Why church-funded science is allowable but secondary

Your church probably does not include research laboratories among those organizations it supports. Yet a recent announcement by the Catholic Church describes a partnership with NeoStem, a U.S.-based for-profit research firm. This partnership will provide $1 million of support for research into medical treatments using adult stem cells and has raised public concern over the proper relationship between churches and research institutions.

The National Institutes of Health will spend an estimated $1.1 billion on stem-cell research in fiscal 2012. With only $1 million, the Vatican's initiative does not have sufficient funding to support substantial research. Rather the primary function will be education and advocacy. This is precisely what concerns detractors, who worry that the effort will attempt to close down avenues of research and will misrepresent embryonic-stem-cell researchers in order to do so.

Those in opposition to legal restrictions on research typically argue that science should progress unimpeded by ideological restrictions. During the 2008 presidential race, then Senator Barack Obama argued that “the promise that stem cells hold does not come from any particular ideology; it is the judgment of science, and we deserve a president who will put that judgment first.” But certainly this is not correct. Ethical responsibilities belong to all spheres of society and must inform the work of people operating within every institution.

Scientific research is supplied with public funds because it provides for the common good. Therefore scientists must direct their work toward that end and weigh potential benefits against potential costs on those grounds. Obama's statement is an appeal to the positive outcome for the common good that medical research may bring. However, his claim that science is ideologically neutral succumbs to the myth of religious neutrality. All thought is religious and, as such, all judgments come from a particular ideology.

At the same time, there are elements of truth to Obama's claim. Christians in the Reformed tradition often affirm sphere sovereignty, which teaches that neither churches nor governments are competent to adjudicate scientific questions. Reasoning of this type has been used in the debate over teaching of evolution in schools to argue that government must not authorize a particular understanding of scientific truth. But this line of reasoning cuts both ways. For if “government should not be allowed to enforce doctrines, including scientific theories,” even within publicly funded schools, there is little argument to support government imposition of religious doctrine on scientific research. Government should allow institutions within society to function according to their own internal order, regulating only their public aspects as needed to ensure public justice.

Yet, disagreements over evolutionary theory and stem-cell research are different in kind. The first is one of ideas, the second is one of methods. The Catholic Church argues that embryonic-stem-cell research is an affront to public justice because it harms nascent members of society. While it is quite clear that churches should not lobby government to remove funding from scientists studying global warming, it is a rather different matter for churches to seek to protect what they view as society's most vulnerable members. It is the role of the political process to adjudicate among these claims and the role of government to ensure public justice.

If Christians believe that government is unjust, they have a duty to address this injustice. Among the manifestations of this duty, churches should educate their members and make prophetic public statements with respect to moral and theological issues. Yet, in making their case against embryonic-stem-cell research, the Catholic Church has also made scientific, technological and economic claims. This is outside its legitimate role.

Church funding of research can be a legitimate exercise provided that the differentiated responsibilities and competencies of institutions are respected. Nevertheless, efforts by churches should not be the primary means through which Christians act. Christians are also citizens, scientists and public officials. It is primarily through these roles that Christians should take action by embodying their faith commitments. Citizens and officials can work towards more just laws and regulations. Scientists can investigate directions in research they find both technically promising and morally sound. The primary role of churches in this is to encourage their members to embody their faith in every area of life.

Jason E. Summers is Chief Scientist at Applied Research in Acoustics LLC, a research and development firm based in Washington, D.C. You can find more of his personal views on Twitter. / Photo via iStockphoto.

Comments (7)

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I am sympathetic to the moral issues and conflicted as well, but in the linked article Robin compares bone marrow transplants to embryonic stem cells and says adult stem cells are already part of standard care. Perhaps in some disorders but it is like comparing a typewriter to an iPod. 

I appreciate that the Vatican is throwing some money into adult stem cell research and I do hope it goes into solutions and research not propaganda. It would be nice to find options and a cure or relief from epilepsy and many other disorders that can only be treated by dangerous surgery or a lifetime of medication.

If my doctor made me choose between brain surgery and embryonic stem cells, I honestly can't tell you how I would choose. 

I think if the church wants to fund labs that are the hands and feet of Jesus in the Scientific world to find treatments that are clearly on the morally acceptable side then the money is better spent getting the work done than trying to brow beat others into doing it for them, or judging those who don't in the public arena. JMHO
This is a good example of two things: money is free speech and the scientific method.

With the scientific method, everyone starts with a hypothesis. That hypothesis is always tainted by prior experience and possibly even money. But science will be science regardless of the starting point. If the research institute was reputable before getting they money, it most likely will be reputable after getting the money.
Thanks Mara and Stephen for your comments. 

An important thing to note about the level of funding the Catholic Church is providing is that, spread over a series of years as it is, it is very small compared to existing research budgets for both adult and embryonic stem cells. Thus, it's unlikely to have a serious impact on research at all (for example, enabling a single graduate student to do research for a year costs roughly $100,000, so they could perhaps support three students over the course of the funding). NIH already provides many hundreds of times more funding for adult stem-cell research in the U.S. each year.

Conferences, such as they are supporting as their first event, are very important and can be a high-leverage investment in research because scientists need to share information and discuss findings in order to make progress. In this sense, the choice not to invest directly in research is a good strategic move. But even then there is much temptation for the church to use such venues as a political tool. I would argue that a far more strategic and high-leverage use of funding would be to support education of parishioners in the vocational embodiment of their religious convictions.

js
Mara,

I believe Robin only compared bone-marrow transplants to use of adult stem cell. As the CEO of the company the Vatican is partnering with, her point seems to be to make the claim that "since adult stem cells are already used in treatments, why are we funding research on embryonic stem cells?" That's not a scientific statement, it's essentially a common-sense argument.

js
From what I have read online recently, it would appear that North American labs are not specifically creating embryos for research purposes but are using ones donated from fertility clinics that would have been destroyed otherwise, not unlike organ donation. There also seem to be some lines of stem cells that have been propagated for years from single donor embryos which is the amazing thing about these stem cells. 

I think it is important that when you say the church should "support education of parishioners in the vocational embodiment of their religious convictions" you are not just using a carefully crafted moral inductive to support an absolute polarization of primal absolutes but supporting accurate scientific informative dialogue about the positives and negatives of both processes and outcomes.

Furthermore, the point of funding embryonic stem cell research was/is that bone marrow does not rebuild brain cells where embryonic stem cells appear to have this potential in rebuilding nerve cells and myelin damage and correcting much that can now not be fixed. 

JMHO


Mara,

Your statements in the first and third paragraph are correct. Of course, others argue induced pluripotent stem cells offer similar advantages.

But that is not my point. I am not taking a particular position on whether or not research using embryonic stem cells is ethical.  

Rather, I mean just what I say: churches are not competent to adjudicate scientific questions. Scientific questions are properly considered by institutions of science. Christian influence in those considerations should not be from churches, but from Christians in those fields thinking Christianly about the work of their vocations. Therefore, the dialog over appropriate directions for scientific research should primarily be within the scientific community, informed by the ethical understandings of those participants, with government ensuring that the actions of the scientific community do not violate public justice. Churches may indeed clarify and articulate moral and ethical positions, but the implementation of these in various fields (science, politics, etc.), should not be carried out by churches.

If I were using a "carefully crafted moral inductive to support an absolute polarization of primal absolutes," I would be, in essence, arguing just the opposite.

Perhaps the source of the confusion is a difference in ethical framework. You argue for an "accurate scientific informative dialogue about the positives and negatives of both processes and outcomes." Certainly that is a reasonable approach for the scientific community. But ethical questions cannot be reduced to a purely forward-looking teleological approach in which ends justify means. Christian ethics cares very much about the virtue or character demonstrated and cultivated by actions. The interplay of these two considerations (together with rules/deontology) must be at work in making ethical determinations and the institutional embodiments of them may differ: virtues and rules being considered and cultivated primarily in religious education, ends and cost-benefit analysis operating primarily within vocational institutions.

js
I think there was some confusion. It sounded to me as if you were saying that you felt the church would have more effect pushing its biased agenda against stem cells from the pulpit and you were supporting that approach. My issue with that is that science pushed from the pulpit ceases to be good science and risks being poor theology as well.

Luckily, as a patient, I don't have to make a decision on this today. I think pastors and preachers who want to make vocal assertions against scientific research based on the teleological arguments that risk people's lives, should maybe go through their houses and churches first and remove all the things made with child labour. ;-) Then they can start throwing stones at the houses of scientific inquiry.

 

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