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It has been said that science without conscience is the ruin of the soul. But how to apply conscience to science is a debate as old as scientific inquiry itself. In the modern era, the leaps in scientific and technological development have always occurred apart from and ahead of ethical considerations.

So it is with the difficult issues involving the earliest forms of life. The recent announcement that scientists had cloned human embryos raises again the question of whether something that can be done (in this case, not a certainty at this point) should be done.

The old notion that the worlds of science and ethics are inherently antithetical has largely been left behind. But the question remains: How do you get the two to talk?

As Margot Patterson’s reporting on Page 3 points out, the need for that conversation was the most insistent theme heard from those she interviewed. In a pluralistic society, we know too well, it is not enough to simply say no. Especially when, as is the case in most of the new discoveries, potentially huge amounts of money are involved. One hope is the National Bioethics Advisory Commission. It remains to be seen, however, whether such a body will be given the mandate to both oversee a national discussion and draw some clear lines of conduct.

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston (see story Page 6) has introduced an interesting element into the Catholic church’s consideration of modern war -- “moral realism.” In a gathering in Rome, a questioner wondered if Christians should, in principle, be committed to pacifism on the basis of Jesus’ dying words, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.”

Law said that while Catholic teaching “respects nonviolence and pacifism,” it also recognizes “a certain moral realism that acknowledges not only the right of the state, but sometimes the grave obligation of the state, to defend itself when the common good is threatened.”

The statement set me to thinking that the church, while uncertain enough about the morality of carpet bombing, “daisy cutters” and cluster bombs that it would yield to “a certain moral realism,” would not show such flexibility in the same arena toward, say, a mother who had lost several children to the bombing and was now fearful of being raped in a refugee camp. She should not, we have been told in recent weeks, be able to procure under any circumstances any birth control means from Catholic relief agencies.

I am grateful that there are other voices, some Catholic, some coming from ground zero itself, courageous enough to issue a quite different message. Jesuit Fr. John Dear (see Page 22) who has served as a coordinator of chaplains at ground zero since hours after the attacks, has stories of other views from the relatives of victims, views that won’t get spun amid the parade of retired generals on the sets of the major networks. For more on his work and writing, check his Web site at www.fatherjohn dear.org

There are also people with different stories accompanying a Voices in the Wilderness Walk for Healing and Peace from Washington to New York. The march by the group, which opposes the economic sanctions against Iraq, was to end Dec. 1. One of those marching is Amber Amundson, 28, a mother of two whose husband was killed in the attack on the Pentagon. In a letter to President Bush she wrote:

“I do not want anyone to use my husband’s death to perpetuate violence. So, Mr. President, when you say that vengeance is needed so that the victims of 9/11 do not die in vain, could you please exclude Craig Scott Amundson from your list of victims used to justify further attacks?

“I do not want my children to grow up thinking that the reason so many people died following the Sept.11 attack was because of their father’s death. I want to show them a world where we love and not hate, where we forgive and not seek out vengeance.”

For more information on Voices activities, go to www.nonviolence.org/vitw

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001