Catholic children learn the corporal and spiritual works of mercy (seven each) about the same time they learn the seven sacraments. Most of them come directly from the Gospel, especially from the description of the last judgment. They include feeding the hungry and visiting the sick, for example, as well as admonishing sinners and bearing wrongs patiently.
The works of mercy neatly reflect the fact that we are both flesh and spirit, and both are important.
Last month, Pope Francis called on Catholics to add an eighth work of mercy to both lists: “care for our common home.” This is the very thing the pope expressed concern about in his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” which described the human roots of the ecological crisis.
“Our immense technological development,” he wrote there, “has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.” We think that if science and technology will let us take control of the world, we should just do it. We can address the consequences of our actions later, if at all.
The logic that informs this vision of progress is not the welfare of humanity or responsible stewardship of our common home. It is the same will to power and “lordship over all” that caused the original sin of Adam and Eve, who aspired to be like God.
I thought about the Holy Father’s observation when I read recently that the National Institutes of Health is considering changes to its guidelines on human stem cell research. About a dozen faculty from the Catholic University of America and Georgetown University wrote to NIH expressing concern about funding more research involving human/animal chimeras — mixing human genes with those of different species.
Not every experiment of this kind is intrinsically immoral. Many human patients have been saved by animal organ transplants, particularly from pigs. It poses no obvious moral problem to use adult stem cells to give pigs, for example, hearts or valves that are more human, to serve the cause of research into human diseases.
But the letter warns about other changes that might involve substantial contributions of human cells to the animal brain, or changes in the germ line of these animals, that result in the creation of a more genetically human line of pigs. This kind of research raises concerns about the identity of the resulting animal, and stirs up ethical clouds that we should not ignore.
Pope Francis actually anticipated this development in “Laudato Si’.” In Chapter 3 of the encyclical, he discussed biological technologies and genetic manipulation. He was troubled, he said, that “when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life. There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos.”
It is well and good for the political left to praise Pope Francis for his concern for the environment and for the political right to praise his defense of life and the integrity of the human person. But in both cases, the pope is saying the same thing. The desire to push ethical boundaries in both areas is based on a misguided notion that anything we can do for profit or the discovery of knowledge is fair game, without ethical boundaries or consideration of the effect it would have on “our common home.”
We would all do well to read the pope’s writings for ourselves and not rely on media digests fed to us by people we agree with. We could learn a lot from him and from one another.
John Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.