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Catholic Conscience and Hybrid Embryos

The first hybrid embryo was created yesterday and the debate about it and the HFEA Bill continues. Recently, the most senior Catholic scientist Sir Leszek Borysiewicz has criticised the Church for its position. Sir Leszek is quoted in The Times as saying:

I was brought up as a Catholic at home, both my parents are Catholics and I have continued to be a member of the Church … I go to church but I have had considerable issues with some of the stances the Church has taken on a variety of health-related issues. My conscience tells me very firmly that I should support the Bill as it stands.

These comments illuminate two very different and under-appreciated points about the stand taken by the Church on the HFEA Bill. The first of these points concerns the amount of divergence within the Church about the issues at hand. Sir Leszek is likely to be one of a significant number of Catholics who think the issues are not so cut and dried.

The second point involves the right of individual Catholics to hold views that diverge from the stated positions. It concerns the role of an individual’s conscience in deciding the right course of action in particular cases. There is a significant debate within the church about the role of conscience for individual Catholics, not the least of which is inspired by the following statement from the Second Vatican Council (cited here):

In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God, for whom he was created. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.

According to this, Sir Leszek’s stand is justified. We should however register a danger associated with talk of following one’s conscience: conscience needs to be informed. The facts of the matter at hand as well as the best arguments for and against should be openly considered before an overall judgement is made. In the hybrid embryos debate, some of these arguments have been offered, but all too often it seems that hype and political point-scoring have overshadowed them.

No doubt the Church must take a position on these issues — it teachings are crucially moral and these are moral issues. However the Church’s spokespeople have a responsibility not to misrepresent the facts of the matter nor the tensions and dialogues that are on-going within its walls. The debate, led by the Church should be open and responsible, presenting balanced arguments to enable Catholics and non-Catholics alike to judge for themselves, consistent with an informed conscience.

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