The latest advances in science and biotechnology (three-parenting, surrogate motherhood, human enhancement, hybridizing of humans and animals…) have now and again encountered opposition from Christians (and, in varying degrees, from other religious believers), as well as from secular critics for moral, ethical, and legal reasons (the last-mentioned rather half-heartedly in a number of countries recently).
My generation is accustomed to believe that all that is new is eo ipso good, and that everything that is technically possible will be put into practice sooner or later. Furthermore, legal prohibitions against the supposed scientific and technological progress mentioned above, even if erected in the name of human dignity, are generally considered narrow-minded or anti-scientific, undemocratic and against the spirit of the age. As for Catholic declarations, sometimes they are not actually prohibitions or condemnations but rather positive statements or even celebrations (of reason, for example, in John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio). Yet, on the whole, since Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae in 1968, a general impression of negativity now forms the public mind.
Yet, on second thought, the possibility cannot be dismissed that most, or at least some, such laws and prohibitions are not unpopular (i.e., they are not considered harmful by the public). These laws may appear to some as unfashionable prohibitions while others see them as positive defenses of humanity. A wall of negative prohibitions might perform the positive function of defending something we value. (Consider, for example, the fashionable defense of the planet found in Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’.) Let me explain.
The prejudicial view of Christianity, especially of the Catholic Church, as a medieval, half wrecked fortress still standing against an ever-growing tide of aggressive biotechnological and scientific innovations is often given expression in the press these days. The Christian worldview, having lost so much ground to its implacable, politically correct, and fashionable attackers, seems only capable of mere survival. Yet the Church is not the only target of this bombardment by the unholy “alliance of materialism and technology” (as Vittorio Possenti would say). It is ordinary people who ultimately suffer. Since quite a few of these contemporary assaults are grounded in a direct or indirect unbelief in man, it is small wonder that they tend to reduce man and to foster non-humanity or even, in some cases, inhumanity. Rewriting the rules of human conduct and of human biology “plays God” by warring against the laws of nature. This harm to humanity is worse because it is undemocratic, leaving us all in the hands of a small number of bureaucrats now make their decisions and spread (if not impose) them around the world.
Let me make a distinction. Theft—one of the oldest trades in human history—is immoral but not inherently inhuman. Polygamy, kidnapping, killing, especially in battle, are very lamentable; yet such unpraiseworthy activities are not essentially anti-human (in a way, they might be all too human). Consider theft: after my money has been stolen I am poorer than before but my humanity is untouched. As for killing, even if I am a pacifist, I must admit that there may be heroism in slaying or risking death heroically and with dignity in what used to be referred to as “the field of honor.” Contrariwise, practices like three-parenting, surrogate motherhood or human organ trafficking turns our very human substance into a commodity, denying our human dignity, and tends to degrade people to the status of animated things. There is nothing heroic in the pre-ordering of enhanced babies, in selecting a girl’s donated ovules—as if they were brood mares—or in producing cyborgs. Over time, such activities would amount to rewriting mankind’s instruction manual. If Yuval Harari’s dystopian vision of Homo Deus comes to fruition, common humanity would not be divinized but rather diminished, while human inequality would be enshrined to an unprecedented degree (to his credit, Harari does not deny this). The diminishment of humanity through biological manipulation is immoral because it is inhuman.
The old Catholic story, that going against God may in the end be rather bad for man, seems to be coming true once again. Yet I would go so far as to suggest that playing God may not be quite as serious as diminishing man, because if He really exists—and I have no reason to think other wise—attempts to play God or to make ourselves (or rather Harari and a handful of scientists) godlike will actually not get very far, and will not in the least cut short His omnipotence. Skeptics will argue whether God exists or not, but if He does, all the Earth’s grammarians will not shorten His life expectancy by a single minute (supposing that ‘life expectancy’ might be attributed to the Eternal). On the contrary, a very serious degradation of man has fallen within reach of modern technology, as Günther Anders predicted as long ago as the 1950s, when direct interventions in one’s personal biology were unforeseen outside science fiction.
I do not know for sure whether the West is on a collision course with humanism, religious belief in general, or Christianity in particular. Yet no one in his or her right mind can deny that in the last decades the dominant culture has trended toward greater secularization and an abandonment of the Christian defense of human dignity. Gone are the days when no serious division was seen between Christianity and the modern world. Joseph Ratzinger was one of the rare visionaries who detected some signs of diversion as early as the 1950s and ’60s. Modernity has given way to postmodernity; democracy to Tocquevillean soft tyrannies; humanism to a varied array of global posthumanisms. If the West, dominated by an unholy alliance of transnational technocracy, posthumanism and materialism, does not change course, humanists and religious believers would be wrong to stop defending mankind, even if their defense would elicit hostile reactions from Western elites and members of the public.
The people who believe in man must seriously engage in reasoned debate with the scientific innovators who have turned their backs on humanity. Nonetheless, it would be realistic to expect that substantial common ground with defenders of human manipulation and experimentation will become more elusive as time goes on—witness the increasing disagreement on fundamentals even in the ordinary politics of the European Union and the United States. So, while it may seem insurmountable to dissuade those who claim that octopuses possess personhood or that infanticide should be allowed in certain cases, the real believers in man, especially Catholics, should never stop defending humanity. As a lawyer I recognize that the January 24 decision of the European Court of Human Rights that upheld Italy’s ban on surrogate motherhood has many nuances and complexities. Yet, while the judges did not deny Mrs. Campanelli’s supposed right to a child, in the end, by ruling against her, they have indirectly defended common humanity. We should take heart from James Kalb who reminds us that, “The future belongs to those who accept the truth about man and the nature of things.”