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Friday, March 30, 2012

The Seven Sorrows of Our Lady and Bioethics

Last September, on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, I put up a post relating the devotion to bioethics.

The feast day of September 15 was established in 1814 and occurs fittingly on the day after the Exaltation of the Cross. However, since the 17th century in various parts of the world and especially in devotions of several orders, the Seven Sorrows were commemorated on the Friday before Good Friday. It was extended to the whole Church in the early 1700s but in the 20th century it began taking a back seat to the feast in September. Today is that Friday this year, and it is still listed in the "old calendar" of saints.

Go to my post of last September for more about the devotion to the Seven Sorrows and links to the sites dedicated to it. I reproduce here some of that post pertaining to 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 to bioethics. But it 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). This power of law to coerce is not lost on secular "ethicists" as they play to courts and legislative bodies to get their way and force it on all of us, in the name of stopping others from forcing their views on them.

In the end, bioethics has largely become an exercise in finding a plausible rationale to justify what you want to do, to placate or intimidate naysayers into silence. 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 -- "perfect and do not damage the union of soul and body" -- relates to this fact. 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 these facts of life have spiritual value. 

Note, however, that if suffering and death have spiritual value, this does not justify imposing suffering and death nor in failing to relieve suffering and forestall death to the extent that we can. But we cannot eliminate either completely. To that extent, if we say suffering and death have no value as atheists must conclude, then we must also conclude that life has no meaning and our actions regardless of what those actions may be have no meaning and moral content whatsoever. If on the other hand we believe in God, then life and health, death and suffering, and all of our actions have meaning.

So I am beginning a novena to Our Lady of Sorrows today and ending it on Holy Saturday. On Good Friday begins the Divine Mercy novena. 

And boy does the world need both of these devotions.

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