Bioethics and natural law: The relationship in catholic teaching

Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 6 (4):333-336 (1996)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Bioethics and Natural Law: The Relationship in Catholic TeachingJ. Bryan Hehir (bio)In the discipline of Catholic moral theology, bioethics (traditionally described as medical ethics) has held a major place. The systematic development of bioethics has drawn principally upon a natural law ethic, supported by broader religious arguments. The purpose of this essay is to examine the status and role of natural law in Catholic teaching as it bears upon bioethics.Natural Law and Catholic TheologyThe role of natural law in Catholic theology is rooted in a prior conviction about the complementary relationship of faith and reason. The conviction finds initial expression in patristic authors, then preeminently in Thomas Aquinas and consistently in modern papal teaching of the twentieth century. Flowing from this conviction, as a premise of Catholic theology and teaching, is the [End Page 333] notion that a second source of moral wisdom exists along side the revealed wisdom of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. This second source of wisdom is the product of rational reflection upon human nature and experience. In the tradition of natural law ethics (expressed in a plurality of versions), such reflection affirms an objective moral order, accessible to reason and based upon a conception of the person as both spiritual and social. The spiritual nature, expressed in the capacity for reflection and free choice, is the foundation of the natural law ethic, providing the human person a unique status in the created order. The social nature of the person locates each human being in a framework of social relationships, articulated in a complex of rights and duties and finding expression in three basic communities: the family, civil society, and the human community.The fully developed framework of a natural law ethic has five dimensions. It yields a theory of society, a doctrine of the state, a charter of duties and rights, a jurisprudence, and an applied ethic. At each level of this framework, the natural law ethic is contested by other contemporary philosophical positions. In this article, space demands that stress must be placed on the natural law affirmations without trying to engage the critics.The centrality of the social nature of the person yields a theory of society that is organic in character, laying strong emphasis on the social fabric of existence. Hence the theory has traditionally emphasized both order and justice more strongly than claims of freedom. The doctrine of the state, in contemporary natural law arguments, supports a limited yet activist state, limited by constitutional restraints and human rights claims, yet activist in its conception of a broad range of social obligations, particularly to the poor. The charter of rights affirms a range of both political-civil and socio-economic rights; the traditional natural law emphasis on a structure of duties has been complemented in the twentieth century by its stress on the role of human rights. The jurisprudential theory of natural law has been its most prominent aspect; it affirms a moral grounding for civil law, but distinguishes precisely between the comprehensive nature of moral law and the more limited scope of civil law, restricted to the maintenance of public order in society. Finally, the natural law framework finds expression in Catholic teaching in three areas of applied ethics: social ethics (civil society and international relations), sexual ethics, and bioethics.History and StatusWhile a natural law ethic has been a staple of Catholic social and bioethical teaching, it has not held similar status in the wider arena of contemporary philosophical or theological ethics. Through the 1950s, therefore, one could find a strong consensus supporting natural law within the Catholic community and ongoing debates within the wider world of philosophy and bioethics. Since the 1960s, any description of the status and role of natural law must consider the debates within Roman Catholicism itself about the role and status of natural law. [End Page 334]It is possible to distinguish two stages of these internal arguments in the church. In the period from 1960 to 1990, three events in Catholicism directly influenced the standing of a natural law position: John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem In Terris (1963), Paul XI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), and the teaching of...

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