This article appears in the August 2005 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly
O Brave New World That Has Such People In't
Three remarkable manifestations of the convictions of many who inhabit our brave new world have recently been witnessed: expressions which ran counter to the beguiling advice of their political leaders. The impressive results of the referenda in France and the Netherlands, producing a major re-examination of the future of the European Union, the first major test of the Italian's loyalty to the new Pope and Church doctrine following the heady days after the death of John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI.
The initiative in Italy, resulting from an extremely successful pro-life campaign, supported by the Hierarchy, ensured that the required 50% of votes to achieve a quorum was not achieved. It means that the pro-life principle underpinning current Italian legislation on fertility treatment, whereby the human embryo is accorded at all times equal rights with the mother or any other human being has been maintained. According to a referendum breakdown in Corriere della Serra, 35% of the electorate said it had made a positive political statement by staying at home. The small Italian liberal elite was effectively rebuffed and with it an outstanding defeat for what Benedict XVI describes as `The dictatorship of the relativists'.
These remarkable events serve to underline what the ordinary people, `the true legislators', think of their governments. Perhaps we are more influenced by what we read and watch on television than we think. We seem to be routinely exposed to the horrors of late abortions, the images of early fetuses in the womb, the advances of medical science and the complexity of moral philosophy, to the extent that bioethics has become a sure way of disturbing the apparent harmony around the average dinner table. Are we satisfied that our own government is being made fully aware of what `the true legislators' are about? In the current post election phase we are inundated with pronouncements from leaders of the main parties how they are going to listen in future to the people and debate with them on their deepest concerns.
As a means of accomplishing this, in our last issue we supported the establishment of a National Bioethics Council which would have greater weight in promoting a national judgement on these issues. America, France and Sweden have highly regarded equivalents with a corresponding influence on the big debates. The frequent objection to this course is that our side would be outgunned by the relativists. But when we review the institutions already available to us and staffed by experienced bio-ethicists, such as the Linacre Centre, the Maryvale Institute, Heythrop College and the School of Theology, Philosophy and History in St. Mary's College, Strawberry Hill, we have an impressive team well able to challenge the most determined relativists.
A recent article in the Catholic Times (May 8th) by Francis Davis under the title `A tough challenge ahead for the Catholic Union' suggested it could re-orientate itself by becoming an even greater vehicle by which a coalition of heavyweight Catholic policy influencers could meet, secure funding and transform the terms of political debate in this sphere. Under its current president, Lord Brennan, and vice president, Lord Alton, it is well placed to transform political debate in this area. The article compared it with the activities of similar groups in America which have been considerably effective. It will be remembered that the Union was founded by Cardinal Manning in the nineteenth century with the intention of it being the hub around which the
Catholic contribution to national public life could be organised. The problems at that time were mainly social injustices. For a while it succeeded, but during the 20th century it lost its influence despite having within its membership a glittering array of Catholic talent: senior civil servants, highly placed lawyers and professionals in addition to acclaimed authors and academics. Now is the time for it to regain it. When the Union was founded, the current bio-ethical scene was but a spot on the horizon. Now it must be said the only group with which it associates in the bioethics sphere is the Guild within the Joint Ethico-Medical Committee: we are grateful. But it now has a magnificent opportunity to present and trumpet the opinion of the other agencies we have mentioned. In such a manner the `brave people of the New World' can have their opinions submitted to the highest authorities.