Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay Book Launch Bioethics at the Crossroad of Religions

By Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay
18 September 2015

Your Excellency my Brother Bishop Rabbat, 
Reverend Monsignor, Fathers and Sisters,
A special welcome to our Muslim and Druz friends,
Distinguished guests,
Dear friends, 

In the Old Testament, Job addressed the Lord saying: “You gave me life and showed me kindness, and in your providence watched over my spirit.”  I am humbled to think that God has shown His providence not only to me, but to the little flock he has entrusted to my care, because the production of this book at this time owes as much and even more to His special care and kindness than it does to any plan of my own. 

I have dedicated this modest volume to the Blessed Virgin Mary, to the Church and to my religious family, the Lebanese Maronite Order of Monks, and to my parents and siblings, because this book was not going to see the light without their prayers and support. 

The Church is concerned to promote and defend the culture of life against the cult of death that we are witnessing in today’s society, not only with Islamic fundamentalism (ISIL), but also in the medical profession when practising abortion and euthanasia.  It is therefore right to remember and invoke Our Lady, the mother of Jesus and my mother, for it is through her intercession, that we can defend life and promote values. 

It is an especially humbling matter to meditate on the fact that I am the first Maronite Bishop of Australia to have published a book in the English language. This is a sign that there is a real and present need for the Maronite Bishop in this country to be addressing the new generation of Maronites in this way.

Bioethics at the Crossroad of Religions is a new open-door treating bioethical issues in a coherent and comprehensive manner, explaining and expounding the teaching of the Church, and relating it to contemporary realities. That being the need, it does seem to me that the Lord saw that it would be fulfilled in his own good time, making use of his instruments. Therefore, of course, my only achievement is to have walked through the doors which the Lord has opened, and to offer my mind, my hand and my tongue to think the thoughts, write the lines and utter the teachings of the Holy Church.

I had not intended to delay the publication of this book until now, but the pressure of monastic, pastoral and episcopal duties have not allowed me to do so in the past years. I had intended from the beginning that the volume should be made available in English, especially as more Maronites today read English more than any other language, not excluding Arabic, especially those in the Expansion, who now outnumber the Maronites in Lebanon. 

I originally prepared my thesis in French while studying in Rome. Then came my providential posting here, where I was able to work with people who could assist me in the translation, and to finesse the text. In this respect, too, it is right to mention the care taken by Connor Court, the publishers of this volume.

This modest book is intended to open a doorway for a respectful and informed dialogue about bioethics between Christianity and Islam. 

The recent agitation concerning Same-Sex Marriage has some echoes in this book showing how much Christianity and Islam have in common especially when it comes to marriage between man and woman and the right of children to be born from marriage between man and woman only. 

In the past we would speak about a war of religions, but today we witness a war against all religions. At a time when ethical principles are challenged and questioned, there is a need for such a work to appear. This book is an invitation to Christianity and Islam to collaborate more on bioethical matters for the benefit and respect of human beings and humanity. 

This book addresses the religious and philosophical foundations of ethics and morality, especially bioethics. If we do not address the foundations of our teaching, if we cannot articulate the grounds of our doctrines, we will lack faith in our own ethical positions, be unable to explain the wisdom of our moral doctrines to others, and be unable to make persuasive statements in defence of our faith.

This book helps to see that both Christianity and Islam have some common ethical principles, but it also highlights some differences, where these two religions diverge in their ethical teachings. 

I will now offer some examples of these points of similarity and of difference: 

In the coming years, as my duties allow, I intend to issue a second volume, building on this foundation to tackle specific topics such as abortion, IVF, euthanasia and organ transplant in Christianity and Islam. 

While Fr Peter Joseph described to you earlier the contents of the volume, it remains to me to say a few words about its spirit. As the subtitle suggests, it records my thoughts on the anthropological foundation of bioethics in the two largest world religions. It is what is in French termed an essai, which more than the English word essay, means a writing which has been designed to explore rather than to definitively settle and giving final answers to an important question such as this.

From that perspective, this book is intended to inform, promote and stimulate pondering and discussing these vital issues. It is one of the tragedies of our day that, too often, matters which should be the subject of serious study and debate, are disposed of on the basis of prejudice, superficial and even sentimental treatments in a mass media which is more attuned to commerce and social promotion than it is to the search for truth. It is an important part of the New Evangelisation that we try and reach people, and call to them to realise that their true good is found and fulfilled in the Word of God.

This volume also deals specifically with anthropology in these two faiths. “Anthropology” is simply the study of human life, by reference to human nature and considerations. Because Christianity and Islam are religions, even their anthropology (in so far as they have one) is derived from their theology. If anthropology is the study of humanity, and theology the study of God, bioethics is a blend of both, for it asks, how should human life sciences and health care be ordered so that humanity’s spiritual end may be realised through our lives here on earth?

I chose Catholicism to represent Christianity not so much because I am myself a son of the Church, but more because it has the most fully developed theology, anthropology and bioethics of any Christian grouping, and is by far the largest and most influential of all the Christian Churches. I selected Islam because we Maronites, and now Christians all over the world, have more to do with this religion than we do with any other. Once there were few Muslims in Australia, Europe and the USA. Today Islam already is, or appears likely to soon become, the second largest religion in those areas.

It remains now only to thank those who have helped organise this book launch: the Australian Catholic University, and especially Professor Greg Craven and Professor Marea Nicholson present with us tonight, who so generously offered the venue; the Maronite Catholic Society, and its president Mr Tony Khattar, who have supported this event. My gratitude also goes to Ms Naomi Tsvirko, our MC, and to our small team at the Chancery for their role in preparing the book for printing and then tonight’s event: Fr Yuhanna Azize, Pauline Dib, Ray Chahine, and Elise Gharrach. I thank every person who made it possible for this book to come to the attention of the community. 

I reserve my final thanks, over and above those mentioned in the dedication, to George Cardinal Pell, who wrote the foreword. Truly, he has always been a loyal servant of the Church, and a friend to the Maronite Church and to myself personally.

Finally, dear friends, the subject addressed in this book is too vast to be explored in one study. This study is only a stepping stone in this journey.  My ultimate aim in publishing this study is to reiterate that human being and human reality cannot and should not at any time be treated as a means, but rather as an end, because every human being, without exception, is lovingly made in the image of God.

Book launch of  Bioethics at the Crossroads of Religions  – Thoughts on the Foundations of Bioethics in Christianity and Islam  by Bishop Antoine Tarabay (Connor Court, 2015)
Talk by Fr. Peter Joseph

Your Excellency, Bishop Antoine-Charbel,

Distinguished guests of churches and government and associations,

Fathers,  Sisters,

Dear friends,

In the English language, there are very few publications that compare and contrast Catholic and Moslem approaches to the modern questions of bioethics.  This book of Bishop Tarabay in English is possibly unique, or at least, one of very few that look at this topic.

The author
Bishop Tarabay, as His Eminence Cardinal Pell says in the book’s introduction, has “a rare intellectual, linguistic and religious culture and experience to tackle this pressing subject of inter-religious bioethics in the modern world.”  Bishop Tarabay has studied and taught in Lebanon, and has studied further in France and Italy.  In Lebanon, he has lectured in business ethics, bio-ethics and moral theology.  It was in Rome he gained his doctorate in moral theology.  He has been an educator in Australia, as well, as we all know.  This broad education has given him the best of East and West.  He has the insight into the Islamic sources and perspectives, and can read them in the original language, but at the same time, can re-present them in a modern western language, English, with the western style of thought and structure and order.

“Bio-ethics” is not a word we use every day – but the issues of bioethics are confronted every day by doctors, scientists, nurses and other medical practitioners.  Bios is the Greek word for life.  Ethics, also a word from the Greek, ethos, means the system of moral values and doctrines regarding the practice of human virtue.

Bioethics is defined as “the systematic study of human behaviour in the context of the life sciences and health care.” (p. xiii).  One Italian Catholic bishop states that “Bioethics is a part of moral philosophy that determines whether it is licit or not to intervene in the life of man, particularly when related to the practice and development of medical and biological sciences.” (p. xiii)

The whole subject expanded enormously in the second half of the 20th century when many things became possible in medical science, that were impossible and unthinkable in a previous age, although the English writer Aldous Huxley wrote an extraordinarily prescient novel Brave New World, in 1932, a world of test-tube babies, psychological manipulation and eugenics.

Catholic statements on bio-ethical issues
As we know, the Catholic Church has spoken clearly and definitively and at length on certain issues of bio-ethics.  Even Pope Pius XII, who died in 1958, spoke against artificial insemination in 1949 and 1951, and in 1956 he stated that ‘in vitro’ fertilization “must be rejected as immoral and absolutely illicit.”  After it became a reality, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, at the time of Pope John Paul II, spoke authoritatively in the document of 1987: “Donum Vitae [The gift of life] Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation.”  That masterly and concise document was updated and re-presented by the Holy See in 2008 in the “Instruction Dignitas Personae [the dignity of the person] on certain bioethical questions.”

The content and order of the book
There are myriad bio-ethical issues today: for example, euthanasia, infanticide, abortion, contraception, fertility drugs, in-vitro fertilization, gamete donation & gamete adoption, embryo freezing & experimentation, surrogate motherhood, sex-change surgery, gene therapy, stem cell therapy, and so on.  Rather than deal with these specific bio-ethical issues, – in this study, Bishop Tarabay goes to the foundations of all bio-ethics in Islam and Christianity, by looking at four key subjects.

1.      He looks firstly at man, as a creature of God.

2.      Then he considers the significance of human sexuality.

3.      Then, the significance of human corporeality – the bodily nature of man.

4.      Lastly, ethical principles in health and sickness.

In each of the four parts, the author gives you, firstly, the Catholic perspective on the theme, followed by the Islamic perspective on that theme.  Then comes a section on “Convergences and Divergences”, comparing the two religions on the specific theme.

Understanding is assisted by order and structure, and this book is a very well-ordered book, and at the same time, ranges over sources in English, Arabic, French and Italian.

Sources used
For the Islamic sections, Bishop Tarabay quotes the Koran, naturally, but also the Hadith, and the Shari’a, and the works of modern Moslem scholars, commentators and philosophers.

For the Catholic sections, the Bishop quotes the Bible, of course, documents of the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and magisterial statements of Pope John Paul, along with modern bio-ethicists and Catholic philosophers, including the present Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, a noted bio-ethicist in his own right.

Four Catholic foundations
In his introduction, Cardinal George Pell mentions four Catholic axioms:  three about God and one about man.

We believe in the Fatherhood of God.  As the Apostles’ Creed begins: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”  God is not some remote Supreme Being, alien to us and the world, but our loving Father; and through human relations, we can come closer to God and deepen in our understanding of Him.

Secondly, God is Logos—Reason—and the source of reason.  The Divine Wisdom cannot do or command anything contrary to reason.  He may do or mandate things above the limits of human wisdom, but He can never command what is inherently absurd or unreasonable.  This has major implications for morality.

Thirdly, we have the great declaration of St John, the Beloved Disciple: “God is love.”  It is His very nature to love.  He cannot hate what He has made.  All that He made is good, very good indeed, as Genesis tells us.

And, regarding man, as we also learn in Genesis, human beings are made “in the image of God.”  This means that we can learn something about God by studying His creatures, man and woman, who have a heart for tender loving, a will for freely choosing, and a mind for rational understanding.

Cardinal Pell comments:  “I think that many Christians take these foundations for granted, and presume that Moslems equally accept them.  Do they know that while all four foundations are in the Christian Bible, not only are they absent from the Koran but they are denied by Islam?”

The Cardinal continues:  “I realize, of course, that such ancient foundations, however necessary, do not answer all the complicated and delicate ethical questions that confront us in the face of modern bio-technology.  However, unless we are clear about our foundations, we will be off track even before we begin to search for where the answers lie.”

A few observations
Bishop Tarabay notes many significant convergences and divergences between the two religions.  In the chapter on human sexuality, while there are some very clear and external convergences in prohibiting adultery, promiscuity and prostitution, the understanding of the relationship between man and woman is significantly different.  The concept of the dignity of the human person, and of the woman in particular, is weak in Islam (p. 85).  Further, in Islam, there is no praise for the dedication of the human person to God in the state of celibacy or virginity.

The Bishop notes: “the sacredness of the human body is lacking in Islam.” (p. 129).  As Catholic Christians, we follow St Paul, who says “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.”  A temple, because the Divine Trinity has taken up Their abode in the baptised.

It is clear that the crucial differences have their origin in the very foundation of religion, namely in the concept of God – is He our Heavenly Father, or not?  Also, of course, the Incarnation of God the Son has changed everything:  as Christians, we believe God has come so close to us, dwelt amongst us and shared our human life, given man a dignity of which he never dreamt until it happened, and raised us up to His divine life.  All of this nowhere found in Islam.

As Islam and Christianity now co-exist not only in the Middle East, but also in Europe, and many other nations, including the USA, and Australia, it is important that Christians be informed of the first principles from which these two religions address bio-ethics (cf. back cover of the book).

At the end of the book, the Bishop tells us, he intends to follow this up with another book looking at the specific bio-ethical issues we all face – again comparing and contrasting the two religions in their evaluations of modern practices.

I commend Bishop Tarabay for an informative, impartial and wide-ranging study, and I commend this book whole-heartedly to your readership.



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