Applying Christian Ethics

Exam questions will ask students to apply religious ethics to practical moral problems.  In practice this means Christian ethics for many of us, and Christian ethics can be divided into three branches (amongst others):Divine Command Theory, Situation Ethics and Natural law Theory. In this short article we consider the three possible interpretations of a Christian Ethic (but remember there are others – Christian Ethics is very wide and diverse).
Natural law theory is the official philosophy of the Catholic Church, Situation Ethics is a liberal Protestant position which elevates values above laws, and Divine Command theory is a conservative evangelical position as espoused by, for example, the churches that signed up to the Chicago statement on biblical inerrancy of 1978 (click here to access this statement )- a call to humbly submit to and obey God’s written laws, which are (they argue) unchangeable and clear, as the statement says: “Thus what Scripture says, God says; its authority is His authority, for He is its ultimate Author, having given it through the minds and words of chosen and prepared men who in freedom and faithfulness ‘spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Pet 1:21). Holy Scripture must be acknowledged as the Word of God by virtue of its divine origin.”

 Abortion Divine Command theorists exalt the sanctity of life under the general command “do not kill” (Exodus 20:13). Each person is uniquely knit together in our mother’s womb and “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:6). God has created us in the womb in his image and as such any interference with the divine process of creation is morally wrong.
Natural Law argues for the same conclusion from a different standpoint. The primary precept defines the true purpose of human beings arrived at by reasoned reflection on our unique goals. One such goal we all share through our rational nature is the preservation of life. Because there is no clear-cut moment when personhood can be attributed, we must take the most morally relevant point, that of conception, when the miracle of human life begins. Abortion is therefore condemned by the Catholic Church as a grave sin, the moral equivalent of murder.
 Situation ethics, being a liberal Christian position, emphasises the value of love as supreme above any laws or rules. Because it is personalist and pragmatic, the Situation ethicist will look at the human circumstances and address the moral question as to what outcome is produced by the most loving assessment of personal need and interest. For example, the needs of a vulnerable 16 year old, pregnant by accident, will be very different to those of a 35 year old married woman. Love demands that we seek the best interest of the 16 year old, rather than deny them access to abortion, so it’s likely the situationist would encourage an abortion to take place. This of course always assumes the situationist does not apply the idea of personhood to the human foetus – if this happens then interests of mother and child would have to be weighed according to likely consequences.
Similarly, Euthanasia Divine Command theorists exalt the sanctity of life.(See Exodus 20:13 and Psalm 139:6 above) under the general command “do not kill” (Exodus 20:13). This gives natural law theory a strong view of the sanctity of human life. Euthanasia, therefore, is also condemned by the Catholic Church as a grave sin, the moral equivalent of murder when someone assists the person to die.
 Again,the Situation ethicist will look at the human circumstances and address the moral question as to what outcome is produced by the most loving assessment of personal need and interest. Here the quality of life and the dignity of personal choice will be more significant than any other principle in determining the most loving outcome. Family and friends, joining in the loved one’s deliberations, would form part of the supportive, loving community who would help the person through this process according to their best interest – which is likely to be the path of least suffering.
 IVF treatment IVF treatment involves fertilising a human egg in vitro – in a glass dish. The Bible says nothing about this process (nor does it say anything about contraception) so a divine command theorist would look to general principles. God is the creator, not man, so any interference with this process of creation is likely to be opposed. God ordains the times and seasons of our lives and so if it is not God’s will that we conceive we must accept the suffering this entails and not proceed to “play God” and in the process, nor waste embryos (which could be a further moral evil).
 Natural law holds that human beings, by nature, “do good and avoid evil” (called the synderesis rule) and these goods are observable goals that we pursue. There are five general goals, called primary precepts (acronym POWER where the O stands for Ordered society), although these are not quite as absolute as is sometimes suggested – for example, the papal encyclical  “Veritatis Splendor” (1995) has changed “worship of God” to “appreciation of beauty”. These five general goals are then applied in the secondary precepts, but Aquinas makes clear that these are not absolute and may change as circumstances change.
 Euthanasia seems to violate the primary precept, preservation of life (P) which, especially from a religious perspective, has been taken to mean a strong view of the sanctity of life. According to divine law (the Bible) we are created in God’s image and knit together by God in the womb (Psalm 134:6), so no-one should ever choose to end their own life or be killed against their will. The “Declaration on Euthanasia” (1980) states “Intentionally causing one’s own death, or suicide, is therefore equally as wrong as murder; such an action on the part of a person is to be considered as a rejection of God’s sovereignty and loving plan”.
 A situation ethicist exalts the value of love so is likely to see each situation in terms of the most loving outcome that is likely. If love is maximised by having children which would not otherwise exist, due to scientific advances, this is to be welcomed. Who would be more loved than an in vitro child parents have longed for? If embryo wastage is a means to create this end, then according to Fletcher, the end justifies the means – the good loving outcome justifies the discarding of embryos.
 Genetic engineering There is a moral difference between designing a perfect baby for reasons of vanity and creating a child to save a child. Divine command theorists would tend to reject both as they would see it as arrogance for man to play God in the process of creation where each person contains the unique imprint of God himself. All things were created by God and for God (Colossians 1:16); because we are made in God’s image we should also be subject to his plan as creator (Genesis 1:26; Matthew 22:20,21).
There is also the concern that such bold strides in genetic engineering are motivated by a defiance of God. Genesis 11:1-9 discusses what happens when the creation attempts to exalt itself above the Creator. The people in Genesis 11 were unified, yet they were not submissive to God’s design. As a result, God stopped their progress. God certainly recognized that there were some dangers involved with the direction in which the people were headed. We have a similar warning in Romans 1:18-32. There God describes individuals that have become so enamoured with the creation (actually worshipping it rather than the Creator) that those individuals spiralled down to destruction. There is a danger that genetic engineering could foster similar motivations, and ultimately, similar results.
To the Natural Law theorist, preservation of life is a key primary precept or rational goal. There is no controversy about research involving some of these types of stem cells. In fact, the Catholic Church has publicly supported adult and umbilical-cord stem-cell research, and Church leaders were among the first to applaud the discovery of amniotic stem cells and to call for further research. However, the church does oppose embryonic stem cell research as this breaks the primary precept of the preservation of life, for three reasons:
  1. The preparation of embryonic stem cells from a living embryo requires the destruction of the embryo, which the Church teaches is a gravely immoral act.
  2. Some scientists have used cloning to produce embryos in order to harvest stem cells. While these embryos are not created in the normal manner, the Church recognizes that they, too, are alive, and their destruction is gravely immoral.
  3. The Church opposes the use of embryonic stem-cell lines that already exist for the same reason that she opposes the creation of new lines: those lines began with the destruction of innocent human life. It doesn’t matter whether scientific advances may be made; the Church teaches that we can never do evil, even if good may come of it, and there is no creation of embryonic stem cells without destroying innocent human life.
From a natural law perspective saviour siblings present less of a problem. A new life is created in order to save a life – there are two moral goods here. The Church however continues to have reservations that the saviour sibling will not be valued, and that it is wrong to use a child as means to an end (shades of Kantian ethics here). The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in No. 2378, in dealing with the theme of IVF in general, warns that “A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift.” The text adds: “A child may not be considered a piece of property.” By implication we shouldn’t be genetically designing children; this is against the created order and violates the equality and dignity of each unique human being.
The situationist takes a different view. Does this choice to design a child to save a child maximise the value of agape love? As long as the saviour sibling is loved as a unique individual, then the situationist should have no problem with this. The love must be unconditional, however, and not arising because one child is a means to save another dearly loved offspring. It may be difficult in practice to show unconditional love for a child so conditionally created – created solely for the purpose of saving another. This could arguably violate the personalist principle at the heart of situation ethics, that each human person, their worth and choices, must be paramount above rules and laws.
 As ever the debate in Christian ethics is between those who look to rules and laws, and those who look to the principle of love which is held to be the heart of the Christian ethic because “God is Love” (1 John 4:16).







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