The Church wrestles with transhumanism

For centuries people have looked to words spoken by God in the Bible’s first book for clarity on what it means to be human: “Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness” (Gn 1:26). Consistent with the thinking reflected there, human nature, created by God in his image, is understood as something well established and unchanging.

Genesis also says that in creating, God made human beings “male and female” (Gn 1:27). Today, an influential school of thought called gender theory says sexual identity is a social construct and a matter of choice.

Pope Francis often has criticized gender theory, saying it fails to “recognize the order of creation.” But a militant “transgender rights“ movement aims to reshape public policy and practice on issues from using public restrooms to serving in the military.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Science and technology today spearhead discussion of a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? At a deep level, how we think about human nature itself appears in flux under the lens of “transhumanist” and “posthumanist” thought.

Joining the conversation

Transhumanistm and posthumanism have existed in secular intellectual circles for decades, and they have served as staples of science fiction, but lately they’ve been reaching out to a broader audience. A notable instance was a popular book written by an Israeli historian named Yuval Noah Harari. Bearing the title “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” (HarperCollins, $35), the book says the main human project of the 21st century is to “upgrade Homo Sapiens into Homo Deus ... attaining divinity” by transformative scientific and technological technique.

In a 2015 interview with Catholic News Agency regarding transhumanism, Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, said, “Catholics cannot accept a vision of man which presupposes an outright ‘unacceptability’ of his basic human nature, nor a vision that labors to replace it with an alternate bodily structure that is engineered to be ‘post-human.’”

By “divinity,” Harari, an atheist, does not mean what religious believers mean — a transcendent creator who watches over the world he has made. He means a race of super-beings as successors of today’s human specimens, with far longer life spans and vastly enhanced mental capacities.

A Bioethicist Explains
“IMAGE'
Pacholczyk
In a 2015 interview with Catholic News Agency regarding transhumanism, Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, said, “Catholics cannot accept a vision of man which presupposes an outright ‘unacceptability’ of his basic human nature, nor a vision that labors to replace it with an alternate bodily structure that is engineered to be ‘post-human.’”

Lately the Church has entered this discussion.

In Rome last November, the University of the Holy Cross, a pontifical institution sponsored by Opus Dei, held a conference on the theme “Human, Transhuman and Posthuman.” A conference summary says the working assumption of transhumanist thought is that genetic manipulation, medicine or education may eventually be able to transform human beings into “something stronger and better” — indeed, “altogether different,” according to the posthumanists.

Around the same time, the Pontifical Council for Culture devoted its plenary assembly to these matters. Theologians and ethicists joined geneticists, neuroscientists and experts on artificial intelligence in a discussion under the heading “The Future of Humanity.” A “presentation of the themes” released along with the program gives a sometimes startling picture of what was discussed. Describing the present as “a period of profound social and cultural change,” the document says the “deepest transformation” now underway concerns “what it means to be human.” In preaching the Gospel, it adds, “the Church must present its ideas in ways that are culturally accessible and credible.”

Questions to ponder

Against this background, the document adds, the aim of the assembly was to examine such issues as the idea of the human person, the relation between mind and body, and the role of human beings in a society in which intelligent machines play an ever more important part. Events of recent years, it says, “call not only for moral evaluation but ... require us to re-examine the ethical and anthropological categories traditionally used” in value judgments.

“We must try to understand the aims, objectives and motivations of those who promote scientific research. ... Unless we examine these deeper convictions and subject them to critical reflection, much of our ethical discourse is likely to remain superficial and unlikely to create consensus and agreement.”

But the document insists questions bearing upon the future of humanity can’t be left solely to the scientists and technicians, but instead require “the attention of a wider public.” Among these questions it lists: “How can we establish whether progress truly respects human dignity? Who will determine what are ethically objectionable or unsafe forms of research and experimentation?”

New ways of thinking

The presentation of themes then sketches the plenary assembly’s program under four headings: new models of what it means to be a human person; the redesigning of human nature via medicine and genetics; the relationship between brain and soul; and the social implications of intelligent machines.

Under the first heading, “Anthropological Models,” it says this: “For centuries in the different religious and philosophical traditions a clear answer was available to the question, ‘What is man?’ One knew what it was to be human. ... In the current cultural context, this certainty dissolves, and it is harder to give a response to the question of the identity of the human being. ...

“New currents of thought bring into discussion concepts that seemed to have been settled once and for all, such as the distinction between the sexes, the relation of paternity and maternity, the dignity of each person, personal responsibility for our actions, immortality, the uniqueness and superiority of humans over animals.”

Some people welcome such uncertainty as “the dawn of a new horizon for humanity,” the document says, while for others it is “catastrophic ... incompatible with a Christian vision.”

The Church’s role going forward

No reasonable person doubts that the Church should be informed on this new thinking. But along with informing itself, the Church has something to add from its own long Tradition — and for the Church, the Vatican document says, the challenge is to find a way of expressing that Tradition that speaks to people today.

In a volume of essays published in 2006, “Christian Faith and Human Understanding” (The Catholic University of America Press, $29.95), Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, a prominent philosopher who teaches at that institution, urged Catholic colleges and universities to develop a “streamlined Thomism” focused on “the human soul, the human spirit and the human person.”

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“The Church could perform a great service to all people of goodwill if she were to offer them a deeper and more spiritual way of thinking about the human person,” Msgr. Sokolowski wrote.

As it happens, the Second Vatican Council in 1965 devoted the first chapter of its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World to “The Dignity of the Human Person.” The excellence and the meaning of the person find their highest expression, it says, in Christ, who “fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 22). Is this an opening to an authentically Christian transhumanism?

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.