Tag Archives: Edward J. Furton

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?

Edward J. Furton, M.A., PH.D.

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.

Spotlighting objective truth in moral debates

Edward J. Furton, M.A., PH.D.

Debates over ethical questions often conceal a more fundamental disagreement about whether morality can be objective. A moral judgment that is subjective does not bind anyone, while a judgment that is objective is binding because it is grounded in something that is recognized to be true. The statement, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion” is a good example of the first approach. The second approach holds that moral judgments can be right or wrong because they stand in relation to something that exists apart from our feelings, desires, and personal opinions. Because this standard is external, it can serve as a common object of agreement among two or more people.

A fuller description of this objective system of morality begins with the term teleology, which comes from the Greek words: telos, meaning “purpose, goal or end,” and logos, meaning “knowledge, reason or science.” Our ability to know the purposes of things is the foundation of the traditional Western view about the nature of the good. Those who seek to defend a common and objective moral standard would do well to appeal regularly to the idea of purposes in nature.

To take a very simple example, food is a purpose, goal or end of human action. We devote a great deal of time and energy to growing, cooking and consuming food. Food is an objective good. This is obvious. We would laugh at anyone who said that this is just our opinion. Obviously, we cannot just eat anything we want. Babies may sometimes put dirt in their mouths, but it is not food. Because food is an objective good, it generates moral problems, for example, malnutrition and starvation, waste of food, and the transmission of disease. All of these evils are also objective. They inhere in the goodness of food and the possibility of its loss or corruption.

Life is likewise an objective good. All things strive to preserve themselves in existence. Again, no one would say that this is simply a personal opinion. We know this to be true through observation. Human beings strive to preserve their lives. By stressing that the unborn child naturally desires to live we compel our opponents to deny the obvious. Thus a fetus is just a “blob of tissue.” Of course, the fetus is a highly complex organization whose entire purpose is to grow, develop and perfect its own life. This too is obvious, and we win when our opponents deny what is as obvious as this.

Other goods are more complex, but nonetheless show themselves to be inherently purposeful. Marriage, for example, has several interrelated purposes. Companionship and sexual intimacy are two, and these are directly related to the birth and education of children. The wider secular society tells us that marriage is just a social construct, as if it were produced by our own imagination. Nature tells us otherwise. The purpose of the male and female sexual anatomy is the engendering of offspring. So too are the psychological differences between men and women. Some couples are sterile and so cannot have children, but it is obvious that nature intends the difference between the sexes for the purpose of generation.

All of these examples take their bearings from what is objectively given within nature. This is the only proper basis for moral argumentation. When we form our arguments around the purposes of nature we compel our opponents to confront what I like to call “moral facts.” The goodness of food, life, marriage, and other similar examples, shows itself in nature. We want our opponents to deny what is obvious, namely, that these goods are objective, and when they do, ask them how they can take a position that is so contrary to self-evident fact. Nature exists as a teleological system. Our arguments are at their best when we appeal to the purposes of nature in defense of the objectivity of the good.

EDWARD J. FURTON, M.A., PH.D., is an ethicist at The National Catholic Bioethics Center (Philadelphia), Director of Publications, and Editor-in-Chief of NCBC’s award-winning National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly.

When law subverts health proxy

The recent Charlie Gard case unveils a number of disturbing bioethical problems. The most serious is how parents and patients can be forced to cede control over care to physicians, hospitals and lawyers. The parents of Charlie were particularly vulnerable because of the manner in which British law functions, especially under their national system of healthcare. The British are proud of their healthcare system, but it gives a great deal of authority to experts who can be subject to political and ideological factors that have little to do with what is best for the patient.

Edward J. Furton, M.A., PH.D.

Nonetheless, the facts of the case available from media reports are not particularly favorable to the parents, either. Charlie could have been allowed to pass at any time during his ordeal, for he was under extraordinary measures of treatment, combined with a virtual certitude that he would never improve (there is disagreement between the parents and Charlie’s physicians whether earlier use of research protocols would be beneficial). Catholic teaching holds that extraordinary treatment measures may be attempted, though they are not obligatory. If the ventilator had been removed at the parents’ request, Charlie’s death would not have been caused by them or the hospital staff, but by the underlying condition from which he suffered.

Yet a person is also entitled to pursue extraordinary treatment measures, if he desires to do so. In the case of Charlie, this decision fell to the parents. They asked for the freedom to pursue whatever measures might be available to prolong Charlie’s life, even if, in the eyes of the hospital and the physicians, they were very unlikely to succeed. In fact, an experimental procedure was proposed by a physician in the United States, but upon examination, he had to concede that Charlie was not a good candidate. In the end, the judge and the parents agreed with the hospital that further treatment would be futile. From a moral perspective, the question was whether the measures that the parents favored exceeded what the Church would understand to be extraordinary treatment. Were the parents basing their judgments on unreasonable hopes and expectations?

Perhaps. Parents, of course, desperately want to preserve the lives of their children. Should they have had the opportunity to try questionably beneficial measures in the case of Charlie Gard? The legal landscape in the United States is very different from that of Great Britain. If this question had been posed to an American judge, the decision would likely have gone in the parents’ favor. They would have had a chance to try, though it is highly unlikely that the outcome would have been any different.

What is concerning about the aftermath is how swiftly the parents’ desire to care for their loved one was overruled and frustrated by the authorities. This is an inherent danger with any nationalized healthcare system, which is one of the reasons why some opposed the Affordable Care Act here in the United States. The laws of the state then set the standard of care for patients, and these laws, as creations of the political order, can vary depending on who holds power and the prevailing cultural norms. The rise of physicianassisted suicide and euthanasia within certain states has already affected the presentation of “treatment options” to dying patients.

Although the parents of Charlie may have been unrealistic in their views of what might be done to save his life, we should share their regret and frustration that they were forbidden to play a role in the final decisions. Nothing can be more heartbreaking for parents than to find their own natural instincts suppressed. This is all the more troubling when decisions are handed down by judges, hospital administrators, and those who consider themselves the reigning cultural experts of the day. The more the power of medical decision-making is handed over to these forces through legislative enactments and political maneuvering, the more patients, surrogates, and family members will find themselves unable to take measures that they believe in their hearts are best for their loved ones.

EDWARD J. FURTON, M.A., PH.D., is an ethicist at The National Catholic Bioethics Center (Philadelphia), director of publications, and editor-in-chief of NCBC’s award-winning National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly

Is a soul conscious after death?

A distinguished group of Catholic bioethicists had gathered in a conference room of a Washington, D.C., hotel to discuss the topic of brain death. When my turn came for a presentation, I was in for a shock.

Edward J. Furton

Within 10 minutes, the room grew uneasy. There were quizzical looks and the shuffling of papers. One of the attendees became angry and began to shout. His words were at first unintelligible — they included complex Latin quotations — but it became clear that he was objecting to my statement that the intellective soul survives the death of the body.

The discussion continued for weeks afterwards via email. To my surprise, I discovered that the majority of these distinguished thinkers did not know that the soul continues in conscious existence after separation from the body. One influential figure told me that at death, the soul went into a deep unconscious state and lacked all awareness. Another said that the soul ceased to exist at all until it was reunited with the resurrected body. Yet the Church teaches that at death there is a “particular judgment” that either unites the soul with the life of Christ in heaven (often through purgatory) or condemns it to eternal damnation (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1021). This event precedes the “last judgment” and the resurrection of the dead (CCC #1038).

Death is the separation of the soul from the body, but the soul does not lose consciousness — or cease to exist — when it undergoes that separation. The soul is fully aware of the particular judgment. This is not to deny in any way that the soul is the substantial form of the body. The two form a composite union, but the soul has its own principle of existence, given to it by God. As a spiritual entity, the soul doesn’t need the body to exist or to engage in thought. The soul has an “intellective memory” that survives death and can also have new thoughts through God’s direct infusion of ideas into the mind.

These are interesting philosophical inquiries, but they also have some measure of empirical support from a remarkable phenomenon within the field of medicine. Some patients who are dead by standard medical criteria report after resuscitation that they were aware of efforts to revive their bodies and are able to describe specific events that occurred then. Thus a patient might say, “I saw a nurse wearing a red cap enter the room, give the physician a syringe, and then leave.” But during that time the patient had no heartbeat, no brain function, and no signs of life, but lay on the operating table dead.

Revived patients who experience these events often describe a feeling of looking down on the room from above, but the question of location is really not important. What matters from an evidentiary point of view is the accuracy of their accounts. If the soul ceased to exist at death, or fell into a state of complete unconsciousness, it would not be able to know anything. But in these cases, the patient is able to describe details about events connected to the resuscitation that could not possibly have been known unless he or she were somehow still aware.

One of the most comprehensive surveys of this phenomenon is titled “AWARE” (Parnia et al., Resuscitation 85.12, Dec. 2014, 1799-1805). The study shows that 40% of patients who survived cardiac arrest were aware during the time that they were clinically dead. If death is the separation of the soul from the body, as the Church teaches, then these cases should not surprise us. The person has indeed died because the soul has separated from the body, but a successful resuscitation causes the soul to return life to the body. The particular judgment does not take place because death had not been finalized.

Of course, we live in an age of materialism. Those who hold that there is no life after death tell us that these experiences are the result of chemical imbalances in the brain or some other purely material cause. Yet that view cannot explain the factual nature of the accounts. Hallucinations caused by chemical imbalances don’t produce accurate reports.

Given that Church teachings on the nature of the soul are not matters of faith but are evident to reason, such studies provide an important type of empirical evidence. I have met physicians who have experienced this phenomenon, but they are uneasy speaking about it. They fear ridicule from their colleagues. At least they aren’t likely to be shouted at in Latin!

EDWARD J. FURTON, PH.D., is a staff ethicist and the director of publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Vatican calls for moral science

Dignitatas Personae addresses the complex moral issue of stem-cell research . . .

Dr. John Haas

May Catholics use a life-saving product derived from human embryonic stem-cell research? The answer may well be different depending on whether one is a researcher or a patient. The Vatican’s most recent document on bioethics, Dignitas Personae, addresses the question.

“The use of embryonic stem cells or differentiated cells derived from them — even when these are provided by other researchers through the destruction of embryos or when such cells are commercially available — presents serious problems from the standpoint of cooperation in evil and scandal” (DP #32).

Of course, there are no life-saving products that derive from embryonic stem cells. Despite years of hype, the most promising developments in this field have been made using adult stem cells, including the newly discovered induced pluripotent stem cells, which have most of the same properties as the embryonic but do not involve the destruction of embryos. An induced pluripotent stem cell is developed from a fully developed human body cell. Through various complex manipulations, it is reprogrammed and reverts to an earlier stage of development.

Dignitas Personae says the “criterion of independence” is roundly critiqued. Those who claim that the use of embryonic stem cells and their derivatives is permissible so long as someone else destroys the embryo face a contradiction. They cannot pretend to be free of moral responsibility when others commit injustices from which their own research benefits.

During the Clinton administration there was an attempt to get around the ban on federal funding of destructive embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR). The administration proposed making arrangements with scientists in the private sector who would kill the embryos, making the cells obtained through this act available to researchers using federal funds. They appealed to a “criterion of independence.” That might have met the letter of federal laws, but it does not pass the demands of the moral law since it would make those doing research with the federal funds morally complicit in the destruction of human embryos.

Some contend that this is too high a standard, especially for Catholic researchers of good conscience. But the Vatican replies that “the duty to avoid cooperation in evil and scandal relates to their ordinary professional activities.” Dignitas Personae therefore concludes that “there is a duty to refuse to use such ‘biological material’ even if there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who” kill the embryo (#35).

Dr. Edward Furton

Dr. Edward Furton

The problem is only heightened when public law permits and even encourages the destruction of embryonic human life. The written law of the state must follow the unwritten law that God has inscribed into human nature if it is to be a true law that binds us in conscience.

Researchers, it seems clear, are bound not to work with embryonic stem cells, regardless of the good that might result, and despite the distance between the original act of destruction and present use. But does the same restriction apply to those who might benefit from any future lifesaving discoveries that may derive from embryonic stem cell lines?

Here the Vatican does not give a definitive answer, though one is perhaps suggested. The Vatican has stated that parents may make use of certain vaccines that have a distant origin in tissues derived from elective abortions to immunize their children when no other alternative is currently available. This is permissible (when done under protest) in view of the great goods of life and human health. This same reasoning may apply more broadly to those in the health care profession who need to be protected against the transmission of disease while engaged in their important work. Indeed, there are grounds for supposing that when the goods of health and life are at risk, the use of these products on a temporary basis (until such time as alternatives are available) is generally permissible for anyone in need of them.

This line of reasoning may apply to therapeutic products that result from ESCR, though there are some important differences between the two cases. For example, the vaccine case differs from that of research with human embryonic stem cells since there are principally only two cell lines used for vaccine production, and the fetuses were killed for reasons entirely unrelated to the production of vaccines. On the other hand, there is the ongoing destruction of human embryos for purposes of research involving human ESCR.

Would a similar conclusion follow concerning any life-saving treatment that may eventually derive from embryonic stem cells? Though the general outlines of an answer are suggested, there is no definitive response.

One thing is clear, however. Being pro-life in a biotech age can present us with gut-wrenching and mind-twisting moral dilemmas. We should pray for the day when all society, including research scientists, will respect each individual human being from his or her very inception. This is what Dignitas Personae urges us to work and pray for. Only moral science can be good science and produce the kinds of personal and social goods we all desire.

John M. Haas, Ph.D., is president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and founding president of the International Institute for Culture. He is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Edward J. Furton, Ph.D., is a staff ethicist and the director of publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.