Catholic bioethics is based upon both faith and reason. “Faith and reason,” Pope John Paul II once wrote, “are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio) Thus, the long Catholic tradition contains much reasoned reflection on human experience – reflection which has discerned a natural ethic which is sometimes called the natural law. However, the Catholic tradition also contains much reflection on the wisdom which is found in what the Church recognises as divine revelation. This includes the Bible and above all the example of Jesus Christ. Noting that Jesus healed the sick, for example, many Catholic health and aged care services proudly proclaim that they are continuing the healing mission of Jesus.
In the Catholic vision, faith and reason are not opposed, but rather complement and perfect one another. Pope Benedict XVI once noted that “faith consolidates, integrates and illumines the heritage of truth that human reason acquires.” (Benedict XVI, General Audience of 16 June 2010) At the same time, reason may also protect faith from such distortions as fundamentalism, magical thinking and sectarianism. (Benedict XVI, Address to British Parliament on 17 September 2010)
Above all, faith and reason reveal the inherent dignity of each and every human being, no matter how sick, aged, frail or disabled we may be. In the Bible, the book of Genesis records that God created human beings “in the image of God.” (Gen 1:27) In the Catholic tradition, it is this imago Dei – the image of God which is present in every human being – which is the ultimate foundation of human dignity.
The Catholic tradition also affirms the social nature of the human person. We are not solitary beings. Instead, we belong together: in families, in communities, in nations, and within the international community. This in turn establishes rights and responsibilities. For example, we have a right to health care, though this right may be limited by the resources of the community. We also have responsibilities to one another, such as providing the resources to satisfy other people’s rights. From this perspective, Catholic health, aged care and community services commit themselves to strive to meet the human need for health care and other services.
Among God’s many gifts to us, Catholics believe that the greatest of these gifts is our life. Reflecting on God’s gift of life to us, Catholic bioethics holds that we have a moral responsibility to use reasonable means to preserve our life, but that we have a moral right to refuse treatment which is either futile or overly burdensome. From starting points like these, Catholic bioethics contributes to moral discourse in every stage of the life continuum from conception to natural death. This Catholic perspective strives to be holistic and to take into consideration all the needs of the individual – physical, emotional, psychological, social, and spiritual. The Catholic approach to care is marked by great emphasis on the importance of pastoral and spiritual care.
The principles of Catholic social teaching also underpin the guidelines offered in Catholic bioethics. These include solidarity, the common good, subsidiarity, participation, preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, and stewardship.
Catholic bioethics makes a significant contribution to the moral debates in our society that are critical in this age of advancing technology. It reminds us of our meaning and purpose in life, and guides us towards its fulfillment, not just as individuals but as people in community.