Culture At Large

Why church-funded science is allowable but secondary

Jason E. Summers

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.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Theology & The Church, Faith, Theology, News & Politics, Social Trends, Justice, North America