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Making Ethical Decisions in Good Faith

How do we use ancient texts to decide contemporary ethical issues?

SAIF talk and discussion led by Dr Christopher Lamb on Tuesday 18 September 2018 at 7.30pm. 

At our last meeting in July Rehanah Sadiq introduced us to several ethical issues she is faced with as a Muslim hospital chaplain: organ donation, pregnancy termination. 

There are other issues at both ends of life like genetic engineering and assisted dying.

How do faiths and faithful people use their foundation documents to make ethical decisions – decisions in good faith? 

A contemporary example: The Catholic Church and The Death Penalty

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994 edition) states on the 5th of the Ten Commandments*: 

2266:  Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty. 

In 1997 the wording of the text, now numbered 2267, was changed to: 

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent. 

On August 2nd 2018 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a new text: 

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’, and she works for its abolition worldwide. 

This change was presented by a Vatican spokesman as ‘an authentic development of the Church’s doctrine that started with St John Paul II’ and has continued under the last two Popes. Note it is called a ‘development’, not a ‘change’, though it has been criticised by some Catholics. One senior archbishop called it ‘a kind of rhetorical acid that must inevitably eat away at the Church’s claims to be an institution trustworthy to teach authoritatively on faith and morals.’ 

* You shall not murder OR You shall not kill

Other churches number the Ten Commandments differently, making this the sixth

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