Recently the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, one of the many Catholic universities in Rome, drew together church leaders and scientists from around the globe to discuss the nitty-gritty of embryology in a three day conference on bioethics, “Ontogeny and Human Life.” The presentations ranged from juridical and biomedical topics to the philosophical and theological aspects of developing persons. (A conference program is available in PDF form here.)
I was unable to attend all of the sessions, but some of the speakers included William Hurlbut of Stanford University, Scott Gilbert of Swarthmore College, Carlo Casini of the European Parliament, and more. Like in many other conferences around Rome, a serious attempt is being made to bring modern science and classical metaphysics together for a better understanding of the human person. The common lay person may be scratching his or her head wondering what influence ancient Greece and medieval clerics could have on white-jacket researchers in laboratories.
The beginning of human life is a hotly debated issue these days, but we would be mistaken in assuming that our generation is the first to take it up. However, without modern science the theories of fetal development proposed by Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas are comical in their simplicity. This was obvious when Prof. Labeaga of the Regina Apostolorum presented on “The Concept of Embryo in Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas and the Question of Ensoulment,” which provoked many smiles when taken in contrast with the latest in embryology.
The Catholic Church finds herself in a unique position in this arena. She is often seen in opposition to progress and science, when in fact many crucial modern developments were made by her faithful followers. In the papal encyclical Fides et Ratio, John Paul II examined this point and encouraged science and religion to continue to develop a relationship of dialogue, each enriching the other. Bioethics has a lot to learn about the human person, but most importantly, it still has much to learn about human dignity as well. The Church for her part should not fear the discoveries of science, because truth is never contradictory, and nature only serves to illuminate and illustrate what God has divinely ordained. Looking at ultrasounds of developing human beings, tracing the intricacies of genetic code, and acknowledging how a mother and father are fundamentally designed to create, support, and nourish a new life all bring this mystery to light.
After modern science has dissected its disciplines into various categories, it is the human person as a whole that brings them all back together and helps one inform the other. Science serves man, just as government, economics, and the arts do as well. Science also reminds man that he is dust, and to dust he shall return, but without religion that is where he stays.