During his homily this Easter, Pope Benedict argued that medical science, in trying to defeat death, is leading humanity toward likely condemnation. It’s a position at odds with the value of life, one that the Church will likely revise years from now, replaying the institution’s embarrassment over censoring Galileo.
“Let us reflect for a moment,” Pope Benedict urged, “what would it really be like if we were to succeed, perhaps not in excluding death totally, but in postponing it indefinitely, in reaching an age of several hundred years?” This is a big question, to be sure, but the Pope assumes the answer is obvious. “Humanity would become extraordinarily old,” he said, “there would be no more room for youth. Capacity for innovation would die, and endless life would be no paradise, if anything a condemnation.”
If scientists are successful in finding techniques to rebuild cartilage, repair organs, and cure cancer, people will indeed be living longer — but they will also be healthier, more energetic and youthful. Health-extension, when it happens, will allow people to live longer, better.
Consider that 60-year-olds today are not in the same shape as their counterparts were in the 1800s or 1900s. As humans discovered how to take better care of themselves, through improved nutrition, the use of antibiotics and other techniques, “chronological age” became less synonymous with “biological age.” That is, many of today’s 60-year-olds act and feel much younger than one might expect.
Time for the Big Questions
The average human life expectancy today is close to 80 years but in 1850, it was 43 years, and in 1900 it was 48 years. One can imagine someone in 1850 arguing that doubling life expectancy would be terrible, because innovation might be at risk and there would be more old people around. But would anyone today say they are sorry that science made it possible to live longer and healthier lives? That is unlikely.
Someday the Catholic Church will realize that with longer life expectancy comes more time to better serve God. Indeed, if people live longer, they may actually seek out religion in greater numbers, opening up new opportunities for the Church, assuming it can clean up its act on the pedophilia issue and other problems.
Longer lives afford individuals more time to ask the big questions in life. Why are we here? What is the best way for me to spend my extra time? How can I transform myself here on Earth before I meet God? These are questions that will always be on our minds, and they also happen to be ones the Church is well positioned to address. Far from being a competitor to the religious world, medical science is its ally.
Wrong to Deny Life
Consider that as science has advanced in the last hundred years, most scholars agree that the world has not rapidly secularized as anticipated, and some even argue that the number of religiously minded people has grown since 1900. Brian Grim, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, notes that as the world has become more modern, growth in religions like Christianity and Islam is evident in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and many former communist states like Albania.
If God permits scientists to discover ways to increase human life spans, then it is our duty to use such a gift to promote truth and justice. Refusing to follow such a path is tantamount to suicide, a regrettable sin within Church doctrine.
Just as the Church recognized that it was wrong to punish Galileo for discovering scientific facts, and just as it will more fully recognize its mishandling of child abusers, so too will it realize it was wrong to resist efforts to extend healthy life. One day, the Pope will come to the conclusion that extending health, and therefore life, is an absolute good.
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute. Follow her on Twitter@soniaarrison.