Tag Archives: human dignity

Christmas and the inversion of the family

The most accurate word to describe Christmas is “Nativity.” More than anything else, Christmas is about a birth, the birth of Christ. While this simple fact has occupied a comfortable place in the Christmas tradition, its revolutionary implications might remain hidden to many people. Nonetheless, Christmas has had a decisive revolutionary impact on the ordering of the members of the family.

Pater familias, “father of the family” or “owner of the family estate,” according to Roman law, gave the father autocratic authority over his family. In the family hierarchy, the father came first, the mother a distant second, and the child a far distant third. In contrast to pater familias, the Nativity was revolutionary in that it placed the child first, the mother a close second, and the father a comfortable third. The various images of the Madonna give the Christ- child a centrality, while Joseph is often absent. Mary nourishes, Joseph protects, but the Christ- child, who elicits these virtues, is the centerpiece. The Holy Family inverts the order of pater familias and gives the child a status of pre-eminence.

The Nativity is also a celebration of life, for a new life comes into the world amid widespread rejoicing. It truly brings joy to the world. The shepherds kneel in adoration of the Christ-child, virtually ignoring, though not disrespecting, the parents. Even the angels sing their praises to the newborn. It is not Mother’s Day nor Father’s Day that is celebrated, but the Nativity.

The Nativity affirmed the primary importance of the child. This notion had a deep impact on human history. King Lear, in a moment of uncontrollable rage, pronounces the greatest curse he can imagine on his daughter, Goneril: “Hear, Nature, hear, dear goddess, hear! Suspend thy purpose if thou didst intend to make this creature fruitful. Into her womb convey sterility. Dry up in her the organs of increase, and from her derogate body never spring a babe to honor her” (Act 1, Scene 4). Here, though stated in the negative, is a powerful testimonial to the importance of new life and how it brings joy and fulfillment to a woman. Love always has a forward motion. It does not hold back. It overcomes obstacles and reaches out to new life. Honoring and embracing the Christ-child is an acceptance of the mystery of love and the rewards it confers.

When we look at the contemporary world, we are witnessing a loss of that proper hierarchy of the family in which the child has pre-eminence. The abortion mentality accords the mother absolute dominion over her child, while the father holds, tenuously, to a distant second place. In many instances the child is downgraded into a subhuman. One example from a university textbook entitled Sociology more than illustrates the point. In referring to the neonate, the author writes: “The physical care, emotional response, and training provided by the family transform this noisy, wet, demanding bundle of matter into a functioning member of society.” King Lear retained enough mental clarity not to wish that his daughter would never deliver a “bundle of matter.”

The title of this brief essay employs the word “inversion.” This word is appropriate in relation to pater familias which had viewed the family upside down. A more precise term, however, is “conversion,” for the order of the Holy Family is a conversion from error to truth, from the unholy to the holy, and remains with us forever as the proper hierarchic model of all human families, perhaps more needed in our own time than ever before in human history.

DR. DONALD DEMARCO’S latest book is Apostles of the Culture of Life (TAN Books), and he has also released the recent title, Why I am Pro-Life and Not Politically Correct. He is a senior fellow of Human Life International, professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University (Waterloo, Ontario), adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College (Cromwell, CT), and regular columnist for St. Austin Review.

Discerning neuroethics amid new challenges in bioethics

The field of neuroethics is relatively new, having been formally inaugurated at a conference only in 2002. Neuroethics was created because of new questions and concerns arising out of the rapidly developing fields of neuroscience and neurotechnology. Scientists have been making significant progress in observing previously unobservable operations of the brain. And technologies with the potential to heal, interact with, and perhaps even control elements of the human brain and behavior are rapidly becoming available.

Scientists have long understood that there is a connection between the normal and injured brain, and distinctive human behaviors. One of the first insights into this connection came in the strange case of Phineas Gage, an American railroad worker who was terribly injured in 1848. When Gage used an iron rod to tap down a charge of gunpowder, a premature explosion shot the rod through his cheek and out the top of his head, passing through his left frontal lobe. Gage survived the accident, but his personality underwent a total change. Gage went from being a quiet, even-tempered man to a being a rude man who often indulged in profanities. Since then scientists have sought to better understand the structure and functioning of the brain.

From the late 20th century, cutting -edge technologies have begun fulfilling these aspirations. The use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — using magnetic waves as a kind of “radar” to track the electrical impulses of neurons in the brain — is among the most important. fMRI has been used to learn whether patients in profound states of unconsciousness (a.k.a. PVS) have any awareness (short answer: “probably yes”). fMRI also has been used to locate a part of the brain which appears to be active when people make moral judgments, and then to experiment with disrupting the neurons to see if it changes people’s ability to make those moral judgments. A more recent experiment with animals involves seeding their brains with “neural dust” — hundreds of sensors the size of a grain of rice to monitor brain activity. With emerging nanotechnology, scientists hope to shrink these sensors to a microscopic size and use them to stimulate the brain in various ways to obtain some desired result.

What should Catholics be thinking and doing as the fields of neuroscience and neuroethics develop? They should find ways to become engaged, affirming the good work being done, identifying the potential for abuse, and seeking to keep all of the knowledge and power gained within a framework of Christian anthropology. Advancing a Christian anthropology at this time is critical because trends in neuroscience can support some approaches to the human person which are potentially harmful, such as thinking that humans are essentially machines or objects, or that the soul is nothing but complex matter.

Apart from integrating neuroscience and neuroethics with the Church’s understanding of the dignity of the human person, and with the main tenets of the moral tradition, Catholics should be engaged as new opportunities and issues arise. For example, Catholics should be encouraged to enter these fields, to better understand and help human persons. St. Augustine famously said that “A good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature, but rejecting superstitious vanities . . .” Catholics should feel free to participate in well- designed, safe, and ethical research projects. They should learn the science and skills necessary to use neuroscience for legitimate ends, and then prioritize applications related to healing significant illness and injuries, such as epilepsy, strokes, and significant states of unconsciousness.
The challenges to life and human dignity are not going to diminish. But we can help to improve the field of neuroethics so that neuroscience and neurotechnology contribute to human flourishing in the orders of Creation and Redemption.

JOHN F. BREHANY, PH.D., STL, is director of institutional relations at the National Catholic Bioethics Center (Philadelphia) and past executive director of the Catholic Medical Association.