The Church and Science: The Right Place at the Right Time

Vatican stem-cell conference sheds light on ‘hand of God’ and dignity of life and Catholic teaching.

(photo: Shutterstock image)

Editor's Note: On Register Radio April 26, Jeanette DeMelo will talk with Teresa Tomeo about the Vatican's Adult Stem Cell Conference. Listen here after 2pm Eastern Friday.

It made perfect sense to me as a practicing Catholic. 

What better place than the Vatican to hold the “Second Annual Conference on Adult Stem Cell Research” on regenerative medicine?  

After all, we as Catholics believe the Church contains the fullness of the truth, as revealed by God.   

We understand that we were made in God’s image and likeness, as revealed in Genesis. Every person is sacred and has dignity.

We also know God is the Great Physician and the Great Scientist. He created us, as it says in Psalm 139, and we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

So of course the Vatican would be just the right setting to lead discussions on the latest groundbreaking data on medical research pertaining to adult stem cells — research that could change the course of medicine as we know it today.  

Just as fitting as the location for this gathering, held April 11-13, was Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi’s opening speech and presentation to Dr. Robin Smith. Smith is president of the Stem for Life Foundation. Her organization co-sponsored the meeting, along with the Pontifical Council for Culture, which Cardinal Ravasi heads.  

“This event is co-sponsored by the Church because the Church wants to address the rift between faith and science … the two — faith and science — must coexist, or else science runs the risk of becoming violent,” said Cardinal Ravasi.

Smith said adult stem cells are the key to modern medicine.

“Adult stem-cell therapies hold the promise to turn the tide of modern day medicine,” she said.  “This conference is a clarion call to talk about the progress of adult stem cells.”


‘Hand of God’

Cardinal Ravasi concluded his talk by giving Smith a beautiful plaque of the famous “hand of God” scene from the Sistine Chapel. It was a reminder that there was something much bigger than the minds of those gathered in Rome.   

Despite the seemingly countless degrees and accomplishments of the 300-plus attendees, the results of their latest clinical trials showed that the body is designed to heal itself.  

Efforts so far to advance science through the taking of the most vulnerable human life in the form of embryonic stem cells has failed.  

As a Catholic covering the conference, it was obvious God was trying to tell these extremely intelligent scientists something very basic but extremely important: Going against the natural order just doesn’t work. Very simply put, life gives life.  

But as my friend, Catholic author and apologist Steve Ray would say, “Of course it makes sense to you, Teresa. You are looking at the world through Catholic lenses. Other folks simply are not.” 

That’s true. This adult-stem cell conference made me extremely proud to be Catholic. 

But, at the same time, Steve is right. Many people even in my own circles do not understand the issue and wondered why the Church was involved. The merging of faith and science in the form of an international conference — bringing together the cream of the crop in stem-cell research — struck some as peculiar.  

And then there are those, including many Catholics, who, thanks to a very biased and ill-informed mainstream press, believe the Church is against stem-cell research of any kind. Even my own mother, who is a faithful Catholic, had a puzzled look on her face when I told her I was covering the event in Rome. “But I thought we were against that?” she asked.  


Science Evangelizes

The Church in her wisdom recognizes she has an image problem in many areas, and if we are going to change that image and fulfill the mission of evangelization, gatherings such as the one that took place in Rome in April are crucial.

Father Niancor Pier Giorgio Austriaco is a microbiologist, a moral theologian and a professor at Providence College. He was also one of the presenters and part of a panel discussion concerning “Education, Faith, Science and Culture in a Cellular Future.”

“It is very exciting to meet and to hear about how adult stem cells are changing lives and healing people,” he said. “The very idea that the Vatican is holding this conference is very exciting. It made them understand that the Church is not anti-science. The Catholic Church is pro-science, but also pro-person. I think the thing that I have gotten from my colleagues, who are often not believers, is that they are struck by the openness of the Church.”

Father Austriaco added that this event is truly an example of the New Evangelization. He explained that many of the attendees are not Catholic and are hearing Catholic teaching in a Catholic setting for the first time.

“This is our chance to welcome them into our home and to show them the synthesis of faith and reason,” the priest said. “It is something they most likely have never heard about. We are mistaken if we think many scientists have actually been thinking about the moral implications of their work. In the long run, they have a problem to solve, and what is striking about this event is it gives them a chance to be surrounded by so much grace. The grace of this city can’t help but touch the most hardened of hearts.”

The Church is indeed in the right place at the right time, and, in some ways, more importantly, so were all the participants.

Msgr. Tomasz Trafny of the Pontifical Council for Culture explained that the Church needs to be involved in this most important discussion and reach the public in a major way: “We have to remember and realize there are still many prejudices about the Church, and people think the Church is against science and research, which is not true. The Church states very strongly that the research must be performed in the framework of moral values.”

Teresa Tomeo is an EWTN radio and TV host.

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