The Sacred Gift of Life: Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics by John Breck, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998. Distributed in Canada by Novalis, 1-800-387-7164. 288 pages softcover, $26.95.
“Personality can be transplanted: Shy mouse made sociable, Discovery raises hope of ‘gene psychiatry’ for humans.”
So scream the day’s headlines as I prepare to review The Sacred Gift of Life: Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics by John Breck. Breck’s comprehensive work will give readers a handle on the bioethical issues that hit the papers almost daily and which impact all our lives.
Shouldn’t we leave bioethics to the ethicists? After all, few of us have the biological or philosophical smarts to grasp which end of a DNA molecule is up let alone whether it should be spliced.
But according to Breck, in vitro fertilization, partial-birth abortions, physician assisted suicides, surrogate gestation and the cloning of human embryos are issues that are far too important to be left up to the ethicists.
The Sacred Gift of Life is a gift to not only the Orthodox faith community but to all Christians, Protestant and Catholic as well. When filtered through the Orthodox lens, the issues take on a fresh perspective that can be illuminating. Breck, an Orthodox priest, is conversant with theology, ethics and biomedics. He was Professor of New Testament and Ethics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York State, from 1984 until 1996. He is presently Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Ethics at St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris.
Yet Breck is not confined to the ivory tower of academia but knows the inside of parish life and the confessional as well. He is concerned not simply that the right ethical decision be reached but that those affected by that decision be ministered to both spiritually and practically. He is speaking not only to inform health care professionals but also to encourage priests and laity.
He concludes, “It is equally important to devote ourselves to the basic priestly task that consists in offering to God the problems and moral dilemmas of bioethics, together with the persons whose lives are touched by them.” It is helpful to have so much addressed under one cover, life issues from along the whole life continuum, from conception to death and indeed into eternal life. Given the advances in biomedical technology in the last three decades, the complexity of issues such as organ transplants and procreative technologies, require great discernment. Breck carefully considers and explains. He avoids simply slogans and explores all sides of an issue. He doesn’t rush to judgement but when he does reach a position, the reader feels confident it is fully informed.
Breck observes the mystery of suffering:
“Suffering is always communal. It involves the whole Body of Christ since we are members, of one another (Rom. 12:5)… Just as our sinfulness leaves its mark on the entire Body, our suffering – in so far as it is accepted in faith and offered to God in love – can transform others within that Body.”
Secondly, “God accompanies us in our suffering. He is not only aware of it ; he shares it to the full, he drinks its bitter cup to the dregs. Thereby he transforms our meaningless anguish into a truly redemptive experience.”
This is certainly not light reading but it is enlightening. Breck provides a concluding chapter summary which could stand alone as an overview for those in a hurry.
Breck spends almost half the book setting up the theological foundation of Orthodox Christian ethics especially as they pertain to sexuality, marriage and covenant responsibility before he enters into the specifics of bioethics. But this carefully constructed framework beautifully supports his later conclusions.
My only quibble is that the book lacks a glossary of medical, philosophical and theological terms to refresh the lay reader’s memory. Certainly all terms are clearly defined in the text but a glossary would have provided an additional reference tool for later sorting out such terms as genomes and gametes, syngamy, diploid and oocyte and especially for decoding ART, CVS, GE, ICSI, GIFT and ZIFT. For a moving account aimed at understanding the needs of women in unplanned pregnancies, Breck recommends another Orthodox author, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Real Choices: Offering Practical, Life-Affirming Alternatives to Abortion(Multnomah books, 1994).
A few years ago Breck himself wrote a summary statement on Orthodoxy and abortion that was published by the Orthodox Church in America. While Breck does not pretend to speak in any official capacity for the Orthodox Church, it would not be surprising if The Sacred Gift of Life becomes, after some ecclesiastical reflection, a basis for other bioethical statements from the Orthodox Church in America.