The Pillar on Joe Biden, Science, and Two Catholic Issues
The new Catholic online source for news analysis, The Pillar, is always an interesting, worthwhile read. Editors JD Flynn and Ed Condon have lots of experience in national Catholic affairs and Catholic journalism. They’ve also published in the secular press. They seem to me to stand pretty solidly in the middle between theological and political conservatism and liberalism with maybe a lean to the conservative side. But then maybe I lean more liberal than I think. I’ve found their articles to be well researched and reasoned. Even when I don’t quite agree, I always end up thinking and learning something.
Science and Joe Biden
A case in point is an article in my e-mail inbox titled “Will Catholics be forced to fight ‘science’ with science?” Ed and JD respond to President Joe Biden’s promise, “Science will always guide my Administration.” They noted how odd such a statement sounds: What administration, after all, would not be guided by science? It was an obvious opportunity to comment on the extent to which the previous administration was not guided by science. And that would hardly have been a politically liberal thing to do. But the editors did not go there.
Clearly when Biden says science will be his guide, he’s thinking of the covid epidemic and environmental issues, especially global warming. He may also want to include the science, such as it is, of economics among his guides. But JD and Ed were not thinking of these. They had abortion and gender theory in mind and the “science” of when a human person begins and who is and “who is and who is not a man or a woman.” So I’ll follow them along that line and leave aside what I think are actually more important questions of medical and ecological science.
Science and abortion
The editors are right in predicting a conflict between Biden’s administration and the Catholic Church on abortion. I question, however, their placing this disagreement in the realm of science.
Catholic and other pro-life advocates insist that it an empirical, science-proven fact that human life begins at conception. For JD and Ed that settles the question of the morality of abortion scientifically. For the opposing view JD and Ed say this:
But pro-choice advocates and the Biden administration have leaned heavily into an idea asserted by the Supreme Court in 1992 – that when human life begins is a question of philosophy, and open to free interpretation, rather than a matter of genetics, embryology, or biology.
I submit that while a fertilized ovum is obviously human and alive, the beginning of human personhood is not settled by science, at least not science alone. Philosophy also must enter the discussion, although, I disagree with the Court’s leaving the question “open to free interpretation.” Interpretation, yes, but interpretation is never free. It’s one of the paths to truth and the beginning of human life is a matter of objective truth, even if good people honestly disagree.
On the question of abortion Catholics don’t use science to fight “science.” (The quotation marks are the editors’.) It’s a matter of philosophy or moral insight or wisdom. It is snot, however, a matter of sectarian dogma. The editors are right about that.
Science and gender issues
The other question, what makes a man or a woman, JD and Ed suspect, will occasion a more lively fight and one where Catholic medical personnel may find themselves and their consciences on the line. The Equality Act, which Biden favors, would make gender identity a protected class. (The authors show their hand by referring to “so called” gender identity.) Presently medical workers can “recuse themselves from offering so-called [that word again] reassignment procedures.” That conscience protection may not continue under an in-force Equality Act. The editors assume that it will not and that Catholic medical personal will have a fight on their hands.
Again the authors claim it’s a fight over science, and this time science may be more relevant than before. Presumably, the science of psychology can answer what makes a man or a woman. Presumably also, the majority opinion could be right or wrong. And the doctor who conscientiously objects to reassignment surgery could be in the minority.
The authors lament:
The situation points to a culture in which “science” is not a universally agreed upon mode of knowing externally demonstrable facts, but instead is a fluid reality, subject to the whims and dictates of political contingencies and social norms.
I guess that that situation is not so unusual or new. Science has never been perfectly objective and free from non-scientific influence. Think of the eugenics movement of the early 20th century.
I hope Catholic doctors and researchers do take their place in the debates around gender. But on the practical point I disagree with JD and Ed. The objector’s choice isn’t only to fight “science” with science (however you want to place the quote marks). While searching for the best scientific answers, Catholics should also support reasonable conscience protections in gender-related laws and policies.
Image credit: The Pillar