“Imposing Our Beliefs” on OthersREV. TADEUSZ PACHOLCZYK, PH.D.
After I gave my testimony, one of the senators asked a pointed question. "Father Tad, by arguing against embryonic stem cell research, don't you see how you are trying to impose your beliefs on others, and shouldn't we as elected lawmakers avoid imposing a narrow religious view on the rest of society?"
Two major errors were incorporated into the senator's question. First, the senator failed to recognize the fact that law is fundamentally about imposing somebody's views on somebody else. Imposition is the name of the game. It is the very nature of law to impose particular views on people who don't want to have those views imposed on them. Car thieves don't want laws imposed on them which prohibit stealing. Drug dealers don't want laws imposed on them which make it illegal to sell drugs. Yet our lawmakers are elected precisely to craft and impose such laws all the time. So the question is not whether we will impose something on somebody. The question is instead whether whatever is going to be imposed by the force of law is reasonable, just, and good for society and its members.
The second logical mistake the senator made was to suppose that because religion happens to hold a particular viewpoint, that implies that such a viewpoint should never be considered by lawmakers or enacted into law. Religion teaches very clearly that stealing is immoral. Would it follow that if I support laws against stealing, I am imposing my narrow religious viewpoint on society? Clearly not. Rather, the subject of stealing is so important to the order of society that religion also feels compelled to speak about it. Religion teaches many things that can be understood as true by people who aren't religious at all. Atheists can understand just as well as Catholics how stealing is wrong, and most atheists are just as angry as their Catholic neighbors when their house is broken into and robbed. What is important is not whether a proposed law happens to be taught by religion, but whether that proposal is just, right, and good for society and its members.
During my testimony, I pointed out how in the United States we have stringent federal laws that protect not only the national bird, the bald eagle, but also that eagle's eggs. If you were to chance upon some of them in a nest out in the wilderness, it would be illegal for you to destroy those eggs. By the force of law, we recognize how the egg of the bald eagle, that is to say, the embryonic eagle inside that egg, is the same creature as the glorious bird that we witness flying high overhead. Therefore we pass laws to safeguard not only the adult but also the very youngest member of that species. Even atheists can see how a bald eagle's eggs should be protected; it's really not a religious question at all. What's so troublesome is how we are able to understand the importance of protecting the earliest stages of animal life but when it comes to our own human life, a kind of mental disconnect takes place. Our moral judgement quickly becomes murky and obtuse when we desire to do certain things that are not good, like having abortions, or destroying embryonic humans for their stem cells.
So anytime we come across a lawmaker who tries to suggest that an argument in defense of sound morals is nothing but imposing a religious viewpoint, we need to look deeper at what may really be taking place. That lawmaker may not be so concerned about avoiding the imposition of a particular view on others — more likely, they are jockeying to simply be able to impose their view, a view which is ultimately much less tenable and defensible in terms of sound moral thinking. Hence they seek to short-circuit the discussion by stressing religious zealotry and imposition without ever confronting the substantive ethical or bioethical argument itself. Once the religious imposition card is played, and Christian lawmakers suddenly become weak-kneed about defending human life and sound morals, the other side then feels free to do the imposing themselves, without having expended too much effort on confronting the essence of the moral debate itself.
Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk. "'Imposing Our Beliefs' on Others." Making Sense Out of Bioethics (September, 2005).
Father Tad Pacholczyk, Ph. D. writes a monthly column, Making Sense Out of Bioethics, which appears in various diocesan newspapers across the country. This article is reprinted with permission of the author, Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph. D.
The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) has a long history of addressing ethical issues in the life sciences and medicine. Established in 1972, the Center is engaged in education, research, consultation, and publishing to promote and safeguard the dignity of the human person in health care and the life sciences. The Center is unique among bioethics organizations in that its message derives from the official teaching of the Catholic Church: drawing on the unique Catholic moral tradition that acknowledges the unity of faith and reason and builds on the solid foundation of natural law.
Inspired by the harmony of faith and reason, the Quarterly unites faith in Christ to reasoned and rigorous reflection upon the findings of the empirical and experimental sciences. While the Quarterly is committed to publishing material that is consonant with the magisterium of the Catholic Church, it remains open to other faiths and to secular viewpoints in the spirit of informed dialogue.
Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk earned a Ph. D. in Neuroscience from Yale University. Father Tad did post-doctoral research at Massachusetts General Hospital/ Harvard Medical School. He subsequently studied in Rome where he did advanced studies in theology and in bioethics. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. See http://www.FatherTad.com.
Copyright © 2012 Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D.
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.