10 June 2007

The war against ignorance is a just war

The State Parliament of New South Wales is debating legislation to limit stem cell research. Cardinal Pell made a characteristically robust but clumsy contribution on behalf of his church, which led to a flurry of piffle like this, this and this.

A religious leader does have a right to put a case in a debate like this. A man even has the right to be clumsy, humanly frail, having loved too well but not wisely, etc. The better Christian leaders have a strong grasp of this notion of human frailty and an attendant modesty that can be most attractive to those of us who hear the call of the Lord less clearly or urgently than others. If only Pell would demonstrate these qualities his blowhard pomposity would seem like a lovable eccentricity rather than the Pharisaical hypocrisy that it is.

That said, when not condescending to people Pell can sometimes demonstrate real intellectual subtlety that is all the more precious for its being so fragile. In reading Pell's considered response to the NSW debate and attendant hoo-ha, and seeing his boss' confab with Bush about Iraq, I wonder whether stem cells and artificially-manipulated cells might be considered casualties of a just war.

The idea of a "just war" is an abomination to many, including many Christians, who see their faith as not only abhorring but transcending the violence of this world. Yet, the idea has a long history. Cicero hammered away at it, so did Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and many others besides. Popes of old were not averse to sanctioning, or even commissioning, armies in the field in the full knowledge that individuals within those armies they so blessed would kill and be killed. Pell's comments here on Mannix and his opposition to conscription in Australia during World War I indicate that conflict may not be considered a "just war" by the Catholic Church. The fight against fascism in World War II can be considered just with or without church endorsement, complicated by the slippery role played by the then Pontiff.

I don't regard zygotes that cannot ever become a nascent person as human life: when a fertilised egg is absorbed within the uterus within the same monthly cycle as conception, it is not the same as the death of one who has lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved, etc. Others do, and rail against these lives being pressed into service that none of us could be expected to perform.

While there is a moral element in creating life to be destroyed, the Catholic Church can't make it. An organisation that can't come to terms with "just wars" that now look silly, or which considers a conception in sexual assault to be one of love must admit to some shades of grey here.

The notion of a just war can extend to a war against disease, for disease kills as surely as any foe. Research that would improve our understanding of that vessel which God has given us to live in might be self-indulgent, but it cannot be so wholly bad as Pell makes out. In other words, the issue of human cellular research and what may (not) flow from it is not so clear that those who support it can be regarded as unreasonably careless with human life. Those who do research are seekers after truth just as the religious are; it is possible to conduct your search in both the lab and the church/mosque/temple. Truth is not something Pell owns, nor to which he can control or deny access.

Carlton is right in saying that we don't have 400 years to muck about while the Catholic Church works out whether or not it has botched this question. I weep for all those Catholics whose only option for conception is the prohibited IVF, and when their Church changes tack on this (as surely it must on doctrinal grounds - firstly, more babies is a good thing, as products of IVF are no less human than we; secondly, the Old Testament in particular is big on making deserts bloom, so to speak) they will be bereft and a generation at least of western Catholics will go unborn.

We are all beneficiaries of those who came before us for good or ill, of death and violence and unsavoury practices. While this should give us pause it is not to say that Pell has much to teach us. Pell would have us fear the shadows on the wall of the cave rather than confront that which casts the shadow, and as such he is an obstacle to the possibility of human progress in this world. His clumsiness might inspire some, but defying him contains of itself no more clarity of moral purpose than those who claim for his teachings a provenance, a heart and a truth they just don't have.

1 comment:

  1. If Pell is right and Roman Catholics should be concerned, then any cures derived directly or indirectly on the bottle should have a label on them (Warning: This treatment is the product of stem-cell research and may not be suitable for certain Roman Catholics. Before taking this medication, please check with your priest.).

    Either Darwin comes to the rescue, or people will re-evaluate how seriously they should treat the strictures of the right-wing of the RC church.