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April 17, 1998     The Message
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April 17, 1998

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10 The Message -- for Catholics of Southwestern Indiana This new acquaintance with our gen By JOHN HAUGHT Catholic News Service Should Christians worry about current scientific efforts to map our genes? The so-called "human genome project" now is engaged in a comprehensive decoding of our genetic makeup. Each day, researchers learn more about the incredibly complex ways in which segments of DNA in our cells provide information that shapes our bodi- ly and mental features and functions. Such minute deciphering of human life never has been possible before. What, then, will be the eventual outcome of this new knowledge? Above all, what are the religious and theological implications? Previous scientific advances paved the way for many technological applications that alleviated human suf- fering. But they also led to horrific abuses. Science made modern industrialization and many new comforts possible. But a dark side of this "progress" has been the widespread pollution and spo- liation of the natural world: Refrigerants, for instance, made life more pleasurable, but some of them have destroyed stratospheric ozone that filters out danger- ous, cancer-causing levels of solar radiation. Can we expect that technologies based on the new genetic knowledge will be immune to such tragic ambi- guity? The uncircumspect application of scientific knowledgemay eventually bring disasters that none of us can presage clearIja Yet, to refrain altogether from using our know-how in the service of life seems irresponsible. It is the task of Christian ethics, therefore, to discern which uses of genetic knowledge are consistent with faith's vision of the human person, nature and God. Here the criteria of justice and compassion must be our guides, but opinions will differ on just how these virtues apply to genetic engineering. Those sensitive to the precariousness of life's past evolutionary achievements or the delicate fragility of established ecosystems would urge that we avoid manipulating the genes even of plants and animals. And those who think that justice and compassion must be extended toward generations of yet unborn life would alert us to the potentially tragic outcomes of any reckless decisions we make to manipulate forms of life today. In the case of human genetic engineering, the task of moral discernment is especially formidable. The ethical "Although great care is essential when dealing with our DNA, we need not rule out the pru- dent, compassionate application of genetic sci- ence to the alleviation of suffering," offers the- ology professor John Haught the pros and cons map our genes. problems associated with cloning are well known. But more immediate is the question of whether we may responsibly intervene in and modify our ,given genet- ic makeup. Would this be 'playing God?' Some say yes. On the other hand, many Christian ethicists now agree that "somatic" gene therapy, whose objective is to heal individuals suffering from inherited diseases, is a humane application of the new knowledge. However, there is much more reserve when it comes to "germline" intervention, which, when it becomes scientifically feasible, will seek to change or enhance the genetic information passed on to subsequent gen- erations through reproduction. Here the potential for monstrosity looms much more imposingly. Today I think most Christian ethicists would insist that, given present ignorance of future "x 00ew0000hu00monbeing through a By FATHER EUGENE LAVERDIERE, S.S.S. Catholic News Service When I was 12, my dad brought me to a friend who had a telescope. It was a clear nigh t . When I looked tKrough the telescope, I was awed by a close-up look of Saturn with its rings and the moon with its craters. Every so often now, when I look at the heavens or read certain passages in Scripture, that night comes to mind. Like the psalmist, I admire the heavens. Then I think also of the men and the women I meet every day, young and old, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers, each one a human being. I think also of who I am. It is wonderful to be a human being. Sometimes I pray with Psalm 8: "When I .: your heavens, the work of your fingers, "the moon and the stars that you set in place "What are humans that you are mind- ful of them, "mere mortals that you care for them?" (4-5) When I read the story of creation in Genesis, I thrill when God dispels the darkness with light. I thrill too when I read how God created human beings in the divine image and likeness. Male and female, we became co-creators with God. After commanding light into being, God found how good the light was. After creating the human being, God found creation not just good, but very good. I know that as human beings we are creatures, like the flowers of the field or the birds of the air. We share with them a certain chemical makeup. But human beings cannot be reduced to molecules. Nor can we be reduced to genes. As persons, we are in God's image and likeness, worthy of respect, compassion, forgiveness and love. We may like the physical world. But we love God and human beings. John's Gospel speaks of the Word that was in the beginning. After describing what the Word means for human histo- ry, John says that the Word was made flesh, human flesh, in the person of Jesus. For Christians, Jesus is much more than a bunch of genes and molecules. Even if we knew his DNA, we would not know Jesus. Jesus reveals God to us in his very person. No wonder the early Christians sang of Jesus as "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" (Col 1:15). Remember: Jesus is one of us. We share his life and his love for one another. We are living, personal sacraments of Jesus, the Word Consider all contemplate God." "What are mindful of them?" Father human and ! demancls tions? True same consequences, such drastic would be irresponsible, some cautious exceptions. Still, isn't all genetic en "playing God?" Theologian Ted essarily. Of ourse, humans gance and abuse of their points out, we are created in the: God. We have been gifted by life we inherit from our with a creative capacity and forward in ethical ways.. In other words, we are, m the' Phil Hefner, created this unfinished universe we making things new.