Stem-cell research can promote life, dignity and discovery
The Catholic hierarchy’s long and public battle with science and scientists continued this week in Orlando as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement condemning embryonic stem-cell research. However, while the bishops are clearly in a minority in opposing stem-cell research, they are also going against a long Catholic tradition of supporting scientific endeavor.
From the earliest days of the church, Catholic theologians have been at the forefront of scientific progress. Tertullian (circa 160-225) and Saints Augustine (354-430) and Aquinas (circa 1225-1274) were followed by many other Catholic scientists in developing new and exciting discoveries that enrich our lives today. While it is true that some, such as Galileo (exiled), Copernicus (censored) and Bruno (burned at the stake), were punished by the Vatican, it is telling that it was Catholics who were at the forefront of the scientific developments that attracted the wrath of the hierarchy.
Despite these cases, church teachings not only allow but encourage adherents to the Catholic faith to support and promote scientific discovery. While debates over whether the Earth is at the center of the universe or not are hopefully finished, contemporary discussions over stem-cell research and other new technologies continue to cause immense controversy.
Reading the Catechism, one of the central documents in Catholic teaching, it seems clear that the Catholic hierarchy should not oppose science or scientific discovery. It notes, “Methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things the of the faith derive from the same God.”
However, as governments and scientists around the world aver that stem-cell research is ethical and consistent with contemporary morality, the hierarchy places religious dogma at the center of its public-policy pronouncements, rather than sound scientific reasoning.
The vast majority of Americans — including the majority of Catholics — oppose the Catholic hierarchy’s view. Independent polling by the Gallup organization indicates that over 60 percent of Americans find stem-cell research to be “morally acceptable.” A poll conducted in 2005 by the Genetics and Public PolicyCenter at Johns Hopkins University indicated that 69 percent of Roman Catholics, 74 percent of Protestants and 50 percent of Evangelicals supported stem-cell research. Catholics clearly reject the bishops’ extreme position and support continuing research into what may prove to be one of the most scientifically significant discoveries in modern medicine. While we may not know for sure, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to find out.
Support for the use and research of stem cells crosses not only religious but also political lines, garnering the support of both presumptive presidential candidates and many self-proclaimed pro-life Catholics, including former Florida Republican Sen. Connie Mack.
Perhaps the last word should be left to another famous Catholic scientist, JohnRock, co-inventor of the Pill. “You should be afraid to meet your Maker,” an angry conservative wrote to him, soon after the Pill was approved. “My dear madam,” Rock replied, “in my faith, we are taught that the Lord is with us always. When my time comes, there will be no need for introductions.” Rock was also a pioneer in in-vitro fertilization and the freezing of sperm cells, and was the first to extract an intact fertilized egg. Here was a faithful Catholic who used his expertise to promote life and the dignity of the individual. Now that is something that all good Catholics can support.
Perhaps the U.S. bishops should consider following in his footsteps.
This article originally appeared in the 13 June 2008 edition of the Orlando Sentinel.