Biotech Pope - essence and accidents
by Harry Vassallo
The Times of Malta, April 22 2005

For many liberal Catholics the election of Benedict XVI was a disappointment. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's name is associated with all the statements of the Church which seem to be out of synch with the modern world. He seemed to be the Bad Man in a Good Man - Bad Man team with John Paul II.

Cardinal Ratzinger was the name attached to the Church statements regarding homosexuality, contraception, gender equality and Catholic participation in politics. In recent years such statements struck a discordant note particularly in the unbelieving developed world. The pendulum swing away from the liberalising effect of Vatican Council II appears not to have reached its full stretch.

It would be unrealistic for anyone to expect a sudden change of course from Benedict XVI. The Catholic Church is not a democracy. Cardinal Raztinger was expressing the obvious when he said that the truth is not determined by a majority. It is true in any context but only more so in an institution which founds its raison d'etre on revelation. Ecumenism and rapprochement cannot mean that any religion can be asked to give up its own core beliefs.

However, the Catholic Church is unique in its antiquity combined with continuity held together through a structure which knows its origins in the bureaucracy of the Roman Empire. No other religion on earth is so organised. Many of the other religions or even Christian denominations may find it repulsive but the fact remains. Today it can serve all other religions, indeed all humanity in a particular way simply because there is no other structure on earth that can serve the purpose.

Before us all lies the challenge of the bio-tech revolution. It has already happened while most of us remain unaware. Cardinal Ratzinger has spelt out what everybody should know: the development of technology has far outstripped the development of the ethical structure required to harness the new knowledge. We seem unable to cope with the myriad challenges and dilemmas posed by modern technology in the life sciences.

Genetic engineering unravels more than the mystery of the DNA helix. Recognising and addressing the challenge will bring the Church into direct confrontation with morality-free capitalism and ethical relativism. It will be the acid test of this papacy. Reform of Church doctrine on sexual behaviour will begin to be seen to be more accidental and less essential when set up against the mountainous question which makes sex an irrelevance and human identity an enigma more obscure than ever.

What are the ethical connotations of economic action which forces humanity to eat food which it would refuse if it were given the choice? Do we really want to eat carrots with the DNA components of fish? Should those who refuse be denied the option by making the contamination so widespread that it becomes inevitable? Should any person or corporation be allowed to let loose on life any genetically modified organism whose effect on all future generations cannot be known? Is the justification of immense profit enough? Who will bear responsibility for irreversible consequences? At what point can a workable but dangerous technology be banned? By what means?

Can one prevent the development or use of a technology that can save an individual life because it poses risks to the human gene pool, the unborn of all future generations? Can an individual who can live be asked to die a natural death in order to preserve his or her possible offspring from genetic contamination? How about the temptation of the eradication of genetic disease? Can anyone deny all future generations the prospect of freedom from the misery of genetic diseases in order to avert a possible but unascertained danger to the same future generations?

The position of man at the centre of creation is fundamental to all Christian Churches. How about humans living thanks to transplants of animal organs? How about humans industrially produced to furnish transplant material? Human organs industrially produced? Genetically modified human/animal organs? It is an ethical quagmire through which Benedict XVI will have to tread his way.

While the building blocks of life are being manhandled with only the profit motive as a guide, the Death of Life carries on apace. Biological diversity is under constant and sustained assault all over the planet. At the present rate half the known species will have become extinct within a few decades.

It is an ongoing cataclysm unmatched by prehistoric geological events. John Paul II was the first Pope to take a serious interest in the matter. Benedict XVI will have to have recourse to all his theological expertise to galvanise an organisation whose timeframe is infinity and whose pace is not determined by quinquiennial elections. The Death of Life is not a matter that can be ignored simply because Man is the centre of creation.

Life is an Olympic torch passed on from generation to generation, from species to species through the earth's mineral wealth kept warm by the energy of the sun. We remain free to believe that no bird falls from a tree without God knowing about it. Whether or not one's vision of the universe is anthropocentric matters very little when the whole is being impoverished at an unprecedented rate. The unsustainablity of life on the planet through human action, whether through pollution, climate change, over-exploitation of natural resources or the use of inappropriate technologies in war or peace, is a reality our generation has to face. And it has to face it now.

The scenario before us makes the questions of clerical child abuse, Church doctrine on homosexuality, women in the priesthood, family planning measures, AIDS prevention, even Third World debt slide downwards in the priority list. The alliance of belief wrought through the efforts of John Paul II will be a major advantage to Benedict XVI in the virtually impossible task before him. He must give the rest of the world an ethical backbone it can accept. The alliance must be stretched further, to unbelievers. Nobody else on earth is in his position to make a call on our humanity above and beyond all our other differences.

In doing so he can achieve one of the major targets he unwittingly set himself in the keynote speech at the opening of the conclave: He can make religion globally relevant once more. He can end the self-consciousness of believers in a non-religious world, without bashing a single Bible, without appearing to impose, without creating resistance, while preserving the personal freedom which gives value to every human action.

He can and he can fail. Nobody knows God's plan. We can all offer him our best wishes and those of us who pray, our prayers.

Dr Vassallo is Chairperson of Alternattiva Demokratika - The Green Party