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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Our Lady of Sorrows and Bioethics

Our Lady of Sorrows, for those who do not know, is the Blessed Virgin Mary considered as experiencing sorrows regarding the events of her Son's life (and death). Now, we like to think that knowing Jesus in that way - being his Mother, watching him grow up, and all that - as being nothing but filled with joy. But Jesus was a "man of sorrows" (Isaiah 53:3 and following), and it is through His sorrows that He saved sinners. Surely a man's mother would share the sorrows her son experiences, and so it is with the Mother of Jesus.

The devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows, also called the Seven Sorrows of Mary, consists in meditating on seven key sorrowful events in the life and death of Jesus at which Mary was present. These are:
  • The prophecy of Simeon, where it is foretold that Jesus - God's great gift of mercy and salvation - would be opposed by the very people he came to save.
  • The flight of the Holy Family into Egypt because of the diabolical hostility of some sinners to God's plan of salvation, even to the extermination of baby boys in the hope of killing Jesus.
  • The loss of the boy Jesus in the temple, the separation from God that we all experience because of sin
  • Meeting Jesus on the way of the Cross - where the effects of sin are most evident in Jesus' sufferings
  • The death of Jesus on the Cross
  • Taking down the body of Jesus, where tradition holds that Mary held his body prior to burial (depicted in many works of art as the Pietá)
  • The burial of Jesus
One would meditate on each event while reciting the Angelic Salutation (better known as the Hail Mary).

The purpose of the meditation and the devotion in general is to form oneself spiritually, as understanding our own individual role in causing, in some sense, each of these sorrows by sinning. We all sin. We should stop. This is not about "oh, how awful I am, I am such a wretch," but rather coming to grips with the fact that we do, by sinning in little and big ways, demonstrate the monstrous ingratitude and even hostility of sinful man that underlie the sorrows. Now, we may not "feel" like we have ingratitude or hostility, but if we sin - and we all do - then in those moments we are acting contrary to genuine gratitude and allegiance to God and His work of mercy and salvation. This is not to downplay the value of meditating on joys and so forth, but we deceive ourselves in contemplating the joys if we do not work to overcome our role in the sorrows because without addressing the latter we will not experience the former in the best way.

So, what does all this have to do with bioethics?

The first principle of ethics is "do good and avoid evil." Bioethics is the subset of ethics that deals with man's life and health, so this principle applies also but must be applied to what constitutes man's true and highest good and its opposite pertaining to health and life.

"What man is" determines "what man ought to do." Secular bioethics is basically atheistic and has a concept of man as merely biological, a sophisticated body with bodily processes. Dislodged from any authority higher than man himself, indeed denying any moral authority higher than the individual who is contemplating what he should and should not do, ethics in general and bioethics in particular degenerates into a free-for-all, an ethical anarchy. Any semblance of respect for law and order comes only from the power of the forces of the law to punish lawbreakers, or from a personal decision that the laws make sense (as opposed to submission to universal principles of justice to which laws ought to conform). The rationales employed by secular bioethics appear to be largely lip service to existing laws. In the end, secular bioethics can justify anything. It indeed justifies the complete destruction of the human race and its replacement by something that some few human beings deem in their idiosyncratic judgment to be a better life form. It's called posthumanism.

In secular bioethics there can be no agreement as to what constitutes man's highest good, because every individual will have his own idea of it. There can be no consensus except regarding the most general of platitudes, like the elimination of disease and aging (which some believe can be dealt with ultimately only by eliminating the human body altogether... but if man is only his body....) And, individuals find it difficult to separate their own personal highest goods (whatever they individually might decide them to be) from their goals for the human race. In the end, it is about the right of some few to impose their concept of the good and of morality on the whole human race, and to eradicate those who oppose them.

It is more complicated than that. I oversimplify. But that's the gist.

In contrast, an authentic bioethics has to consider an authentic anthropology, which is necessarily theological. Man is God's image. If so, then man's highest good is not determined by consensus or opinion dislodged from universal principles and from God but by the nature of man as image of God. And that highest good is God himself. The first principle of an authentic bioethics, then, is "refine and do not damage the image of God." Authentic bioethics must regard man's physical life and health as ordered to his spiritual life and health. People reveal and form themselves by their choices. They need to choose well, particularly in bioethics, if they are to reveal and form themselves as images of God. Otherwise, they reveal and form themselves in other ways, and field of bioethics will go astray in the ways noted above.

As an image of God, man is constituted as a union of body and soul, and not just a body, and not as a soul that happens to be locked in a body. The second principle of authentic bioethics relates to this fact: "perfect and do not damage the union of soul and body." Union of the soul and the body constitutes bodily life, the primary concern of bioethics. Separation of the body and soul constitutes death. Sin disrupts the union between the body and soul and is the cause of some degree of separation. Sin is the beginning of death in man. Because of this, sin is a legitimate concern of bioethics.

The devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows pertains to combating sin. It pertains to our individual battle against sin. It pertains to the general battle of God against sin and His gift of mercy and salvation to sinners. It is about our attitude to suffering and death and how it has spiritual value.

So, Our Lady of Sorrows is a devotion for bioethicists who subscribe to an authentic anthropology and thus to an authentic bioethics. You can find information about this devotion here and here.

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