Archive for February, 2010

A Day in the Life

I only met Ben and Anna Hatke once, around eight years ago or so. I hardly talked much with them, but I took an instant liking to them, something that is a rare occurrence with me. They are artists, acrobats, musicians, and cartoonists, the sort of people you’d like to hang around with, just to see what they will do next. In Ben’s case, this may well be a series of backflips, or breathing fire.

A little while back, I became aware that Ben and Anna publish weblogs, which have become regular stops for me online. And somewhere along the line someone gave Anna a stack of old Caelum et Terras, which I am told she read through avidly.

Recently, Ben took part in an online “hourly comics” forum with some other cartoonists. The delightful results can be seen here.  I was inspired to try my hand at the subject; all but my oldest and youngest children also began the hourly comic, but alas, they all petered out midmorning. I made it through, though and thought I’d share the results: click here (it’s a PDF).

(Ben Hatke’s blog, Art and Adventure, can be found here . His portfolio is here . And Anna’s blog, A Shortcut to Mushrooms, can be seen here ).

—Daniel Nichols

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Moral Idiots

I recently joined the Coalition for Clarity, a group of mostly Catholic bloggers opposed to torture and to those Catholics who, in defiance of clear Church teaching, defend the use of torture, whatever euphemism they adopt for it. The Coalition was founded by Erin Manning, under the inspiration of Mark Shea, who for years has tirelessly exposed the errors of what he calls “the Rubber Hose Right”.

Mr Shea has what I call a “sar-charism”, a great gift for the sarcastic turn of phrase. I cannot say that I have never seen him get carried away with it and descend into mere name calling, but for the most part he skewers the sort of blowhards who need a good skewering.

Ms. Manning, in an early post on the Coalition website, described torture apologists as “moral imbeciles”. This provoked some reaction from those who thought she should be more conciliatory. What good does it do to offend?, one poster wondered. Shouldn’t we try to evangelize, to reach out?

I have written of torture a couple of times here, and once described its defenders as “moral idiots”. No one objected to that, but I would like to address the use of strong language here.

Let me note that I am generally in favor of irenic disputation. When I was younger I may have enjoyed a good polemical knockout, but I have long tired of it. Arguments weary me. And particularly religious arguments: I am a sentimental ecumenist, all in favor of dialogue and finding common ground.

That said, there is a time for dialogue and a time for prophetic denunciation.

I’m afraid we have become numbed-down, inured to those nice men in their well-tailored suits calmly defending “enhanced interrogation”. To paraphrase Juli Loesch Wiley, “enhanced interrogation” means torture, the way “collateral damage” means dead civilians. Because support for torture is so widespread in our society it starts to seem normal, not so crazy. But madness is madness, no matter how many of our neighbors are infected. Just because the vast majority of Americans believe the US was justified in bombing civilian populations in World War II does not mean it was not a war crime. Just because most Americans believe abortion ought to be legal does not mean it is not murder. And just because most Americans believe that torturing terror suspects is justifiable does not mean that it is not an intrinsically evil act. To be concerned that apologists for evil will be offended, have their poor feelings hurt, when someone calls their moral density for what it is is to grant too much, to imply that good and reasonable people  can come to different conclusions on whether one can torture a man.

But it really isn’t like that. It’s not as if we are disagreeing about how to settle the federal deficit, or whether baseball or football is the superior sport (though the obvious and objective answer to that is “baseball, of course”). It is more like talking to someone who proposes that the solution to third world hunger and overpopulation is for the poor to eat their children. I don’t care if he is offended when I point out that this is insane and evil. I don’t care if the member of the North American Man Boy Love Association, who holds that pedophilia is normal and healthy, is offended when I say he is a pervert. And those nice men in their suits, who hold it good and moral to hang a man by his wrists from the ceiling, to threaten his children, to pour cold water on his naked body in a freezing room, to deprive him of sleep for days, to pour water into his lungs until he is half drowned, or the rest of the horrors we know have been perpetrated in our name? I’m supposed to be sensitive to their hurt feelings ?  Yes, I’m sure they are traumatized. No doubt it is worse than waterboarding. But they are moral idiots, and they need to hear that they are moral idiots.

After all, Our Lord, who is- literally- love incarnate, did not hesitate to use harsh language- whited sepulchers, vipers, sons of the Devil- when the situation warranted. The torture apologists, at least in the public forum, are not the sort of broken sinners to whom Christ extended gentle mercy. They are more like the Pharisees, surely in need of a good skewering.

—Daniel Nichols

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(A guest post by Peter A. Kwasniewski of Wyoming Catholic College)

Cloning and some other experimental or therapeutic procedures that constitute a direct assault on the human person’s dignity have been condemned by the Church’s Magisterium, but the case is not so clear with the genetic engineering of organisms more broadly speaking.  In the Holy Father’s discourse for the 35th Assembly of the Worldwide Medical Association in 1983, we read that certain genetic manipulations violate the person’s rightful autonomy by reducing a human life to an object.1  One could ask, more broadly: even if no non-human organism has the kind of inherent rights that distinguish persons from non-persons, should any natural thing ever be reduced to the status of a mere object?  In his message for the World Day of Peace on 1st January 1990, the Pope said the following:

We can only look with deep concern at the enormous possibilities of biological research.  We are not yet in a position to assess the biological disturbance that could result from indiscriminate genetic manipulation and from the unscrupulous development of new forms of plant and animal life, to say nothing of unacceptable experimentation regarding the origins of human life itself.  It is evident to all that in any area as delicate as this, indifference to fundamental ethical norms, or their rejection, would lead mankind to the very threshold of self-destruction.

In an address to participants at a convention in 1982 on biological experimentation sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Holy Father did not directly engage the question of the licitness and prudence of gene modification, but seemed to take for granted the licitness of at least some procedures, repeating that research and application must be governed by universal moral norms (which are, to a large extent, left unspecified in this address).  An endorsement of genetically modified organisms [GMOs] is implicit in the statement: “I wish to recall . . . the important advantages that come from the increase of food products and from the formation of new vegetal species for the benefit of all, especially people most in need.”2

The procedure’s moral permissibility would appear to be upheld by the Magisterium, if we may regard as signs the amount of favorable discussion that has taken place under the auspices of the Vatican, as well as the largely optimistic treatment found in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (nn. 472–480).3

However, the debate is not exhausted by settling the question of licitness.  It is one thing to decide on the simple morality of GMOs—that is, whether or not fashioning such things is per se immoral—and another to make a prudential decision about the wisdom of their development, usage, and multiplication.  A perusal of the relevant Vatican documentation indicates how carefully endorsements are hedged about with cautionary notes and conditions.4  As always, if Church officials take a stance in regard to a strictly prudential matter such as the use of GMOs, they do so as offering their personal opinion—based, undoubtedly, on some legitimate reasons, but not binding on Catholics who evaluate the concrete situation differently.  The non-sinfulness of a given technology does not entail the desirability of its deployment.  For example, if a new technology would allow a cost-effective substitution of computers for bus drivers and train engineers, one could still doubt the wisdom of wiping out thousands of jobs that bring wages to workers and put a human face on an otherwise impersonal system.  I will come back later to this modern temptation of doing certain things mainly because we have figured out how to do them.  We exult in our triumphant dominion, but often fail to ask probing and uncomfortable questions about the potential dark side of our triumph.

We can sum up in three points what has been said so far about magisterial interventions.  First, it is one thing for the Holy Father to address a question with an explicit intention to determine the answer for all Catholics, and another thing for him to speak of some matter in a more hypothetical vein, offering his own judgment.5  This latter ought to be taken seriously, but it does not yet amount to definitive teaching.

Second, if the pope were to state that a particular form of technology (such as GMOs) is a positive benefit and should be deployed on a wide scale, this could only be a prudential judgment on his part, not a doctrinal one; the pope has no competency to select, much less command the use of, secular means for secular ends (though clearly he may forbid Catholics to use any morally dubious or disordered means, whether directed to good or to bad ends).  Put differently, for the use of GMOs to be obligatory, it would have to be proved that only by their use could poverty or food shortages be solved.  Even the most vigorous promoter of GMOs would not honestly be able to assert this, since in contingent human affairs there are many possible solutions, and it is often better morally to adopt a materially less satisfactory solution. 6 

Third, what a Congregation or a Council or a particular curial official declares cannot be taken as the Holy See’s or Holy Father’s position; much less can it be taken as a definitive magisterial pronouncement until further, well-known criteria have been met.

General thoughts of a Catholic

In mid-November 2003, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace held a conference in Rome on “Genetically Modified Organisms and the Social Doctrine of the Church,” bringing together 67 “international experts.” 7  What I find really striking about the trend of the debate over GMOs among ethicists and scientists, exemplified in the reports I read about the conference, is the economist premises of most parties to the discussion.  The first questions are rarely disinterested ones such as: Are GMOs potentially disastrous for the environment and for the animals, including human beings, who will consume modified crops?  Could such modifications be an assault on the integrity of created being?  Is man authorized, even by his God-given dominion over nature, so to enter the innermost stuff of things and manipulate it?  These are the questions that thinkers and believers pose.  But the first questions in most discussions have tended to be: Can we find adequate ways of feeding the burgeoning poor of the Third World unless we have recourse to GMOs?  Will GMOs help poorer countries lift themselves out of low productivity?  In short, does the world economic situation demand GMOs?  Thus, for example, Fr. Gonzalo Miranda, Dean of the School of Bioethics of the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum, remarked in an interview: “If GMOs represent a real opportunity to foster the development of all countries, especially the neediest, it would be a real moral and solidaristic duty to favor their dissemination.” 8  “Resistance is a mixed bag of hypersensitivity to food safety, and a European agenda of protectionism,” commented US Ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson.  “Meanwhile people are dying in Africa.” 9

Yet we cannot simply undertake, systematically and globally, what is unquestionably the most breathtaking human modification of the natural environment in the history of agriculture without thorough, long-term, international, multifaceted research into every aspect of the problem.  Unfortunately, this is exactly what has not been done, and will not be done, as long as the wealthier regimes and their agri-business supporters are holding the reins.  A revealing article by F. William Engdahl in Current Concerns summarizes the synergy that unites the interests of the most powerful nations and of the most aggressive GMO companies, such as Monsanto. 10  “Most shocking is the near total absence of fundamental independent research on the possible effects on humans and animals of introducing GM substances into the food chain,” writes Engdahl, who goes on to summarize the few such studies that have been done, all of them warning urgently against the present rapid deployment of GMOs and identifying actual or potential GM-related damage to organisms.  Engdahl also notes the unsettling, though not surprising, fact that unfavorable research has been quickly stifled by the combined pressure of commercial and political interests.  Outspoken researchers have quickly lost their jobs. 11

No wonder John Paul II, in a discourse on biological experimentation, warned against “every economic or political opportunism which reproduces the schemes of an old colonialism in a new scientific and technical edition.”12  At the conference of November 2003, a similar warning was sounded by Fr. Roland Lesseps, formerly a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans and now a scientist in Zambia:

There are other and more suitable ways to feed a hungry world than adopting a potentially dangerous technocratic approach.  Food is not merely another economic commodity governed in its production and distribution by the laws of the market. . . .  [G]enetic modification does not meet the tests of the social teaching of the Church for genuine integral development that respects human rights and the order of creation.

The spectre of consequentialism looms in pro-GMO arguments as in so many other arguments over global issues.  No matter if we risk irreparable damage to the natural world; no matter if we risk unforeseen, gradual side-effects that our controlled experiments could not have revealed; no matter if we are gambling with the gift of creation—there are people who need food and so we’ve got to multiply it.  The old-fashioned choices were bread from hard work and bread from heaven, one for the body, one for the soul.  The new choice is bread from technology.  It would be a dubious advance.  The truth least often proclaimed in discussions of GMOs is the truth that matters most: the main guarantor of poverty in the Third World, the ultimate source of the profound social unrest, cultural flux, and government futility we see all over the globe, is not inadequate agricultural technology, much less overpopulation.  It is social injustice rooted in massive political untruths.  Due to First World colonialism and its modern version, the “global village” (which Timothy Radcliffe OP has more aptly named the “global pillage”), starving people in one country are indirect slaves of wealthy people elsewhere, whose trash bins hold enough uneaten food to feed the poor twice over.  One can often find the origins of misery and overcrowding, and one can always find their compounding agents, in the theories of human life, of goods and values, state and society, money and commerce, espoused by Americans and Europeans of the modern age—theories that conveniently support the lifestyles of those who are “favored by fortune.”

In company with all the modern popes, we must have the courage and clear-sightedness to address the political-economic roots of the Third World crisis.  If we do not, how shall we resist the temptation whispered to us by the devil: “Use your money and brains to find a technological solution, and then you don’t have to change your decadent way of life, you don’t need to repudiate your ideologies!  You can multiply bread in the wilderness.  See, then, it’s not a win-loss scenario, but a win-win; we don’t have to fight over the pieces of a small pie, we just have to multiply the pies, and everybody will get some.”13  It is a devil’s bargain, for the devil is capable of guessing far better the effects of our selfish and short-sighted actions than we are, and he is only too glad to relieve temporary crises if he can gamble for long-term disasters.  He will be pleased if multinational conglomerates can, by owning a greater and greater share of the world’s plant species, dominate local economies and disenfranchise independent farmers.

At this point, someone might raise a double objection: first, that the entire world was “poor” a few centuries ago, not because of any exploitation but just because of a shortage of overall production; second, that capitalism, at its best, has increased the general sum of possessions across all classes, and at its worst, has merely enriched certain sectors and has left other sectors as they would always have been.  This argument is fallacious.  The miserable poverty that afflicts the masses in Mexico City or other such places in South America results from industrialization and urbanization, which are capitalist phenomena.  The simple and honorable poverty in which most men have lived throughout most of history is not of the grinding, horrifying sort described by Dickens in Hard Times.  On the other hand, it is true that not all poverty can be linked to Western structures of sin.  Nevertheless, the links are more numerous and more profound than most people are aware of.

In any event, there can be much hypocrisy involved in this rhetoric about “we’ve got to help poor African countries produce more food, so let’s genetically modify crops to produce bigger yields.” The real problem is not whether you can get fifty bushels or one hundred bushels from a field of wheat. The real problem, as the social encyclicals point out, is structures of sin.  One hundred bushels of wheat will fill some bellies over a short period; it won’t dissolve the structures that lead to mass poverty in the first place. Every Catholic has to bear witness that the crisis of the poor in the Third World and elsewhere is, to a large extent, our own fault—the fault of colonizers and neo-imperialists, of ideologies imported from Europe and America, of efforts to “help out” with contraceptives—and will never clear up until we reform ourselves.

Moreover, let us not lose sight of the less-than-honorable motivations of major GMO proponents, who are well positioned to profit enormously from the success of their enterprise.  Is it not a flagrant violation of social justice that a company should own a species of plant and charge people for its ongoing use?  In the past, a company has sold seeds to a farmer, and then the farmer owned the seeds and their produce.  By contrast, a GM seed is patented, and the company that designed it holds a stake in all the future seed that bears this genetic signature.  It seems, too, that techniques have been developed for designing seeds with an internal shut-down mechanism, so that after a number of generations the species would become infertile, compelling repurchase from the original manufacturer.  With such tactics, it will not be long before the world’s farmers gather in droves to pay their tithes to the Lords of Monsanto.

Particular thoughts of a philosopher

At first glance, the theory of evolution might seem to support the view that modifying an organism isn’t a big deal. After all, the evolutionist assumes that “Nature” has been modifying organisms more or less at random for millions of years, and the world is all right. Why can’t man play the role of natural selection, and “select” in favor of a bigger soybean, a worm-proof corn?  I will say a little later why human beings are foolish to try to “imitate Nature” in this manner, but it seems to me that this kind of evolutionary thinking remains at the surface of things, and does not engage the perennial issues.

If one takes seriously the Aristotelian-Thomistic notion of substantial form, to manipulate the material elements of a thing is an assault on its formal integrity.  On Aristotelian grounds, no one can actually modify a substantial form. But a scientist can certainly change the material elements, the “stuff”, because that is what our scientific instruments give us access to. No one can make me more or less a man, or change what it means to be a man, but he can chop off my arm, or reshape my nose, or pump drugs or hormones into me, or transplant an organ into my body. So too with plants: one can engineer their “stuff”, their DNA, but this will not ever bring about more than a variety, or at most, a combination of two closely-related organisms, or a modification of one species by some trait belonging to another species.

It is never the species in the philosophical sense that is being changed, but rather the coding that regulates the material unfolding of what is precontained in the form. And forms, as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas recognized,can hold within themselves great capacities for development that are not always actualized. So there is plenty of room in the traditional philosophy of nature to account for the kind of experimentation geneticists are doing and the results they get, just as there is ample room in Thomistic metaphysics for the kind of developments that scientists typically claim as evidence for evolution.

The problem is, for every change we make, we risk initiating a snowball effect in future generations that we cannot expect to know ahead of time. How could we know, with certainty, what our changes will provoke—in other plants, in insects, in animals who eat the crops, in people who eat the crops or the animals? When modified corn and soybeans test-planted in northern Europe got mixed up with regular plants, and hence got intothe food supply of the animals, people in those regions began to suffer hitherto unknown food allergies. This is not surprising. Allergies occur when the body rejects some organic matter deemed foreign, potentially dangerous; “this is something we can’t deal with,” the body’s systems are saying. The whole natural world could be ready to cry out, similarly, “these artificially-modified organisms are not something we can deal with in the long run!”

Even if genetic manipulation of an organism is not in itself morally off limits, a basic reverence for creation as it comes from God’s hands—respect for the natures that things have, awareness of the limits of organic tolerance, caution about unforeseen consequences—should be at work to dampen our enthusiasm for the project.  A failure to cultivate an appropriately cautious attitude would itself be a sin against prudence, whatever may be said of the scientific procedures involved. Let’s not try to make a plant bigger, stronger, more resistant, more winter-proof, etc. Instead let’s use, with ingenuity and a spirit of gratitude, what is already available in the ecosystem. If some version of the evolutionary hypothesis is true, then the world has evolved what it can deal with right now. If that hypothesis is false, a fortiori the species we’ve got are what God intends for the world, at least at this time. In either case, technological interference is a bad idea and deserves opposition. Even if there were a slight chance of serious long-term problems, that would be more than sufficient to defeat the wisdom of GMO implementation.

One wishes that the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace would get some heavy-duty moral theologians and natural philosophers down in Rome to wrestle with the big questions, unencumbered by prior political commitments.14  Perhaps their reflection would lead them to advocate a stance of utmost vigilance, out of a legitimate love for the natural world, that fragile, magnificent gift of God.  Respect for God’s creation would seem to demand, at very least, that one should not tamper with the genetic structure of living things.  That is their inner sanctuary.  As Wendell Berry recounts:

Wes Jackson of the Land Institute said once, thinking of the nuclear power and genetic engineering industries, “We ought to stay out of the nuclei.”  I remember that because I felt that he was voicing, not scientific intelligence, but a wise instinct: an intuition, common enough among human beings, that some things are and ought to be forbidden to us, off-limits, unthinkable, foreign, properly strange.

Berry goes on to note the naiveté of believing in, or the hypocrisy of appealing to, the “freedom” and “neutrality” of scientific research:

A good many people, presumably, would have chosen to “stay out of the nuclei,” but that was a choice they did not have.  When a few scientists decided to go in, they decided for everybody.  This “freedom of scientific inquiry” was immediately translated into the freedom of corporate and/or governmental exploitation.  And so the freedom of the originators and exploiters has become, in effect, the abduction and imprisonment of all the rest of us.  Adam was the first, but not the last, to choose for the whole human race.15

Objections and replies

Let us return to the most common objection against my view.  “Feeding the poor is so pressing a task, so noble an end, that it fully justifies the use of whatever means are available, unless there is something intrinsically immoral about them.  Thus, if you cannot prove to me that GMOs are simply immoral, I conclude that their use is mandated.”

The flaw in the argument is this.  It may be the case that a particular GMO seed will not, as a matter of fact, prove environmentally harmful.  However, unless we are certain of this fact, and in general, until we could be certain that we are genuinely entitled, as stewards of the natural world, to break into and modify the fundamental structures of things, we have an obligation to exercise extreme caution and to refrain from activity.  The application of technology without adequate assurance of safety is itself immoral.  What would constitute adequate assurance in a matter as subtle, complex, and grave as this one is probably such that it could never, in principle, be attained, and so the legitimacy of using GMO products would remain perpetually questionable.

The burden of my argument is this: genetic modification ought to worry people simply because of what it is—a way of manipulating natural codes we do not fully understand, with effects we may not be able to envision much less control.  All that we do is going to be irreversibly perpetuated in the wild once the seeds are out there, as has already happened and will continue to happen at an accelerating pace.16  This is a much more serious matter than, say, pollution caused by cars or airplanes.  All engines cause pollution, and pollution in general is a bad thing.  But there is only a remote connection between the use of any particular machine and the harm of the earth’s atmosphere.  The atmosphere can handle a lot of pollution, pollution isn’t self-reproducing, and finally, we and our animals don’t directly consume pollution, though it affects us in a variety of ways.  With GM seeds intended for the open fields—seeds that will grow into plants bearing many more seeds, until, by predictable patterns of consumption and random distribution, these new varieties come to be present in the entire food supply—there is a far more immediate, and a far deeper, concern.

To turn the objection on its head: if you cannot tell me that you are certain that this exercise of mastery over nature will not be a catastrophe in the long run, I can argue with considerable probability that it is immoral to attempt it.  Something similar can be said about the development of nuclear weapons.  Had the physicists in question known or even suspected what they were going to end up with, this foreknowledge would have rendered gravely immoral any effort of theirs directed toward inventing a nuclear weapon.  Had they known or suspected the future evil, perhaps they would never have consented to begin the project, let alone bring it to completion.  Perhaps.  One wonders if modern man will ever learn his lessons.

A related objection would run like this: “Maybe I don’t know enough about GMOs, but I don’t see a clear line in your argument to separate the high-tech processes from the things that farmers routinely to do make their crops richer and sturdier.  After all, if you design a disease-resistant carrot or something like that, aren’t you perfecting a thing, and so bringing it closer to its ideal condition?  At any rate, we have a divine mandate to subdue the earth, presumably meaning that we should harness nature’s forces to serve the legitimate needs of mankind.  I don’t find a compelling argument that gene modification crosses a clear moral threshold.”17

My response is this.  What farmers have always done is to combine or separate strains already given in nature, to make a stronger plant with bigger yield, and so forth.  This new strain, though produced by artful interventions, is no less natural, and no more a product of human engineering strictly speaking, than the original strains.  Breeders do the same with animals to produce “better” varieties.  Whatever the change may be—a healthier grain with a bigger yield, a new strain of rose with a captivating scent, a fatter and meatier pig—man has stayed out of the nucleus; he has not profaned the sanctuary where an organism’s destiny is determined.  He has merely, though cleverly, orchestrated which genes, among those that are naturally present, are going to dominate through reproduction.  Breeding brings into proximity strains that could have naturally bred; whatever the results are, they are entirely secundum naturam—in accord, that is, with the natures of the organisms.  Specialized crops or bred animals, when released into the wild to mingle with native varieties, revert to native characteristics with surprising swiftness.  That is because nothing was really done to the genetic blueprint of the species; its possibilities were artfully drawn out, and nature can just as easily draw them back in.

Genetic modification, in contrast, is an “inside” operation that touches on the most fundamental material identity of an organism, the “program” it follows in living.  We have now the power to do this, but have we the warrant?  Compare atomic energy and nuclear bombs: we discovered how to make a radioactive explosion equivalent to thousands of conventional bombs, but can we, by any stretch of reasoning, seriously maintain that this was part of our divine mandate to subdue the earth?  It is, on the contrary, a perversion of our godlike image, a “playing at God” rather than a cooperation with Him.  If we were not habituated from childhood to place an implicit trust in all the goals and means of scientific research, we would feel an instinctive repugnance to the very idea of “modifying organisms.”  Berry quotes apposite lines from C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength: “Dreams of the far future destiny of man were dragging up from its shallow and unquiet grave the old dream of Man as God.  The very experiences of the dissecting room and the pathological laboratory [one would have to add now: the geneticist’s laboratory] were breeding a conviction that the stifling of all deep-set repugnancies was the first essential for progress.”18

The goal of producing the “perfect carrot” is another example of Cartesian idealism, as if the natures of material things were indefinitely perfectible, as if man for his part could find the key to an endless perfectibility, appealing to “compassion for the poor” as his motivation (though in one’s idealism, one shouldn’t forget about owners and investors who would collect a handsome profit from sales of “perfect carrot” seed).

I am all in favor of measures for the poor, even radical ones; but the Church has never ceased to preach, and to demonstrate in action, that the measures must be above all social and spiritual, not technological.  A technological solution is often a way of keeping bad lifestyles intact while stopping up the cracks in the dam so that the inevitable collapse of Western capitalist culture can be postponed a little while longer.  Getting back to carrots: God created the carrot’s nature, whether directly by a creative act, or mediately through virtutes seminales implanted in more basic creatures.  In either case, it exists as He wishes it to exist in the ecosystem.  Maybe the carrot’s imperfections, if it has any that a carrot shouldn’t have, are linked to the fall of man, since the whole of nature mysteriously fell when its lord and master fell; maybe they stem merely from the inevitable imperfection of each and every material thing as such, since prime matter is an indeterminate potency that substantial form cannot altogether master.  In either case, the carrot (or any other species) in its very limitations is more than sufficient for our needs, if we farm according to sound agricultural principles.  By trying to improve upon it from within, we cross the line from stewardship, which receives thankfully and works diligently, to an arrogant emulation of God’s creative power.

In the final analysis, GMOs are a potent manifestation of the attitude of the “mastery of nature” found in Francis Bacon and René Descartes, which is plainly Luciferian and in no way Christian.  For Bacon, final causality exists only in the case of man, who freely acts for an end.  In the case of other bodies, finality must be totally dismissed, for it is no more than a misleading metaphor.  Bacon thus denies that anything in the natural world truly acts for an end.  But if nature has no end, if it is simply malleable matter, there could be nothing wrong with reshaping it to correspond, as closely as technology allows, to man’s freely-chosen intentions.  One might even say that if something doesn’t have an end, it is a good thing to give it one.  The male chauvinists used to say: “A woman needs a man to give her direction.”  Similarly, the Baconian master of nature says: “What we call ‘plants’ and ‘animals’ are just raw materials waiting to be directed, channeled, used.”  The moment we let go of formal and final causalities, the basis for ethical limitations is abandoned.  If a plant or animal has no nature or essence—if it is simply matter obeying laws—then there is no reason why man, who has discovered those laws, should not reconstitute the matter as he wishes, for his own purposes.  There is simply nothing else that deserves to be taken into consideration.

To be skeptical about this attitude does not mean that one must be a romantic or a purist toward the natural world, viewing human intervention as necessarily or even generally bad, and, in contrast, thinking it optimal to leave everything untouched in its wild state.  Were this true, even primitive agriculture would count as a betrayal of naturalness, and hunting and gathering would count as aggression.  But there is good reason to see the modern (post-Reformation) attitude toward and treatment of nature as a departure from a healthy Catholic attitude, which recognizes in the world both a metaphysical symbol of the beauty of God and a storehouse for human needs, an incentive to human industry.  This is what one finds, for example, in St. Bonaventure’s authentically Franciscan cosmology.19

When we are uncertain about what is right and what is wrong on a difficult issue, we must not abdicate our social responsibility out of awe before the high priests of statecraft or salesmanship, but keep our freedom of judgment intact while searching for the truth.  At all costs we should not fall prey to the universal assumption that we might as well try out new technology even if we still have some disturbing questions about its long-term consequences; “we can do it, therefore we should do it.”  This is what got us nuclear weapons, contraceptives, and other technological burdens.  It might prove no different with GMOs.  As Fr. Lawrence Dewan OP has written: “some technical devices, viewed not merely as works of art but as expressions of total human appetite, can be the very embodiment of perversion.  Technology can be put in the service of virtue, but it can also be put in the service of vice, i.e. greed, unscrupulous power, the lascivious life, massive injustice.”20

My plea, then, is a plea for caution, for serious investigation, for clear thinking.  Without this, we may stumble ahead, with all our good intentions, into a major ecological crisis for which absolutely no remedy exists.21


1 The discourse, given in French, is contained in Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, vol. VI,2 (July-December 1983), 917–23.

2 The text, in English, may be found in Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, vol. V,3 (July-December 1982), 889–93, n. 6, emphasis in original.

3 It cannot be overlooked that the vagueness and ambivalence of most of the official statements to date render a clear-cut stance, whether for or against, hard to maintain.  I have begun to wonder if this is not an unintentional admission on the part of the people who write these documents that the problem is too complicated for them, and that they would prefer not to get too involved in the business of discernment and judgment.  If so, it may be that such statements are ultimately more a disservice than a service to people who are actually attempting such discernment and judgment.

4 For example, the Compendium of Social Doctrine states that man is permitted to intervene to improve characteristics or properties of living beings, but then says that any intervention that may have a forceful and widespread impact on organisms should not be enacted lightly or irresponsibly (n. 473).  But what does this mean, concretely?  If genetic modification is not an example of a procedure with deep, far-reaching, and worrisome implications for the environment, what is?

5 The papal intention is clear from such circumstances as the manner of speaking, the type of document employed, and the frequency of a doctrine’s reiteration.

6 Cf. Compendium of Social Doctrine, n. 474: “[O]ne must avoid falling into the error of believing that only the spreading of the benefits connected with the new techniques of biotechnology can solve the urgent problems of poverty and underdevelopment that still afflict so many countries on the planet.”

7 The proceedings of this conference have been published in a volume entitled OGM: Minaccia o Speranza? and published by ART.  These proceedings join two earlier publications of importance for our subject: the Pontifical Academy for Life’s Animal and Plant Biotechnology: New Frontiers and New Responsibilities (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1999) and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ Genetically Modified Plants for the Production of Food (2001).  Both of these may be regarded as generally in favor of genetic modification.  The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2004) contains a section on biotechnologies, nn. 472–480.  Finally, in September 2004, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the US Embassy to the Holy See sponsored another conference: “Feeding the Hungry: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology.”  The build-up in pro-GM propaganda can be seen simply in the progression of the conference titles.  One may be forgiven, I hope, for thinking Vatican officials guilty of naïveté; does it need to be pointed out to them that huge American commercial and political interests are at stake in the deployment of GMOs?

8 See Zenit report ZE03112104.

9 In an interview with Delia Gallagher for the Zenit News Service.  It is to be noted that the US Embassy to the Holy See has played a front-ranking, even aggressive role in the promotion of GMOs at the Vatican.

10 See “Gene-manipulated Seeds: Are We Losing Our Food Security Too?”, Current Concerns, July 2004, no. 4, p. 1.

11 Ibid.

12 Insegnamenti V.3, 893 (see note 2 supra).

13 I am paraphrasing some comments made by a well-known advocate of the free market; see http://www.acton.org/publicat/randl/interview.php?id=14.

14 See notes 5 and 7.

15 Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2001), 76–77.

16 See the summary of inevitable GM crop pollution in Engdahl, p. 1.

17 The words in the Book of Genesis about subduing and having dominion over the earth (cf. 1:26–28) have got to be among the most badly abused verses in the entire sacred book. Listen, for example, to how Fr. Gonzalo Miranda glosses it: “Some people think that genetic manipulation of living beings is an ethically reprehensible act because it tends to alter what is natural, but the Church’s anthropological view leads to different conclusions. . . .  God has put man as a gardener of creation, who must act with responsibility to cultivate and take care of creation.”  Do we not encounter in these words the fallacy that Greek logicians long ago called begging the question?

18 Cited in Life is a Miracle, 75.

19 See my article “The World as Symbol of Divine Beauty in the Thought of St. Bonaventure,” Faith & Reason 24/25 (1999–2000): 31–54.

20 Antimodern, Ultramodern, Postmodern: A Plea for the Perennial,” Etudes Maritainiennes \ Maritain Studies 9 (1993), 7–28; 24.  Fr. Dewan goes on to say: “Technology, by virtue of the very richness it has attained to in our time, forces us to face up to the essence of morality, to ask what questions we should really be asking.  Should we merely consider: is the undertaking feasible?  Will it work?  Or will we be the sort of people who ask whether it is a procedure which accords with a noble idea of humanity?”

21 The author wishes to express his thanks for comments received from readers of an earlier draft: Dr. Helen Watt of the Linacre Centre, Prof. Celia Deane-Drummond of the Centre for Religion and the Biosciences, Philip Lawler, Philip Zaleski and Stratford Caldecott.  My mention of these readers does not imply that they agree with the opinions I have expressed.

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