Theology of the Body and Bioethics Reply

Fr Joseph Tham

In my first year of medical practice, I still clearly remember the case of a patient who came to me, truly distressed because he had committed an act of adultery with his secretary.  He wanted me to test him for AIDS, since he was unwilling to put his wife at risk, not knowing if this casual encounter would have infected him.  He recognized the stupidity of this act out of passion, and wished somehow to repair it and not cause more possible damage.  He admitted of not having any marital relationships with his wife for several weeks now, out of this fear of potentially infecting her.

As the AIDS virus has a six-month window of incubation, HIV test at this early stage would be futile to determine the status of his condition.  After explaining to him that a test would not be helpful at that moment, and that no test would ever give him 100% certainty of being HIV-free, I counseled him to tell the truth to his wife about his extramarital affair.   He was surprised by such a recommendation, but was too ashamed to do so.  He left the clinic without the test, and I never saw him again.

Of the innumerable patients I have seen, this one visit stuck in my mind after all these years.  Clearly, it was an ethical dilemma faced by a contrite man, one who made a mistake out of the heat of passion, but was too fearful to ask for forgiveness.  Consequently, he was unable to resolve his dilemma.  This case provokes several points of interest that will be examined here, namely, the human body and sexuality; the reality of lust and shame; and the ethical dimension of our corporeality.

In contemporary bioethics, lust, shame and theology are, to be sure, unlikely topics of discussion.  Unfortunately, the rejection of the spiritual side of man makes writings such as those by John Paul II to be all too often ignored in the secular academy. They are gems of wisdom may just offer secular bioethics a fresh approach to bioethics, if not salvation from a dichotomous foundation.

From 1979 to 1984, the late pope dedicated a series of catecheses during the Wednesday audiences to reflect on the theological implications of the human body.  This corpus of speeches, now coined as Theology of the Body, has become an influential means to promulgate Catholic sexual morals.  Many of these profound insights on the body and sexuality are valid even for the non-believers.  Unfortunately, the modern cultural understanding of the body has frequently reduced the experience of lust and shame to the level of biology.  The Theology of the Body can therefore offer a refreshing insight to supplement these inadequacies.

Last year, a congress was organized in Rome to analyze this novel teaching from the theological, philosophical, bioethical and pastoral perspectives.  In my talk, I looked at how this approach can shed light on current topics of fertility control, technology, manipulation of body, pornography and prophylactic use in AIDS prevention.

Manipulation of our bodies as objects and commodities is most evident in many of today’s bioethical controversies.  This is seen in contraceptive and procreative technologies, surrogacy, and the destiny and use of surplus embryos for stem cell research.  In fact, a deeper question that has rarely been raised in these debates deals with the proper relationship between nature and technology.  Even though technological advance has allowed humanity to dominate nature, there are certain limits to the employment of technology because we are free and truly masters of ourselves and not slaves of technology.  This proper use of technology is particularly relevant in the areas concerning with the transmission of life.

The accusation against the Church in causing the spread of AIDS because of its resistance to promote use of condom as prophylactic is another area where Theology of the Body can shed light.  Once again, the secular mindset tends to reduce this question to that of effective prevention without considering the nature of free human acts in this area.  Conceived in this manner men and women, like animals, are incapable of being responsible and control their sexual urges for a higher good.  The only way to save lives would then consist in promoting the use of condoms in order to reduce the infection rates.  This essentially negates the possibility of self-mastery that reflects more adequately the liberty of each person.

Pornography and prostitution are two other related topics where manipulation of one’s body is evident.  Unfortunately, many advertising and publicity agencies have exploited the human body and its sexual dimension for commercial gain.  Objectivization of the body in art and pornography contradicts the fact that the body is meant to be a gift directed toward another in the communion of persons. The body is a subjective manifestation of the person. Because the body has such great value in this personal communion, making the naked body an object of art and advertisement becomes an ethical problem.

The legacy left by John Paul II with his Theology of the Body shows us that if the human body is not just an organism for sexual pleasures but is an expression the total person, then it can never be used as a means for profit, commerce, financial or scientific gain.  By reducing the body to the level of an object, freely suitable for technological manipulation, is not only a grave affront to human dignity, but also a danger for the future of humanity.

You might be interested in other articles by Fr Joseph Tham on Bioethics:

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