The enduring tension between science and religion has played a critical role in expanding the frontiers of knowledge. In recent times, and given the advancement in learning, the turgid relationship is thawing and issues of the mutual agreement have been more commonplace. Yet, areas of suspicion still exist. One of these is the application of scientific methods of reproduction in humans. Much as these procedures have helped put smiles on many couples, the Church sees them as immoral, controversial and disrespectful of the essence of creation.
This subject forms the basis of this interview with Reverend Father Joseph Obada, a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja. Fr. Obada has undertaken extensive studies on the subject of procreation, and life and combines theology, and church tradition with the science of life ethics. He explains to NKRUMAH BANKONG-OBI why the alternative natural resources developed to tackle infertility should be encouraged rather than the seemingly fast, flashy ways that a section of the pharmaceutical and birth-interest science community promotes.
You are described as a priest-bioethicist. What exactly is bioethics about the Catholic faith and the Catholic Church?
Yes, that will come across as contradictory. But I will start by defining or clarifying terms. Bioethics is gotten from two words, bio and ethics. Bio is the root word for life, the Latin word for life. And ethics of course is the science of morals, the science of good and bad. So, when you merge the two, it is the science that deals with the ethics of life. There have always been discussions within the Church. But this began as a systematic study in the aftermath, especially, of the Second World War when we began to have advancements in technology. So, we had to worry about the way and manner those technologies are put to use, particularly concerning humans. We are beginning to have experiments, some people are beginning to feel the doctor-patient relationship is becoming tricky and a whole lot of things. So, we needed to be sure that if we are advancing, then this must be along the lines of ethics or not. So, that gave birth to the course, bioethics. As it relates to the priesthood, as it is with the church, we are in the world, even though not of the world. What that means is that we have to worry about the many things that go on around us, including this advancement I am talking about.
So, the church has thought it wise that if we have to make pronouncements on things, it is very important to have experts on those things, so that we don’t just talk from a myopic point of view. So, it is not in the manner of speaking, core theology which is ordinarily our jurisdiction. But then we need to know more about these things including the advancement in technology. The church has thought it wise to also train priests in the science of things. And that is what has led to this study. By the way, the Church has always related with and to a lot of things because, if we are going to make a pronouncement on any issue, I know this it must be based on research, consultations, sometimes relating to even atheists; yes the church leaders do, just to be sure we are operating on the principle of objectivity in whatever it is we are doing or saying. So, concerning things that have to do with life, and advancement, especially in the light of what is going on, the church has also thought it wise to also train priests in the seminaries – which of course involves the normal theology as basic and then some other priests in the science of things and that is where I belong. I was privileged to be sent by the Archdiocese of Abuja to Rome to study Bioethics, which is basically what makes me a bioethicist. So, that combines in my case, theology-science.
You have always spoken to your parishioners about the science of reproduction. What have you been telling them to avoid the friction between science, religion and all that?
So, the premise to that answer is that we must recognise that every human being is made of body and soul. And the dimensions of approach have to be along those lines name; we have to see things from the existential point of view – from the spiritual or metaphysical point of view, the meeting place of these two is where we have answers to lots of things. So what have I been telling them about this, especially along the lines of reproduction, its methods and issues around that? There is a simple and not-so-simple answer to that. I am one of those who believe that people are equal but ideas are not. Any procedure we have is usually a product of ideas. For instance, there is a philosophy behind this. It is called the contraceptive mentality which is one of the by-products or natural child of the sexual revolution of the 1960s or thereabouts; whereby there was a divorce between what was supposed to be objectively speaking, anything that had to do with sex and sexuality. And as it is with anything in life, anything you change its actual sense and meaning is headed for destruction. So, this mentality came as a way of isolating the concept of pleasure from the concept of responsibility. So, they now started having sex without responsibility – which of course gave birth to contraceptive behaviour. The natural child of that is all of these methods like surrogacy, and Invitro-fertilisation. That is not a single story.
For instance, if we concretise the very common method of the idea, which is invitro-fertilisation, and it’s a way of helping out couples who cannot have children through the natural way of sexual intercourse. So, now you have to get the egg, take it to the laboratory and then fertilise it, bla bla bla. So, what I tell my parishioners is, you know what? If we are going to analyse this kind of thing, concerning this topic, you need to study the nitty gritty, what exactly goes on in each of these methods? We cannot pretend and say, “oh! I can’t have a child and science can help, so let’s apply science.” That is dangerously simplistic.
In what sense?
In the sense that it appeals more to the question of emotions. This is not supposed to be a bad thing. But this is not the only side to the story. So, if you pick any of these methods that we have talked about, to begin with, what is supposed to be the definition, the idea of this thing we call sex and reproduction? What is it about sex? In what context is it supposed to be? How is it supposed to be done? That is where the whole idea of bioethics begins because we need to talk about the good and bad. We cannot just assume that sex is pleasurable so does that mean it is okay to have sex with siblings because it is not less pleasurable? Is it okay to have sex with the same gender even if it’s pleasurable? Is it okay to use sex toys, even though that is pleasurable? That is why I say to just have sex is dangerously simplistic. You cannot just highlight the pleasure part and isolate it as the dangerous definition of what sex is. If you take the argument further to the need for reproduction and reproductive technologies, it is the same story. For instance, there are cases of infertility; the numbers are alarming for a myriad of reasons. But the idea that it is the scientific method that can help is problematic. The fact that something is scientifically possible doesn’t make it morally admissible. There are lots of examples. Does the fact that it is scientifically possible to engineer a human being make it morally admissible? It is scientifically possible to build nuclear bombs as it is being done, does it make it morally admissible? It is scientifically possible to do a whole lot of things. But we have to vet what is being done. Dangerously simplistic, simply means that when you want to talk about anything, and which is what I tell my parishioners, going back to your question, can we pay some attention to the nitty gritty of some of these things? Understand that yes, science cannot be completely divorced from faith. However,– science and faith should lend themselves to each other in a way that we can come to a consensus. And by that, we can come to a more humane and sane society where advancements in technology remain but at the same time, we are not offending the anthropology of man and the theology of man. The reason is, that at the end of the day, even if you don’t believe in God, you didn’t create yourself.
But someone could argue that it is a question of whether the end justifies the means, a human is created after all. And then, there is the example of the foetus that a pharmaceutical company used via experimentation in developing the COVID-19 vaccination drugs. Isn’t that technology helping when nature has afflicted?
This will readily come across as a valid argument except for the fact that if you are arguing along the line we could have the end justifying the means. The next question should be, is it only that end that should justify the means? You can get vaccines from the foetus, yes. But yes, more appropriately, can we get vaccines from somewhere else? I think the first thing we should talk about here is the hierarchy of values. In life, there is a hierarchy of values. Some can’t trump with each other. The highest in that hierarchy is life. And the dignity that comes with life is premised on the fact that we can’t take it because we can’t give it. That’s how the rank came in. and the human being from the moment of conception has that dignity. So, yes, is it possible that we get some advantages with regards to scientific experimentations from foetuses? Yes. Pharmaceutical companies and others are doing a whole lot on that. But where the question comes in is how to analyse the ethical issues. There are principles to deliberate on. To make it quite simple, first, the thing you are doing must be good. Two, the means through which you are doing it must be good. And third, the purpose for which you are doing it must be good. All three must be good at the same time otherwise, you run into a problem. For instance, if I give a general principle like; do good and avoid evil.
If you mention the three layers that must be followed, that the process and means must be in sync with the end, what then do you tell young people who, for whatever reason, they get pregnant and can’t take care of the babies? It is morally wrong, what they did in the circumstance because first the reason for the sex is wrong and they now have a problem. What should they do to solve the first problem?
What was the first problem?
It is sex which is immoral.
Yes. At the risk of sounding like I live in a utopia, I don’t pretend that everything is fine. However, there is something called the school of virtue. What it means, is in making effort. We are human, we are frail, and we make mistakes and all of that. But we can engage in conversations and live lives that can be at peace with ourselves and others. Virtue by the way can be defined properly as a constant disposition to do good. Can we make effort to be constantly disposed to doing good and not constantly disposed to doing bad?
Not finding means to circumvent the long way?
Yes, the shortcut or means to circumvent, as you rightly said. I think this is where the challenge is. We worry about the fact that we do not have the same kind of formation or upbringing – when I say formation, I mean at all levels; intellectual, spiritual and all of those things. But then, that is why these kinds of courses and efforts are very important. We cannot just afford to view the arthropods at the level of animals that act based on instincts. We are human beings with values and higher values, dignity comes with that values. And that dignity must be respected because it was given by a superior being. This is valid even for atheists. So, what needs to be done in the initial phase is to dispose of and sell ideas – that is the point about formation, that is family, state, school, church whatever it is to build the right virtues. And that virtue will translate into a way of life that would enable a safer, humane, sane and spiritual kind of society even though I know not everybody agrees with that. But that is what will now translate into the ease of acceptance of these three layers I talked about. I do agree that it is not easy to accept. You know, the whole concept of the end justifies the means is obtainable in virtually all facets of life – politics, sometimes in the church, in the state, wherever. But can we talk about where that has always led us if we don’t always come to a good end? So, if we worry more about that, and encourage more people to belong to the school of virtue, and the right formations, that would help. Such that even when mistakes happen, as you can almost guarantee they would, we don’t end up creating more mistakes. We are not supposed to have pre-marital sex, it happened and you got pregnant. Okay, a mistake has already been made, you don’t create more mistakes in other to solve the previous one. What do I mean? You don’t now kill the child in other to abolish the mistake of premarital sex. If you do that, you can only create more problems. We are not just talking about premarital sex, we are talking about the murder of an innocent baby and the many other repercussions that can come in. so, it is a way of saying even if mistakes have happened and end up in a phase where things get a little bit complicated, can we also have structures that would help. By structures I mean any intervention by the government, ecclesiastical authority or personal effort through the Ministry of Healing. I have related to people who have had abortions. And the major reason they couldn’t pull through and resort to abortion is that they hadn’t any support system. Their parents were going to kill them. You have to gestate, you have to take care of the gestation period. We are beginning to have some structures, at least I know one or two where, if you give birth to a child and you don’t want it, it can be given to people who want it. That is why we have orphanages and charity organisations.
Which has also been abused?
Yes, which have also been abused. That takes us back to the first kind of formation I talked about. That is why the foundation must be right. That is what we do as ethicists. We talk about general principles, we talk about criteria for judgment and then guidelines for actions. These three must be followed always. We can’t even be at the level of general principles because it is too ambiguous. For instance, I tell you, do good and avoid evil. What does that mean concretely? Then you need to come down to criteria for judgment when presented with real-life cases, and then even at that, you need guidelines for action – more clinical concrete cases. So, where we are, is that some people have ended up throwing the concept of having general principles out of the window, such that they are not acting under any code, any moral code.
Let’s come to the moral code you just mentioned. What exactly is the Church’s challenge with the processes of conception like IVF, surrogacy, use of contraceptives etcetera and how do these methods of conception contravene the moral code?
To begin with the hierarchy, the first is life. Each of these methods offends the very dignity of life. More can be said on each of these topics. The church comes in by what it says: the reason why any of these procedures can be done is that there is a case of infertility. Infertility is not a problem itself, it is a symptom of another problem. When you say somebody is infertile, it is because there is a problem, there exists a problem that had led to that infertility. What the Church says is, can we go back and address that original problem and give room to what is supposed to give room for what is supposed to be the natural process and then conception happens? Again, I don’t fake a messianic complex here, to say that things will always work for one hundred per cent of the cases. If you look at it more closely, it will look like an easy way out to try IVF, surrogacy and the like. But then, we must always work along the lines of the hierarchy of values otherwise, we stand the chance to offend our humanity, and offend God. I know this is not your question but let me digress a little; It is just like those who talk about the LGBTQ community. One of my views is that they are insulting themselves. And what I mean by that is, you mean the entirety of your humanity is reduced to being defined along the lines of who you want to have sex with? So, you want us to call you a particular name because of how you want to have sex? You want us to accept you because of how you want to have sex? They are homosexual persons. We should treat them as individual human beings – there shouldn’t be discrimination, there shouldn’t be hurt, killing and all of those. But we still need to address the fact that they are human. Somebody, for example, who is addicted to fornication, does not go around fighting to be called a fornicator. At the end of the day, what the LGBTQ people are doing is called reductive anthropology – you are reducing yourself to just one faculty of all the whole of your being, which is the sexual faculty. I say no, that s a problem. You have many other faculties. So, back to your question, what the Church argues for, is the question of that hierarchy of values, starting with life, the dignity of the person and the anthropoids – the definition of who we are talking about – is it sex, infertility, sexuality, what are the main definitions of all of those. If you pick each of these points you have raised in isolation and you go into the nitty gritty, you see how it offends every one of us. And the church says that we are human beings, we are meant to be answerable to a superior being because we didn’t create ourselves. And on the extent to which we express ourselves, it doesn’t mean that there are no very complex cases. As ethicists, one thing we don’t do and do is to treat cases generally and we treat cases in isolation. Everything is done based on a case-by-case analysis even though we have the principles; criteria for judgment, guidelines for actions – that are something to guide our thought pattern. But at the end of the day, it is dangerous to lump every case together or what the writer, Chimamanda Adichie calls “the danger of the single story.” We don’t do that as ethicists. But we need the right principles and analyses. So, the Church works around the hierarchy of values, the dignity of life, the dignity of the human person that is answerable to the Supreme Being who created us in the first place.
What alternatives are there if you say what science has provided offends my sensibilities as a believer? It is being said for example that some countries in sub-Saharan Africa from Senegal to Ghana or Sierra Leone lie under what has been described as the infertility Belt of Africa, so the causes of infertility are therefore idiopathic. What do persons in this category do in regards to the provisions made by science, and the dictates of their faith?
Recent research has been put forward in the public space about something called ‘political hitmen’. That means that several persons have made a career out of selling out lies and it is very intentional. It is intentional because it favours whatever agenda they’re trying to push forward in their country or abroad. And I think this question fits into the description of those kinds of persons. So, it is not true that Senegal and all of those countries you have mentioned are under any infertility belt. There is indeed infertility. What is not true is that we don’t know the cause. There is always, as I like to put it, thirty per cent of the challenge has to do with the man, thirty per cent has to do with the woman, thirty per cent has to do with a combination of both parties and then there is always that ten per cent whose cause is unknown. I don’t deny that there are cases whose causes are unknown. What I fear is the statistics and the graphics that are being heightened to sell out lies so that they can favour their agenda of promoting the contraceptive mentality. And that is what I call the political hitmen, there is a book on that – I’m reading it at the moment. It is something dangerous. But back to your question, to counter those lies requires a lot of funding and effort to pay attention to what they are selling. And this is where we lend ourselves to advancement in medical technology and research to help to promote knowledge in this kind of area. That should now translate to the alternatives. What people suspect the Church does is, that we are always doing ethics of ‘no’ which is not correct. We do ethics of ‘yes’ which is the alternative. So, for each of these things I have said, with special respect to reproductive technology, there are alternatives. With respective to IVF, surrogacy and all that, keeping in mind everything I have said about the school of virtue and paying attention to the dignity and all else, valid as they are, there are procedures, one of them is called Fertility Medical Education Management and the other, put forward more recently is the Natural Procreative Technology, NAPROTECH. Some ethicists have made a case for Lower Tube Ovarian Transfer, LTOT which is still being discussed. So, there are a number of these things. What I think we need to be doing is to fund intellectually and materially these methods, so that we make them readily available. You will be shocked that I gave a talk to a gathering of medical experts and they had never heard of NAPROTECH. You ask, why? NAPROTECH has been in existence since 1975. Thomas Hilgers in the United States was a Catholic doctor who responded to the Church document on human reproduction – contraception and the likes. He responded by saying, you know what, the Church has said we can’t do this, what can we do? So, he went into serious research and came up with NAPROTECH and it works. My question now is, can we have more of Doctor Thomas Hilgers? I can tell you there are sinister and malicious movements, indulging in intentional acts to stifle the growth of some of these good methods, to promote one particular agenda. You have one of them, which massively promotes abortion. If you dig in, you will see that these organisations are the first child of the eugenic movement of Germany during the Nazi regime, and we all know their agenda. It is the same thing they are promoting here. They have a very deceptively cute name, it sounds nice to parents but when you go to the root, you know that they are chasing an agenda. So, the Church lends itself to medical advancement but at the same time, injecting the ethics of things. It goes to the question of education, one of the ways the Church also mitigates these problems is to pay attention to ethical education, which is by the way, what I wrote my thesis on. I just realised that a lot of people are graduating into being medical experts but have no ethical formation- this is dangerous because these are people who are getting to work on the body and sometimes, the soul. Our primary jurisdiction as religious leaders is the soul. But the human being is an ensemble or composite of both. So, things like the doctor-patient relationships, things like seeking and obtaining consent, what to do with body parts, what to do with people who are terminally ill, and things that have to do with ethics. You don’t get adequate formation but those who eventually work with them, must. Little wonder, we have all of these, for lack of a better word, cold people, indifferent to the question of ethics. So, the Church asks itself, can we form the mind, form people into relating with people well? Translate that into reforming and funding medical research and medical advancement. Funding think-tanks to discuss things like this, so that we can promote the right ideas – going back to what I said earlier, people are equal but ideas are not. So, the Church favours more, ethics of yes and less that of even no. it’s just that we, unfortunately, live in a world where – we haven’t talked about the financial side of things – all of these methods they promote are hugely expensive. I work with a NAPROTECH doctor, the last I knew about his fees, I don’t think he charges up to one hundred thousand naira. You will not do any IVF session for less than a million naira
Are these natural reproductive services you talk about available in Catholic facilities?
They are beginning to be available. I accept that we need to do more work in that regard – that is what is responsible for my pet project, which is spreading information about these facilities. These things work and we can do more. You always run into one of these bottlenecks, especially funding. If you want to spread information on this kind of thing, you need money to fund the research, fund the training of people, funding the spaces in hospitals, and personnel. Yes, there are those hitches but at the end of the day, they are in Catholic medical facilities.
But why avail priests who are celibate this training when they do not directly know or feel the emotions and impact of infertility or childlessness rather than lay people?
That immediately comes across as a valid argument except when you push it forward and use the same premise for other things. If it is experience alone that should form the ground to talk about particular topics, then I think doctors should not be saying that has to do with the building, engineers should have no business at all talking about agriculture even though there is a subject called Agricultural Engineering. One advantage we priests have is the kind of formation we receive. For instance, I had to do Philosophy and Theology as compulsory during my seminary training. That put me in a vantage position to have certain discussions. But then there is the advancement I have undergone in bioethics, I was sent to study the science of it. That doesn’t translate to mean I will ever go through the difficulties of infertility. But then, I do the science, the principle, and the philosophy behind it. And now that puts me in a vantage position to either speak or advise or empathise with people. I’m not faking or promising to understand what those people go through. But then at the same time, you cannot say because I am not experiencing it, I cannot talk about it. It is the same argument about the LGBTQ community when you hear people say, you don’t know what they are feeling. I say no. if that is going to be the case, it amounts to what my mentor, Emeritus Pope Jozef Ratzinger (Benedict XIV) calls the ‘dictatorship of relativism’ – your truth is your truth, my truth is my truth – that is recipe for disaster. We can’t afford moral relativism, as to allow everybody to just determine what is right for them. We must come to the point of what is called ‘common sense. For the most part, I would not know about what infertility is in concrete experiential terms. But that doesn’t mean it is beneath my capacity or invalidates the training that I have, to empathise or the training that I have to understand the foundations, and principles that underline it, and being human, I don’t live in isolation from the world. I come from a family too. Some of my relatives are going through this. People sin and come to priests. I may not know what the person may be feeling about the guilt of the sin. But I’m able to help spiritually speaking. So, we lend ourselves to each other and make society a better place.
A prominent foreign magazine has been running a serial, calling on the Catholic Church to abolish celibacy as a yardstick for the priesthood. Of course, they cited the global outrage following child abuse scandals by priests. What is your view on this as a clergyman?
I consider it a very funny argument because going back to the question you asked before, that is the jurisdiction that not many persons can claim expertise. And I say that intentionally because it will interest you to know that if abuses are premises for scrapping celibacy, then a whole lot of things ought to be scrapped. Research has been conducted and its findings are out there. I don’t remember the particular organisation that carried out that research but the conclusions are that; what priests are accused of is paedophilia or child abuse. It showed that there are more cases of child abuse in the Jewish environment, among the Jewish clerics, followed by the Muslims before Christianity. This is not a justification for what happened. What is wrong is wrong. The other side of the argument is that this anomaly happens more in the circular world than even in the religious sphere. Now, it makes me ask the question: what exactly is the problem we want to address? Is it the paedophilia we want to address, which is very horrible and I think justice should be served? Or the celibacy? If you are bringing another argument and you are talking about celibacy, I will listen. But this particular one is offensive because it is clear that we are not looking toward child abuse which is the real problem. But then, the whole thing about celibacy is a product of the Holy Spirit continuously inspiring the Church. What I mean by that is, that the extent of conformity with Christ requires that. If you go back as far as the first and second centuries, those who led at the time were not necessarily priests, what they thought was the closest to Christ was virginity. So, you just see a lay person who just takes it upon herself or himself to abstain from all sexual relationships just so they could conform with Christ. That was the origin of all of that. It is true that for most of the eighth, nine and maybe tenth centuries, the clerics were getting married. I think 1132 AD or thereabouts. So, I say it is a question of conformity and discipline. If we go to the Classical times, check out those who were priests and married, and check how they were functioning. By the way, that is a risky plank of an argument because the priesthood in the Catholic Church is not like any other. I make bold to say, and some persons may be offended, that the priest is not like any other pastor because of the intrinsic meaning of the priesthood, and the anointing that comes with it. These are founded in the bible. The Levites had to be separated from the other tribes of Israel and live a particular way of life.
Check out anyone that God has called to act in any particular position in religious terms, there has always been a need to make very big sacrifices. It is in line with that, that the Church said ok. And by the way, I hope you know that the extent of your power is directly connected to the extent of your sacrifices. In life generally, if you want to excel in school, you have to burn the midnight candle, if you want to excel in your business or endeavours, you need to make the right investment, if you want to take to sports, you need to spend more time in the gym and field. The extent of your sacrifice is directly connected to the extent of your power – and you can replace the word power with anything. What we have, along the lines of sacred tradition is that everywhere and anywhere that you have somebody who is called to the religious line, especially as a priest in the Church, it is important that we are ready to, in a bid to conform ourselves to Christ, must make all of those sacrifices. Also, recognising that one; is a sign of contradiction to the world but also a sign of knowledge about where they are going to be after now. It is a reminder that it doesn’t end here, a reminder that there is going to be neither wives nor husbands in heaven, a reminder that none of those worldly things will matter eventually. That is what I mean by conformity. So, we are already making those sacrifices on the premise of the anointing every priest has. And then of course, if you want to throw that into the lines of sacred tradition, you other sacrifices for anybody who is going to become a bishop, priests, are those who do not have wives. I don’t want to go into Church history and how the whole thing began, how the protestant reformation started and the communities that came out of this. The Anglican Communion for instance arose from a dispute on the question of marriage, the person who started the protestant reformation was himself a priest who led some kind of revolution – he eventually, as some history books say, came back. However, the deed of the revolution had been done. So, I think it is for people to understand that when it comes to religious matters, sacrifices are extremely important and the altar on which they are being offered. So, the altar is the priest, that is the premise of our anointing. It is the reason why Jesus can through our hands administer everything that he had ordained for man to be saved which are what you and I in the Catholic Church call sacraments.