O'Connell is President and CEO of the Park Ridge Center for the Study of
Health, Faith and Ethics.
The appropriate contribution of religion is limited and restricted to one
corner of the public square. Quite simply, religious perspectives on issues like
embryonic stem cell research can be informative, instructive, and indeed very
suggestive, but they may not make authoritative claims on behalf of the entire
community. There is a bright line over which religion cannot appropriately pass.
In a democratic-as distinguished from a theocratic-society, particular religious
perspectives must be advanced as one source of accumulated wisdom among others.
Religion is particularly powerful in directing the community to fundamental
questions of human life and destiny. Religious tradition can then direct the
conversation about embryonic stem cell research and its implications to some
very basic questions: How should human life and its potential be regarded? Does
embryonic stem cell research fundamentally undermine, or perhaps promote, the
dignity of persons?
Theological categories and traditional religious teaching can illuminate
moral pathways and provide conceptual categories without imposing theological
conclusions. And I would say that is how religious perspectives should operate
in the public square. By sharing centuries of conceptual insight and moral
reflection, the world's religions are a deposit for powerful conceptual tools
and insight. They don't necessarily have to be appropriated or endorsed, but
they can be used without insisting upon a conclusion that would be internally
consistent with their own worldview.
Religion should not be ashamed or reluctant to enter the public fray. But it
must do so in a spirit of humility and ultimate openness to a more general
society that chooses to, in some cases, ignore or, very often, to redirect