When Worlds of Faith and Science Collide

ANALYSIS: The Vatican invited many of the world’s top scientists to participate in the ‘Unite to Cure Conference.’

Above, a view of the Vatican, which hosted a science conference late last month. Below, Cardinal Pietro Parolin addresses the 'Unite to Cure Conference'; another Vatican photo.
Above, a view of the Vatican, which hosted a science conference late last month. Below, Cardinal Pietro Parolin addresses the 'Unite to Cure Conference'; another Vatican photo. (photo: Register photos by Matthew Bunson)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican welcomes many conferences and symposiums throughout any given year, but few of them include celebrities, famous physicians, medical researchers and some of the world’s leading philanthropists.

This is precisely what happened April 26-28 during the fourth “Unite to Cure Conference.” Created jointly by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, the Cura Foundation, STOQ and the Stem for Life Foundation and first held in 2011, Unite to Cure brings together many of the world’s leading scientists and physicians, patients, ethicists, faith leaders, government officials and philanthropists to have what its organizers describe as conversations “on advancing breakthrough technologies and disseminating knowledge that improves human health, prevents disease, protects the environment and considers cultural, religious and societal implications.”

This year, the conference focused on “How Science, Technology and 21st-Century Medicine Will Impact Culture and Society.”

The only news that most Catholics saw about the conference was the barrage of pictures of Katy Perry meeting Pope Francis. In an era in which Vatican gatherings are greeted with a mixture of concern and even suspicion, a symposium that attracts celebrities such as pop singer Perry and the actor Orlando Bloom, television personalities Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Meredith Vieira and Dr. Mehmet Oz, as well as various atheist scientists and researchers, can understandably alarm many Catholics.

Perry may have grabbed the headlines and the pictures, but within the conference itself, the attention was on hard technical science and high-level panels of specialists speaking to other experts and researchers.

The result was a gathering that would leave the average nonscientist drowning in an ocean of complicated PowerPoints, medical and bio-tech terminology, and panels on complex topics such as “Advancements in Treating Rare Diseases”; “The Pharmacy of the Future — Stem Cells and Cardiovascular, Pulmonary and Neurodegenerative Diseases”; and “The Role of Virtual Reality, Implantable Devices and Emerging Technology in the Management of Disease.”

Given some participants’ very public divergence from Catholic moral reasoning, why hold this conference in the Vatican at all? The answer lies in both the desire of the Church, as it always has, to engage in dialogue with science — with reason — and to provide a context for faith to be heard and to be part of the conversation in the midst of what is now considered a field that excludes religious belief and that often holds faith as unreasonable.

Put another way, this conference surprised many of the Catholics who took part, with its access to deep scientific presentations but also its openness to faith and belief.

Dr. Thomas McGovern, a dermatological surgeon and a representative of the Catholic Medical Association to the conference, would describe himself as someone uncertain about what would unfold with the meeting. He told the Register he was genuinely surprised by the personal interactions that Unite to Cure facilitated and the way it brought together “scientists in a faith-based atmosphere that I would describe as a ‘safe zone.’”

Such an approach can trace itself to the effort begun during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI to engage with atheists and the project of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council of Culture, of the “Courtyard of the Gentiles,” an outreach to unbelievers by believers. 

Just as with the Courtyard of the Gentiles, Cardinal Ravasi and the Pontifical Council for Culture have played a key role in building the Unite to Cure conferences, in close collaboration with Dr. Robin Smith, head of the Cura Foundation.

Here, the Church is reaching out to the scientific community. McGovern noted, “It was great to see the Vatican open its arms like Bernini’s Colonnade to the scientific world, and I did not encounter a single anti-Catholic comment. I saw people who disagreed, but it was very respectful, and they were very open to learn.”

This means that both in the panels and especially in the conversations that surrounded them, the voice of the Church could be heard.

In a private audience with the attendees, Pope Francis alluded to the need for the Church to have a voice in science today.

“Science is a powerful means for better understanding the natural world and human health,” he said. “While the Church applauds every effort in research and application directed to the care of our suffering brothers and sisters, she is also mindful of the basic principle that ‘not everything technically possible or doable is thereby ethically acceptable.’ Science, like all other human activities, is conscious that certain limits must be respected for the good of humanity itself and that a sense of ethical responsibility is needed.”

The Vatican is a uniquely ideal environment for that sense of responsibility to be imparted, as well for scientists to be given the room and the permission to talk about their own faith and that of patients, something unlikely to happen in any similar conference held in a secular location or university.

In one presentation, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), bestselling author and something of a celebrity in the scientific community, talked about his own conversion from atheism at the age of 27 through the writings of C.S. Lewis. In another panel, a priest, a rabbi and a Mormon elder — all respected scientists — looked into the quantifiable and important role of faith in patient care. The title of the panel was “Culture of Life and Religious Influence on Health.”

And then there is the public commitment on the part of the Church to science, research and ethical medical progress.

Dominican Father Nicanor Austriaco, a professor of biology and of theology at Providence College who took part in the provocative panel, “Longevity and the Morality of Extreme Life Extension,” told the Register, “This is the place where the Church can dialogue with science, and the scientists I have talked to over the last few days have been impressed with how the Catholic Church has been receptive and open to a conversation based on reason.”

Finally, Catholic medical practitioners and researchers also expressed satisfaction with what they received from the encounters with the international scientific community: a commitment to work together to forge ethical medical and scientific progress against disease and suffering.

Cardinal Ravasi addressed the dimensions of that goal when he welcomed the Holy Father to the conference. “The cure,” he said, “cannot be separated from the great anthropological questions that science and technology generate. So we have heard the voices of various religions and cultures, as the human being is not only a mass of biological cells but also a person who loves, believes, hopes and suffers.”

While there are always risks and understandable debate about the value of interactions with secular scientists and especially celebrities, Unite to Cure had a lot more going on than Katy Perry — who was there to promote children’s health — meeting the Pope.

Father Austriaco said it best: “This is a place,” he declared, “where scientists of faith — and there are many — are able to speak about their faith in public with great humility … because this is the only place where science is not God.”

Matthew Bunson is a Register senior editor.

The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Christmas tree, Dec. 9, 2021

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