The Catholic Church has never had a particularly easy relationship with science. After all, this is the institution that sentenced Galileo Galilei as a heretic for his theories on the universe during the Roman Inquisition. Two thousand years later, the church forgave Galileo and called the whole misunderstanding a “tragic mutual incomprehension” but it remains safe to say the Vatican doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to empirical open-mindedness.
So onlookers were surprised when the Vatican announced it would be hosting a global conference on the highly controversial issue of stem-cell research in Rome over four days in late April. The church held a similar conference in 2010 and 2011, which focused on its recommendation that stem-cell research should be limited to adult cells that can be harvested from live donors, not embryonic cells that destroy the source. But this year’s conference schedule featured some of the world’s foremost experts in embryonic research as keynote speakers—leading some scientists to think that the Vatican might actually be looking for enlightenment on the topic.
That was not exactly case. Instead, the Vatican seems to have hoped that by including embryonic researchers in the program, it would appear that these scientists actually endorsed the Vatican’s stance.
It might have worked to some extent, but after some of the speakers declined to censor their speeches, the Vatican abruptly canceled the conference altogether. According to the conference website, the event was canceled due to “serious economic and logistic-organizational reasons that have completely jeopardized the success of the 3rd International Congress on Responsible Stem Cell Research.” The scientists who were planning to attend say they are being stifled instead. “I think the only interpretation is that we are being censored,” Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in San Francisco, said in a statement. “It is very disappointing that they are unwilling to hear the truth.”
Just what was the Vatican thinking? Inviting embryonic stem-cell researchers to a conference and then denying them the right to talk about their field of expertise was a major gamble. Had the speakers agreed to avoid reference to embryonic research, it would have given the disingenuous impression that they endorse the Holy See’s recommendation on adult stem-cell research only. Did the Vatican really think they could control the scientific community? Apparently so. Father Scott Borgman of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which co-organized the conference, had reportedly asked the speakers to limit their discussions to adult stem-cell research only. George Daly, a leading embryonic researcher with the Children’s Hospital in Boston, says he was actually told not to make embryonic research—his field of expertise—a focal point of his talk. When he told Borgman that he would still be touching on the topic in a historical context, higher-ups in the Vatican reportedly panicked. “I had been encouraged to think that the Congress would be a forum for discussion of many areas of common interest to the Vatican and stem cell scientists, regardless of the disagreements over embryonic stem cells,” Daly told The Daily Beast. “We should all agree that clinical trials of new medical treatments based on stem cells should proceed according to rigorous principles to ensure patients are kept as safe as possible and free from exploitation. And we should all agree that premature claims of therapeutic efficacy and direct marketing of unproven interventions to vulnerable patients is a threat to legitimate attempts to develop experimental stem cell medicines.”
With the cancelation of the event, discourse between the two diverse entities will not have a venue. One Vatican official told the Catholic News Service that many of the Vatican’s leaders were secretly glad the conference failed. “I am infinitely relieved that the church has avoided a major blunder which would have confused the faithful for decades to come,” the unnamed source said. “The Holy Spirit has certainly shown to be present through those faithful members who drew attention to the ambiguity of the choice of speakers. I hope and pray that a review will be affected of the basis on which these congresses are planned.”
Some stem-cell researchers are also relieved the conference won’t go on. “I personally am very uncomfortable with a scientific meeting run by a church, and one at which only certain types of science and scientists are allowed to attend,” blogged Paul Knoepfler, an associate professor of Cell Biology and Human Anatomy at UC Davis School of Medicine who blogs about stem cell research at IPCell.com. “Also I can’t help but wonder, what would be the reaction if someone like Daley spent a few minutes of his talk discussing his embryonic cell research in a very nonconfrontational way? Would he be tasered or drop through some trap door straight to Hell?”
Still, Knoepfler was hopeful. “I view the canceled Vatican stem-cell meeting as a missed opportunity for a very much needed, open dialogue about stem cells,” he told The Daily Beast. “More specifically, I believe the reasons for the cancellation reflect an anti-scientific attitude by the highest level of Vatican leaders. More simply put, the attitude might be summed up by the phrase ‘If you do not think like us, you are not welcome at our meeting, and we’ll go so far as to cancel the whole thing to avoid your presence.’”
Inviting embryonic stem-cell researchers to a conference and then denying them the right to talk about their field of expertise was a major gamble.
The Vatican stands by its decision to cancel the controversial conference as having a purely business motive. But at the last conference, the Catholic Church didn’t seem to have the same worries. They even donated $1 million to the conservative American research firm Neostem, which promised to use only adult stem cells for projects funded by the Vatican’s scientific partnership. “The Vatican wants Catholics to know that not all stem cell research is a sin,” they said at the time in a joint statement with Neostem.
But it seems clear that not all those inside the Vatican agree on just what is sinful research. Canceling the conference may actually underscore an obvious divide within the church itself on the topic. “It is not surprising that there is a diversity of opinions on embryonic stem cells in the Vatican because the same is true of different peoples around the world, including here in the U.S. where Americans, including Catholics, in most polls are narrowly in favor of embryonic stem-cell research, Knoepfler told The Daily Beast. “Its more significant consequence will be the Vatican having a greatly reduced potential influence in the stem-cell field with no one to blame but itself.”