Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Greek Orthodox Church Should Say No to NCC Collaboration on Stem Cell Research

Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse

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At first glance, the position paper on human biotechnology written by the Archdiocesan Advisory Committee on Science and Technology seems innocent enough. Titled "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: A Policy on Human Biotechnologies," the paper correctly warns against the potential abuse of emerging biological technologies.

The paper, written in collaboration with other members of the National Council of Churches (NCC), was distributed at last months' Clergy Laity Congress in Nashville. Work began three years ago and the completed version will be presented to the NCC at its national conference in November for final approval. The advisory committee is eager to have the Greek Orthodox Church endorse the document.

And there's the rub. Despite awareness of the ethical problems raised by the advances in biotechnological research, the paper says nothing about the moral status of the embryo. At the point where moral clarity is need the most, the paper is silent. It's a critical failure and officials of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese should refuse to sign it.

The Stem Cell Debate

The moral question at the center of the stem cell debate is whether or not the embryo is a human being. The embryo as everyone knows is a fertilized egg, the starting point of all human development. Some researchers believe that because the embryo is human, destroying it for research is morally prohibited. Others believe that embryos potentially offer an unlimited source of totipotent stem cells that can be directed to form any of the 220 cells in the human body. Theoretically, then, all types of maladies such as spinal cord breaks, brain injuries, perhaps even Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease could be healed.

Whether or not the theory is true remains to be seen. Based on the published science, there are 72 maladies for which human patients have received some benefit (which is not the same as being "cured") from adult stem cell or umbilical cord blood interventions. Meanwhile, embryonic stem cells have yet to demonstrate any human therapeutic use.

The Orthodox moral tradition clearly affirms that the embryo is indeed a human being. For example, our tradition frowns on in-vitro fertilization because it creates extra embryos that are either frozen or discarded. When discarded, the destruction of the embryo is tantamount to abortion.

Moral Confusion in the NCC

The silence of the document about the embryo arose because not all NCC member churches involved in drafting the document agree that the embryo deserves protection. In fact, some NCC member churches are either supportive of abortion or have issued morally equivocal statements about the practice. No agreement could be reached with them. The drafters resolved the standoff on the biotechnology statement by agreeing to pass over the matter of the destruction of embryos altogether.

The document explains it this way:

The churches of the National Council of Churches support the pursuit of medical research that may result in alleviating human suffering, and even possible cures, but hold differing strong opinions about the morality of human embryonic stem cell research. As a result of a lack of clear consensus, the National Council of Churches neither endorses nor condemns experimentation on human embryos, and takes no position on the use of human embryonic stem cells for research purposes. Research using human embryonic stem cells is now under way despite moral, religious, ethical, and cultural objections of various groups.

On the surface the compromise appears reasonable. But is it?

Say we decide that the embryo is not human and thus subject to the same standards of research we apply to rats or dogs. Embryos become commodities in this scenario. "Fetal farms" will be established and the buy and selling of embryos will become lucrative business. Some women will sell the embryos like people sell their blood. Prominent thinkers like Orthodox ethicist H. Tristram Englehardt Jr. and former president of The President's Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass, have been warning us against this utilitarian direction for years.

The authors of the draft NCC statement anticipated the criticism they would receive. They wrote:

We are, however, in agreement in our recognition of the irreducible sanctity of human life, as well as the intrinsic moral and ethical good inherent in efforts to reduce human suffering.

Is it true that all the delegates affirm the "irreducible sanctity of human life?" Not really. It is impossible to affirm the "irreducible sanctity of human life" and at the same time deny that the embryo possesses any inherent value. This is a moral contradiction. The authors on both sides of the question gloss over this glaring contradiction with language that serves only to justify the paltry compromise.

The failure is two-fold. First is the inexcusable denial of the moral sanctity of the embryo. The second failure is the muting of the Orthodox voice in the public square. Readers of the NCC document will reasonably conclude that the Orthodox have no position on the moral status of the embryo. They will see no difference between moral liberals and moral conservatives even though the Orthodox tradition unquestionably affirms the sanctity of the embryo. The political compromise in effect compromises the Orthodox moral witness. We need to do better than this.

Orthodox Participation in the NCC

Why do the Orthodox contributors to the NCC biotech statement think compromise is necessary? Why do they believe that political accord with the NCC is more important than the clarity of our public voice?

There are many possible answers but the most evident seems to be that the NCC, in the minds of some, can add to the stature of Orthodox Christianity in American society. It's a questionable assumption. The Antiochian Orthodox jurisdiction recently resigned its membership mainly because of the NCC's slavish devotion to the moral and political stands of the cultural left. The Roman Catholics and a number of conservative Protestant denominations have refused to join this organization for the same reasons.

Unfortunately, moral compromise is nothing new for the NCC. While the NCC has accomplished some noteworthy goals (it works for the protection of the Ecumenical Patriarchate for example), it cannot be trusted for responsible moral leadership.

For example, in the middle of the last century, the NCC embraced "liberation theology," a theological fad that blew through liberal Christian churches and seminaries. Liberation theology took the Christian obligation to care for the poor and filtered it through Marxist ideology. The NCC really believed that Marxist class struggle would eliminate poverty in the world.

When Communism fell and the brutality and suffering it unleashed became clear for all to see, the NCC was forced to face its adulteration of the Christian gospel. Former NCC President Joan Brown Campbell said: ""We did not understand the depth of the sufferings under Communism. And we failed to really cry out under the Communist oppression."

It is hard to overstate how seriously things got out of hand. In the 1950s and 1960s, the NCC was one of the leading contributors to the Program to Combat Racism (PCR) created in 1939 by the World Council of Churches (WCC). PCR subsidized revolutionary Communists governments in the Third World, shuffling more than $5 million to 130 organizations in 30 countries - all under the guise of Christian charity.

When Reader's Digest exposed the ruse in 1982, it reported that more than half of the money that went to the PCR wound up in the hands of Communist guerillas. Here's a sample of what the NCC supported in the 1970s: in excess of $78,000 went to the Cuban- sponsored MPLA for the fomenting of Communist revolution in Angola; $832,000 to Nambia's Communist regime; and $108,000 to the Patriotic Front in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) to support a Communist guerilla force responsible for a campaign of terror that killed 207 white civilians, 1,721 blacks, and nine missionaries including their children.

Many member communions responded to the outrage by withholding their funds. In the late 1990s, the NCC teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. Current general secretary Rev. Robert Edgar has managed to reverse much of the decline by appealing to foundations rather than churches for financial support.

In recent years, only eight of the NCC's 36 member denominations have given more than $25,000 annually, and only four have given more than $100,000. The list of foundation sponsors of the NCC, however, reads like a Who's Who of the secular left. Donors include: $60,000 from the Sierra Club; $150,000 from the Ford Foundation; $100,000 from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; $40,000 from the Tides Foundation; $34,000 from the Dudley Foundation; and $25,000 from the Colombe Foundation.

Not surprisingly, the NCC's understanding of the most important moral questions of the day are at odds with ancient Orthodox tradition. Here's how Rev. Edgar responded to a question from CBS News last month when asked about the religious witness in American political and cultural life: "Jesus never said one word about homosexuality, never said one word about civil marriage or abortion," he said.

The truth is that the NCC needs the Orthodox presence to lend credibility to an otherwise marginal enterprise. Orthodox participation lends a moral authority that the NCC could never muster on its own. Note the prominence Orthodox participation is given in the NCC's public statements and on its Web site. If the Orthodox withdrew its participation, the NCC would be revealed for what it is - the representative of declining mainline denominations.

The Orthodox Dilemma

Why are we compromising the Orthodox moral tradition in order to satisfy the demands of NCC member communions? Why do we turn a blind eye to a moral question of such crucial cultural importance? We are we so eager to curry favor with the NCC while ignoring the needs of our own faithful and the larger culture?

The settling of the moral status of the embryo in the next few years will determine the direction that biotechnological research will take for decades to come. If the leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church sign on to "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made," the real losers will be the Orthodox faithful looking for moral direction and the seekers who believe the Orthodox moral tradition can offer some clarity. The moral authority of the Church will be tragically compromised as well.

Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse is pastor of St. Katherine's Greek Orthodox Church in Naples, Fla., and the editor of OrthodoxyToday.org.

This article was published in the Hellenic Voice August 30, 2006.

Posted: 02-Sep-06

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