IN the days after Professor Margaret Somerville received a papal award she recalled a time when, as a young child, she shocked the nun who asked her and her classmates, “Hands up who wants to go to heaven?”
It’s a story that was shining a little light on the woman that young Margaret was to become – a bioethicist of international standing.
Her parents George Patrick Ganley and Gertrude Honora Ganley were Catholics from the Northern Flinders Ranges in South Australia bringing up Margaret and her brother Bob in Adelaide.
“My dad came from a very poor family and my mother came from quite a prosperous one,” Margaret said.
“They were both Catholic – but my dad was an agnostic or maybe an atheist, and he was also a supporter of the Communist Party, which wasn’t something that you should be in Australia at that time.
“And when I was a little kid – like a really young child, about four years old – he used to take me out before dawn to distribute pro-Communist Party leaflets in the letterboxes, which was actually illegal.
“And my mother was a supporter of the Liberal Party.
“My dad, he was an altar boy in the bush, and I’m not sure whether he had a tough time – I think he might’ve – with the Church, and my mother was a practising Catholic and she went to Mass and took us to Mass.”
One of Margo’s childhood memories of her mother taking her to Mass and her dad staying at home stands out.
“It was Sunday morning and my mother was yelling at me, saying ‘Margo, get dressed, get dressed; we’re going to be late for Mass …’,” she said.
“And my dad was sitting there in his dressing gown, and he used to smoke like a train.
“He used to drink black tea, smoke and read the newspaper from front to back … and he was there doing that when I said, ‘I don’t want to go to Mass …’
“And (Mum) said, ‘You’ve got to go to Mass’.
“And I said, ‘My dad doesn’t go to Mass, so why do I have to go?’
“And she said, ‘Oh, your father’s going to go to hell, and you don’t want to do that’.
“Anyway, the next day, it was Monday morning, and I still remember the nun’s name.
“I must’ve been about six or seven years old and I was in Grade 2, and Sr Rosemary said, ‘Hands up everybody who wants to go to heaven’, and I was the only kid in the class who didn’t put up their hand.
“She looked at me and she said, ‘Margaret, don’t you want to go to heaven? Where do you want to go?’
“And I said, ‘Hell’.
“And she looked totally astonished and she said, ‘Why would you want that?’
“And I said, ‘Because I want to be with my dad’.
“So maybe I was always a contrarian …”
If Margaret Somerville is a contrarian – someone who opposes or rejects some popular opinions – then Pope Francis has recognised that she’s made a good fist of it in service of the Church and society.
He’s made her a Dame of the Order of St Gregory the Great for her service to the Church and her contributions to bioethics.
Margo, who is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine in Sydney, has been a prominent voice in some of contemporary society’s most contentious debates on issues like abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.
She’s earned a list of honours and awards as long as your arm but she is thrilled and very surprised by the one she’s received from the Pope.
Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher presented her with her award at a ceremony in St Mary’s Cathedral Chapter Hall on October 22.
Among those Margo thanked in her acceptance speech was her father George, “who taught Bob, my late brother, and me about the wonders of the night sky and the miracle of all life and the responsibility to respect it”.
“He was a natural mystic,” she said.
She also thanked the Sisters of St Joseph and Sisters of Mercy “who instructed my classmates and me in the Catholic Faith”.
“As I’ve grown older, I have become increasingly grateful for the gift of that spiritually and intellectually rich tradition,” she said in her speech.
“I have ended up believing that being open to experiences of ‘amazement, wonder and awe’ is very important, if we seek to behave ethically and convince others to do so. My current work is on that topic.
“One of the most challenging areas for bioethics is in relation to the new science and the unprecedented powers it gives us – it’s sometimes called the power to ‘play God’.
“If, as I do, we look at what science reveals with ‘amazement, wonder and awe’ and see it as further opening up a great mystery – I call it the Mystery of the Great Unknown, which religious people rightly see as a way of describing God – then we accept that there can be some things we should never do, because they would disrespect that Mystery.
“Designing our children, which is now possible with the new genetic and molecular biology technologies, would be such an act.
“Far from everyone agrees with me, however.
“My views and I have been described by eminent researchers, who do not want limits placed on science, as ‘full of mystical nonsense’ and ‘dangerously on the edge of total flake’.
“Experiences of ‘amazement, wonder and awe’ are especially important in promoting ethics, because both people who are religious and those who are not can share them.
“That sharing can allow us to experience belonging to the same moral universe with regard to some values and, thereby, make the adoption of those values more likely.”
Margo earned an international reputation as a bioethicist over four decades in Canada where she is Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor Emerita in the Faculty of Medicine, and Founding Director Emerita of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, Montreal.
As her reputation grew so did the opposition from other intellectuals who saw her arguments for some traditional values as strong challenges to their so-called “progressive” values positions on the same issues.
In the days after receiving her papal award, she tells the story behind the claim she was “full of mystical nonsense”.
The comment was made by Professor James Watson, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his ground-breaking work on DNA.
Margo was at a colloquium at Oxford for a select international group of about 30, and Watson and Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, were also participants.
Margo had written “a very critical, negative review” of Dawkins’ book.
“Anyway it ended up there was a big oval-shaped table that we all sat around, and Richard was at one end and I was at the other, and the whole scene became like people watching a Davis Cup tennis match,” she said.
“Richard and I were debating with each other, and the people on each side would quickly turn their heads to Richard when he spoke and back to me when I spoke,” she said.
“It became pretty heated between us and the very proper Oxford academic who was chairing it … he said, ‘Oh, oh, oh, I think we all need a coffee; let’s have a break for a coffee’.
“With that everybody got up to walk out and James Watson (who is a friend of Dawkins) came up behind me, put his arm across my shoulders and he said, ‘You know, Margo, the problem with you is you’re full of mystical nonsense …’
“I told that to (Oblate priest and theologian) Ron Rolheiser and he wrote back and said, ‘The problem with them is they’re mystically tone-deaf’.
“And I thought that’s true …
“And I also have a theory about why they might be like that and it explains why I value so much what my father taught me: I think you have to be given the gift of being able to experience wonder when you’re a young child.”
Margo said it was a case of using that gift to ponder all that is, “and then you think about what we do on a day-to-day basis that might cause us to disrespect the mystery we encounter”.
She said our disrespect of the mystery was what worried her, “and preventing that is what bioethics is about”.
“It’s about trying to warn people before they do something that’s destructive, whether our physical environment or our metaphysical one, the combined attitudes, values and beliefs which guide our individual and collective lives,” she said.