Challenges for a Catholic Doctor in the Changing World 14

Fr Joseph Tham, LC, MD, PhD

In this article, I will discuss four challenges that Catholic doctors face in the world today:

1) The secular and Catholic divide that gives rise to two contrasting visions of bioethics: the secular vision based on utilitarianism and materialism, whereas the Catholic vision is based on natural law and human dignity; 2) This divide is most evident in beginning of life issues, on the moral status of the human embryo defined functionally or metaphysically; 3) another related challenge is the ambivalent role of science and technology as it confronts ethics, which often becomes a will to power nihilistic approach; 4) Finally, there is the recent question of intercultural dimension of bioethics, of whether there can be global or universal ethics in the presence of cultural diversity and plurality.

First, there is the secular and Catholic divide that gives rise to two contrasting visions of bioethics. Many societies have undergone a process of secularization where religion increasingly plays a less important role in society. In many places, the voice of religious groups is not taken seriously.  In the areas of bioethics, the dominant views tend to be liberal and secular. This vision is often utilitarian and materialistic. That is, the human person is not considered to not have intrinsic value, but his value is dependent on his contribution to society.  In that light, using embryos that are destined to die would provide use to science, and babies born with anencephaly would be useless and should be aborted in the first place. On the other hand, the Catholic vision is based on natural law and human dignity. Everyone is valuable in the eyes of God, because he is created in God’s image and likeness.  Hence, Catholics believe in equality of all persons, irrespective of their appearance, usefulness, age, or gender. This divide is seen for example, in the debate on human rights.  While the secularists wish to include abortion and gay rights, Catholics insists on the inclusion of the right to life of the unborn.

Second, the secular-religious divide is most evident on the moral status of the human embryo.  The Catholic tradition based on natural law and metaphysics understand human life at the moment of conception.  Thus, the embryo deserves respect and protection because it has intrinsic dignity.  The secular vision however understand personhood functionally, thus for some writers such as Peter Singer, the unborn, the anacephalic child, the newborn, the mentally handicapped, and the comatose are not persons, whereas higher primates such as a chimpanzee are persons.  He bases this definition on the presence of certain functions such as intelligence, self-awareness, or capacity for decision making, etc.  This latter position is increasingly taking hold in society because the traditional concept of nature has been challenged since the advent of evolutionary theories.  Nature is no longer viewed as something static and unchanging, but if we were evolved, then human nature can change—we are just highly evolved animals.  Thus, we can also engineer our evolution further by using technology to re-create humanity, towards a perfect race. This is already happening with the technologies of IVF, preimplantational genetic diagnosis (PGD), embryonic stem cells, cloning and synthetic life.  With the addition of nanotechnology, cybernetics, and neuroscience in the mix, the possibility of creating a new human race—transhumanism—is becoming more and more likely.

Another related challenge is the ambivalent role of science and technology as it confronts ethics. There is the tendency of scientific positivism or scientism, which claims that only in science can truth be found. Science is also progressive and beneficial to society, and therefore no limits should be placed upon it, including ethical ones.  Science has become the new goddess in society, replacing religion, as evidenced by the amount of money societies spend on healthcare.  Thus, technological means are thought to enable us to eliminate all sufferings and delay death. There is however an ambivalence towards modern technology which can save us or destroy us. Technological progress is accompanied by an exalted understanding of freedom and choice.  Hence, we often see a “will to power” scenario in bioethics, where one’s desire or will, coupled with technological power, translate to means she can perform rightfully what is possible.  An infertile couple who “wills” to have children employs reproductive technology (“power”) to produce offspring, a couple who does not “want” more children uses contraception or sterilization (“power”) to control their future, a woman undergoes abortion (“power”) to eliminate the “unwanted” pregnancy, and a scientist wills to synthetic life or cloned humans by means of technological powers at his disposal.  “Will to power” means that truth is what I make it to be, since there is no longer objective truth outside of me.  Hence, moral relativism (there is no truth) will eventually lead to nihilism where nothing under the sun is objectionable.

Finally, in the presence of cultural diversity and plurality, there is the question as to which religion or worldview on bioethical issues is correct.  For instance, not all religions consider the embryo in the same way Catholics do. In this situation, we are faced with the question of whether there can be global or universal ethics that transcends all cultural differences.  In today’s globalized reality, this question is becoming more pressing. Pope Benedict XVI has spoken repeatedly on the importance of the intercultural dimension of bioethics.  Western societies face this challenge more acutely than Asian societies because Christianity was the dominant worldview in the former but a minority in the latter. Asian Catholics can therefore assist the universal church in this area on how to avoid the pitfall of religious syncretism and yet reject moral pluralism.

These are some of the challenges facing the Church at the beginning of life.  As a response to these challenges, there is a need to engage culture and to influence it in the direction of culture of life.  Two initiatives in this direction have recently been launched by the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights. The first is a “Bioethics, Multiculturalism and Religion Workshop” organized, to be held in Hong Kong in December, 2013 with participation of bioethics scholars from seven religions to discuss these important issues.  The second is the “Bioethics Global Art Competition” inviting artists to portray through artistic medium these bioethical values, as the modern world is quite sensitive to artistic representations.

Fr. Joseph Tham, LC, MD, PhD

  • Professor, School of Bioethics, Regina Apostolorum Pontifical university, Rome
  • Fellow, UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights
  • Visiting Professor, Holy Spirit Seminary College, Hong Kong
  • & Biltrix Contributor


  1. As a Canadian RN who has previously worked in palliative care and who continues to nurse people in one of the most vulnerable stages of life, I greatly appreciate your article. All healthcare professionals encounter these issues in our respective scope of practice. A medical resident told me recently that in a seminar class of first-year Canadian medical students, everyone in the class was in favour of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Increasingly secular philosophies cause much confusion amongst patients, families, healthcare staff, and too many decisions are made based on principles of moral relativism. Hopefully, the initiatives mentioned above can steer us towards a culture of life in medicine.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective based on your experience within the medical field, Terry. I’m seriously afraid that too many people are unaware of the reality. Massachusetts is dangerously close to passing legalized assisted suicide in their state. This will be the third state in the US that allows it. From there, it will be a slippery slope downword leading to more and more disregard for life in our countries under the false guise of “mercy” and “compassion.”

  2. I am not a medical professional, but I think you hit the nail on the head with this post. It is frightening. One thing that I have seen, and experienced, is the confusion of a religious patient/family member who must rely on the judgement of a medical professional to make decisions, when that doctor is a secularist with relativist beliefs. I know I have made at least one drastic mistake in trusting such an individual, without the knowledge to question her.
    Wouldn’t it be great to have a faith-based Catholic clinic offering medical care, mental health therapy, and other health care concerns, in one place, where a religious person could go and get some real insight and advice when decisions need to be made?

    • Hi Reinkat!

      Hospitals have ethics boards that are supposed to advise medical staff in this regard, but as you pointed out, they tend to be pragmatic and relativistic. The ethics that generally dominates is proportionalism, which boils down to utilitarianism, and ultimately hedonism. It is all about weighing out the balance of pleasure and pain, not basing judgments on what is objectively right or wrong. It is difficult for an ethicist with sound moral principles to make a difference on an ethics board, because they are usually composed of members who have differing viewpoints, so that they counter each other’s input and the most pragmatic solutions usually prevail when it comes down to making a final decision.

      One institution I’m aware of that is trying to make a difference in the field of psychology is IPS — Institute of Psychological Sciences. Here is a segment from their mission statement:

      “[IPS] is dedicated to the renewal of the Christian intellectual tradition and the development of a psychology consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church and in constructive dialogue with the modern world.”

      • Thanks for the follow-up. It is sad to me that we can no longer trust the medical institutions, Catholic-run or for-profit, to follow a true ethical policy.
        I am happy to learn of IPS. I had not heard of them before. If the time should come when I might need such services, how would I know if an individual practitioner is part of this organization? Do they include the letters at the end of their names?

      • Good morning, Reinkat! Here is some more info on IPS, if you are interested. The doctoral students receive a Psy.D., as opposed to a PhD or MD, so the prefix after their name is Psy.D. This title is recognized for clinical practice in the field of psychology. Other than that, to contact a practitioner who is a part of the organization, you would need to get in touch with them. here is a link to their “about page” site: I know the Gladys Sweeny, the Academic Dean, and Fr Charles Sicorski, the IPS president personally, so I could get in touch with them about locating a graduate or an affiliate from IPS.

        There is a second question I wanted to ask you about, concerning my last post. I’ll share that with you in a comment on your blog. God bless!

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