©2019 by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.

The Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium Part II

ALICE VON HILDEBRAND

 

New Oxford Review

October 2003

Pierre Macq, Rector of the Catholic University of Louvain (CUL), claims that the University is not in conflict with the Catholic Church. He makes this claim in response to a challenge addressed to a charter adopted by the University. The challengers questioned the validity of the views endorsed by professors of the University on some hot issues, such as abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, and cloning.

 

Whereas the faculty of medicine at the Flemish branch of the Catholic University of Louvain had declared that it is totally unacceptable that doctors should use their medical skills to take life, Rec­tor Macq declared that "this is not exactly the posi­tion of the CUL." In examining problems of such magnitude, he tells us, it is desirable to consult the whole faculty, and not just the faculty of medicine. After having taken the advice of other faculties (moralists, philosophers, theologians, and jurists), he suggests that a more "nuanced position" is called for. The faculty of medicine has adopted a "radical position," he says, that other faculties at the University do not endorse. 

 

Rector Macq goes on to say that the basic posi­tion of the CUL is to respect the dignity of human life—even the most fragile—and every interrup­tion of pregnancy is a transgression of this principle. But, he says, there are situations of "necessity" which force one to choose between two values. In such cases, it is inevitable that one value should be sacrificed. It is a transgression, but one we cannot escape from in order to avoid a greater evil. In other words, it is a minus malum (one professor called it "a virtuous transgression"). 

 

The Rector proceeds to tell us that in the Gospels there too were conflicts that had to be resolved. Wisely, Macq refrains from giving us concrete ex­amples of cases in which a moral evil is legitimized for the sake of avoiding a greater evil—a pretty hopeless task. To prove his respect for the Gospels, Macq makes use of biblical language (sort of) and reminds us that we live in an "incarnate world." But the word "incarnate" refers to the Son of God, not the world (the world is incarnate by definition). Macq uses this key Christian concept, "incarnate," as a captatio benevolentiae (a word used to win our as­sent), which could persuade many of the validity of his arguments. 

 

The question we raise is whether the Rector of this prestigious University is not gravely confusing a moral evil—such as murder, which is a sin (that is to say a grave offense against God)—with evils such as the loss of life, which are sad indeed (Virgil speaks of lacrimae rerum,things that call for tears) and are definitely morally relevant, but are not moral values. (We live in a vale of tears—a consequence of Original Sin—and it is only in Heaven that "all tears shall be dried.") 

 

Centuries ago, Plato made a crucial distinction between divine goods, such as justice, and human goods, such as life, health, and security. The first must be respected at all times, in all places, and in all circumstances. Alas, the latter must at times be sacrificed for the sake of the former. This is why, according to Catholic teaching, we should be wiIIing to sacrifice our life rather than renounce our faith. We are also allowed to sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of another person. But never are we allowed to sacrifice another life in order to save our own. 

 

The father of a family may accept a well-remu­nerated job that requires a long daily commute or health hazards for the sake of providing for his family, but to slander a colleague for the sake of a promotion would be immoral. All of us face conflicts between various beneficial goods, and those of us who are wise choose the higher one. But such con­flicts are inconceivable between moral values: no one can conceivably be called upon to act unjustly in order to save his purity. It is also impossible that someone should be called upon to sacrifice his eter­nal welfare by offending God in order to enhance the welfare of someone else. 

 

It is legitimate to raise the question: Have pro­fessors at the University of Louvain lost sight of the abysmal difference between a sin—that is, an offense against God—and a non-moral evil, such as poverty, sickness, a natural disaster, or an epidemic? The latter are terrible scourges; that is why the Church prays in the litany of all saints, "from tempest, hun­ger, and war deliver us, O Lord." But non-moral evils do not offend God, who permits them for reasons unknown to us. 

 

All men must die as a punishment for sin. But there is a radical difference between someone being murdered or dying from a heart attack. In the first case, God is offended. In the second case, no sin is in­volved. 

 

From a subjective point of view, being shot by a murderer is a less agonizing death than to lan­guish for months with terminal cancer. But as morally imperative as it is to relieve the patient in every pos­sible way, this suffering of terminal cancer which comes to an end with death cannot be compared in gravity with a murder, which when done with full knowledge and full con­sent is a mortal sin. We would expect professors at Louvain to make these elementary, crucial distinc­tions. But sin is not mentioned, and the redemptive value of suffering (about which we shall have more to say) is not alluded to. 

 

Rector Macq reiterates that the faculty at Louvain tries to adhere as closely as possible to the evangelical ideal that comes to us through both Scripture and Tradition. He assures us that he and his colleagues follow their consciences and try to keep as well informed as possible. He concludes, rather optimistically, that the faculty at Louvain is therefore not in conflict with the Church. 

 

Has Macq forgotten that in order to keep a well­ informed conscience it is crucial to follow the teach­ings of the Church in matters of faith and morals? He informs us that in the tragic cases of "necessity" re­ferred to above, it is incumbent on the doctor and his patient to make a decision after having consulted "une cellule d'aide a decision ethique" (a group whose purpose is to assist in making ethical decisions). The University seems to pride itself on having founded these "cells," which should be con­sulted before a final decision is made. To decide to interrupt a pregnancy without having consulted such a cell, it is said, would be to commit "a grave fault." Apparently these cells have replaced the Mag­isterium of the holy Catholic Church. The final deci­sion, however, is between the doctor and his patient. That the murder of an innocent child is solemnly prohibited by the natural law, that this prohibition is solemnized in the Old and New Testaments, that God is offended by sin, and that not to commit a moral evil is man's primary moral obligation do not seem to be a concern for some professors of the so ­called Catholic University of Louvain. 

 

When the Belgian Parliament had decided that murdering unborn babies should no longer be pun­ishable by law, Baudouin I, King of Belgium (1930-1983), refused to sign the document. He chose to step down rather than to be a partner to this crime. Ac­cording to Belgian law, his signature was necessary to give full validity to this mandate made by the law­makers. Being a devout Catholic, Baudouin refused to append his signature to a document allowing murder. The country, being without a king, has­tened to pass this law. Once enacted, Baudouin was re-appointed. It is sad indeed that a country blessed with a truly Catholic monarch paid no attention to the message he was giving to his people— namely, that moral evil is the worst of all evils. One of the most admirable contributions Socrates made to eth­ics was precisely to highlight this ethical truth. In Plato's dialogue Gorgias, Socrates makes it clear that it is better to suffer than to commit a moral evil. 

 

Let's consider Professor Mylene Botbol Baum. She received her Ph.D. from Marquette, and has been a professor of philosophy and biology at CUL since 1998. She sits on almost every committee con­cerned with bioethical questions. In addressing her­self to the question of assisted suicide, she first enu­merates the arguments against it: 

 

1. It violates the integrity of medicine and of the doctor-patient relationship. 

2. It transgresses the radical prohibition against murder. 

3. It underlines the asymmetry between the vulnerability of the patient and the power of the medical doctor. 

 

She proceeds to challenge these arguments: 

 

1. The first argument does not rest on an appropriate use of teleological notions. (No further explanation given.) 

2. The second argument is based on an ob­solete notion of medicine, according to which death is a defeat, and which rests on a truncated reading of the Hippocratic Oath. 

3. The third argument is "paternalistic."

 

Professor Baum makes generous use of popular slo­gans such as "paternalistic," "totalitarian," "reactionary," and "authoritarian." She is well acquainted with the persuasive power of slogans: they have a psychological effect that totally bypasses cool, ob­jective reasoning by pressing certain emotional but­tons in the listener's psyche which fosters an adher­ence to the speaker's thesis. 

 

It is regrettable when a professor resorts to sloganeering in order to make a point. This approach is tainted with demagoguery, and is reminiscent of political speeches whose only aim is to win votes by bypassing the voter's reason and appealing to a maelstrom of emotions. 

This is a death knell for authentic university scholarship. 

 

Baum tells us that traditional ethics prohibit medical doctors from participating in any attempt to bring about death. It absolutely prohibits them from giving their patients the means of hastening their own death. These principles are supposed to protect the integrity of medicine. But, she remarks, this idea of the integrity of medicine does not take into account the fact that the notions of sickness and death are "ambiguous." The same applies to the notion of "transgression." Why these notions are ambiguous is not clarified. 

 

She quotes from a 1988 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association: "This issue, both voluntary and physician assisted suicide, touches medicine at its very moral center, if this moral center collapses, if physicians become killers or are even merely licensed to kill, the profession—and each physician—will never again be worthy of trust and respect as healer and comforter and pro­tector of life in all its frailty. For if medicine's power over life may be used equally to heal or to kill, the doctor is no more a moral professional but rather a morally neutered technician." Baum responds, "Is there an inherent immorality in the fact that the medical doctor provokes death, or is it a taboo preva­lent in our society that should be relegated to the field of archeology, in order to liberate us from its claim?" She informs us that an unrealistic ideal can obscure the practice of medicine. The ideal of a "healing doctor" does not reflect the complexity of the role of a medical doctor of today. 

 

Baum reminds us that the Hippocratic Oath was written in the fifth century B.C. and that things have since evolved. Granted, certain things evolve—for example, our knowledge of medicine has undergone great changes—but it is deplorable when this claim is applied to truths whose validity are totally inde­pendent of time and place. That no human being is ever entitled to murder is not subject to change. 

 

Baum proceeds further: "If...the doctor ac­knowledges his incapacity to heal a patient and as a result helps him to die, he places himself in a 'dia­logue' position where 'two finitudes meet' to nego­tiate with the unknown called death, in a climate of human fraternity" (here Baum adds a bit of existen­tial jargon for good measure). 

 

She challenges the absolute validity of the Ten Commandments coming from God Himself, the Master of life and death. Man is not the master of life and death. But this does not weigh on Baum's con­science. She rejects "unnecessary suffering," claim­ing for herself the position of supreme judge, and implicitly questions whether suffering has any meaning at all. 

 

One of the most crucial questions of human existence, "Why should man suffer?" is eliminated in a cavalier manner by Baum, who chooses to ig­nore the profound contributions that great thinkers of the past have made to this topic. In our Christian tradition, suffering is a punishment for sin. Having revolted against God, man was exiled from earthly paradise and made bitter acquaintance with suffer­ing and death. The Church, the pillar and guard­ian of truth, teaches us further that at the mo­ment of death, the soul will be judged, and if damned will go to Hell, but if saved must often go through the purifying fire of Purgatory—only the saints will go straight to Heaven. It is inconceivable that some­one teaching at a Catholic university is unac­quainted with these fundamental doctrines of the Church. A Catholic giving a lethal injection to his patient at the latter's request should be aware of the fact that any form of suicide is a grave offense against God and will be punished by pains which, accord­ing to mystics, by far exceed the pains that we can endure on this earth. It is sad indeed that Baum shows a supreme disregard for the Catholic doctrine that suffering not only has meaning, but also has re­deeming value: "by his stripes we are healed." More­over, St. Paul said, "I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church" (Col. 1:24). Has Baum never heard of "offering it up"? 

 

The claim that man is entitled to take his own life, or eliminate an unwanted human life (in the case of abortion), is a repeat of the devilish promise made by Satan to Eve: “thou shalt be like God.” But God alone is the Master of life and death. 

 

Baum accuses traditional ethics of being "to­talitarian." Does she understand the meaning of this ominous word? In fact, it refers to a philosophy that shows a total disregard for the dignity of the human person viewed as a mere tool in the hands of the state. She rejects the "authoritarianism of principles a priori," which, according to her, can only make sense "if one endorses ideological violence, that is to say, imposing one's principles on others." Once again, Baum betrays a remarkable ethical blindness. She tacitly assumes that “the principles one wants to impose on others" are subjective opinions. It does not seem to occur to her that if these principles are true, they are not the inventions or the subjective possession of those who defend them: truth does not belong to anyone. But everybody is invited to drink at its source. To defend the objectivity of ethi­cal principles is not to impose them upon others, but to lovingly expose others to truths that will ben­efit them—for truth alone makes one free. Blessed is he who quenches his thirst at this source. Woe to the man who prefers his subjective opinions and lives accordingly. The assumption that traditional ethics is a tissue of subjective opinions that modem developments have finally unmasked spreads a subtle poison in society as a whole, which sooner or later will be gravely affected by it. 

 

Baum, who aligns herself with Simone de Beauvoir, who rejected "eternal truths," assumes that ethics is subject to constant change according to the spirit of the times—in which case her argu­ments will be valueless tomorrow. Baum's position is a mixture of situation ethics, utilitarianism, and relativism. To her mind, if an ethical solution is "use­ful," it is moral. The traditional views she so aggres­sively opposes are based, she says, on "a faith which cannot be shared" (really?). Actually, she denies the validity of ethics. 

 

It should be clear that Baum's defense of as­sisted suicide will lead her to defend abortion. She tells us that the Church teaches that the fetus is a "potential person." Not so! The stance of the Church is clear and univocal: human life is sacred and is to be respected from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. From her mistaken premise, she draws the conclusion that to treat a "potential person" as a full person is clearly "im­moral." Were Kierkegaard to read these words, while recalling that she has labeled the prohibition of mur­der a "taboo," he would break into what he called a "Homeric laughter." 

 

Against this background, it should surprise no one that the University of Louvain endorses a more "nuanced" position on in vitro fertilization. We are told that the professors at Louvain follow their con­sciences—and we all know how accommodating our consciences can be! Professor Jean François Malherbe, Director of the Bioethical Center at the CUL, informs us that the University is proceeding with its programs on in vitro fertilization at the Uni­versity clinic: "In spite of the instruction given in Donum Vitae, it is our conviction that the prohibi­tion it contains is not justified." This view is sec­onded by Professors Loumaye, Bone, and Wattiaux. 

 

Professor Malherbe reminds us that Louvain, though a Catholic university, is not a pontifical uni­versity, but that its professors take account of the advice of the Church on doctrinal questions. He says they aim at pursuing a "dialogue" with the Catholic Church, which is "difficult but important." 

 

This position on in vitro fertilization inevitably leads to flexibility with regard to cloning. Professor Leon Cassiers (CUL) is opposed to human cloning for re­productive ends, but when used for therapeutic pur­poses "we take a much more nuanced approach...We do not think it should be forbidden" (reported in La Libre Belgique, June 21, 1989). 

 

Professor Luc Roegiers (CUL) prophesied that, with time, children will no longer be made in bed, but in laboratories. Scientific research will in time allow men to select the most perfect genes which in tum will produce human beings truly capable of ac­tualizing all the potential found in human nature. 

 

CUL Professor Fr. Boné, referring to certain divergences existing between Protestant churches and the Catholic Church, says it is "imperialistic and blunt pride to underestimate the originality of Protestant positions" (what he forgets is that in in­terpreting revelation, originality should not play any role; the only question that matters is truth). This so-called pride consists in the claim that the Catholic Church alone possesses the plenitude of revealed truth. Those of us who have experienced the developments of Vatican II will recall that Bishop De Smedt of Bruges, Belgium, is the one who coined the slogan, "triumphalism," accusing Catholics of feeling superior to others. It must be granted that there are some mediocre sons of the Church who, while failing to live a truly Catholic life, pump up their egos by claiming that they be­long to the one true Church. The only question that matters is and remains: Is the claim of the Catholic Church true, or is it fostered by the craving to feel superior to others? What led the Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman into the Church is that, after reading the Fathers of the Church, he gained the unassailable conviction that the Catholic Church—in spite of the tragic failings of some of her sons from the top down—has, through the protection of the Holy Spirit, faithfully kept the teaching of Christ as handed down from the Apostles. The real Catholic, far from feeling himself to be better than others, humbly acknowledges that the blessing he enjoys by having the fullness of re­vealed truth is a clarion call to live in a state of con­stant gratitude. This humble consciousness should be linked to the joyful and triumphant certainty that the Church is the Bride of the Lamb, and that Peter has the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. This attitude should trigger an ardent missionary spirit: to share the treasures received, treasures which give a peace "that the world cannot give." Only the very mediocre Catholic who refuses to strive for sanctity is likely to play the religious peacock and proclaim his superiority over others. 

 

The Jews were God's chosen people. The di­vine choice (for God chooses whom He pleases) should make them humble because they were se­lected not because of their merits but because it so pleased the Creator and Master of all things. Alas, many of them rejected the Messiah, Himself a Jew. This is why St. Paul tells us that God led him to the Gentiles, many of whom gratefully accepted the Good News. Sadly, history often repeats itself, for we now have reason to fear that the Gentiles too are turning away from the truth: their ears are itching, and they no longer listen reverently to the voice of Peter, whose one great mission is to repeat and transmit the teaching of the Savior. 

 

The argument, already mentioned, that, living as we do in a pluralistic and democratic society, we have no right to "impose" our views on others, is served to us ad nauseam. The weakness of this ar­gument should be obvious to anyone who has kept the intellectual sanity advocated by G.K. Chesterton: While truth cannot be imposed, it does not follow that it should not be proclaimed and defended. Meta­physical, religious, and ethical errors are a poison which, sooner or later, will corrupt society and lead to its ruin. Truth should be both defended and pro­claimed because it is the most loving thing that one can do for others. This is why Christ said: "Go and preach to all nations." He never said: “Go and dia­logue with all nations.” Anyone acquainted with his­tory knows that the greatest and most powerful na­tions fell (let us think of Rome overcome by Alaric, a barbarian) because they were morally corrupt and decadent. 

 

This is the tremendous danger menacing the rich West. To quote Isaiah: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness..." This warning is clearly addressed to us. 

 

The picture I have presented is certainly a dark one. But in spite of human failure, sinfulness, and treason, God never abandons His Church. 

 

As Godfried Cardinal Danneels, the Primate of Belgium and Chancellor of the CUL, did not raise his voice to protest some of these aberrations men­tioned above, several Belgian theologians stepped forward to oppose the positions of the Catholic Uni­versity of Louvain, which have strayed far from the Magisterium of the Church. Four theologians con­sidered it to be their duty to object. Two of them, Father Albert Chapelle and Jean Marie Hennaux are Jesuits, and are professors at the Jesuit theological institute. The abbes Andre Leonard and Michel Schooyans, who both had been teaching at the CUL, published an article in La Libre Belgique (May 27, 1988) in which they reject any form of in vitro fertilization that the CUL had endorsed. (Moreover, Father Jean Marie Hennaux published a long article in La Nouvelle Revue Théologique [Jan.- Feb.1992] chal­lenging the position taken by the CUL concerning abortion.) 

 

Those reading this depressing article will come to the conclusion that, after centuries of greatness, the Catholic University of Louvain no longer de­serves to be called Catholic. Alas, because of the key role that universities play in Belgium, Belgium has been infected by this subtle poison. Only eight percent of the population of this "Catholic country" goes to Mass on Sundays. Cardinal Danneels, however, op­timistically tells us that Belgium is still a Catholic country for church attendance is always plentiful at baptisms and funerals! 

 

The University of Louvain is not the only one that has been infected by secularism. Many Catholic universities and colleges in the United States have caught the same disease. (Sicknesses are often contagious; health is not). The same is true of most of the great religious orders. 

 

But God never abandons His Church. St. Paul tells us that "where sin increased, grace increased all the more" (Rom. 5:20). Religious orders that have strayed from the faith are being replaced by numer­ous new religious orders born in the course of the last fifteen years. Not surprisingly, being faithful to the Magisterium, they attract very many vocations. Those that are unfaithful practice spiritual birth con­trol and are dying out. 

 

The same is true of colleges: Several new ones in the U.S. have been founded or brought back on course; they are thriving because of their joyful faith­fulness to the teaching of the Church. Let me name the leading ones: the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio; Thomas Aquinas College in California; Thomas More Institute in New Hamp­shire; Christendom College in Virginia; Magdalen College in New Hampshire, and more recently Cam­pion College in San Francisco and Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The latter aims at developing a full-fledged Catholic University in Naples, Florida. Such a university could actually renew Catholic life in the United States and may partially fill the role of those that have become unfaithful to the holy teaching of the Church. This prospect should fill all of us with grati­tude and hope. We should all pray that under the vibrant leadership of Father Joseph Fessio and Nick Healy it will blossom into a truly Catholic univer­sity. Let us pray that with God's help these ardent and dedicated Catholics will succeed.