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Monday, March 26, 2012

The Incarnation and Bioethics

The Feast of the Annunciation, the celebration of the Incarnation. God took to himself not only a human body, but a complete human nature. It's worth thinking about from a bioethical standpoint.
Bioethics as a field is primarily concerned with man's body, which is to say, that bioethics is not concerned primarily with man's soul. There are as many opinions as to the nature and dignity of man and his body and whether or not the soul is a real thing as there are bioethicists it seems. Depending on which opinion one holds, what is deemed ethical or not ethical can vary greatly. Even if the ethical reasoning were good and precise, the conclusions could be wildly wrong if the underlying opinion about man and his body are flawed. An authentic bioethics has to get to the root of the question, What is man? Not just which idea of man do I like best, nor which one best justifies what I want to do, but what is man, what is he really? It is a humbling question to ask because it requires humility to accept the possibility that one's treasured idea could be wrong.
I start with the premise that God exists, that God created man by intent, and that man of all bodily creatures shares in a preeminent way in some of God's highest attributes in a way that far surpasses all other known biological life. God is not bodily Himself, for if the divine nature were bodily, it would not be divine. Therefore, God's highest attributes are spiritual, meaning that man's highest attributes are also spiritual, although unlike God man's spiritual powers are dependent upon the body. I am talking about the power to think, to know, to reason, to imagine, to intend, to plan. It follows that man's ultimate destiny and his greatest good is God Himself, and that man's greatest welfare is spiritual and not bodily.
(Those who take the opposite view of God of course end up in a different place regarding man's greatest good. Man's greatest good for them can only be bodily. But they also undermine the authority of their conclusions, whether they believe so or not, because in denying God they deny any objective concept of good and evil, right and wrong, that compels assent by other reasonable people. If there is no God, there is no compelling basis for any ethical system. No matter what they say, one could always say, "So what?")
Man's greatest good may be spiritual, but man lives his earthly life in his body. Man's nature is to be bodily. We say that death occurs when the body and the spirit are separated; life for man therefore is the perfection of the union of body and soul.
Authentic bioethics must consider man as a whole, as a union of body and soul. Moreover, it must consider man's greatest good as being his union with God. What man does with his body reflects on the welfare of his soul. Authentic bioethics, in considering the right and wrong of human bodily life and health, needs to keep in mind man's authentic good, that bodily life is ordered to spiritual life. Since the Incarnation is the perfect union of man and God and the perfect union of human soul and human body, it reveals much to us about human nature and therefore authentic bioethics.
First of all, the Incarnation reveals how the human body has such dignity that it can be God. Now, we must be careful when we say that a bodily thing can "be" God. For one thing, properly speaking, what is united to God in the Incarnation is not merely a body, but a complete human nature consisting of body and soul. For another, only the body of Jesus Christ can "be" God in this way, since no other human body belongs to God in the same way as that of Jesus. The Incarnation shows, however, that the human body is in some sense able to be united to God through grace (that is, not by human power, an important point to keep in mind). Every human being that comes into existence from conception to death is capable of spiritual union with God. Every living human body manifests this capability and makes it visible. Every human being is thus also a sign of the Incarnation. 
Two important implications for bioethics can be mentioned in relation to this exalted dignity of the human body. One is that man’s general attitude toward the body has bearing on his general attitude toward God. We must treat human bodies with awe, including our own, and do nothing to any human body that impedes our or another person's capacity for union with God. If the body in general is abortable, manipulatable, a thing to be created at will, experimented upon, used, and finally killed when it becomes useless to others, then so would be Christ’s body. In a way, all disordered or inauthentic bioethical positions are a repudiation and disparagement of the Incarnation.
The second implication is that the body is not really the impediment that man thinks it is. So much in the area of trans- and post-humanism pertains to physical enhancements through drugs, surgery, genetic engineering, and so on. But physical enhancements are necessary only if the body is seen as a limiting factor for  happiness. Man's body and soul will be perfected in the resurrection in which the body will be physically perfected and subjected to the soul united to God by grace. Furthermore, participation in the divine nature (as in 2 Peter 1:4) entails participation of the whole human person in infinite life, power, and knowledge. Therefore, the ultimate goals--except for one--of trans- and post-humanism are superabundantly achieved not through technology but through holiness. The one goal that is not achieved is re-creating man in the image of man rather than of God.
            Holiness, however, is not easy and in the short term seems actually a failure. Holiness requires that man at least discipline they body and cultivate a life of grace. Man must at least discipline the body and strengthen the soul by not giving in to the body’s cravings and passions except insofar as they conform to reason (cf. I Cor 9:23-27). But it may also result in the ultimate sacrifice, the death of the body, a death that leads to greater life. Dying per se may not have any intrinsic value, not even dying by violent death, unless one pours out one’s life in sacrificial love. Such sacrificial love may be a single, fatal act, but even prior to that final act, it comprises a life-long commitment to serving God in which one’s whole life and not merely one’s death becomes an act sacrificial love. Man’s supreme vocation is to love, which Christ came to make clear. In sacrificial love, man is perfected as an image of God—man is not only the image of God insofar as God is Life, but also insofar as God is Love, love that is life-giving. Sacrificial love gives life to another. Man therefore perfects himself as the image of Life through imitation of Christ.
            Once again, disordered or inauthentic bioethical positions seem to focus on the self, what “I” want, rather than on self-discovery and self-fulfillment through self-gift and self-sacrifice, and therefore are anti-Incarnation and all that the Incarnation reveals to man. Death and suffering lose their significance in terms of self-gift, becoming things to be avoided. Suffering in particular is feared more than death and the value of death becomes merely its power to end suffering. Yet the suffering incurred in the imitation of Christ is the way to life. St. Paul tells us that we are “always bearing about in our body the mortification of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodies. For we who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake; that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4:10-11).
            The life of Jesus was made manifest first by Jesus himself, of course, who stands as our model of holiness and its effects on the body. Prior to his death, Jesus' body was perfectly subordinate to his soul, but "perfectly" is used in a qualified and not absolute sense. His body was subject to weariness, hunger, and injury, but its cravings and passions were never disordered from reason and never overcame reason. This is what it means that Jesus was "one tempted in all things like as we are, without sin" (Heb 4:15). He gives us an example that human bodily life can be lived virtuously. In the Resurrection, Jesus' body and soul were united in absolute perfection, endowing the body with properties such as immortality and  ttained true life in the resurrection, with effects such that the body’s subordination to the soul enable it to defy its earthly material limitations. Many disordered positions in bioethics circumvent the ordering of the body to the soul and seek to dominate the body; instead of the integration of the human person, they seek to reveal and reinforce the rift between body and soul.
            Lastly, every human body is created by God for eternal life such as that enjoyed by Christ in the body: God wills that all be saved. Therefore, every human body from the moment it comes into existence until natural death must be fostered and nourished for eternal life. No human body is a legitimate object of exploitation.
            It is important to note, also, that bioethical decisions affect not only someone else, such as abortion or euthanasia involve taking someone else's life. These decisions also affect the one making the decision, and the one carrying it out. All of our acts reveal us as people who do those acts, and they reinforce or habituate us to similar sorts of actions in the future. Our actions also influence others. It's not only about "me," but about us all.
            On this feast of the Annunciation, let us keep in mind that our bodies are not strictly our own. They belong to God.

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