Informing Public Discourse

Contemporary scientific and technological challenges raise ethical questions about the human person that cut across national and cultural boundaries. Issues including the moral status of early human life, the significance and use of genetic information, and end-of-life dilemmas, have generated scientific governance regimes varying from one country to the next. Some countries tend to adopt technological advances without much public debate. In others, controversy rages between scientists and their secular allies, on the one hand, and religious conservatives on the other. Indifference predominates in one case and polemics in the other.

The Informing Public Discourse project fosters public deliberation on science, ethics, and the human person through dialogue between Muslim and Catholic scholars, and with representatives of other religious traditions and secular perspectives. The goal of such dialogue is a more informed public debate but also the development of shared perspectives on the human person that can deepen public discourse and policy deliberation into the future, both nationally and internationally.

Under the initial leadership of Professor Thomas Banchoff (Georgetown University) and later of Professor Maura Ryan (University of Notre Dame), the Informing Public Discourse project has promoted a deeper intercultural and interreligious conversation on science and the human person designed to improve the quality of public discourse and policy controversy too often marked by either indifference or polarization. Now in its final stage, the project continues to bring Islamic scholars into conversation with Catholic thinkers and representatives of other traditions, religious and secular, around critical public issues.

The Catholic Church is no stranger to such engagement. Since the late 19th century, popes and bishops have made public pronouncements on issues of biomedical ethics, including abortion, euthanasia, eugenics and, in the contemporary era, issues of artificial birth control and embryo and stem cell research. As in the case of Islam, however, the Catholic Church has been pressed to keep pace with scientific and technological advances.

Even while Church leaders have sought to clarify Catholic teaching on emerging issues – including cloning research, the deciphering of the human genome, and life-extension technologies – Catholic thinkers are already engaged in lively debates about those issues and their implications. Dialogue with Islamic scholars and with secular thinkers will help to orient the Church to new challenges posed by science and to both broaden and structure those debates.

Enriching the Global Ethical Debate

Dialogue within and across religious traditions and with secular, research, and medical communities on science and the human person will not achieve consensus. But it will help to define disagreements, improve the level of public discourse, and advance educational goals. The search for greater understanding between Islam, Catholicism and other traditions can help to enrich a more global ethical debate – an imperative in light of scientific and technological breakthroughs that touch humanity as a whole. Dialogue can also help define or even bridge differences with mainly secular scientific and bioethics communities, for whom human dignity and personhood are most often related to rationality and sentience rather than to any transcendent foundation.

“Breakthroughs in science and technology pose difficult ethical questions for national and international society,” Banchoff notes. “Governance decisions will inevitably favor some conceptions of the human person over others. It is in everyone’s interest that those decisions be informed by the very best thinking our traditions have to offer.”