Catholics have a ‘way’ with faith and reason
Each year, the center for Bioethics and Human Dignity names a recipient of the Ramsey Award. Paul Ramsey, a Methodist, was an admired ethicist who wrote on theoretical and practical matters, including just-war theory, fetal research, and the patient as person. Although the CBHD is Protestant in origin and outlook, the vast majority of its award recipients have been Catholics. The winner in 2017 was David Albert Jones, the Director of the Anscombe Center in Oxford. Our own Father Albert Moraczewski, OP, former president of The National Catholic Bioethics Center, received the honor in 2008. Why are members of the Catholic faith receiving this prize in disproportionate numbers?
There are many elements that make the Catholic faith unique, beginning with unity under the papacy, a long apostolic tradition handed down from Christ, our sacraments, and especially the sacrifice of the Mass. As Catholics, we see our faith as one, true, holy, and apostolic faith. Yet these elements do not explain the outsized influence Catholics have in bioethics. Protestants, in fact, consider these things just as contentiously as they did at the time of the Reformation.
The key is our openness to reason. Catholics have long held that faith works with reason, not that it eradicates reason. The great thinkers of our tradition have willingly absorbed the knowledge of philosophy, science, and the wider culture in a manner unlike any other religious faith. And many nonCatholic thinkers have made important contributions to ethics and moral philosophy in a similar manner — and we have embraced these truths.
The apostle Paul taught that God’s existence can be known through the things that are made [Rom 1:20] and that there is a moral law written into the heart of all human beings [Rom 2:15].
Catholics see St. Paul’s words as references to natural theology and natural law morality, that is, to that body of religious truth that is available to all human beings through the exercise of reason. A rational understanding of God and the moral order is not limited to Christians, but can be discovered by any thoughtful person who cares to objectively examine the evidence given in nature. This is not always an easy task, and many people have fallen into preconceived patterns of thinking, making it very difficult for them to see the moral order of the world as it exists around them.
But in principle, the Catholic defense of the power of reason to know certain theological and moral truths, even without revelation, gains us access to a much wider sphere of influence than does the Protestant reliance on Scripture alone. We are able to appeal to what is good and evil in human action without appeals to scriptural authority. This enables us not only to learn widely from others, but to engage in moral discussion with virtually anyone regardless of their views on religion.
After a conference hosted by the CBHD near Chicago, I chanced to share a taxicab with a physician who was headed to South America to do medical work for the poor without pay. This was to be his twoweek “vacation.” We got to talking about Thomas Aquinas and Catholicism. I pointed out to him the paradox of the Ramsey Awards. He nodded and agreed. “You Catholics have been doing this work in medical ethics for a lot longer than we have. We need your knowledge, but you need our enthusiasm.”
The harmony that exists among the Christian denominations of today is quite remarkable. We work across denominational lines because we share many concerns about the direction of our shared culture. We are happy to share the wisdom of our tradition with other Christians even as they inspire us with their evangelical zeal. Perhaps we can establish a Pope Saint John Paul II Award for the Evangelization of Culture and regularly award it to Protestants. A fitting return!
EDWARD J. FURTON, PH.D., is Director of Publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center (Philadelphia), and among its team of seven ethicists. He’s editor-in-chief of NCBC’s awardwinning National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly and Ethics & Medics.