The Scientifically Progressive Catholic Church

ChelseaScience, Stem Cell ResearchLeave a Comment

During a recent appearance on Late Night with Stephen Colbert, talk show host and former news anchor Katie Couric made the following comment:

“I was at a scientific conference at the Vatican a couple of weeks ago and I thought it was actually very progressive of the Catholic Church to want to understand science…”

In a previous episode of BioTalk, Rebecca and I discussed the common view of the Catholic Church being “backward” when it comes to science and how she actually has been and is now one of the most forward-thinking or “progressive” institutions in the world — especially in the area of science and biotechnology:

The Church is always condemned for not giving short-sighted acceptance to every scientific or technological breakthrough. However,

If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world. (Spe Salvi, 22)

So, the Church takes the time to evaluate what the research involves and whether or not it respects the dignity of the human person.

Stem cell research is a good example of this.

By and large the great “stem cell debate” has died down in the general public, but the “controversy” is far from over.

As Rebecca and I talked about in another, more recent episode of BioTalk, and Stacy Trasancos discusses here, cells from aborted fetuses are still a hot commodity in modern research.

Also, in two separate studies scientists have reported keeping embryos alive, healthy and developing for 12-13 days. In both studies the embryos grew autonomously and began processes that lead to organ development.

This is significant because for decades international policy has limited embryo research to the first two weeks of development. Until now there had never been reports of anyone cultivating in vitro human embryos past seven to nine days. Now scientists are calling for an extension of the 14-day rule.

The Catholic Church obviously objects to these approaches to regenerative medicine, because “[t]he destruction of even one human life can never be justified in terms of the benefit that it might conceivably bring to another” (Pope Benedict). The intentional creation and destruction of human life, through cloning and ESC research violates the inherent dignity of all human life (at any stage).

But the Church doesn’t stop at merely condemning ethically problematic research. She also promotes dialogue between science and ethics in order to guide research in a direction that is truly fruitful and beneficial to humanity.

The scientific conference that Couric attended was the third international conference on regenerative medicine co-hosted by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture and the Stem for Life Foundation.

The conference gathered the world’s leading cell therapy scientists, physicians, patient advocates, ethicists, philanthropists, leaders of faith and government officials to discuss the latest cellular therapy breakthroughs and engender hope for the future. This year’s focus was particularly on pediatric cancers and rare diseases, as well as diseases that occur with aging.

In his address to the conference, pope Francis recognized society’s, “educational urgency, together with the maturing of the intellectual faculties of the students.”

“In this pedagogical frontier,” the pope said, “it is necessary, in the context of the life sciences and medical sciences, to design interdisciplinary courses reserving a substantial space for human formation with a fundamental reference to ethics.”

Both academic and industrial research, the pope continued, require “constant attention to moral issues in order to be a tool for protecting life and the dignity of the human person.”

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