Katie Couric and the Progressive Science-Loving Church

(photo: YouTube)

Katie Couric was on the “Late Show” with Stephen Colbert talking about her recent visit to a scientific conference at the Vatican, and she said:

“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…” (Deacon Greg Kandra, Aleteia)

Deacon Greg Kandra, among others, brought this to our attention, and his response was to offer Epic Pew’s list “11 Amazing Catholic Scientists You Should Know” by Shaun McAfee. This enjoyable list includes scientists such as Copernicus, St. Albert the Great, Georges Lemaître, Gregor Mendel, Nicholas Steno, George V. Coyne, and (my favorite) Stanley L. Jaki. This is all fine and good, and certainly the point that the Church has a long, uniterable involvement in—even intimate relationship with—science needs to be underscored in our culture.

But we are all missing the bigger picture if we give a nod to scientists of the past and stop there, with a bit of scorn directed at Katie Couric. Her comment may have been issued with historical ignorance. (Frankly I grimaced more at the “popener,” i.e. beer bottle opener with the Pope’s face on it, which she removed from under her bra and handed to Colbert announcing that it had not been blessed by the Pope but by her breast. Why is it that mature women think they need to act like schoolgirls rather than ladies?) However, she has a point in noting how “progressive” (forward thinking) it is that the Church wants to understand science.

The scientific conference Couric attended was a conference held April 28-30, co-hosted by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture and the Stem for Life Foundation. Like other such councils, the organization brought together scientists with religious, government, and cultural leaders to discuss the future of stem cell research. The conference was titled, “Cellular Horizons: How Science, Technology, Information and Communication Will Impact Society.” The Cellular Horizons’ organizers state in their mission that they seek to discuss and understand, to unite people, to foster conversation, and to create global awareness for the progress of stem cell research.

The Church, as you know, supports adult stem cell research using cells taken from adult bodies to find cures for chronic degenerative diseases such as cancer and diabetes, and particularly childhood diseases. The Church does not support embryonic stem cell research, which requires the destruction of human embryos or the use of aborted fetuses. It is a difficult topic because as long as abortion is legal, non-Catholic ethicists will argue that using aborted children is better than discarding them.

This is a conversation that needs to be happening, and it needs to be guided by people of faith, hope, and love.

Just to give you an example of the urgency of this kind of dialogue, Science Magazine (also in April) had a feature story titled “The Savior Cells?” (Jennifer Couzin-Frankel, Vol. 352, Issue 6283) What are the savior cells? They are stem cells taken from aborted fetuses to treat diseases in living fetuses. The article explains how researchers are designing clinical trials of stem cell treatments for unborn children afflicted with rare bone and blood diseases. Citing trials from back in the 1980’s, the author describes how blood stem cells from 7- to10-week old aborted fetuses were infused through the umbilical vein into the living fetus with severe immune disorders. The hope was that the transplanted cells would “flourish into healthy blood cells” that the living fetus lacked.

The Science article goes on to recount another trial conducted in 2002 at the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm. About 6 million stem cells from the liver of an aborted fetus were transfused into an unborn female child diagnosed with type III (rare and severe) osteogenesis imperfecta, a debilitating genetic disease that causes the child’s brittle bones to break often. The child, now 14 years old, seems to have improved upon the infusion of these cells, and she receives more infusions of them (from the aborted fetus) about every four years. She has reportedly not had a bone fracture in the last 18 months.

Interestingly, the Science article ends on a different note. In the United States, the latest trials use cells taken from the mother to help the child in her womb with the disease. The child’s body is expected to tolerate the mother’s cells better.

So you can see from this story in a recent scientific journal, the questions about the future of regenerative medicine addressed during the Vatican conference are 1) not new, 2) complex, delicate, and well-intended because the goal is to help children with diseases, and 3) ripe with the potential at this moment in history to take an ethical turn more aligned with the Church’s teaching. True progress cannot involve using unwanted children as “saviors” to cure sick children.

While some people might frown upon the inclusion of outsiders such as Couric to Vatican conferences, I do not. That is what we are supposed to do as Catholics—lead, teach, and communicate. The 11 amazing scientists mentioned earlier were leaders in their times because they did not isolate themselves from their cultures, and there is a much longer list of Catholic scientists and physicians working today, as so many heroes out in the world, to uphold human dignity.

Pope Francis exhorts us to stand firm and confident in our faith and reach out to others. “Faith,” he says in Lumen Fidei, “does not merely grant interior firmness…it also sheds light on every human relationship because it is born of love and reflects God’s own love” (50). Faith draws us out into the world to build a place where we can dwell together. That is the wider landscape.

In the end, if Katie Couric is just now noticing that it is “very progressive of the Catholic Church to want to understand science,” and she comes to realize that the Church operates in the world by promoting dignity, unity, and communication, then—breast-blessed bottle openers notwithstanding—good. Better late than never.