Vatican Identifies Sinful Field of Science

Here’s a news announcement that sounds like religion but whose implications run far beyond faith—at least the faith of its practitioners. I’m talking about the Associated Press announcement that the Vatican yesterday “put a modern spin on sin.” Added to the Roman Catholic Church’s list of officially castigated actions were dealing drugs, pedophilia, amassing obscene wealth, causing social injustice, and polluting. I have no big truck with any of those proscriptions. What disturbs me is another of the new purportedly deadly sins: genetic engineering.

I have problems with that “sin” on several grounds. First, the definition of genetic engineering has always been vague. At some level, plant breeding of all stripes is genetic engineering—just the cumbersome, old-fashioned kind. Would the Pope have shut down Gregor Mendel’s pea studies?

Of course not.

This particular addition to the thou shalt not category was undoubtedly aimed at the Big Science alteration of DNA for practical—or at least economic—gain. However, labeling as sinful all genetic modification (GM) is a very slippery slope.

For instance, it tells the world’s Catholics—all 1.15 billion of them, according to the Catholic News Agency, last month—that tinkering with the DNA of any life form is inherently bad. The Vatican hasn’t offered a justification of why, and one might be nice because it isn’t obvious to me, the product of a major Midwestern Protestant sect.

Certainly, the Catholic Church can’t simply be arguing that a tinkering with DNA is unnatural. Altering the path of rivers to avoid floods or provide people with drinking water is also unnatural. Building modern high-rise cities is unnatural, yet it avoids the sprawl that would degrade resources (i.e. spew pollution) to get goods and services to large quantities of people. Modern medicine is unnatural, yet even the Bishops of Rome avail themselves of the pharmaceuticals and technologies that allow the sick and injured to heal. Modern transportation is unnatural—and polluting, yet the Vatican hasn’t ruled as sinful all air travel or any use of the Popemobile by Benedict XVI.

It doesn’t make sense that the new ruling is simply some extension of a belief in the sanctity of all life. For instance, I’ve never heard that the Catholic Church prohibits antibiotics to kill germs. Nor that would prohibit exterminators from routing rats from the Pope’s bedroom or cockroaches from the kitchen that feeds the Holy See.

Molecular biologists rely on genetically engineered organisms to probe the function of particular genes in everything from isolated cells to plants and rodents. Knocking out a gene—a common GM technique—allows researchers to probe the intimate functions of our biological machinery. It helps us understand the mechanisms underlying health and disease, and the benign variability in traits. Such data point toward how various foods and nutrients safeguard health and how certain drugs or shortfalls of nutrients might compromise biological functioning.

It confounds me how any religious group would rule such studies evil.

Certain GM organisms hold out the prospect for feeding our bloating human populations with ever tighter and more degraded resources. Indeed, certain GM organisms hold out the prospect of successfully tackling existing pollutants that threaten the health of innocents. I’m not a proponent of GM research or commerce in GM organisms. Nor do I find them intrinsically bad. Like powerful medicines, many of which are basically poisons, GM organisms must be studied and used carefully and adopted only where appropriate safeguards on their indiscriminate spread will not occur. But to label them as sinful is, to my mind, hyperbole at best—and, well, sinful at worst.

Some caveats: I don’t speak Italian, have not read the original news articles in Rome that outlined the new sins, and therefore am getting all of the information on the Vatican’s pronouncements second or third hand. If significant miscommunications occurred along the way in producing the news items that informed me, I apologize to the Pope. If the AP got the story right, however, I stand behind my concerns.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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