Biology, Theology, and Academic Freedom: The Challenges of Interdisciplinary Teaching at a Catholic University

By Donna Yarri and Spencer S. Stober

Emerging genetic technologies resulting from the Human Genome Project continue to have ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI). This essay will address the challenges of teaching this topic in an interdisciplinary course at a religiously affiliated school, specifically a Catholic university. The article will examine the concept of academic freedom; explore the concept of Catholic identity in higher education; demonstrate how academic freedom and respect for a religious tradition can be achieved through specific pedagogical techniques; and finally, offer some general suggestions for teaching genetics in a religiously affiliated institution.

Emerging genetic technologies raise many serious ethical concerns for society in general, for medicine in particular, and certainly for our students, who are likely to be more affected by these developments than we may be. These technologies also raise questions about the intersection of religion and science, especially for teaching. What is, or should be, the relationship between religion and science, biology and theology? At what point do we cross the line into “playing God” versus “using the brains God gave us?” How can we balance scientific research with the ethical dilemmas that may be created by them? And, most important, how might we address these questions in the classroom? Thus began the development of our course, “God, Science, and Designer Genes.”

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