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The NCBC Releases Crucial New Edition of The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly: "A Critique of the New Natural Law Theory"


August 2, 2013

Once a year the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly
 is published around a particular theme. This current issue addresses, from various perspectives, a very influential moral theory which has developed over the last several decades. It was developed principally by German Grisez and several of his esteemed collaborators who include John Finnis at Oxford University, Joseph Boyle at the University of Toronto, William May, formerly at Catholic University, and Robert George at Princeton University. The proponents of this theory are courageous and faithful Catholics renowned for defending the Faith and the natural moral law in the public forum.


The New Natural Law Theory (NNLT) has been used very effectively, within our generally secularized and legalistic culture, to defend Judeo-Christian teachings on the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, the nature of marriage as a life-long union between one man and one woman, and the immorality of contraception and of such “reproductive technologies” as in vitro fertilization and surrogacy. The concepts of the NNLT have helped its proponents to engage in constructive moral dialogue with those of other faiths and with those who may have no religious beliefs at all.


Despite the solid reputation for orthodoxy of these writers, there has been concern among some Catholic philosophers and theologians who believe that the NNLT entails certain departures from the generally received Thomistic tradition which might lead to applications in the moral realm that could be problematic. Perhaps the most contentious position espoused by Grisez and some of his colleagues is that in certain limited situations, namely when both mother and child would die because the child cannot pass through the birth canal during delivery, it could be morally permissible to perform a craniotomy. In short, they maintain, the baby’s skull could be crushed in order to facilitate its passage through the birth canal, resulting in the death of the child and the saving of the mother. As Grisez has put it: “The proposal can be simply to alter the child’s physical dimensions and remove him or her, because, as a physical object, this body cannot remain where it is without ending in both the baby’s and the mother’s death.” The death of the child would be outside the intention (praeter intentionem) of the physician and hence would not be a direct abortion.


The debate over whether or not this would constitute the intentional killing of the baby has largely remained in the realm of theory. However, some recent high-profile clinical cases could lead to certain practices being adopted in Catholic health care institutions with appeal to the NNLT. Hence, the debate over the adequacy of the theory has become much more urgent.


This issue of the Quarterly does not address the specifically clinical repercussions of the NNLT. Rather, it aims to address a broad range of fundamental concepts that have been developed by the NNLT theorists such as the relationship between theoretical and the practical (ethical) reason, what constitutes a moral object, and the role of the natural order in the formulation of moral proposals for action. The contributors to this volume are highly respected scholars such as Father Kevin Flannery, S.J., of the Gregorian University in Rome, Dr. Stephen Long of Ave Maria University, and Dr. John Goyette at Thomas Aquinas College in California.


It is hoped that these published critiques of the widely accepted NNLT will generate a vigorous and fruitful discussion of the theory among scholars, who are encouraged to submit their own manuscripts to future issues of the Quarterly. In the long term, it is hoped that a rich debate may contribute to the refinement of practial moral guidance for all those charged with the challenging tasks of health care policy-making and clinical decision-making. Given the profound deference of the authors on all sides to the authority of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, the NCBC is confident that the discussion will be of great benefit to the faithful.