Church, State, Bioethics

[1] Because Lutherans tend to emphasize that even the best of our achievements will be corrupted and tainted by what Helmut Thielicke called our “Babylonian heart,” they should, one might think, be modest in their expectation of any government’s ability to shape and foster a virtuous life among its citizens.

[2] Moreover, politics is not redemptive; no polis can satisfy the deepest needs of human beings nor achieve (in any full sense) the good or virtuous life. This is, however, no reason for understating or undervaluing what politics–as an important aspect of Bonhoeffer’s “penultimate”–can accomplish. And one way to honor the hours and years John Stumme has devoted to the life of the church in relation to the state is to think about what a government such as ours can and should do to shape important issues in bioethics in ways that will be truly humane.

[3] The direction needed will not and can not come about if we think that the state must be entirely “neutral” with respect to moral beliefs (even religiously shaped ones) or visions of “the good life.” No such neutrality is possible, and, hence, Christians need not fear to articulate their understanding in the public sphere. If faith at least sometimes finds the understanding it seeks, then, presumably, that understanding can be communicated even to those who do not themselves share the faith. As Jaroslav Pelikan noted in his last published work, his commentary on Acts, a passage such as Hebrews 11:13 (“by faith we understand . . .”) united pistis and nous in a newly important way for the ancient world–and we should seek to retain that connection.

[4] The concerns of bioethics are too large for us to think through exhaustively here, so I will attend to just one important area of concern: new reproductive technologies. A certain form of argument has become common in our society. It begins with commitment to a principle of autonomy, and we are then told that human beings must have the widest possible freedom to make important life choices. In particular, certain decisions–such as whether to have a child–are of such great personal significance that they should, we are told, be free from constraint. This freedom is not necessarily absolute. It may have to be limited in order to protect others–children born of IVF–from harm. But if there is no persuasive evidence that the technology produces such harm, then government should not intervene or regulate the reproductive industry. And this, in fact, is pretty much the way things stand for now in the United States.

[5] Such an almost entirely unregulated reproductive market might raise moral problems of various sorts. Some people, thinking that childbearing and rearing are appropriate only in the context of marriage, might think that IVF should be limited to married couples. Some might hold that IVF procedures using donor gametes should be forbidden, believing that such procedures would blur important kinship lines or inappropriately bring third parties into a marital relation. Some might argue, on several possible grounds, that surrogacy should be forbidden. Others might contend that those who are carriers of genetic diseases–or who desire a child of a certain sex–should not be permitted to use IVF (and preimplantation genetic diagnosis and screening) to select certain embryos for implantation while discarding others. And some people might think that IVF technology should not be used at all, believing that such a process of “manufacture” threatens the equal human dignity of the child who is produced.

[6] None of these proposed restrictions is a claim about “harms” to parents/producers or children. They enunciate claims about “wrongs,” about ways in which–or so it is thought–we might undermine our humanity or fail to honor the human dignity of the parties involved. But the form of argument that has become common in our bioethical discourse–and that has been used to discourage or oppose any governmental restriction– characterizes all such restraints as too speculative or “symbolic” to be granted public purchase in a pluralistic society. And, of course, it is quite true that such views, were they fully developed, would be grounded in some understanding–whether religious or otherwise–of what is normatively human. They offer, at least implicitly and sometimes explicitly, a vision of what it means for human beings to flourish.

[7] No government can really be neutral among such visions of the good life, nor need it be. If it regulates in order to protect against wrongdoing–and, especially, in order to protect those, such as embryos and fetuses, who are among the weakest and most vulnerable members of our community–it does what the church should ask of it. The purposes of a government that so acts remain “secular” (in the sense that they are limited to the saeculum, this passing age, and are not redemptive or salvific). But they are not neutral with respect to what is good. If law cannot achieve all the good that might be desirable, it can at least restrain certain evils–placing a finger in the dike that holds in check human desire, as Thielicke put it.

[8] The church should articulate, for both policy-makers and citizens more generally, a vision of the human being as neither beast nor god. Because we are not gods, we must attend to how we come into being and go out of being. Because we are not beasts, we can find moral meaning in the relation between the generations. Christians in the first centuries of the church’s life, in order to express the equal dignity of the Son with the Father, learned to confess that the Son was eternally “begotten” of the Father, not “made” by the Father. So also, in order to see the next generation as neither our project nor our product, but as those equal in dignity and being to us, the church needs to press its vision in our public discourse today. And, in fact, our society’s continuing commitment to equal human dignity may depend at least in part upon a willingness to do that. The President’s Council on Bioethics, in one of its reports, stated: “The things we make are not just like ourselves; they are the products of our wills, and their point and purpose is ours to determine. But a begotten child comes into the world just as its parents once did, and is therefore their equal in dignity and humanity.” It would be a shame if this insight, the product of Christian culture, were left to those outside the church to articulate.

[9] Granting all this, however, the church’s first concern–even the first concern of ecclesiastical bureaucracies that make attention to “church and state” their business–should not be whispering in the ear of Caesar. The church’s first concern is for the shaping and forming of her own internal life. “The body of Christ takes up physical space here on earth,” Bonhoeffer says. It is a community set apart for–but also from–the world. It is not the only place where God is at work in the world, for he works also through political rule to sustain the world toward the kingdom of Christ. But the church must itself provide an alternative to all other communities–an alternative to political rule and not only a supporter or advisor of political rule.

[10] The church’s first task is to form the lives of believers into distinctively Christian patterns–so that we learn not to think of human embryos simply as handy resources to serve our medical needs; so that we learn to pray for children in the womb and to welcome them into the church’s community; so that we come to understand that baptism signifies that only God and not we ourselves can be the guarantor of our children’s future; so that we take what we teach about justification seriously enough to think of ourselves as (in Paul Ramsey’s apt words) “fellow fetuses,” and, hence, do not make the worth or status of even the smallest and least developed human beings depend on their capacities or achievements; so that we train ourselves to see children as blessings bestowed upon our love rather than products of our will. Only a church that attempts seriously so to form its common life will actually be in a position to have something useful to say to public officials or to citizens more generally.

Gilbert Meilaender

Gilbert Meilaender is Professor of Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana.