As the Pontifical Academy for Life prepares for its Feb. 26-28 assembly, the Vatican body announced several new appointments, including Michael Wee, from the Oxford-based Anscombe Bioethics Centre.
Wee, the center’s education and research officer, was appointed to the pontifical academy as a Young Researcher Member.
The Singapore-born academic was the only UK-based appointee to the Young Researchers’ group of the Academy, and told Crux the creation of this category for under-35s in 2016 “indicates a high degree of trust in young people to be able to contribute to the Church’s intellectual life.”
Besides his work at Anscombe, Wee is an Associate Lecturer in bioethics at Oscott seminary in Birmingham and is a researcher at the Aquinas Institute of Blackfriars Hall at Oxford.
“In a place like Britain, where most people do not identify as Christian, the tools of philosophy-that is to say, natural reason-are especially valuable in helping people make sense of the Church’s teaching on moral issues. Before you begin to talk about the theology of the body, you might first need to talk about the teleology of the body. In order to mention faith, you first have to convince people that reason is not in conflict with it,” he said.
What follows are excerpts of Wee’s conversation with Crux.
Crux: Were you surprised about the appointment to the Pontifical Academy for Life?
Wee: I’ve known for a while that my name had been put forward to the Academy for consideration, so I wasn’t taken completely by surprise, though I was still very excited to learn of my appointment. I’m certainly very grateful to the Academy for this opportunity to contribute to its work as a Young Research Member. But to me the bigger surprise, really, is that Pope Francis created this new category of young members under the age of 35 when he restructured the Academy in 2016. I’m not aware that any other Pontifical Academy or department of the Roman Curia has an equivalent. It indicates a high degree of trust in young people to be able to contribute to the Church’s intellectual life.
For me, this is a very refreshing change of attitude from what is still commonplace in the Church. There are many who desire to get young people more involved in the Church, but retreat from any suggestion that they perceive to be too “intellectual” or “serious.” But young people, too, are attracted to the intellectual riches of the Church and wish to draw on them in order to engage with the great issues of our day. The pope is leading by example here in relation to taking young people seriously and listening to their voices, and that is to be welcomed.
What is your background in bioethics?
I’ve been working at the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, a Catholic research institute based in Oxford, since 2016, and my job has taken me to numerous schools and universities across the UK and Ireland where I’ve spoken on contemporary bioethical issues. I also teach bioethics at Oscott seminary in Birmingham, which is one of the largest seminaries in Britain, and I’ve been working on a number of research projects and publications on topics ranging from euthanasia to posthumanism, from virtue ethics to Wittgenstein.
My alma mater is Durham University in the North East of England, and I’ve come to Catholic bioethics through philosophy, rather than theology. I would say that the two are distinct intellectual vocations. In a place like Britain, where most people do not identify as Christian, the tools of philosophy-that is to say, natural reason-are especially valuable in helping people make sense of the Church’s teaching on moral issues. Before you begin to talk about the theology of the body, you might first need to talk about the teleology of the body. In order to mention faith, you first have to convince people that reason is not in conflict with it.
In this regard, I have often found the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas particularly valuable, for he recognizes that natural reason can bring us to the “preambles of faith.” I have to credit my interest in Aquinas to the great blessing I’ve had of always being surrounded by Dominicans. I grew up in Singapore, and it was there that I first encountered the Dominican friars and the Lay Dominicans, whose meetings gave me a taste for Thomism. When I went to university, the Catholic Chaplaincy was also run by the Dominicans. I’m proud now to be a member of the Aquinas Institute at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, which aims to promote the study of Aquinas.
Can you tell us a bit more about what the Anscombe Bioethics Centre does?
The Anscombe Bioethics Centre exists to serve the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and our work falls into three categories, broadly speaking: 1) Academic research; 2) Engaging with public and governmental bodies, e.g. through consultations or parliamentary evidence; 3) Public education. Our work, naturally, has a strong British and Irish focus: We take an interest in issues like conscientious objection in healthcare, which has received sustained attack from some quarters in British academia, and has been of particular interest in Ireland following the abortion referendum. All the same our work is not limited to these shores. One of our most recent books is a study of the Belgian experience of euthanasia, entitled Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: Lessons from Belgium (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
We also receive many queries from individual healthcare professionals or other members of the public, especially Catholics and priests advising patients and families. Here you realize how much the intellectual and the pastoral coincide in bioethics. You also get a sense of how the Church’s teaching can be deeply liberating, precisely because it is reason in harmony with faith. I’ve received many queries relating to end-of-life decision-making, typically from family members of patients close to death. When people realize that there is no obligation to do everything in one’s power to preserve life, if for example the proposed treatment is excessively burdensome, and that this is not the same as euthanasia, this can be a great moment of grace.
There is, perhaps, a common fear that refusing or withdrawing treatment means one will no longer be cared for medically. As another Catholic bioethicist I know puts it, “DNR” does not stand for “Do Not Respond.” This is where good palliative care comes in, so that refusing treatment does not lead to abandonment, but another form of accompaniment.
Right now, bioethics seems to be at the center of moral theology - looking at gender identity, end of life, and embryonic research. What do you see as the most pressing bioethics issue in this first half of the 21st century?
I’ll start by saying that Catholic bioethics has been particularly good, you might say, at identifying moral absolutes. But what we are less good at is dealing with issues where there isn’t a firm red line and where determining the right course of action demands a rigorous exercise of the virtue of prudence. Now, to say that is already to invite some measure of confusion. “Prudence” in our ordinary language tends to suggest caution, but the virtue of prudence, or practical wisdom (phronēsis in Aristotle’s Greek), is really about discerning and acting in accordance with the particulars of a given situation. Sometimes that means caution, at other times a more welcoming approach.
It’s important that Catholic bioethics, and the moral life more generally, is not just about condemning everything. Take artificial wombs, for instance - they promise so much good in the way of saving premature babies, and one wants to embrace that potential for good as fully as one can. At the same time, they may also engender an even deeper separation between procreation and the body than what we are already faced with today. Artificial wombs might then become a “social” option (i.e. not out of medical need), perhaps to be used straight from conception via IVF. In such a case, the unborn will become an even more vulnerable population for discarding or experimentation.
Therefore, we need practical wisdom to confront the bioethical issues of this century. This involves weighing up potential social effects and also discerning the internal logic of such technologies. There is a modern myth that technology is “morally neutral,” that it simply provides yet another alternative to natural means, but this is rarely the case. Technology is always predisposed towards certain values over others by the way it operates or the things it measures. In many cases an individual user’s intentions can make technology a force for good, but this is not sufficient for a complete moral analysis.
It is dangerous to make predictions, but for what it’s worth I think gene-editing will remain one of the most pressing bioethical issues in the coming decades, because of the difficulty of formulating ethical guidance and regulation. Since the advent of gene-editing via CRISPR-Cas9 in the past decade, this issue has become even more urgent. At present there is very little Magisterial teaching on the ethics of gene-editing, and indeed there is nothing to suggest that even human enhancement via gene-editing is per se immoral.
That being said, in the document Dignitas Personae, the Church does point to potential pitfalls in gene-editing: The promotion of a eugenic mentality, or “a certain dissatisfaction or even rejection of the value of the human being as a finite creature and person.” This is what I mean by the “internal logic” of technology. But of course, in practice it can be difficult to know when specific proposals for gene-editing fall prey to these pitfalls, so again the virtue of prudence is indispensable.
What role do you see the Pontifical Academy for Life having in the wider debate on bioethics?
Under Pope Francis, the Pontifical Academy for Life has taken a particular interest in emerging technologies, such as developments in artificial intelligence and their significance for healthcare. Many of these technologies, again, are areas which do not necessarily admit of moral absolutes, and where the virtue of prudence is of utmost importance.
At the same time, it is important to recognize that as Catholics, prudence cannot be reduced simply to a matter of weighing up consequences - we are not utilitarians or proportionalists! We have a firm foundation, and that is the inviolable dignity of the human person, who is body and soul, and who furthermore is given the possibility of union with God through Jesus Christ. In that way, the Church, and the Academy in particular, has a unique perspective to contribute to wider debates in bioethics. We do not simply study social effects of such technologies, but also seek to understand what it means to be a human person made in God’s image.
It is also a good sign that academics and practitioners are increasingly interested in the application of virtue ethics to contemporary issues in healthcare. As one instance of this, I recently received funding from a non-Catholic institute to complete a project on the role of virtue in mental health. Given that virtue ethics is at the core of the Catholic moral tradition, this bodes well for the work of the Academy.
Take enhancement and gene-editing, for example: If we approached them from a virtue-ethical perspective, we might see that there is a question of moderation and of a fair distribution of resources. Perhaps these technologies are not intrinsically evil, but in a world of scarce resources, should these technologies receive more attention and funding, does that not in some ways represent a kind of “healthcare” predicated on desire and purchasing power rather than medical need, which would result in further inequalities?
All the same, we must continue to reiterate traditional Catholic teaching on issues like abortion, euthanasia and contraception, which remains ever constant. If we, as Catholics, do not understand why the dignity of human life and marriage is such that certain actions are always morally excluded, how could we even begin to develop an authentically Catholic perspective on more complicated subjects like artificial intelligence? The Pontifical Academy for Life is in a good position to continue bearing witness to the Church’s moral teaching on settled matters to the wider world, even as it probes new areas of bioethical reflection.