Truly fundamental shift

“Isn’t the Church against stem cell research?” This question came from my own friends and family members, regular Mass-going Catholics, as I was preparing to head to Rome to cover the second adult stem cell conference. It’s a question that highlighted just how much the perception concerning this topic needs to be addressed. 

After all, there is an old saying that perception is reality. When it comes to the Church and science, there is the perception of a huge divide. Since the Church is not in favor of embryonic stem cell research, which requires the destruction of human embryos, too many perceive us as somehow backward, antiquated and against stem cell research altogether.  

In fact, the conference exemplified just the opposite: The Church is “pro-science” and, more importantly, “pro-person.” Father Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, a moral theologian, molecular biologist and professor at Providence College, was among the presenters at the April 11-13 Vatican conference titled “Regenerative Medicine: A Fundamental Shift in Science and Culture,” which was co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture and The Stem for Life Foundation. He said the location of the gathering itself made a huge statement that is helping in the perception category. 

“One scientist told me if this meeting were held anywhere else but the Vatican, it wouldn’t have the punch that is has and will continue to have. It’s the Vatican. If this were in San Francisco, it would just be any other meeting. But as another person put it, this is a stem cell summit at the Vatican. Just the location and the importance of the Catholic Church as an institution involved makes it such a unique venue to discuss science,” Father Austriaco said. 

In her opening remarks, Dr. Robin Smith, president of the Stem for Life Foundation, explained the evidence, as in the astonishing results of adult stem cell clinical trials with diseases such as multiple sclerosis, is now starting to outweigh the negative image that was put forth by pro-embryonic stem cell forces.  

In the early years of the stem cell debate, foundations such as hers, along with others touting adult stem cell research, were put in the same category as the Church, because of efforts to look for ethical methods of stem cell science. 

“Adult stem cell therapies hold promise to turn the tide of modern-day medicines … Adult stem cells is something we can all agree upon; they are ethically pure. We can grasp what’s inside of us and introduce them into the body,” Smith said. 

As the title of the conference indicates, the “fundamental shift” in science and culture is starting to occur. A big part of the reason for that, according to Father Austriaco is the Church’s wisdom in seeing this discussion as not only explaining the connection between faith and science but also part of the New Evangelization. 

“We are mistaken if we think that many scientists have actually been reflective about the moral, cultural and social impact of their work. Many of them are doing it because they love it. It is a problem they want to solve and they hope that in the long term their problem solving in the labs will lead to the alleviation of suffering,” he said. “But they have never really reflected on it. They have never reflected on the appropriation of evil or the cooperation with evil and what is striking about an event like this is it gives them the opportunity to spend two days here at the heart of the Church. The amount of blood and sweat and prayers of this city, the grace of this city can’t help but touch even the most hardened of hearts.” 

Teresa Tomeo is the host of “Catholic Connection,” produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and Sirius Channel 130.

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