Catholic Distance University

Personalist Bioethics: A Translator’s Reflections

John A. Di Camillo

Art and science are inextricably intertwined. Despite the attempts of modernity to split the human person apart and reduce him to mechanistic cascades of causality, the fundamental intuition of transcendence imbued by art has not been stricken. As a pre-medical undergraduate student steeped in the hard sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, I kept an artistic escape valve for my sanity: a second major in Italian studies. The gap between the often reductive world of the sciences, which I eagerly dissected, and the expansive and nostalgic world of Italian language, culture, literature, and history, which I dearly loved, threatened to one day expand and consume the one or the other. The void seemed unbridgeable.

Then I read G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. Every phrase seemed to connect dots, and the chapters flew by. One thought in particular struck a chord that resonated profoundly: “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” I understood why I needed the arts to stay sane. I decided I could never lose sight of the arts if I wanted to be a good scientist—the Truth is one, it is easy to lose sight of the forest by focusing on the hydrogenated nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADPH) produced through photosynthesis by the chlorophyll in the chloroplasts of a tree leaf. By the same token, the lush green trees dotting the rolling hilltops are appreciated much more with the awareness of the minutia at work!

This new realization inspired me to work with Bernardo Aparicio and fellow Catholics in founding the original board of Dappled Things Magazine. I had the honor of serving as managing editor until 2011. The arts did keep me sane through graduation, and I finally found a discipline that would connect the liberal arts and the empirical sciences: bioethics. Better yet, I found a bioethics graduate program at a pontifical institution in Rome! To support myself there I decided to translate and interpret Italian, which I soon found to be another artful science. Terminological exactitude and idiomatic imagination—what strange bedfellows! Or rather, how perfectly marital: different approaches to the one act of communication, each essential to the whole.

I came across Elio Cardinal Sgreccia’s Manuale di bioetica (5th ed., Vita e Pensiero 2007) as part of my bioethics studies in 2007; in fact, this two-volume masterwork totaling some 1500 pages was the core required text for every course I took. Cardinal Sgreccia is currently the president of the International Federation of Bioethics Centers and Institutes of Personalist Inspiration (Federazione Internazionale dei Centri ed Istituti di Bioetica di Ispirazione Personalista, FIBIP), and has been since 2003. He took on the role of president of the Ut Vitam Habeant Foundation and of the Donum Vitae Association in the Diocese of Rome in 2004 and continues to serve in that capacity. He became a spiritual advisor at the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome in 1974, and founded both its Bioethics Center (1985) and its Bioethics Institute (1992). He also served on Italy’s National Bioethics Committee from 1992-2006. His vast experience and fidelity to the Magisterium made the work truly monumental.

personalist bioethics

Personalist Bioethics: Foundations and Applications

Cardinal Sgreccia’s Manuale di bioetica had already been published in eight different languages, including Spanish, but an English version was never successfully completed. I had my work cut out for me! I heard that The National Catholic Bioethics Center was working on the translation, and offered my services. Dr. John Haas and Dr. Edward Furton graciously accepted, and I worked with Mr. Michael J. Miller to complete the first complete English translation of Volume I. My editing experience with DT made written translation a natural pleasure. At my suggestion, and with the author and Italian publisher’s approval, the title was changed to Personalist Bioethics: Foundations and Applications.

In short, Cardinal Sgreccia proposes an approach to bioethics that respects both the facts of science and the richness of the Magisterium. He deduces positions through a philosophical approach rather than theological, while giving due respect to the Magisterium and its consonance with reason. He does not appeal to theological or divine authority as the basis for his positions, but shows how theology finds accord with or has even prophetically anticipated experiential or philosophical conclusions. He goes to the heart of the problems with many approaches to bioethics today, which is the inadequacy of an anthropological framework upon which to base claims of moral obligation. He points out the flaws of bioethical paradigms based on utilitarianism, pragmatism, relativism, sociobiologism, contractualism, descriptivism, principlism, and noncognitivism in general. Cardinal Sgreccia proposes ontologically grounded personalism as the proper metaphysical framework for ethical analysis, highlights the false dichotomy between faith and reason, and provides a platform for dialogue on bioethical issues with all people of good will, including those who may not share the faith. His work is a seminal contribution to the growing field of bioethics, and it was both a great challenge and a distinguished honor to contribute to its definitive English translation.

In response to the interest of the editorial board of Dappled Things Magazine, I have chosen to present two excerpts from Cardinal Sgreccia’s work that I believe are reflective of its overall scope and substance. The first excerpt concisely discusses the false dichotomy between Catholic bioethics and secular bioethics as a direct consequence of the false dichotomy between faith and reason. It emphasizes the common language of truth and the rich contributions of Church teaching and history to reasoned analysis, regardless of one’s beliefs:

Secular Bioethics and Catholic Bioethics

Several centers and scholars have raised an issue—in many ways contrived—that sets so-called secular bioethics in opposition to Catholic bioethics.[1] The intent is to contrast a supposedly open and respectful view of everyone’s choices—the secular position—with the Catholic view, which is characterized as closed, intolerant, and therefore unacceptable in a pluralistic and diverse society. Supposedly, secular bioethics is founded on reason and the values of conscience, whereas Catholic bioethics is founded on dogmas and faith, making them irreconcilable with one another.[2]

In reality, the question seems to be formulated improperly and addressed superficially. It should be clear from what has been said thus far that the ontologically grounded personalist approach, to which Catholics also subscribe, is far removed from fideistic positions. It does not ignore the rational justification of values and norms, but does just the opposite. Religious faith does not deaden appeals to reason but rather sharpens and reinforces them while fostering adherence to properly interpreted scientific data. Precisely through their respect for reality, which they maintain is created by God, Catholics take into account the scientific facts and derive from them elements for comparison with the principles of the faith, not vice versa.[3]

On the other side, there is an effort to propose an impoverished and distorted concept of the secular. It is equated with ethical relativism rather than with the affirmation of values common to all of humanity inasmuch as they spring from equal dignity and can be recognized by the light of reason alone through that ethical effort which is responsible for developing the doctrine of human rights. The opposition between Catholic bioethics and secular bioethics is therefore fictitious and misleading. The comparison should instead focus on their respective reference anthropologies and the problem of the foundation for ethical judgments without erecting a “dogmatic fence” around the dispassionate search for the truth.

The real difference in today’s bioethics debate is between those who argue for an ethics without truth (to use the felicitous expression of Scarpelli) and those who maintain, to the contrary, that ethics (and hence bioethics) becomes an empty term unless rooted in truth. “To root ethics in truth is not easy. It involves humility, constant confrontation, and a willingness to recognize one’s errors. It also involves the possibility of dialogue, for if we dialogue in the truth, which belongs to no one but is open to everyone, it is possible to avoid violence and abuses. But if we dialogue apart from the truth, then the temptation can become irresistible to substitute oneself, one’s own authority, and one’s own power for the hard but objective measure of truth itself.”[4]

My intention is to promote an intellectual exchange on the basis of the reasons that support the personalist ethic here proposed. If I cite corroborating statements from magisterial documents, as I intend to do, it is because I find consonance and sometimes a prophetic intuition in them.

If I come to affirm that one finds the Creator and creation in the depths of the person, as the ultimate explanation for his existence and the ultimate reference for his dignity, it is also in light of demands that are not opposed to reason and are therefore rational. Thomas Aquinas’s great confidence in the compatibility of the claims of reason with those of faith is the basis for my confidence that Catholics can dialogue with secular thinkers without feeling obliged to alter or reduce the claims of faith, which should be imposed upon no one but can be proposed with good reasons to anyone.

Moreover, there is no shortage of literature addressing bioethical problems from the starting point of revealed truth, in other words, from within a clearly theological framework. I think that major contributions both in the field of biomedical research and in the cause of humanizing medical care have come from the consideration of religious truth, in historical terms as well, especially in the Christian world and particularly in the Catholic Church.[5]

[Excerpt taken from Elio Sgreccia, Personalist Bioethics: Foundations and Applications, trans. John A. Di Camillo and Michael J. Miller (Philadelphia: National Catholic Bioethics Center, 2012), Chapter 2, pp. 65-66.]


The second excerpt here presented takes up the theme of truth in relation to the plush, interdisciplinary nature of bioethics, and connects it to the very identity of mankind. We are beings at once simple yet vastly complex, singular yet social, and unable to be reduced to mere physicality. He briefly introduces his key concept of ontologically grounded personalism, which acknowledges the objective value of the human person as an integral whole rather than a randomly connected agglomerate of countable parts, taking special care to underscore the crucial interpenetration of faith and reason:

Bioethics, Anthropology, and Interdisciplinary Study

Based on the previous discussion, this new discipline cannot be understood as a simple comparison of the different opinions and the various ethical positions that exist; rather, it must propose standard values and effective decision-making approaches, providing objective answers based on rationally valid criteria.

The search for adequate answers demands an interdisciplinary approach to the problem, which is one of the unique characteristics of bioethics. The role played by the biomedical sciences and environmental science (ecology) is evident, but not everyone is aware that this area of study requires a standard philosophical anthropology, which is the framework within which an ethical value is assigned to bodily life, marital love and procreation, and suffering, sickness, and death, as well as to the relationships between freedom and responsibility, individual and society, and individual and nature. This complex interweaving of the experimental and humanistic sciences in search of a “wisdom of science,” to use Potter’s expression, also requires contributions from the philosophy of nature (to adequately establish the role, meaning, and value of the environment and ecosystems in bioethics), the philosophy of science, and law. Finally it is advisable that this interdisciplinary study be open to theology as a “horizon of meaning.”[6] Although they are closely interrelated, each of these disciplines has its own epistemological status, independent of the others.

As far as anthropology is concerned, I will refer to the anthropological concept that, in my opinion, best does justice to the real and objective meaning of man and contributes to a respect for his intrinsic value: ontologically grounded personalism. This presents itself as an integral understanding of the human person, not subject to reductive ideologies or biologistic thinking. Indeed, in order to solve the problems posed by scientific progress and the social organization of medicine and law, I believe it is first of all necessary to answer the question of the value of the human person, with his prerogatives and duties, so as to bar all possibility of exploitation.

The fundamental value of life, the transcendence of the human person, the integral concept of the human person (resulting from the synthesis of physical, psychological, and spiritual values), the relations of priority and complementarity between person and society, and a personalist understanding of marital love as a communion are valid points of reference for bioethics, as well as for human and social ethics in general. These values should enlighten those who attempt to solve the problems resulting from the advances in biomedical science—a science that seems inspired by an optimistic enthusiasm for progress while forgetting great challenges, such as fighting still-untamed diseases and stemming the evils that are typical of that same technological society, which are caused by environmental exploitation. Precisely for this reason, there is a need for a standard philosophical anthropology that takes into account the human person as a whole and the unique, twofold relations that tie the person to his existential conditions: the space in which he dwells and the time in which he lives and will live. In this perspective, then, one comes to understand the great importance of the category of responsibility to which Jonas refers in his previously cited book. The ontologically grounded personalist anthropology is very often criticized as an anthropology that can only be maintained by someone who allows for suprarational knowledge—by someone who admits the possibility of theology. As Fides et ratio reminds us, the importance of metaphysics and of the intelligibility of the faith should be emphasized:

The word of God refers constantly to things which transcend human experience and even human thought; but this “mystery” could not be revealed, nor could theology render it in some way intelligible, were human knowledge limited strictly to the world of sense experience. Metaphysics thus plays an essential role of mediation in theological research. A theology without a metaphysical horizon could not move beyond an analysis of religious experience, nor would it allow the intellectus fidei to give a coherent account of the universal and transcendent value of revealed truth.[7]

In order to avoid equivocation, it seems necessary to establish a distinction between rational theology and revealed theology. Rational theology, traditionally called theodicy or the philosophy of God, is the science that studies, in the light of natural reason, what one can come to know about the Supreme Being through reason alone. Revealed theology, by contrast, has a material object (what it studies) and a formal object (the point of view that it adopts) different from those of rational theology; it is consequently a different science with a different epistemological status. Revealed theology studies the data of revelation in the light of reason as illuminated by faith. The material object partly coincides with that of rational theology, because it is the same God being studied, but is extended considerably to include everything that God has revealed to us about himself. Consequently, only those who have received the same faith can appropriately engage in theology.

It is important to make clear that metaphysics and the rational philosophy of God have many points in common, because both of them manage to reach the ultimate foundation of reality: being. Having clarified this, it is necessary to add that the anthropology and ethics that I am proposing do not take reason illuminated by faith as their point of departure, since the resulting discourse would only be relevant to those who profess the same creed; rather, they take into account a whole range of rational philosophical findings, whether metaphysical or anthropological or ethical in nature. In my opinion, anyone who confuses ontology and ontologically grounded personalism with revealed theology shows that he has misunderstood the meaning of metaphysics itself and of theology.[8] Those who blockade themselves within the walls of an empiricist philosophy, which reduces man to his purely experiential aspects, exhibit intellectual prejudices against a large part of the philosophical tradition, from Plato to the present day, which considers man as body and as spirit. Fides et ratio mentions the important challenge “to move from phenomenon to foundation” (no. 83) and rediscover a way of thinking that is metaphysical in scope (see no. 81). John Paul II recalls that “reality and truth do transcend the factual and the empirical, and [I want] to vindicate the human being’s capacity to know this transcendent and metaphysical dimension in a way that is true and certain, albeit imperfect and analogical” (no. 83).[9]

Every science manifests its own completeness within the parameters defined by the science itself. This does not prevent the sciences from being open to one another; in fact, interrelating the sciences—though each one preserves its distinct epistemological status—contributes to a richer understanding of the object of study. This occurs in much the same way that observing an object not only from the front, but also from the side, from within, and perhaps from above can lead to a thoroughly comprehensive understanding of the object, in keeping with an epistemological approach aimed at integration.[10]

Bioethics also has its own specificity that distinguishes it from the area of moral theology commonly referred to as “medical morals.” This branch of moral theology, aimed at the formation of health care personnel, considers these interventions in the light of faith, and hence in the light of Christian Revelation, as specified by the Magisterium. Its purpose is to reflect on the content of the faith and on the application of divine law to human conduct; its applications are above all within the community of believers, though many of its conclusions happen to fully coincide with those of moral philosophy.

In my opinion, however, it would be inappropriate and not very useful for the faith itself to deny the legitimacy and necessity of rational and philosophical reflection on human life, and therefore on whether physicians and biologists are permitted to experiment on human subjects. Human life is first and foremost a natural value, known rationally by all who make use of reason; the value of the human person is rendered even more precious by grace and by the gift of the Holy Spirit, but it remains an intangible value for everyone, believer or not. It is contrary to Church tradition to deny the value of reason and the legitimacy of rational ethics, also known as natural ethics.

In the debate over abortion, many people run the risk of supposing that it is a question of being a religious believer or not, yet human life is such for all people, and the obligation to respect it is a duty for man inasmuch as he is human, not just insofar as he is a believer. Supernatural reasons will reinforce this duty for a believer, but these reasons must not be used to excuse all people of good will and right reason from reflecting on the human facts in the light of reason.[11]

Over the centuries the Catholic Church herself has condemned any fideist position, which would deprive reason and intelligence of their weight and value, with the same vigor with which she has condemned any heresies in the realm of revealed truth. The Church has instead defended the principle of harmony between science and faith, between reason and Revelation; such a harmony is not always easy and immediate, however, whether because of the weakness of the human mind, ideological pressures, or the intrinsic difficulties of the problems.

This is a delicate yet essential point involving the relationship between man and God, natural and supernatural, and philosophy and theology. Reason and Revelation have the same author, who is God, and therefore merit equal respect and demand reciprocal support.[12] This encounter becomes all the more urgent and necessary the more one works within the field of the experimental sciences, which have this-worldly and corporeal realities as their object and avail themselves of a rational processes. It is ever more urgently needed in the wake of a long period of silence from metaphysics, which abandoned human truth to the clutches of relativism and noncognitivism.

The dialogue between science and faith can take place only through the intermediary of reason, which is the common reference point for both. This led to the need for philosophical and moral reflection in the medical and biological fields as well.

On this topic, we must ask whether there can be a purely rational secular ethics, capable of prescinding from the affirmation of the existence of an Absolute, or whether, precisely in virtue of an ethics grounded rationally upon natural values, it might not be necessary to discover the existence of an Absolute within said values, especially in order to safeguard the value of the person. I share the position of those who affirm the legitimacy of a rational, “secular” ethics on the immediate phenomenological, epistemological, and ontological level; if, however, this discourse is impelled toward the ultimate and mediate metaphysical foundation, as is necessarily the case, then rationality itself must conclude in favor of the existence of the Absolute: God, the ultimate root of the transcendent value of the person and of ethical norms.[13]

This connection with rational ethics, which is based on metaphysics, reasonably affirms the existence of God by affirming the value of the person and sees in Christian revelation a suprarational—not irrational—knowledge, fostering dialogue between reason and Revelation, between science and faith.

In a cultural context characterized by a general “crisis of meaning,” it is important to recover the “sapiential dimension as a search for the ultimate and overarching meaning of life” (Fides et ratio, no. 81). This wisdom-related dimension is indispensable because the immense growth of humanity’s technological power demands a renewed consciousness of the ultimate values. If this technical know-how should become ordered to a merely utilitarian end, it could quickly prove to be inhuman and destructive.

In the field of scientific research, the prevailing positivist mentality ignores or even rules out all reference to a metaphysical or moral perspective. One consequence is that the person and the holistic understanding of his life have become unimportant. Some scientists, aware of the potential that is inherent in technological progress, seem to give in not only to the dynamics of the marketplace but also to the temptation of a godlike power over nature and over human beings themselves.

Alongside utilitarianism and rationalism there is also nihilism, which views research as an end in itself, with no hope or possibility of attaining the goal of truth: “In brief, there are signs of a widespread distrust of universal and absolute statements, especially among those who think that truth is born of consensus and not of a consonance between intellect and objective reality” (Fides et ratio, no. 56).

In this context, a personalist bioethics with an ontological foundation can contribute to the “sapiential dimension” that Fides et ratio evokes. Bioethics is therefore a discipline with a rational epistemological status that is open to theology, which is understood as a suprarational science, the ultimate authority, and the “horizon of meaning.” Starting from a description of the scientific, biological, and medical data, bioethics rationally examines the liceity of man’s interventions on man. This ethical reflection has its immediate point of reference in the human person and his transcendent value, and its ultimate point of reference in God, who is Absolute Value. It is both natural and necessary to investigate Christian revelation while pursuing this line of thought, and a comparison with current philosophical ideas will also be productive.

[Excerpt taken from Elio Sgreccia, Personalist Bioethics: Foundations and Applications, trans. John A. Di Camillo and Michael J. Miller (Philadelphia: National Catholic Bioethics Center, 2012), Chapter 1, pp. 24-29.]


John A. Di Camillo, Be.L., is a staff ethicist at The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) in Philadelphia and a former Managing Editor of Dappled Things Magazine. He is a doctoral candidate in bioethics at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome. He lives in Glenside, PA, with his wife Serena and their two daughters.

[1]See the development of the debate in L. Palazzani, “Dall’etica ‘laica’ alla bioetica ‘laica’: Linee per un approfondimento filosofico-critico del dibattito italiano attuale,” Humanitas 4 (1991): 413–446; A. Fiori, “Bioetica laica e bioetica cattolica,” Medicina e Morale 46, no. 2 (1996): 203–207.

[2]A recent example of this interpretation is the “Manifesto di bioetica laica” (Manifesto of secular bioethics) signed by C. Flamigni, A. Massarenti, M. Mori, and A. Petroni. See the development of the extensive debate that followed in the monograph issue of Notizie di Politeia 41/42 (1996). See also the posthumous work by U. Scarpelli, Bioetica laica, ed. M. Mori (Milan: Baldini & Castoldi, 1998).

[3]Fiori, “Bioetica laica e bioetica cattolica,” 203.

[4]F. D’Agostino, Bioetica nella filosofia del diritto, 312.

[5]L. Walters, “Religion and the Renaissance of Medical Ethics in USA, 1965–1975,” in Theology and Bioethics, ed. E. E. Shelp (Boston: Reidel, 1985); D. Callahan, “Religion and the Secularization of Bioethics,” Hastings Center Report 6–7, supplement (1990): 2–4; D. Tettamanzi, Bioetica: Nuove frontiere per l’uomo (Casale Monferrato: Piemme, 1990).

[6]F. D’Agostino, “La teologia del diritto positivo: Annuncio cristiano e verità del diritto,” in “Evangelium vitae” e diritto (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997), 121–131.

[7]John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio, no. 83.

[8]See the article “Ragione” by A. Staglianò, in Dizionario di scienza e fede, Tanzella-Nitti and Strumia, 1167–1180, and the article “Metafisica” by A. Livi in the same volume, 939–957.

[9]See also the article by J. Ratzinger, “Fede e ragione,” in the Italian edition of L’Osservatore Romano dated November 19, 1998, p. 8; J. Habermas and J. Ratzinger, Ragione e fede in dialogo (Venice: Marsilio, 2005).

[10]B. Lonergan, Method in Theology (London: Darton and Todd, 1972).

[11]“Respect for human life is not just a Christian obligation. Human reason is sufficient to impose it on the basis of the analysis of what a human person is and should be.” Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Quaestio de abortu [Declaration on Procured Abortion], November 18, 1974. With regard to the relationship between reason and faith, Fides et ratio is indispensable reading: it describes them as “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (preamble). Also important is the study by R. Fisichella, “Da credente in difesa della ragione,” in D. Antiseri, Cristiano perché relativista, relativista perché cristiano: Per un razionalismo della contingenza (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino, 2003), 133–153. See also the article “Fideismo” by P. Poupard in, Dizionario di scienza e fede, Tanzella-Nitti and Strumia.

[12]“If methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith, for earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God. . . . We cannot but deplore certain habits of mind, which are sometimes found too among Christians, which do not sufficiently attend to the rightful independence of science and which, from the arguments and controversies they spark, lead many minds to conclude that faith and science are mutually opposed.” Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, December 7, 1965, no. 36. “This Sacred Synod, therefore, recalling the teaching of the first Vatican Council, declares that there are ‘two orders of knowledge’ which are distinct, namely faith and reason; and that the Church does not forbid that ‘the human arts and disciplines use their own principles and their proper method, each in its own domain’; therefore ‘acknowledging this just liberty,’ this Sacred Synod affirms the legitimate autonomy of human culture and especially of the sciences.” Ibid., no. 59.

[13]See P. Valori, “Può esistere una morale laica?” La Civiltà Cattolica 3 (1984), 19–29. On the implicit affirmation of God in the ethical experience, see also the reflection by E. Levinas, Etica ed infinito (Rome: Città Nuova, 1984), and, in general, all the speculations of this Lithuanian philosopher, which differ, however, from the Thomistic approach to ethics on some important points.

About Bernardo Aparicio García

Bernardo Aparicio García is founder and president of Dappled Things.


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