The Pope on Somatic Stem Cell Research

The interest of the Catholic Church to scientific advancement found its expression in many Pontiffs’ statements. Some of them are affirming the general concept of the complementarity between Science and Religion. Some others are strictly related to specific topics like astronomy, physics, mathematics, life sciences, bioethics, philosophy and theology.

Some of them are particularly significant like the letter of Pope John Paul II to the Director of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory, Fr. George Coyne or Benedict XVI, Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the participants in the symposium on the theme: Stem cells: what future for therapy? organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Letter of His Holiness John Paul II to Reverend George V. Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory

So much of our world seems to be in fragments, in disjointed pieces. So much of human life is passed in isolation or in hostility. The division between rich nations and poor nations continues to grow; the contrast between northern and southern regions of our planet becomes ever more marked and intolerable. The antagonism between races and religions splits countries into warring camps; historical animosities show no signs of abating. Even within the academic community, the separation between truth and values persists, and the isolation of their several cultures – scientific, humanistic and religious – makes common discourse difficult if not at times impossible.

But at the same time we see in large sectors of the human community a growing critical openness towards people of different cultures and backgrounds, different competencies and viewpoints. More and more frequently, people are seeking intellectual coherence and collaboration, and are discovering values and experiences they have in common even within their diversities. This openness, this dynamic interchange, is a notable feature of the international scientific communities themselves, and is based on common interests, common goals and a common enterprise, along with a deep awareness that the insights and attainments of one are often important for the progress of the other. In a similar but more subtle way this has occurred and is continuing to occur among more diverse group – among the communities that make up the Church, and even between the scientific community and the Church herself. This drive is essentially a movement towards the kind of unity which resist homogenization and relishes diversity. Such community is determined by a common meaning and by a shared understanding that evokes a sense of mutual involvement. Two groups which may seem initially to have nothing in common can begin to enter into community with one another by discovering a common goal, and this in turn can lead to broader areas of shared understanding and concern.

… We might ask whether or not we are ready for this crucial endeavour. Is the community of world religions, including the Church, ready to enter into a more thorough-going dialogue with the scientific community, a dialogue in which the integrity of both religion and science is supported and the advance of each is fostered? Is the scientific community now prepared to open itself to Christianity, and indeed to all the great world religions, working with us all to build a culture that is more humane and in that way more divine? Do we dare to risk the honesty and the courage that this task demands? We must ask ourselves whether both science and religion will contribute to the integration of human culture or to its fragmentation. It is a single choice and it confronts us all.

… The matter is urgent. Contemporary developments in science challenge theology far more deeply than did the introduction of Aristotle into Western Europe in the thirteenth century. Yet these developments also offer to theology a potentially important resource.

… Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.

Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the participants in the symposium on the theme: Stem cells: what future for therapy? organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life, (Hall of the Swiss, Castel Gandolfo Saturday, 16 September 2006).

When science is applied to the alleviation of suffering and when it discovers on its way new resources, it shows two faces rich in humanity: through the sustained ingenuity invested in research, and through the benefit announced to all who are afflicted by sickness.

Those who provide financial means and encourage the necessary structures for study share in the merit of this progress on the path of civilization.

On this occasion, I would like to repeat what I said at a recent Audience: “Progress becomes true progress only if it serves the human person and if the human person grows: not only in terms of his or her technical power, but also in his or her moral awareness” (cf. General Audience, 16 August 2006).

In this light, somatic stem-cell research also deserves approval and encouragement when it felicitously combines scientific knowledge, the most advanced technology in the biological field and ethics that postulate respect for the human being at every stage of his or her existence.

The prospects opened by this new chapter in research are fascinating in themselves, for they give a glimpse of the possible cure of degenerative tissue diseases that subsequently threaten those affected with disability and death.

How is it possible not to feel the duty to praise all those who apply themselves to this research and all who support the organization and cover its expenses?

I would like in particular to urge scientific structures that draw their inspiration and organization from the Catholic Church to increase this type of research and to establish the closest possible contact with one another and with those who seek to relieve human suffering in the proper ways.

* “Somatic stem cell” is another term for “adult stem cell”.

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