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Over 350 years after the initial controversy, the decision in 1993 by Pope John Paul II to finally 'acquit' the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei of charges of challenging religious doctrine promised an end to centuries of conflict between science and the Catholic Church. But the church's views on biomedical advances suggest that hostilities are far from over.

For many scientists (and others) one of the surprises of the modern world is the extent to which religious belief — which is often seen as antithetical to a pragmatic commitment to scientific (i.e. evidence-based) truth — continues to flourish in large sections of the population.

After all, it is frequently argued by many scientists that one of the attractions of religions has been the explanations that they provide of why the natural world, in all its complexity, functions in the way that it does. Remove the mystery, as science has done with its discoveries of the 'laws' of nature, for example, and the ways that atoms and genes act as the building blocks of matter and life respectively, and this need for an explanation disappears.

But explaining what happens, of course, in purely physical or mathematical terms, does not necessarily explain why it happens. The argument that different types of truths apply to these two sets of arguments is what has left the door open to religion to co-exist with modern science. It is, for example, what has made it possible for many eminent scientists to retain their religious beliefs while pursuing investigations into basic questions about the behaviour of matter (and conversely for the theory of evolution to be seen as compatible with the 'metaphorical' description in the Bible).

Much more difficult are the issues thrown up when such investigations, by their nature, come into conflict with ideas about human values — a situation illustrated most dramatically by current controversies over the ethics of research on cells taken from early human embryos. Here there is no single yardstick of either empirical or moral truth by which rival claims can be evaluated. Nor, as a result, is there easy agreement on where the dividing line between scientific and religious values should fall.

What is essential, however, is that the welfare of humanity must lie at the heart of each activity. The danger lying in both science and religion — and politics too, for that matter — is when open-minded belief turns into dogma and authoritarianism, and a commitment to human welfare gives way to a commitment to ideology, if not a naked struggle for power.

The new challenge from science

This is the challenge facing the Catholic church as it enters a new papacy — that of Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who last week was appointed by his fellow cardinals to succeed Pope John Paul II.

While his appointment has been welcomed by many, the response has been less warm from those who see Pope Benedict XVI as reflecting more conservative views of how the Catholic church should operate in the modern world. Indeed, in many ways the issues are similar to those facing the World Bank as it prepared for the presidency of another prominent conservative thinker, Paul Wolfowitz (see Poverty — not ideology — must be World Bank's focus).

The new pope has many burning issues on his plate, ranging from the relations between the Islamic and Catholic religions, to the recruitment crisis faced by his own church. But not since the 17th century, perhaps, have so many of these issues been centred on the achievements of contemporary science.

In one sense, the reason for this is relatively straightforward, and results from the dramatic advances that have taken place in the biomedical sciences over the past 50 years. A range of discoveries, from the genetic code that determines biological functioning to the contraceptive pill, have revolutionised our ability to interfere with living processes (for example in the treatment of disease).

At the same time, however, they have also revolutionised our view of life itself, with effects just as far-reaching as the discovery of astronomers four centuries ago that the Earth does not occupy a privileged position in the universe — whatever the Bible may say.

The Catholic Church has — correctly — identified these developments as raising fundamental challenges to traditional notions about what it means to be human. This is particularly so when it comes to the activities of scientists that appear to challenge these notions (as is the case when biomedical researchers take cells from fertilised human embryos, which are consequently unable to develop and therefore 'die').

Indeed, if scientists were to treat human beings as 'things' that could be experimented on at will — one of the main criticisms that the church frequently makes — then it would indeed be a reason for the same outrage that has long accompanied stories of Nazi experiments in concentration camps. But stem-cell researchers, like doctors who carry out abortions or enable contraception to take place, have their own concept of human dignity.

It may be a practical rather than a transcendental consideration. Medical doctors, after all, tend by the nature of their profession to be more concerned with the physical than the spiritual dimensions of suffering. But that does not mean that the practice of modern biomedical science — even at its most reductionist — is necessarily devoid of a sense of social responsibility.

Galileo's legacy

Pope John Paul II made much of his desire to see reconciliation between science and religion. Indeed he became well respected for his pioneering efforts in this area. In the late 1970s, for example, he made known his desire to revisit the fierce conflict between the Catholic Church and the Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei. This had led to Galileo being imprisoned during the Inquisition (and, in 1633, almost executed) for his support for theories, proposed by Nicolas Copernicus, that the Sun was at the centre of our universe.

This process led to a decision by John Paul II on 31 October 1992, 350 years after Galileo's death, to admit that errors had been made by the theological advisors in the case, and to declare the Galileo case closed (even if he did not admit that the Church was wrong to convict).

In making this statement, the church was able to demonstrate that at last it had come to terms with modern science — or at least, with that part of modern science (namely physics and astronomy) that had once been such a thorn in its side.

Other actions taken by John Paul II have been equally significant. One, for example, was the decision to revitalise the Vatican's science advisory body, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Over the past few years, this has become the site of an increasingly high level of debate about the moral dimensions of science and technology, in which eminent scientists from around the world have participated with enthusiasm.

Indeed, there have even been some pro-science decisions emerging from the Vatican that, at least on the surface, might appear to be surprising. Among these have been various statements from prominent Catholics offering support to the use of genetically-modified foodstuffs to feed the world's poor, which reflected little of the concern expressed by critics about 'interfering with nature'.

Even more surprising, perhaps, was a decision announced in October 2001 to approve xenotransplantation — the use of animal organs in humans that might, at least on the surface, appear to impact directly on 'human dignity' (see Vatican approves use of animal transplants to benefit humans).

Beyond the limits

But when it comes to the use of embryo cells, it appears — at least according to the Vatican — that a barrier has been crossed in an unacceptable way. The Catholic Church has remained resolutely opposed to stem-cell research using embryonic cells, despite the medical promise that the research holds for treating a wide range of neurological diseases. Indeed, it has largely been Vatican-inspired pressure, backed by conservatives in the US administration, that persuaded the United Nations to pass a resolution advising its member's states to outlaw the research (see The UN must take a moderate stand on human cloning).

Up to a point, the Vatican is correct to emphasise that its position on the stem-cell issue is not anti-science (any more than its opposition to birth control is based on its support for unbridled population growth, or that opposition to condom use in Africa is deliberately intended to spread HIV/AIDS).

The Catholic Church has frequently pointed both to John Paul II's writings, and to the actions taken by him on Galileo's behalf, to justify this claim. Indeed the church's antagonism to what it widely referred to as 'scientism' — the tendency to explain all phenomena in quantitative or mechanistic terms —- is widely shared, even by those with no religious faith.

The danger, of course, is when an ideological view of 'human dignity' is used to legitimise statements and actions (such as excluding dissenters) that would otherwise be seen as unacceptably harsh and authoritarian — as many Catholics feel about their church's stance on birth control techniques. That is not pro-science. And nor is the scientifically-suspect statements made by a senior cardinal (and never disavowed by the Vatican itself) that the AIDS virus can penetrate 'holes' in the rubber used to make condoms.

Pope Benedict XVI is no stranger to such issues; as the Vatican's 'keeper of the faith' for the past three decades, he has often been at the forefront of many of these disputes. And his own writings indicate that, in the past, he has been prepared to take a stand that appears to have been as intransigent as that of his predecessor. Indeed even this week, he opened his address in Rome with a statement that warned Catholics of the danger of following 'fashions'.

But while John Paul's strong conservative convictions may have been appropriate at a time when the biggest perceived threat facing human dignity was from Soviet-style communism. that is no longer the case. The current threats come from pressures on the world's resources caused by a rapidly-growing population, and by the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Tackling these effectively using science and technology does not require abandoning a basic commitment to protecting human dignity. But it does require a modification in the way that such dignity is conceived to take account of the daily pressures facing those living in both the developed and the developing world of the 21st century.

If the Catholic Church, under its new leadership, remains reluctant to make that modification, it is in danger of committing itself to a marginal role on the world stage. The only ones to benefit from that would be those who stick to even more tightly held fundamentalist beliefs. And although the church might still claim that it accepted the letter of modern science, it could not also argue that it respects its spirit.

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