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Brazil - Science and Religion

Galileo, stem cells, and reproductive technologies: science “heresies” according to the Church

by Washington Castilhos (Sexuality Policy Watch, April 18, 2007)

Thursday 21 June 2007

translation Jones de Freitas

Tension between religion and science has existed for centuries. According to Enio Candotti, the physicist who presides the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), “the hardening of the Catholic Church’s position concerning science occurs in times when the Church centrality has been under question.” This happened in the late 1500s. Protestantism brought this centrality into question and the Italian philosopher and scientist Giordano Bruno, who defended a "plurality of worlds”, was burned at the stake by the Tribunal of the Holy Office (the Inquisition). Years later, physicist Galileo Galilei would be forced to publicly abjure his ideas and would be committed to house arrest because he upheld that the Sun was at the center of the solar system and not the Earth, as the Church taught.

For Candotti, the Church continues to disregard the validity of the real world as a source of knowledge and this explains why it positions itself systematically against the scientific attitude of continuous search. “Science is an open-ended and unfinished system that seeks to understand the world on a permanent basis. On the other hand, according to religious logic, everything is already known, all is ready, the absolute truth has already been revealed.”

The creation of the world is a good example of the sharp divide between religious and scientific visions. While the Church defends the biblical narrative of creation – the world was created in six days and God rested on the seventh – science sustains Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species and that the universe originated in an initial explosion (the Big Bang theory).

“Creationism must be revised by the Church,” says physicist and astronomer Ronaldo Mourão, founder of the Rio de Janeiro Astronomy Museum. For him, the Church has already recognized, if only indirectly, that the biblical narrative is symbolic. In the introduction of his book “From the Universe to the Multiverse – a new vision of the cosmos” (Vozes), Mourão quotes John Paul II speech in an audience with the participants of a week of studies on “Cosmology and Fundamental Physics” organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. “Every scientific hypothesis concerning the origin of the world, such as the primitive atom from which would have been derived the whole of the physical universe, leaves open the issue of the beginning of the universe […]. The Bible itself talks about the origin of the universe not to give us a scientific study, but to precisely indicate the just relations of man with God and with the universe.”

In this context of analysis it must be also recalled that the Vatican has “recognized its mistakes” deriving from the Inquisition, even when it has done it almost ten centuries later. Interestingly enough it was John Paul II who asked the world to forgive the abuses committed by the Tribunal of the Holy Office. Despite these belated regrets, it should be underlined that, in reality, the Inquisition was never completely abolished. In 1908, its name was changed to Holy Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Ratzinger, now the current Pope, presided over this Congregation for 23 years, under John Paul II.

The debate on the use of embryos:
does a live cell have the same importance as an individual?

When he was still the head of the Holy Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Ratzinger contributed in the elaboration of the document “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origins and on the Dignity of Procreation.” The text affirms that in God’s view life starts with the union of the ovum and the spermatozoid. This concept has been systematically used by the Church to condemn techniques such as in vitro fertilization, the use of embryonic stem cells in research, and decriminalization of abortion.

The document makes it clear that medical resources to overcome sterility should not separate “the essential aspects of uniting and procreating,” and criticizes procedures that use third-party materials (gamete donors) as contrary to the unity of matrimony. The core of the criticism is the issue of respect for the embryo. According to this understanding, “the human being should be respected as a person since the first instant of existence” – at the moment of fecundation.

Using the arguments developed by the specialists from the Pontifical Academy for Life, the Catholic Church condemns any experiment with human embryos, except for the benefit of a particular embryo. It is understood that the embryo is already a full human being at conception, whose life must be respected.

“All Church’s positions in respect to these matters are expressed in scientific language. They apply the logic of science to ground their own moral framework. They use scientific arguments in their favor. In the case of stem cell research, the Church uses scientific arguments to affirm that the donated embryo is a living being. Hence, this embryo cannot be frozen,” says sociologist Maria das Dores Machado of the Rio de Janeiro Federal University School of Social Work.

According to Candotti, the religious definition of life’s beginning is arbitrary. “The conceptualization of the beginning of life has oscillated for centuries. The Church has already considered that the fetus would just become a living being after some months of pregnancy. They are constantly updating their own premises,” he says. For him, the union of two cells is insufficient to establish the beginning of life. “There are a number of moments that could be considered as the beginning of life. However, a human being is far more complex. We should accept as legitimate that some people believe in religious logic, but it is quite problematic to expect that everybody would follow and adjust to these beliefs. These affirmations may sound consistent, but cannot justify public policies. Abortion and stem sells are public health issues.”

Scientists who favor the use of human embryos in research argue that there is no human being at the initial stage, but just a pre-embryo, an agglomeration of cells that may divide into more than one being, or whose development may cease. In this debate, several theories are put forward to explain the start of a human life.

“If the Catholic Church insists on the thesis of fecundation, based on individual’s genetic continuity, other theses could also be taken into consideration such as the emergence of the primitive line (beginning of the spinal cord around the 15th day), the emergence of the neural plaque (beginning of the central nervous system), the identification of heartbeats, acquisition of sensitivity, and live birth. Thus, there is no single position on the beginning of human life, and even less so on what constitutes the condition of being a human person,” argues anthropologist Naara Luna of the Educational Technology for Health Unity of Rio de Janeiro Federal University.

For the public health specialist Sergio Rego, coordinator of the National Public Health School Committee on Ethics in Research, the conservative approach to social life adopted by the Church is extremely problematic. “Undoubtedly there is life in two united cells. However, the central issue raised by science is to interrogate what is the moment when this life becomes morally relevant. Does one live cell have the same importance as an individual?” he questions. “Scientific search is focused on finding concrete and viable solutions. We should not deny the opportunities this may create for those persons who one day may potentially benefit from stem cell research.”

“Attacks against life”

Catholic Church teaching on new reproductive technologies corroborates what the Church affirms about contraception. No contraceptive method that separates sexuality and reproduction is licit, because sexual intercourse must always be open to the possibility of procreation.

“In vitro fertilization and related techniques is to be condemned either for separating sexuality and reproduction or for producing human embryos –equivalent to persons according to Catholic teaching – many of which are not transferred to the maternal womb but discarded or maintained in a suspended existence due to freezing methods,” says Naara.

In his speech to the 13th General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, whose theme was “Christian conscience in favor of the right to life,” Pope Benedict XVI included new reproductive technologies in the list of “threats against life”. In this speech, Ratzinger affirmed that it was necessary “to admit that threats against life have expanded and multiplied throughout the world, also assuming new forms. Pressures for the legalization of abortion are increasingly strong in Latin America and developing countries, even with the liberalization of new forms of chemical abortion under the pretext of reproductive health […]. At the same time, in the more developed countries there is increased interest in enhanced biotechnological research and broader eugenic methods, going so far as the search for the ‘perfect child’, with dissemination of artificial procreation and various forms of selective diagnostic tools. A new wave of eugenic discrimination finds support in the name of individual welfare […].”

Among the various forms of diagnosis considered by the Pope to be “eugenic methods” are those scientific resources such as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, which allows for identification of embryos with genetic alterations. “Embryos with grave illnesses would be discarded and not implanted in a womb, a procedure condemned as eugenic by Catholic Church teaching. The only acceptable intervention in an embryo is to cure and preserve life. Some Catholic authorities even compare these procedures to eugenic abortion and to the anticipation of labor in the case of anencephalic fetus,” notes anthropologist Naara.

However, having in mind that on a number of historical occasions the Church has been forced to recognize its mistakes and to make concessions. Professor Sergio Rego says that: “I have great hopes that the Vatican will become aware of its current mistakes in a shorter time than it did with Galileo.”

The Miracles of Friar Galvão: the “use” of science

One of the hallmarks of the agenda of Pope Benedict XVI in Brazil is the canonization of Friar Galvão, who will be the first Brazilian saint and whose “miracles” underwent the verification process needed for his sanctification.

This text extracted from the official website of the Pope’s visit to Brazil explains that “a miracle is understood as an inexplicable fact according to the laws of nature, that happened by the intercession of the Servant of God. This miracle must have some characteristics of great relevance: it must be a fact, normally a cure that has to be instantaneous, perfect, lasting, and inexplicable by science. The alleged miracle is examined by a commission of physicians from the country who issue a statement to be sent to the Vatican. Upon arrival, the case is reviewed by another commission normally made up of five physicians who also will issue their own statement. It should be noted that what really matters in this statement is not the affirmation of the existence of a miracle but the conclusion that no scientific explanation is possible.”

Noticeable in this process is that –despite the scientific verification - what justifies the legitimacy of the miracle is the impossibility of a scientific explanation for the fact under examination. “It is interesting to note that by calling upon science to verify the miracles that produce saints, the Catholic Church reveals its image of scientists: those who speak the truth in the name of nature. In this context, certifying a miracle means that a scientist affirms, based on his or her intimate knowledge of nature, that a given fact has no explanation according to nature’s laws,” says UNICAMP sociologist Teresa Citeli.

Friar Galvão’s “miracle” was to ensure the birth of a healthy baby to a woman who had already experienced several miscarriages. According to Citeli, the same tactic of opportunistic appropriation of science is also utilized to argue about the beginning and the end of life, opposing contraception, the right to an abortion, use of embryonic stem cells, and euthanasia as well as to condemn homosexuality.

Sergio Rego thinks that historically scientific analysis has been contaminated by religious values, leading to a clouded view of the scientific field. “Examples abound of how the Catholic Church incorporation of scientific knowledge has been tragic,” he says. In addition, Dr. Rego thinks that the Catholic Church has managed to disseminate its moral proposals using very efficient communication strategies. The impact of Friar Galvão canonization is a striking example. According to Rego, it may have a negative influence on national political debate: “Friar Galvão sanctification will reflect on the Catholic ‘mood’ in general. Results from this new ‘mood’ will depend on the centrality of the Pope’s messages and on how these messages will be spread. I will not be surprised by the exacerbation of actions against individual and collective freedoms in the name of religious principles. A large number of parliamentarians and government officials are ready to comply with demands from the pulpit.”

This is not the first Papal visit to Brazil. If the first visit by Pope Paul II in 1980 had a devastating effect on the theology of liberation, the second in 1997 clearly resulted in the expansion of antiabortion voices and initiatives. Teresa Citeli, finds it hard to precisely predicts what will happen after Ratzinger’s visit, but she acknowledges that the current Pope may leave an even more conservative trail: “The most reactionary groups regarding sexuality and reproduction may gain some momentum. However, defenders of these rights are also better structured and surely will be able to respond to any fundamentalist, myopic, and antidemocratic tide.”

See other Sexuality Policy Watch articles on the Pope’s trip to Brazil in May 2007