Must science always end up on the altar?

July 14, 2006

As a cardinal seeks excommunication of those involved in stem-cell research, Michael Ruse surveys the Catholic Church's record on stifling discovery

Earlier this month, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, head of the Vatican unit responsible for family policy, stated flatly that those involved in stem-cell research should be excommunicated. This is not yet official Catholic policy, but the Cardinal is close to Pope Benedict XVI, and before long it could well be that those who work with stem cells will join the list that includes women who have had abortions, doctors who have performed abortions, would-be killers of the Pope, unauthorised consecrators of bishops, and all those who are automatically denied communion and the other services of the Catholic Church. In the words of the Cardinal: "Destroying an embryo is equivalent to abortion." He added:

"Excommunication is valid for the women, the doctors and researchers who destroy embryos."

It is hard to predict what immediate effect this might have. The first scientist to clone a horse, Cesare Galli, in Cremona, seems to be bearing the threat with an Enlightenment-style fortitude verging on insouciance. He likens the Vatican to the Taleban. In defiant terms he declares: "I can bear excommunication. I was raised as a Catholic, I share Catholic values, but I am able to make my own judgment on some issues and I do not need to be told by the Church what to do or what to think."

In America, the influence of the Catholic Church has already had a chilling effect, with federal government-sponsored stem-cell research severely restricted; although it is surely true to say that the opposition of evangelical Christians (of which President George W. Bush is a notable member) is at least as important. States such as California have taken matters into their own hands and are raising funds to continue stem-cell work, no matter what the views of the White House. No doubt those Catholics already working on stem cells will continue to work on stem cells, just as those American politicians threatened with excommunication for refusing to vote against abortion will continue to be politicians refusing to vote against abortion.

With some good reason, professional religion-haters are going to groan and ask us what else we might have expected of the Vatican. After all, it has a history of science opposition going back at least to the age of Galileo, who in the 17th century was forced to his knees and told to deny the Copernican Revolution. The Church has always put its authority ahead of truth, in particular the search for scientific truth. Why should we expect it to be any different today?

Historians of science know that things are a little more complex than this. The Church does have a history of science opposition, but it is far from consistent or always entirely negative. Through the medieval era, it was the Catholic Church that cherished and supported science. Copernicus himself was a minor cleric and died in good standing. Why then did Galileo run into trouble 100 years later? Galileo was a difficult man who virtually goaded the Church to action, but the real reason was that the institution was by then reeling from the successes of the Reformation. It was in the throes of the Counter-Reformation and, in respect to the Bible trying to make itself more Protestant than the Protestants, firmly closing the stable door after the horse had bolted. The Church's opposition to Galileo's science was less because of the science's content and more because the threatened institution felt it had to draw a firm line.

This is confirmed by the Darwinian revolution in the 19th century. In the immediate years after On the Origin of Species was published (1859), Catholics were famously absent from the lists of evolution's religious detractors. In 1870, John Henry Newman, the great theologian who had moved from the Church of England to the Church of Rome, was asked whether he thought it appropriate that Darwin be given an honorary degree by Oxford University. He replied: "Is this (Darwin's theory) against the distinct teaching of the inspired text? If it is, then he advocates an Anti-Christian theory. For myself, speaking under correction, I don't see that it does contradict it."

It was later in the 19th century that the Catholic Church turned against evolution and, as with the Counter-Reformation, it was less a matter of science and more because the Church was again under external threat - the Vatican's loss of power after the unification of Italy.

Today, history is repeating itself. The Church sees itself in grave danger as people turn from its teaching and numbers decline. Who now takes seriously the prohibition on artificial contraception? In Latin America, evangelical Christians are making huge gains. Again, science seems to be an easy target. Although Pope John Paul II accepted evolution and even hinted that he thought there might be something to Darwin's natural selection, last year another conservative Cardinal, Christian Schonborn of Austria, came out in support of intelligent design, that latest version of US creationism, which claims that God made organisms miraculously. Cardinal Trujillo is simply in the same mould, now denying the very possibility of research and discovery of the nature of development and denying the possibility of making discoveries that promise incredible medical benefits for the sick and dying.

I am sure the Cardinal would deny this. In the case of stem-cell research, he would argue that he is not against knowledge as such, but against knowledge obtained only through murder - that of a human being complete with soul. Stem cells, usually obtained from foetuses in the very early stages of development, require the termination of human beings with souls.

But, of course, matters are not quite this simple. If developmental biology today is teaching us anything, it is that the exact point at which an individual life begins is very fuzzy and inexact. The unfertilised ovum has life of a kind, as do those millions of sperm. Is male masturbation murder? Is the fertilised egg, not yet embedded and possibly to be flushed away, a living being? And what of the fact that in humans even after three divisions, when one has eight cells, each is potentially able to go it alone and develop into a fully functioning organism? Up to this point, does one have one being, two beings, four beings or eight beings? How many souls are there in action here? The fact is that modern science shows that there is no natural, absolute dividing point. This does not mean that there is no such thing as a human being, but that there is a blur at the point of the origin. Stem cells and where they come from take us back to that blur, something that Cardinal Trujillo ignores.

Darwin's bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, wrote: "The cradle of every science is surrounded by dead theologians as that of Hercules was with strangled serpents." As always, Huxley exaggerated and, as always, he grasped an important truth. The Catholic Church is not invariably anti-science. But it does have a history of striking out at science when it feels under threat.

One fears that this is as true at the beginning of the 21st century as it was in the 17th century and again at the end of the 19th century. I suspect, given that Catholicism today does not seem set for a smooth ride in any area, we are in for a long haul of science-bashing.

Michael Ruse is Lucyle T. Werkmeister professor of philosophy at Florida State University.

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