The Pope and Science

As we write, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has just been formally installed as Pope Benedictus XVI.

May 9, 2005
Richard Gallagher(rgallagher@the-scientist.com)

As we write, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has just been formally installed as Pope Benedictus XVI. If his past pronouncements on science are any indicator, he is unlikely to liberalize the position of the Catholic Church on the subject. For example, Ratzinger has criticized genetic manipulation and embryonic cloning, although the latter is not a particular surprise. Even when it has "good goals," he has said, such research cannot be justified.

Pronouncements on science by political, religious and other leaders help provide a moral framework for science and are crucial for broad acceptance of research and its applications.

It's fair to say that many Catholics feel that Pope Benedictus XVI's predecessor modernized aspects of the Church's stance towards science. The last papacy endorsed agricultural biotechnology as one potential solution for the world's hunger problems, and accepted the theory of evolution as accurate (and, somehow, not in conflict with the Bible).

There is more opportunity for change. The Vatican is now working on a new document on biological advances and ethics, with an eye toward "keeping the human person in view," the Rev. Augustine Di Noia, undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, told the Arizona Republic last month.1

One of the areas where progressive thinking would be welcome is gene therapy, which is the subject of this issue's feature. Gene therapy will eventually save many lives but it is currently in crisis in scientific, business and ethical terms as a result of the recent tragic deaths of patients. We provide a three-pronged examination of the subject. The Hot Papers (p. 20) explain how a misdirected transgene was responsible for leukemia in two of the affected children. A Vision article from Carl June of the University of Pennsylvania describes how such problems can be overcome and how gene therapy will eventually treat a wide range of cancers (p. 18). And we open with an examination of the ongoing efforts to support and commercialize gene therapies (p. 14).

How might the Catholic Church respond to gene therapy and related issues in the life sciences? As a guide, the church's last major document on the ethics of biomedical research2 is a worthwhile starting point. Produced by the Pontifical Academy for Life following the Ninth General Assembly in 2003, the paper allows that "every new discovery in biomedicine seems destined to produce a 'cascade' effect, opening up many new prospects and possibilities for the diagnosis and treatment of numerous pathologies that are still incurable." However, biomedicine "must be directed to defined ends and put in dialogue with the world of values," the document warns.

We agree that science must, as much as possible, " [keep] itself free from the slavery of political and economic interests," as the paper notes, quoting directly from Pope John Paul II. The document's call for high ethical standards for experimental human subjects, and for rigorous animal experimentation in advance of such human trials, gets no argument from us either.

It's when the communiqué argues that "any experimentation on the human embryo that does not have the goal of obtaining direct benefits for his/her own health, cannot be considered morally licit" that we will respectfully disagree. We look forward to a dialogue between the Vatican and scientists as the Catholic Church continues its move through the 21st century. To echo the Reverend Di Noia's words, we might suggest that officials keep the human person of Pope John Paul II in view when crafting their next document. After all, Parkinson disease, which afflicted the late Pope, is one of the conditions for which stem cell research seems the most promising.