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Listen Up

At the end of last week I had the privilege of spending 3 days watching the proceedings of the 5th International Vatican Conference on Health. This year’s theme was “Exploring the Mind, Body, and Soul.” Hopefully I’ll be able to share more about this wonderful conference with you in the coming weeks, but first I really wanted to share with you my favorite part of the conference.

On the 2nd morning of the conference, before they officially started for the day, they had an hour-long round table on the topic of “Human Enhancement”. There was a moderator and four panelists. They started off being coy, saying things like, “Well what IS Human Enhancement?”, and “Aren’t we as humans SUPPOSED to enhance the lives of others? Isn’t that a good thing?” Then they finally got down to talking about what was intended which was the topic of enhancing humans through genetic manipulation.

When you first hear this, it sounds extremely scary, very much like those dystopian future type books you’ve read. To be honest, the majority of these proposed techniques are nothing like that. Most of it is just as scary or tame of a topic as any other medicine. When you hear the word “gene” though, your alarm bells start ringing. Currently we have many medicines that treat the symptoms of genetic diseases, but how wonderful would it be if we could find a therapy that fixes those genes that have either lost proper function or gained an incorrect function? Many hope that these therapies in the future can cure things like cancer, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, hemophilia, or AIDS. That sounds truly amazing!

But, because of those alarm bells in your head, and what we’ve seen of other good technologies being used for bad purposes, this topic has been widely debated for a while now. I’ve listened to a number of debates on the topics, especially from many prominent Catholics including those affiliated with the National Catholic Bioethics Center. Today’s round table was different because not all of the panel was Catholic. In fact, based on their answers (though they never outright said it), the moderator and a priest panelist were the only Catholics. The other three were possibly some other Christian denomination, but two of them definitely didn’t seem to let whatever their religious views are influence their views of pure science.

Even among the Catholic community there is some disagreement about where is “the line” that we should never cross in gene therapy. As was stated in the round table multiple times, there’s not a giant flashing yellow line. It’s much more subtle, and it can vary with the circumstance. There was even a whole discussion on risk versus benefit. We obviously need to make any new therapies as safe as possible, but if your situation is life or death, you would be much more willing to use a riskier procedure.

Despite their differing views on what scientists/doctors should or shouldn’t do, they all had one thing that was important to them, equity. When new therapies do come out, they need to be cheap and widespread. They cannot be only available to the rich elite. When we say human enhancement, it must be making ourselves healthier than our ancestors, NOT enhanced compared to others of our day. They were adamant that we cannot let gene therapies increase the already enormous divide between the rich and the poor that already financially exists today.

This was not an argument I’d heard in those previous debates I’d listened to. Despite it coming from non-Catholics, it seems a pretty Catholic concept and a very good line to draw. Jesus told us to take care of the least of these. We are told in Galatians 3:28 that these earthly divides no longer exist for we are all one in Christ Jesus. These are Christian readings, yet it took these non-Christian gentlemen to bring up these points.

One of the biggest complaints I heard from Catholics online about this conference was “Why would the Vatican host a conference that includes non-Catholics?” There were a number of speakers they had trouble with, many that were secularly famous, but I never heard any complaints against the two non-Christians in this group who openly expressed their disagreement with the Church in the panel. While others were upset that these non-Catholics were included, I thought it was such a powerful advantage. It was my favorite part.

Everyone has God-given gifts. Everyone has things that they can contribute to the world and that we need to listen to. So often we immediately shut people out because of one thing about them, one view they hold. When we do this, we miss out on those gifts that they have. We miss out on seeing the beautiful dignity of that person by labeling them in that way.

This flies in the face of everything Jesus came to teach us. Think of the woman at the well. Imagine if Jesus had seen her and said, “You have committed these sins. You make terrible decisions. You clearly have nothing to contribute to society.” (Obviously that’s not what he did)

I speak a lot about the importance of the Catholic Church and our need to interact with the body of Christ, but we live in a world where not everyone is Catholic. We live in a world of wonderful humans that God created, all of them flawed, but all of them important. Sometimes it can seem easier to retreat into our “safe place” of people who think like us, but it is so important for us to explore beyond our little bubble. We must embrace the world as it is and the people that are in it. There are so many good things that non-Christians can teach us. I speak about Catholic scientists often because there are a lot of them, but there are plenty of non-Christian scientists that I’ve studied throughout the years too. My knowledge of science would be so much more incomplete if I only studied Catholic scientists. Those other men and women are brilliant too.

It can be scary, but just as the apostles went out into the world, they didn’t stay in that upper room with just each other, and neither can we. We need to go out into the world, and we need to truly listen to our brothers and sisters. We need to dialogue with them. This doesn’t mean adopt all of their beliefs, but there are always things we can learn from others, their expertise they can share. Celebrate their God given talents and strengths instead of immediately dismissing them just because they are flawed or have some views against the Church. We are all flawed, and all fall short of the perfection we are called to.