Fr Joseph Tham lectures at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome.Fr Joseph Tham lectures at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome.An assistant professor from a pontifical university in Rome gave an overview of the development and secularisation of bioethics in a talk recently.

Hong Kong-born Fr Joseph Tham, who lectures on the topic at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, said that bioethics emerged in the 1960s as a result of “an explosion in medical advancement”.

Before the 1960s, in discussions on medical ethics, “there was an inclusion of religion”, Fr Tham told the crowd in his Oct 5 talk, titled The Marginalisation of Faith in Secular Bioethics.

The priest, from the Legionaries of Christ congregation, said the religious aspect of such ethics was eroded after theologians were asked to work alongside academic elites. Theologians then “became secularised in their views”, he said.

“When Humanae Vitae came out, there was a strong reaction among theologians with differing views that caused ruptures in the Catholic world,” the priest added.

Humanae Vitae is an encyclical written by Pope Paul VI and issued on July 25, 1968. It reaffirms the traditional teaching of the Church regarding marriage, responsible parenthood, and the prohibition of all forms of artificial birth control.

Fr Tham said the secularisation of bioethics started when people began to decide for themselves what was good or evil, independent of God.

He gave as an example the story of the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve.

He noted that secularisation happens at the societal level when religion and Church have less say in politics.

It occurs in the institutional level when schools and universities separate religious views from their teachings, and at the individual level when more people prefer to think for themselves and not follow the Church’s teachings.

Speaking to CatholicNews, Fr Tham said that “proportionalism” is another reason why secularism exists. He explained that proportionalism is when one judges an act to be right or wrong based on the proportion of good or evil it brings.

A proportionalist might decide that if killing an innocent person could bring about greater good in the scheme of things, then it is right to kill that person, Fr Tham said.

He said that bioethics began with religious thinkers but its religious aspect eroded over time due to the intellectual pride of the theologians.

“Being too engrossed in their own ideas and without humility caused the dissent of the theologians that first started bioethics,” said Fr Tham.

He stressed that the Church has to safeguard and protect its teachings which are based on faith and morals.

Commenting on the talk, one participant, Dr John Hui said it has given him “a good insight into how bioethics was secularised and how we could engage in this secular world as Catholics”.

The talk was organised by the Catholic Medical Guild and Singapore Pastoral Institute.

By Martin See
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