Girard labelled mimesis. It leads humans to imitate a desired figure and their qualities; such desires then shape the reactions of others, giving rise to rivalry because of competition for the loved one’s response. This process is holistic, spreading to every area of life. Here we see many points of contact with the work of Hendrix.
When entire societies become wracked by issues of such anger and hatred for which there are no obvious solutions, many resort to a type of ‘magical thinking’ seeking someone or some group to carry the blame. Often these figures are outsiders, marked by a diverse culture or refusal to integrate, such as the ‘witches’ executed in Salem in 1692, or the millions of Jews wiped out in the shoah. Such common action against a perceived enemy (scapegoating) often unites and strengthens a society e. g. Londoners during the blitz. When, as always happens, this sense of solidarity weakens and frictions begin to re-emerge, then societies may turn to ritual re-enactments to re-awaken feelings of union and deliverance, as in the apprentices’ marches in Northern Ireland. In our time scapegoating has become ever more subtle e. g. depicting all Islamic discontents as the fruit of terrorists and extremists.
Girard has also noted how often the state has co-opted religion to shore up its own authority. This often happens in time of war. Sometimes authority will condone violence to avoid what it sees as an even greater evil e.g. when Caiaphas proclaims that Jesus must die for the sake of the entire Jewish people (Jn 18.14). Because it is the winners who are the usual chroniclers of history, victorious states use such techniques to justify their violent acts. Girard, however, stresses that the Bible, especially the New Testament gospels, portray history from the viewpoint of the victim. Though Jesus is the scapegoat par excellence his free acceptance of death, refusal to retaliate, and subsequent resurrection, unveil the hidden nature of political violence, so undermining the power of the state.
Girard notes that dominant powers have become much more subtle, for instance in promoting liberation from stifling institutions such as the Church or the traditional family in the name of freedom. In the name of such freedom the state itself has become more oppressive e.g. the USA condoning the use of torture and the wholesale monitoring of social media
In conclusion, we can see that Girard, like Hendrix, sees relationship and its failures as the fundamental dynamic in shaping a human sense of completion and fulfilment. Moreover, he goes further in elucidating the mechanisms by which these dynamics shape society, morphing into political structures. In this way they shape family and clan relationships, national and international life – our way of existing in the world.
In the Garden of Eden story both Adam and Eve try to shift the blame for their refusal to trust in God onto another, in Eve’s case, onto her mate; on his part, onto a scheming third party. Cain goes even further in denying any responsibility for his own brother’s life. Here we see original sin at its fountainhead: blame and distance from the other. The work of both Hendrix and Girard shows how this same trend continues writ large in our own society.
C. Original Sin Seen through the Lens of the Hendrix and Girard Paradigms
Midwives point out how babies come into the world wet, hungry and angry. For this is the most traumatic journey they face till they meet death. In many ways the perils of birth are but a prelude to the fragility of life. What highlights such fragility is that humans have achieved their seeming domination over nature and other animal species by their mutual cooperation – yet other humans are also their most deadly foes. We stand in utter need and dread of one another.
It was St Augustine in his battle against the Pelagian heresy who linked original sin closely with sexuality. Reflecting on his own life and inability to use reason to control his sexual passions led him to see the vast bulk of humanity as a massa damnata, carrying not just the consequences of Adam’s sin but its guilt as well. This interpretation had a huge impact on medieval theology, right through to the Council of Trent. Here we seem to have a clear case of the need to draw upon the insight of the Biblical Commission in its 1994 document. Fifth century Western anthropology was marked by great pessimism, especially about the human body, which clearly coloured Augustine’s reading of scripture. Today popular culture has swung to the other extreme but we still need to acknowledge how much Augustine’s view of original sin was the fruit of his own life experience, reinforced by the dominant mood of his age.
In the light of what we now know of our biology and evolution, might it not be more helpful to see original sin in terms of our innate relationality? The more consistent temptation is surely our inclination to renege on such relationality, acting out of the belief that we can completely control our life and destiny by our own efforts. Conversely, assenting to our essential relationality means accepting that we came into being, are sustained, and will eventually perish in ways beyond our control; we are utterly contingent. We have been summoned from nothing; we receive all while meriting nothing.
The Adam and Eve story is clearly symbolic. We know there was there was much suffering and death, many proto-humans before the first homo sapiens came to a moment of moral choice. Scripture scholars point out that the Garden of Eden story is but one of a sequence of incidents (Cain and Abel, the great flood, the tower of Babel) pointing to growing resistance to God’s gift of life. Each one of these calamities results from a failure to trust, a desire to dominate and control others.
As Girard points out, blaming and scapegoating mechanisms also evolve, becoming more subtle over the ages. A clear instance appears in the development of attitudes in physical science. Early astronomers such as Galileo and Kepler saw their work as a deeper penetration of God’s knowledge, and elements of religious awe permeate their reflections. Such attitudes increasingly give way to motivations of power and control over nature, Francis Bacon being a clear example of such a stance. As we in modern nations have moved from an organic to a more organised society we have also seen an even deeper concentration on production, the assimilation of nature into human desires, and material gain as dominant themes. Accompanying this is a drive towards individualism, the prevailing of personal desires even against wider environmental health and conservation. As A. J. Conyers notes: “In modernity, the new version of original sin is that we are born into a human family. Salvation consists in the struggle to escape it.” (The Listening Heart, Baylor University Press, Texas, 2009, 104). Under the onslaught of deconstructionism all narratives of religion, patriotism and human solidarity have come under suspicion. What has taken their place is the domination of the market, around which so much work, recreation and aspirations for the good life now centre. The sole value now universally recognised is the value of exchange, seen concretely in commodifiable options, with arbitrary free choice the greatest good. All other value systems and beliefs are cast into the realm of personal choice and foible.
Religion itself is now subject to commodification. The dominant God of western culture is a therapeutic deity, all notions of truth or virtue becoming decidedly uncool. While decline in friendship and lasting marriages continues, there is still immense desire for healing and new life. Nowhere is this more evident than in the USA where the number of professional caregivers has risen a hundredfold since 1950. (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, Free Press, NY, 2012, 240).
Contrary to this is a vision of every human being as an icon of God, one tiny facet of God’s unlimited beauty and goodness. Each of us is the result of God’s totally free creativity and playfulness in creation. Our endless variety is a masterpiece of creation, parallel to the way in which each gene is constructed from only four chemical bases repeated and connected in a myriad of combinations, modified and reshaped constantly over the course of evolution. It is in accepting and loving the other purely as other, not as an extension of our personal needs and fears, that freedom from original sin lies. This is precisely what we see in the life of Jesus Christ the sinless one. But with the coming of Christ, and through his power continually transmitted by the Holy Spirit there is a new creation in grace that is far greater than any putative original innocence. Whereas original sin is a turning away from relationality and creaturehood, assimilation in Christ becomes a celebration of relationality, a joyous acceptance of being a frail but deeply loved creature.
This insight could have many applications in moral fields. I point to just one bioethical issue – euthanasia. Two of the justifications for physician assisted suicide are freedom of choice and the growing cost of maintaining life for a rapidly ageing population. Based on the work of Hendrix and Girard, we might see elements of avoidance of responsibility and the domination of economic goods over human needs, hidden beneath such justifications. More positively, we might point to the time of dying as a privileged moment in which thanks for the gift of life and the healing of family rifts would be points of growth and new hope for families that still live on.
Dr Neil Vaney is a Marist priest who has specialised in moral theology. His doctoral research is in the areas of environmental ethics and the theology of nature. He is presently a resource person for pastoral and spirituality ministry in Hawkes Bay. He will be joining the leadership team of the Society of Mary in Wellington in 2014.
Promoting good discussion on public issues
For the last four years I have been building and directing New Zealand’s first Centre for Theology and Public Issues. Based in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Otago in Dunedin, the centre is one of several ‘public theology’ institutions around the world, with a remit to contribute to thinking on current issues from a Christian theological perspective. As well as seeking and responding to opportunities to do this through the media, the Centre also undertakes research and teaching, and runs a busy programme of public lectures, forums and conferences.
The discipline of public theology is premised on a conviction that the resources of the Christian faith – primarily Scripture but also the teachings of the Church and the writings of individual theologians and thinkers – contain a wealth of insights, visions, teachings and narratives that, with careful exegesis and due regard to changing contexts, can enable fresh light and wisdom to be shed on the many challenges we face globally, nationally and locally.
The idea that theology might have anything interesting or worthwhile to say about public issues will strike many people as odd, particularly in a proudly ‘secular’ country like New Zealand. No one objects to people having religious beliefs – that’s a basic human right – but the idea that public thinking or government policy might be influenced by opinions based on a religious world-view is, for many people, deeply troubling. A draft document released by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission in July 2010 summed up this view quite neatly when it stated that ‘matters of religion and belief are deemed to be a matter for the private, rather than the public, sphere’. This document also made it clear that this demarcation between the public sphere, in which religion has no place, and the private sphere, the proper place for ‘matters of religion and belief’, is what essentially defines New Zealand as ‘secular’.[i]
One can readily understand the rationale for such a position, since religious people do often like to impose their views on others, even when they’re in the minority. And the language and line of reasoning they adopt can sometimes be incomprehensible, or simply unacceptable, to those not sharing their beliefs. No-one would argue that discourse in the ‘public square’ shouldn’t employ vocabulary, principles and reasoning which are intelligible to any reasonable person and based on public canons of validity. But this narrow understanding of ‘secularism’ also means that the genuinely-held differences people might have on moral issues remain hidden, as well as discriminating against those who want to offer religiously – or ideologically –rooted opinions in a non-dogmatic way. Hence a more ‘inclusive’ interpretation of the term ‘secular’ has been advocated by both religious and non-religious intellectuals and commentators in recent years, one which recognises that the quality of public debate can be enhanced when all voices are granted a hearing, provided none is privileged over the others.
Public theology is acutely aware of the marginal position that religion has in today’s world, and the implications this has for the way it needs to offer its perspective in the public square. Yet it also wants to stress the value of that perspective because of the fresh and constructive nature of the insights it can bring to sometimes rather stale and circular public debates. For example, asserting that, despite the radically different contexts in which they emerged, Scriptural insights into the nature of humanity, the ‘gifted-ness’ of Creation, the importance and nature of ‘justice’ and the purpose and meaning of markets, have much to teach us in the 21st century.
Public theology is also concerned about the language it uses to make its contribution, recognising that it will need to find a way to talk about concepts like ‘the sanctity of life’ or humankind having been ‘created in the image of God’ in ways that will be readily understood without devaluing their deep and unique (and theological) content.
One notable way in which our Centre at Otago contributes to ‘public issues’ is by creating the space for informed, respectful and balanced conversation. Given that debates in Parliament often generate more heat than light, and that our (now all commercially-driven) television channels give low priority to serious ‘current affairs’ programmes, universities seem increasingly to be filling the gap by generating reflection on public issues. In one sense this is to be expected, given their statutory obligation to be ‘critic and conscience of society’.[ii] Nevertheless, at Otago we have found a high degree of interest in the public forums our Centre has organised, often in collaboration with other similar centres based at the university. TV producers (and the advertisers whose revenue they need) are probably right in thinking that serious discussion of public affairs is only a minority interest, but there is certainly an appetite for it, and not just in Dunedin.
The main limitations on our Centre’s work in this field are time and resources: there is certainly no shortage of ‘public issues’ crying out for serious, intelligent analysis. Some observers query how issues like the partial sale of state-owned assets, or the global financial crisis, or MMP (all topics we have covered in public forums in the past eighteen months) can be ‘theological’, but of course they are in the sense that theology has much to say and deep questions to ask. Questions about: the nature of our society and the values underpinning it; how and in whose interests markets operate; how we elect our representatives; how natural resources are owned and distributed; and how serious we are about pursuing the common good. Among the more ‘obviously theological’ issues we have tackled in recent years are care of the planet, our treatment of children and older people, and the nature of our secular society. We have also explored wider issues such as the global food shortage, the situation in the Middle East and lessons from the Breivik trial in Norway. Interestingly, these ‘international’ forums have been among our most popular and valued.
The paucity of quality public debate in our country has huge implications for the shaping of public opinion – and public policy – on bioethical issues. One topical example is the debate about legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide., While our television, radio and newspapers will devote considerable air-time and column inches to reporting, often in a quite sensational way, notable cases of one individual helping another to die, relatively little time or space by comparison will be allocated to exploring the issues surrounding these cases. And while readers may often be left with the impression that the punishment meted out to a person responsible for hastening their friend or relative’s death was harsh or unjust, and that therefore the law needs changing, little effort may have been made to provide commentary or expert opinion to help them to think in a critical or balanced way about the deeper issues. Given that a private member’s bill to legalise certain end-of-life options is currently in the mix, it is not overstating things to say that we face the very real prospect of significant changes in the law relating to euthanasia and assisted suicide being passed with only minimal public consideration of the profoundly important issues and implications at stake.
Last year our Centre sought to avoid this scenario by staging what has so far been its most influential public forum. Titled ‘Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: A discussion we need to have', the panel featured Nathaniel Centre director, John Kleinsman; medical-ethicist and neurosurgeon Professor Grant Gillett; Labour List MP Maryan Street, the proposer of the putative ‘End of Life Choice Bill’; and Professor Sean Davison, the South African-based academic who was sentenced to a period of home detention in 2011 for assisting the death of his mother in October 2006. We were fortunate to secure the attendance of Professor Davison in the short period between the completion of his sentence and his return to South Africa, and undoubtedly his presence contributed to the profile our event secured (which included coverage on TV3’s ‘Campbell Live’ and Radio New Zealand National’s ‘Morning Report’). The fact that some 300 people turned out for two-hours of discussion and debate, including a 20-minute presentation by theology student Thomas Noakes-Duncan on how the debate on euthanasia and assisted suicide has been conducted in New Zealand in recent years, shows our preparedness to properly inform ourselves and engage in meaningful debate about serious issues.
Indeed, one striking feature of this event was the quality of the questions and comments from the floor, particularly from students in the medical faculty. (For a podcast of this event see the Centre’s website - www.otago.ac.nz/ctpi/resources/podcasts
Feedback from this event suggests that it has helped in a modest way to stimulate serious thinking on a highly important topic. Indeed, I would say that even making it known that we held such an event is important in terms of reminding people that issues like euthanasia and assisted suicide need much more than the ‘sound-bite’ treatment they sadly often only attract. Democracy, we need to remind ourselves, involves far more than the casting of a vote once every three years, and as both Amartya Sen and Michael Sandel have argued in recent works, it is public reasoning, more than elections, which defines what it is essentially about.[iii]
I hope that our Centre can continue to promote more ‘public reasoning’ around the challenges we face, including those we might categorise as quite literally ‘issues of life and death’.
Andrew Bradstock is Howard Paterson Professor of Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago and Director of the University’s Centre for Theology and Public Issues.
[i] NZ Human Rights Commission – Accessible HTML Document, ‘The right to freedom of religion and belief - Te tika kia watea ki te whai whakapono, ki te whai haahi - Draft for discussion’. <http://www.hrc.co.nz/hrc_new/hrc/cms/files/documents/25-May-2010_14-47-52_Right_to_freedom_of_religion.html> [accessed 16 July 2010].
[ii] Under Section 162 (v) of the Education Act (1989) a university is required to ‘accept a role as critic and conscience of society’.
[iii]Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (London: Penguin, 2010) 321-37; Michael Sandel, Justice: What’s the right thing to do? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009).
Letter to a first time voter
Congratulations on reaching 18. As far as the law is concerned, your mother and I are no longer your legal guardians, you can purchase alcohol, fireworks and buy a Lotto ticket and obtain your own credit card. You can now also vote for the first time. It strikes me that many young people are selective about which new rights they claim and show little interest in the right to vote. I find that sad, particularly when it is a consequence of apathy.
Your great grandfather Daniel and grandfather Owen put their lives at great risk to protect the right to political self-determination. They, along with many other New Zealanders, went overseas to fight for the democracy we have long enjoyed. The right to vote is at the heart of that democracy. Some of them were, like you, just 18 years of age.
When he was your age, your Opa Gerhardus lived under a violent totalitarian regime that denied him many basic human rights including the right to vote, play sport, freedom of association, free speech, listen to a radio and access education – talk to him sometime about what that was like. Then, having come to New Zealand as an immigrant in 1955, he was denied the right to vote until 1978 when he was 52. His first vote was also my first vote!
Reflecting on history helps us recall the importance and privilege of exercising our democratic responsibilities. Your right to vote has been earned for you by your forbears and it bears the stain of blood spilled. When you vote you honour them and their commitment.
The issues we face today are many and can seem overwhelming: global warming, refugees, immigration, child poverty, family violence, growing inequality, support for beneficiaries, euthanasia, abortion, health-funding, racism, education, housing and prison reform, just to name some of the ‘neon-light’ issues. I hear you ask: “How can I possibly deal to all of these issues?”
It’s hard to summon the energy needed when we have not stood in the shoes of those who experience disadvantages. But it is even harder for them. By comparison, you have had a privileged up-bringing and they need your help. As Edmund Burke said: “For evil to succeed, it only needs good people to do nothing.”
Continue to learn and think about those whose experience of life is different from yours, especially those who struggle for the basic things that you might not think twice about. In Catholic Social Teaching we refer to this as taking a ‘preferential option for the poor’, something grounded in the biblical tradition and exemplified in the life of Jesus. Study the party policies and reflect on how they either help or hinder those most disadvantaged. Cast your vote always with them in mind rather than your own well-being.
You enjoy the outdoors and feel strongly about the environment. You also care about other big life issues, including euthanasia and abortion. It gets confusing when, within parties, there are inconsistencies and even contradictions in their policies. Politics is complex and messy. Firstly, resist the temptation to see things as ‘black and white’. Secondly, within our current voting system, you get two votes; one for the party and one for the electorate. An approach I recommend is to cast your electoral vote for the candidate who will best represent your views on the issues on which there should be no compromise – often described in parliament as ‘conscience votes’ – and to give your party vote to the party you think has the better policies regarding the bigger-picture social issues which can allow, or even require, a bit of give and take.
Even then, it is likely you will find yourself having to make compromises by voting for a politician or party at odds with certain beliefs you hold dearly. In which case, remember that it is possible to influence MP’s thinking after the election through information and political lobbying. Not being able to vote for the ideal doesn’t necessarily mean compromising your beliefs or commitment to greater justice. In other words, see your ‘right’ to vote as being more like a ticket that gives you life-long entry to the stadium of political engagement rather than a one-off happening every three years – i.e., be an active voter.
Lastly, believe that your involvement in the political process, insignificant as it seems, can make a real difference. Pope Francis writes that we are “small, yet strong in the love of God”. I like that. He has also said that we are each called to watch over the world in which we live. As Catholics we stand for certain things, and we also need to stand-up for certain things. Voting and getting involved in political advocacy is an important way for you to live out your call to follow Jesus.
Grace, having turned 18, you are now being invited to play your part in making our country and the world a better and more just place … and I know you are ready to do that.
Your loving Dad
Dr John Kleinsman is the director of The Nathaniel Centre
Election 2014: A statement by the Catholic Bishops of New Zealand
A statement by the Catholic Bishops of New Zealand
“The goal of economics and politics is to serve humanity, beginning with the poorest and most vulnerable wherever they may be, even in their mothers’ wombs.”
Election year debates are an opportunity for taking our faith into the public arena; for discussing and debating our deepest hopes and values for a better society; for challenging complacency in the face of injustice; for deepening our understanding of issues that affect our neighbours and for forming our consciences. Our deepest and most important values are reflected in the way we participate in elections.
Elections do not begin with the tick we make on a ballot paper, but with the way we engage with the political process.
Even people stirred in different ways by the world’s injustices sometimes see elections as a purely cynical exercise, and feel their participation is insignificant to the final outcome. Some commentators dismiss these attitudes as apathy; but they may also be seen as a sign of disengagement and a loss of faith in political leaders and the political process. This election year we urge all New Zealanders to see election year debates not as marketing exercises, but as an urgent opportunity to argue for and build a society based on the good of each and the good of all.
In many parts of the world, voting is not a free or fair process, or it is not safe to express a political opinion or to participate in political debates. We should rejoice in our right to participate in a fair election process and in free political discussion.
The Catholic Church does not tell people who to vote for. Your bishops will not tell you how to vote.
Catholic teaching advises us on how to think about who to vote for. This takes a bit more work, and a lot more thinking and talking.
No political party or political platform represents the totality of the Church’s teaching, which values human life from conception to natural death; strongly defends and champions the needs of the poor and vulnerable; promotes development which is good for people; demands that we care for the outcast and stranger; and calls us to protect the natural gifts of the environment.
Pope Francis has renewed with vigour and his own personal example the Church’s mission to the poor, with a call for an end to an economy of exclusion, in which people are not just exploited, but discarded and cast aside. In New Zealand disparities between rich and poor have become entrenched in a society that once regarded itself as egalitarian. Struggling families with empty cupboards sometimes live only a few streets away from others for whom the provision of food and other basics is no problem. It is particularly concerning when people live in ignorance, and even indifference, to how their neighbours are faring.
Protecting the most vulnerable members of society is the responsibility of every one of us.
Sometimes there is a tension between issues in an election year. We may feel that we have to choose between important issues – for example, prioritising a politician’s or a party’s position on euthanasia or poverty. Catholic teaching does not trade off the wellbeing of vulnerable groups of people against one another. We seek political outcomes that protect the lives and wellbeing of all vulnerable people.
We have a special responsibility to engage with the political party that we intend to support in an election, and to speak up for the poor and the vulnerable through the whole political cycle. This means challenging all politicians and political parties, especially the one for whom you decide to vote.
Sometimes election year concerns are presented as a list of issues detached from the lives of the real people affected by them. The issues are someone’s reality. We are all challenged as voters to place first in heart and conscience those whose lives are potentially affected by decisions we make as voters. Our fellow New Zealanders matter, and in a world of complex relationships and interdependence, our obligations also extend beyond our own shores.
People living in poverty: It is a matter of shame that many people live in situations of material deprivation in a country like New Zealand which has the resources for all its citizens to live in dignity. We also have a responsibility to reach out to our neighbours in the rest of the world who do not have what they need to survive.
People living with pain, illness or approaching the end of their lives: Each person is precious and valuable at every stage of his or her life. Everyone should receive the healthcare they need, including palliative care at the end of their lives. A life unnaturally cut short through euthanasia or assisted suicide is not death with dignity.
Unborn children: Every child is welcome, no matter the circumstances into which he or she is born.
Abortion is not the answer to poverty, disability, or disruption of lifestyle. Deprivation of life is never a solution.
Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants: Rejection of some groups of new New Zealanders because of their ethnic origins is unacceptable, whether in our own parishes and communities, or as political rhetoric. Millions of people around the world are fleeing violence and conflict. They are simply people seeking help and sanctuary. They have the same right to safety and security as we all have. In a global world, our responsibilities do not end at our own shores.
People in prison: Too many offenders experience New Zealand’s justice system only as punitive and dehumanising, rather than as an opportunity for repentance and restoration. Too many people are in prisons because of unmet mental health needs. No crime is without a victim, and victims of crime deserve the care and support of the community.
People without a vote: Decisions made in the New Zealand election and New Zealand political process affect many others, including those who do not have the ability to take part. Even though they cannot vote, the opinions and experiences of children and young people under the age of 18 are just as important as the views of older people. Prisoners cannot vote, and their needs should be taken into account. Future generations of New Zealanders are also important, as their well-being will depend upon the decisions we make today about the use of the earth’s resources.
Election years are times of significant political choices. Question, discuss, debate, pray, be involved, and speak out for the poor and vulnerable among us as you decide how to cast your vote.
• John Dew, Archbishop of Wellington
• Patrick Dunn, Bishop of Auckland
• Denis Browne, Bishop of Hamilton
• Barry Jones, Bishop of Christchurch
• Colin Campbell, Bishop of Dunedin
• Charles Drennan, Bishop of Palmerston North
• Peter Cullinane, Emeritus Bishop of Palmerston North