Breakthroughs in human genetic engineering present a promise and a predicament. The promise is progress in biotechnology, in particular, gene therapy to treat and prevent debilitating diseases. The predicament is newfound genetic enhancement knowledge that enables science to manipulate our nature to enhance genetic traits. Simply, therapy seeks to return normal functioning; enhancement strives to take normal functioning and alter it to be abnormal. In early 2017, researchers in Portland, Oregon made history in the U.S. with headlines splashed across media outlets referring to “designer babies” by successfully modifying the genetic material from human embryos outside the womb.
The deep danger is that genetic engineering creates a hyperagency, an aspiration to remake human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires. The problem is not the drift to a philosophical mechanism but the drive to human mastery. And what the drive to mastery compromises is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements. To acknowledge life’s giftedness is to recognize that our talents and powers are not our own doing, but truly a gift from God.
Cries for genetic enhancements will be deafening given society’s fixation with physical perfection, not mediocrity. It is vital Catholics not cower away from medical advancements in biotechnology due to complexities or controversies. We must be clear on our understanding of genetic engineering and be willing to lead the discourse to influence public consciousness. Institutions like Notre Dame must make it a priority to educate generations of scientists, researchers, and medical professionals dedicated to integrating their faith with their professions. From a Catholic perspective, the answer is certain: To believe that the talents and essence of our being are mankind’s doing is to misunderstand God’s role and our place in creation.