Religion, politics and therapeutic cloning

I’ve been invited to join the Blog Against Theocracy blogswarm. I thought I might write about something which happened a month ago, involving the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell.

In early June 2007, the NSW Parliament proposed to amend the Human Cloning and Other Practices Act 2003 to legalise therapeutic cloning.

“Therapeutic cloning” is shorthand for somatic cell nuclear transfer. Essentially, it involves removing the nucleus from an ovum, and replacing it with the nucleus of another somatic cell (ie, a normal non-reproductive cell). The cells form a blastocyst (a ball of cells and a very early stage embryo). The benefits which might derive from this technology include possibly producing organs and cells to replace damaged ones (so that organ transplants and the like are not necessary). The hope is that it may also help people such as diabetics (with damaged pancreatic cells) and quadriplegics (with damaged spinal nerve cells). It seems that there is a lot of controversy surrounding the benefits and detriments of this technology.

Archbishop Pell called upon Catholic Members of Parliament not to vote in favour of the Bill. But the controversy arose when he also said, “It is a serious moral matter and Catholic politicians who vote for this legislation must realise that their voting has consequences for their place in the life of the Church.” The Archbishop was suggesting that perhaps those politicians who voted for the Bill should be denied communion.

As this article by Paul Collins outlines, there was history behind this call. During the 2004 US Presidential elections, a minority of US Archbishops had called for communion to be denied to Catholic Democrats who supported abortion or same-sex marriage.

In the event, Archbishop Pell’s call came to naught. The bill was passed.

It seems to me that Archbishop Pell’s statement was foolish. Of course His Eminence is entitled to express his view on therapeutic cloning, and to suggest what response he thinks the scriptures demand. But, to my mind, he is not entitled to threaten elected Members of Parliament with religious sanctions if they refuse to vote in the way that he recommends. It is bullying.

There is not an easy answer to whether therapeutic cloning is an ethical according to Christian principles. It is impossible to say when life begins and when consciousness begins. Personally, I do not think a bundle of cells can be categorised as “life as we know it”, but I can see that the line is hard to draw. How big does the bundle of cells have to get before I would think that a foetus was living? And what of the fact that a small bundle of cells with no consciousness or pain could potentially alleviate the suffering of some living people with full consciousness, and suffering great pain and discomfort? It’s a difficult question. The important thing is that Members of Parliament be free to vote according to their consciences, not just taking into account religion, but also the interests of their constituents. In the end, Members did just that. Some devout Catholics voted for the Bill, some voted against. And this is how it should be.

Mixing religion and state in the way that Archbishop Pell did brings a risk that those who are not of a particular religion may feel alienated. In this present day and age, we live in societies which are multicultural and diverse. Members of Parliament are supposed to be representative of their constituents, who may be of many faiths and many backgrounds. Religion may be part of what leads a Member to vote in a particular way, but the interest of constituents should also be paramount. That is what democracy is about.

As someone who is not religious, I am comfortable with a person discussing the ethical implications of a particular piece of legislation in the light of his or her faith. I respect that. But I am not comfortable with someone voting in a particular way simply because a leader of his or her faith says that the member might be punished. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I resent such behaviour. Did I vote for the leader of that faith? No. I voted for the Member, and as such, I expect him or her to exercise independent judgment, rather than speak for another organisation with which I have no affiliation. I don’t care what the religion is.

If I were a Catholic, I probably would have voted for the Bill out of sheer bloody-mindedness…maybe there’s a reason why I am not religious…I have difficulty following orders. 😉
In any case, Archbishop Pell’s comments do not seem to be in line with paragraph 28(a) of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 Papal Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God Is Love”). His Holiness has stated the following in relation to the separation of Church and State:

The just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics. As Augustine once said, a State which is not governed according to justice would be just a bunch of thieves: “Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia?”. Fundamental to Christianity is the distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God (cf. Mt 22:21), in other words, the distinction between Church and State, or, as the Second Vatican Council puts it, the autonomy of the temporal sphere. The State may not impose religion, yet it must guarantee religious freedom and harmony between the followers of different religions. For her part, the Church, as the social expression of Christian faith, has a proper independence and is structured on the basis of her faith as a community which the State must recognize. The two spheres are distinct, yet always interrelated.

Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics. Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life: its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics. The State must inevitably face the question of how justice can be achieved here and now. But this presupposes an even more radical question: what is justice? The problem is one of practical reason; but if reason is to be exercised properly, it must undergo constant purification, since it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests.

Here politics and faith meet. Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God—an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself. From God’s standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly. This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.

The Church’s social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being. It recognizes that it is not the Church’s responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew. As a political task, this cannot be the Church’s immediate responsibility. Yet, since it is also a most important human responsibility, the Church is duty-bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contribution towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically.

The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.

It seems to me that this provides a good balance. We should not cut religion out of public life entirely. It has important spiritual and ethical insights which we should consider when weighing up a particular course of action. But unelected religious figures should not try to force elected representatives to follow their direction. It acheives no good for anybody: it makes non-religious people feel alienated, it gives an impression that a particular Church or creed is trying to bully Parliament, and it undermines the very nature of representative democracy.



Filed under blasphemy, christianity, law, law reform, politics, Pope, religion

12 responses to “Religion, politics and therapeutic cloning

  1. Pingback: I Jul - WordPress PoliSci « oldephartteintraining

  2. fairlane

    First, I’m glad you got my message in time and were able to participate.

    Second, Right on Sister!

  3. I don’t think that you have got it quite right this time LE. If there has been any bullying that has been going on here it has been by the atheists and secularists. They have tried to argue that Pell was not entitled to remind members of his flock that the catholic faith takes a particular position on this issue and that those who fail to support that position had better realise that this is an issue that goes to the heart of the churches understanding of what defines humanity. In essence Pell is saying that If you are prepared to treat, even cloned gametes as a mere commodity, then perhaps you would have to consider your future in the catholic faith.
    Really it is like being a member of the golf club but insisting that you want to play soccer on the fairway.
    As secular as I am (as an atheist) I find it very sad indeed that when George Pell tries to fulfil the remit of his office, to enunciate and propagate the tenets of his faith amongst the nominal followers, that he should be pilloried for doing so. His power to impose a sanction upon those who act contrary to the teachings of the church has no effect in the temporal world anyway, and if a catholic is prepared to go their own way in good conscience excommunication will be of no consequence either. In the end such acts can be forgiven after confession , contrition and a suitable penance anyway.

  4. pete m

    The good news is a japanese microbiologist has changed a normal cell into a stem cell like cell. In a mouse. This will likely lead to human cells being able to be made into super dooper stem like cells, all without the cloning industry. the technique is described as simple and one that any cell biologist could handle.

    It seems interesting that this has come along now, when it is needed most.

    Iain – people get upset when a religious leader is “seen” to be interfering in the political process. But as LE notes elsewhere, everything we do involves politics, which essentially is just the “why we do it” of life.

    I am however reminded of jesus’ answer to the question on taxes – give to ceasar etc. How does this reconcile with the churches influence in politics?

  5. AV

    “A morally serious person should welcome excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church.”
    Christopher Hitchens on Hardball

  6. AV

    It has important spiritual and ethical insights which we should consider when weighing up a particular course of action.

    Spiritual insights: why should the supernatural play any kind of role in our decision-making? (And where does this leave non-theists?)

    Ethical insights: what ethical insights do the religious bring to the table that could not possibly be brought by non-believers?

    I think we definitely should cut religion out of public policy debates, which is not to argue that religious people should be excluded. In a mature, enlightened liberal democracy, public policy decisions should be based upon evidence and reasoned argumentation. Pell and Benedict would have you surrender your reasoning faculties to religious dogma (specifically, their religious dogma), at which point the conversation closes, because such dogma never has to justify itself. How do you argue against “Because God says so,” which is what all faith-based ethical justification ultimately boils down to? Faith “purifies” reason? Faith is the polar opposite of reason: if you are able to substantiate your claims with evidence and sound arguments, you don’t need faith.

  7. I think I’m the middle of the road, between Iain and AV. Perhaps this is a dangerous place to be in – nobody luvs ya – but that’s okay.

    I maintain that Pell’s action in threatening sanctions against Parliamentarians was undemocratic. He is entitled to let them know what he thinks, and tell them what his position is on the matter. That is the end of it. He should not threaten people.

    The fact of the matter is that Jesus doesn’t say anything directly about therapeutic cloning in the New Testament, so it’s all a matter of interpretation anyway.

    I have no problem with people expressing moral views according to their faith, as long as they acknowledge that it is a matter of faith, not logic. I also believe that such people should acknowledge that I don’t share that faith, and that therefore I might believe differently.

    I agree with you, AV, that faith is the opposite of reason, as I have discussed before. I did not cite the Pope’s view to agree with it, merely to provide a contrast to Cardinal Pell’s actions.

  8. AV

    I maintain that Pell’s action in threatening sanctions against Parliamentarians was undemocratic. He is entitled to let them know what he thinks, and tell them what his position is on the matter. That is the end of it. He should not threaten people.

    I would make one concession to Pell’s supporters, though it’s probably not the kind of concession they would like. Pell’s capacity to threaten people is directly proportional to their willingness to find him threatening. If a Catholic MP says: “You know, I can’t think of any rational grounds for opposing this Bill–indeed I can think of many good reasons to support it–yet as a Catholic I must surrender my critical faculties to superstition and dogma” . . . I think we would all agree that he or she is at least as worthy of condemnation as Pell.

    I have no problem with people expressing moral views according to their faith, as long as they acknowledge that it is a matter of faith, not logic. I also believe that such people should acknowledge that I don’t share that faith, and that therefore I might believe differently.

    People can express moral views according to their faith; I don’t believe they are entitled to expect that their faith-based arguments be given equal weighting with arguments grounded in reason and evidence.

    People who base their arguments on religious dogma immediately exclude from the conversation those who do not share their religious presuppositions. No amount of reasoned argument can sway such people since, as Benedict proclaims, “Faith purifies reason.” On the other hand, all of us–religious or otherwise–are able to participate in reasoned debate.

  9. fairlane

    “No amount of reasoned argument can sway such people since, as Benedict proclaims, “Faith purifies reason.” On the other hand, all of us–religious or otherwise–are able to participate in reasoned debate.”

    That seems contradictory. How do you engage in “reasoned debate” with someone who is unreasonable?

    To debate with the “Religious” you have to suspend reason and logic. You must be willing to accept the unacceptable before the conversation can even begin.

    For example, a recent “debate” I had with a “Creationist”. Before he’d even “debate” he wanted me to accept that “Science is nothing but philosophy” (implying personal opinion), Religion is Science (Rational, investigative, etc. In other words, true to the actual meaning of the word “Philosophy”) and that the title “Intelligent Design Theorist” actually means something and is not simply made up to sound important.

    How do you proceed from there? I’m not about to accept absurdity as fact. They stifle debate and conversation. They can explain away any inconsistency, hypocrisy, faulty reasoning by invoking the most abstract of concepts “Faith”, the impenetrable barrier.

    I’m not opposed to religion and think people should believe as they wish, but the more I deal with these “Fundamentalists” the more afraid of Religion I become. I see very little evidence of “God”, but the footprints of “Man” are everywhere.

  10. AV

    That seems contradictory. How do you engage in “reasoned debate” with someone who is unreasonable?

    Mental compartmentalisation on the part of your religious interlocutor? (I don’t know how that works for fundies, though.)

  11. In this case, I think that the Catholic church has a lack of insight regarding the issues here.
    They disagree with the destruction of embryos because they believe it to be murder, since they believe conception to be the beginning of life and marks the presence of a soul.

    This belief theory can be proved wrong. Any Catholic will accept that one human being has one soul and can have no more than one or less than one. In other words, one soul for one consciousness.

    We can prove that the development of a consciousness, even in its earliest forms, does not occur before 14 days of development.

    We know this because of two events that can occur on the 14th day which can be the difference between 1 or 2 separate human beings being developed.


    1) One egg can split into two and develop into identical twins,


    2) Two fertilized eggs can fuse and then develop into a single human being.

    Since this happens at 14 days, it proves that prior to 14 days, when the embryos are used in therapeutic cloning, there is no presence of a consciousness, and therefore a soul. Thus destroying them is not murder.

  12. Adam
    The argument is about the humanity of the Gamete not the matter of it having consciousness, which is entirely irrelevant. You are, like so many abortion advocates, trying to create a distinction in a legalistic manner, where none exists in nature. Under our legal concepts a lack of consciousness does not diminish any person’s humanity, otherwise it would be legal to kill those who slumber…

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