DALLAS (CNS) — The head of the Pontifical Council for Life urged the U.S. bishops to stress the human dimension that is under threat of being ignored in the continued search for technological progress.
“New technologies, by reason of the satisfaction they bring, their complexity, and their great efficiency have become the touchstone by which today’s ethical challenges are judged,” said Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia Feb. 6 in Dallas, where the bishops were gathered for their 26th workshop on bioethical issues.
“The promise of a longer life, and even of immortality is the most convincing argument that technological society can offer,” Archbishop Paglia said, adding the rhetorical question, “Why should we turn down the possibility of overcoming all limits that technology offers?”
Archbishop Paglia cited 20th-century philosopher Hans Jonas, who fled Germany shortly after the Nazis took power in 1933, whose writings “influenced the development of our awareness today that we are stewards of creation.” Jonas saw situations “where clearly our decisions must be based on much more than mechanistic technological and economic analysis,” he said.
“As we respond to what for too long we have called ‘challenges,’ we must remember that we are not being called to a conflict but rather to a rebuilding, a reconstruction of what it means to be human,” Archbishop Paglia said. “Our first task is not to identify enemies but rather to find companions on the journey, person with whom we can share our path.”
The archbishop added, “Even more deeply, we must understand — and understand doesn’t always mean agree with — the wrenching contradictions in which modern man lives.”
The archbishop delivered the keynote on the first evening of the Feb. 6-7 workshop, presented by the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center. The Knights of Columbus provides a grant for the workshop, which this year had as its theme “Healing Persons in a Wounded Culture.” About 200 bishops were in attendance.
Archbishop Paglia cited Pope Francis’ remarks in 2013 likening the church to “a field hospital after battle.”
“It is useless, the archbishop said, “to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to treat his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Treat the wounds, heal the wounds. … And you have to start from the ground up.”
“In an age marked by too much technology, avarice, power and materialism, the word ‘accompany’ makes us think of companionship, sharing and the path we tread together,” Archbishop Paglia said. “For sure we are to establish effective accompaniment for life at every one of its stages. For sure we have to stand against whatever weakens or still worse destroys life or threatens its dignity.”
He pointed to three particular dangers.
One was how, in the future, “health care will be one of the central elements of Western economies by reason of the development of efficient preventive medicine protocols in addition to the traditional combat against specific diseases and assistance in recovery. This approach will be expensive and not widely available. It will work only in a service economy fueled by competition and will leave behind those who have limited access to basic health care,” Archbishop Paglia said.
Another was advances in reproductive technology. “We will soon be able to manage all the variables connected with human reproduction, variables that until now have been left to ‘nature’ or ‘chance,'” he said, wondering aloud about its effect on the “binding affective relationship known as marriage when we can manage the entire process all by ourselves.”
A third danger he cited was the investments in software, neuroscience and artificial intelligence. “Does it still make sense to speak about a basic ‘human nature’ and, if so, how do we do it in a way that is not merely defensive in a world where everyone else believes in technology?” Archbishop Paglia asked.
“Already many think that we have to ‘perfect’ humankind by eliminating individuals who evidence too many things wrong or unsupportable weakness: the handicapped, the elderly, the incurable. Does this mean that the more advanced our technology becomes, the higher we raise the barrier to acceptability and those who are tolerated today will become expendable tomorrow? I hope not.”
He told the bishops, “We have to consider whether the intellectual categories that we as shepherds of souls and preachers of the Gospel use in our life and mission are adequate to address situations that arise in a world that … on a practical level thinks with machines that can be held in the hand and that are incapable of leading us to any reality beyond ourselves.”