Pope Francis has caught headlines once again. In one of his characteristically candid interviews while flying from Manila back to the Vatican, Francis affirmed the Roman Catholic Church’s official position on the nature of sexual expression. But he also did more than this. In response to a pastoral interaction with a mother of seven who, after multiple caesarean sections, was pregnant once again, he claimed that nothing in Roman Catholic moral teaching absolves faithful Catholics from the question of responsibility: “God gives you methods to be responsible,” he is reported to have said, “Some think that—excuse the word—that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No.”
Taken in full context, Pope Francis’ comments convey something important about the place of ethics in our day: namely, the irreducible need for moral counsel. In a world awash with facts and information, resolution to know and choose the good or the right is strangely absent. We have lots of talk about the morality of particular acts, but little understanding of why we, Christian or not, are drawn to certain patterns of behavior, certain forms of life.
Michael Banner’s new book, The Ethics of Everyday Life: Moral Theology, Social Anthropology, and the Imagination of the Human, is a welcome corrective. Francis’ comments on the question of responsible parenthood would, in one sense, delight Banner, since Francis pays a good deal of attention to the importance of context in describing sexual activity. And yet Francis’ comments, at least as reported, do not go far enough. For Banner, if we concentrate too heavily on the particulars of a given “hard case”—should we have an eighth kid after seven C-sections or not?—we may not pay sufficient attention to why it is we have kids in the first place. Throughout this important and impressive work, Banner forwards this remarkable and, in every sense, laudable double-claim: first, that the Christian Church’s moral teaching has been saturated in moral philosophy (in an analytic key) ensures that it will be hard to understand morality as practice-based rather than decision-based; and, second, this means that fundamental questions basic to human existence are too often downplayed or ignored.
In Banner’s view, for far too long the imaginative center of the Church’s counsel has been the confessional booth. For the Church’s claims on moral matters to be fully therapeutic and evangelical, what is required is not more and more accounts of what makes particular acts immoral, but rather the disciplined practice of attending to the facts of our everyday lives. In this way, the Christian Church can begin to “fathom the ‘unfathomable’ choices and wishes of contemporary life.”
Sticking with the theme of sexual ethics, take the example that Banner develops at length in the second chapter: the proliferation of ever-new forms of “Assisted Reproductive Technologies” (ARTs) in our day. Since the birth of Louise Brown in 1978, our reproductive social imaginary has been fundamentally altered. Just to take IVF as an example, according to the CDC roughly 98.5% of babies born in the United States are born without the use of IVF. And yet, the fact that over 60,000 babies were born as a result of IVF in 2012 means that the practice itself has, to some degree, been normalized. What was once unfathomable is now commonplace. What was once the stuff of science fiction is now the stuff of direct-to-consumer advertising.
So how should Christians think about a practice like IVF? What should they say?
Banner’s point is this: whatever Christians make of IVF, they should “take seriously the Christian reconstruction of kinship, which believes neither in the tragedy of childlessness, nor in the possibility of obtaining a child of one’s own.” In a sense, this is theology-as-indirection: you thought that the question of IVF admitted an easy answer, but upon reflection, the presence of IVF simply raises a prior, more fundamental question, namely, why do we want a child “of our own” in the first place? Once posed in this way, Banner is convinced that the question of ARTs is actually a question of kinship. Have Christians made use of all the rich resources they have at their disposal to properly understand what constitutes kinship, what makes us brothers and sisters?
Banner’s contention is that Christians have not. In fact, in an extended reflection on the nature of godparenting, Banner finds a whole world unveiled in an intriguing and now largely defunct liturgical practice. Throughout the Middle Ages, into the Modern period, and captured in elements of the formal rite of baptism in the Church of England into this day, it is the Godparents, and not the “natural” parents, who are responsible for presenting a child for baptism. Common practice dictated that the natural parents of a child sat back with the rest of the gathered body, observing the ritual as but members of a congregation that were welcoming a new one into their midst. As Banner puts it, “the stark nature of this solemn ritual ‘displaces‘ natural kin,” ritually enacting the claim that a child’s identification with the Church was more basic, and in some sense more important, than the child’s identification with their natural family. But, crucially, this also displaces the nature of parenthood and the phenomenon of “chasing the bloodline” that Banner sees undergirding what Karey Harwood elsewhere has called the “infertility treadmill” of our current baby business. It is precisely this “chasing of the bloodline” that Banner takes the practice of godparenthood to displace, thereby moving the question of IVF onto different conceptual ground.
This path of indirection is also taken in Banner’s fascinating discussion of the everydayness of old age. Banner begins by describing “the crisis of old age” by the simple fact that given our extended life expectancy “we have a high chance of experiencing a period of debility and dependency before death.” This social fact, explored at great length in the fifth chapter, is not only a matter of individual interest, but, as Banner sees it, “poses a considerable social challenge.” And yet, if you ask a student schooled in the standard Christian Ethics course a question—any question—about a Christian take on aging, Banner comments,
My guess is that thus prompted the student will talk about euthanasia (good or bad), and possibly mention too, advance directives, living wills, and assisted suicide—in other words, the student will likely reproduce the topics which the typical handbook on bioethics has in a section entitled “the end of life.” But about the quotidian challenges of growing old, and about what it would be to live well ethically and Christianly in this particular stage of life, I would be surprised if the student has much to say immediately and without further reflection. What he or she has learnt as belonging to the subject matter of ethics is a set of questions about the acceptability or otherwise of managing one’s exit from this stage of life, but nothing much about what it might be to live it well.
This is further proof of what Banner means when he says that the Church fails in both its therapeutic and evangelical tasks: it fails to adequately address what it means to live well because it fails to adequately attend to the moral practices that constitute our lives. By restricting the scope of what Christianity has to say on the question of getting old to a debate between a permissive ethic of euthanasia versus the ethos embodied in the modern hospice movement, Banner’s contention is that the Church can no longer address the everyday facts of the majority of people the majority of the time. It is not the case that Banner has nothing to contribute to the ongoing debate concerning Physician Assisted Dying; rather, Banner’s complaint is that this question, like the question of the morality of IVF, should “wait its turn behind some rather more fundamental issues.” And some of those fundamental issues include: What does it mean to grow old? And is there a distinctively Christian form of getting old? Here, at this juncture, we get to a common refrain of the book:
My contention is that a better and more adequate ethics would need to find a place for and reckon with the sort of moral fieldwork anthropology undertakes. Only with the aid of social anthropology can the social construction of the experience of aging and dementia be understood and the so-called “problem of aging” itself be subject to a proper critique.
Banner’s book is an invitation for moral theologians to move away from fixation on dilemmas and hard cases. They will only do so, however, if the task of schooling themselves in the skills of attention that can be learned from ethnographers and anthropologists can be shown to be more promising than the benefits that the “hard cases” tradition affords. The book is also, however, a claim about the kind of moral fieldwork required for genuine counsel—the kind of counsel Pope Francis recommended—to take place. Without such skills of attention, Banner fears that the Church’s wisdom will be relegated to what he terms “a clarion call of the sort sounded by a trumpet in deep space. However well the trumpet is played, no one will hear it.”