Pope Francis and Bioethics
Written by: Aimee Zellers
he Catholic Church’s 266th pontiff is Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, now Pope Francis I. He is the first pontiff from Latin America as well as the first Jesuit. He has the reputation of being a very spiritual and prayerful man, committed to missions work and advocating for the poor. Given the focus of this blog to bioethics, the first question to come to my mind, is whether a new pope means new views on key issues in bioethics.
Pope Francis authored a book in 2011 with Abraham Skorka, an Argentinian rabbi, titled Sobre el Cielo y la Tierra(English translation: On Heaven and Earth). It addressed a series of contemporary issues, including issues such as God, fundamentalism, the elderly, the Holocaust, homosexuality, capitalism, and several bioethics issues such as abortion, death, and euthanasia. There isn’t an English translation available (at least that I could find). And since my Spanish is a bit rusty, I’m relying on the experts at BioEdge who did an unofficial translation of a few portions of the book relevant for bioethics (see below).
The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services 5th Edition was approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). It characterizes and provides guidelines as to Catholic health services. While it was written in the US, these directives could be applied globally, as they are based strictly in Catholic teachings and include excerpts from The Documents of Vatican II. Pope Francis has a conservative approach to bioethics, upholding Church views on abortion, contraception, and euthanasia. From the unofficial translations provided by BioEdge, it appears that the new pope is in fact wholly in line with the Church’s positions, as well as his predecessors, on these bioethics issues. So, getting a new pope doesn’t necessarily mean a new perspective on bioethics issues.
However, one must take pause and wonder given the Church’s positions and Pope Francis’ actions. Pope Francis has upheld the Church’s position against the use of contraception. Opposing the use of condoms in Africa has a strong theological argument; however, advocating for not using condoms allows for the further spread of HIV/AIDS. In 2001, he visited a hospice in Buenos Aires, where he washed and kissed the feet of twelve AIDS patients. It’s difficult to reconcile this display of compassion with the position of not doing everything humanly possible to prevent the spread of the disease, such as the promotion of safe sexual practices. Could actions like this, showing sensitivity toward suffering individuals and taking into account the reality of their life context, perhaps, impact the development of doctrine concerning the Church’s positions on key bioethics issues, such as contraception?
Here are a few unofficial translated portions from On Heaven and Earth provided by BioEdge:
“Catholic morality says that one must do what is needed, the ordinary things, for someone whose life is drawing to a close. Quality of life should be assured. The power of medicine for terminal cases is not fundamentally in making someone live three days longer or two months longer, but in ensuring that the organism suffers as little as possible. One is not obliged to preserve life with extraordinary means. That can go against the dignity of the person.
Euthanasia is something different; it is killing. I believe that nowadays there is a hidden euthanasia: the health services pay up to a certain level of treatment and then they say “may God look after you”. An elderly person is not cared for as he or she ought to be and ends up on a scrap heap. Sometimes the patient is deprived of medicine and ordinary care and that kills them….
In Catholic moral teaching, no one is obliged to use extraordinary means to get better. We are talking about hanging onto a life which one knows is no longer a life. As long as recovery is possible, we do all that we can. But it is proper to use extraordinary means only if there is some hope of recovery.”
“The moral problem of abortion is of a pre-religious nature because the genetic code is written in a person at the moment of conception. A human being is there. I separate the topic of abortion from any specifically religious notions. It is a scientific problem. Not to allow the further development of a being which already has all the genetic code of a human being is not ethical. The right to life is the first among human rights. To abort a child is to kill someone who cannot defend himself.”