A colleague and I were discussing stem cells. When I mentioned that the Church approves only of adult – not embryonic – stem cell use, he responded, “Well, you can’t take the Church seriously about everything.”

I suspect speaking for the majority of Catholic physicians, he would allow that the Church is fine when it comes to processions, blessings, dense philosophical discussions about being, and so forth – but we physicians have had a lot of training priests have not. So about science, or contraception and the relationship between men and women, or needing an abortion to save a woman’s life, or any number of other real-life situations, I think Catholic doctors mostly consider themselves the trusted experts, not Churchmen.

Where’s this distrust of the Church’s authority coming from?

By maintaining a pretense that what Jesus would ask is different from Church teaching, we try and legitimize disobedience. Justification for this may be based – knowingly or unknowingly – on one unfortunate instance in the Church’s history. The events were rather complicated and concerned Galileo – a towering scientific genius. The argument was over heliocentrism and he was punished by the Church for purveying – albeit without proof – that the earth revolves around the sun. This was thought to be heresy because it seemed to contradict the Bible.

 Church detractors are fond of using this incident as simple proof of the Church’s opposition to science and learning. The cardinal inquisitors were essentially wrong in 1633, to condemn Galileo and his book, “Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems.” But even among Protestants – who were actually more hostile to Galileo’s concepts – the idea of heresy was quite fearful. There were several important aspects in this trial which, especially in its post-Reformation historical context, were controversial. For more about Galileo, see the Catholic Encyclopedia. Dava Sobel has also given us a fascinating and sympathetic read in “Galileo’s Daughter.”

The proofs for the heliocentric hypothesis the cardinals demanded weren’t to begin surfacing until 1727 – some 94 years after Galileo’s trial, and continued on for over 100 years afterward. After that, progress was fairly brisk. In 1741 Benedict XIV requested an imprimatur to the first edition of the Complete Works of Galileo. In 1742, two Franciscan priests were able to publish an annotated work by Newton which required heliocentrism for understanding. And in 1758 the general prohibition against advocating heliocentrism was dropped from the Index of Forbidden Books. Pope John Paul II, in 1992, referred to Galileo “as a brilliant physicist.”

 Nevertheless, let’s admit that the Church erred in its handling of Galileo. Is there anything else? Please show me. In fact, when it comes to science or any knowledge, expect Church leadership to be well informed. For instance, Pope Pius XII condemned in-vitro fertilization in 1949, some 29 years before it was done. And one of the greatest collections of literature about acupuncture – delivered by 17th century missionaries to China – is in the Vatican Library, which is open to any scholar. There is also a nice list of priests who were also scientists.

Lumping everyone in together

In the 5th century, St. Augustine wrote,

When they are able, from reliable evidence (verax documentum), to prove some fact of physical science, we shall show that it is not contrary to our Scripture.”

That is, scriptural interpretation must conform to the evidence. Thus, finding 100,000 year old human bones indicates a non-literal understanding of Genesis. The cardinals prosecuting Galileo, and Galileo himself, were well aware of Augustine’s position regarding scripture and science, but in the absence of sufficient evidence, the hypothesis was too vulnerable.

However, even with Augustine and the example of Galileo, there are many who take the Old Testament as purely historical. Critics like to merge the Church’s true position with that of these well-intentioned, but anti-scientific literalists. Defenders of Catholicism must therefore point out that Galileo was an aberration in the Church’s ancient and venerable acceptance of scientific advancement requiring modification of scriptural exegesis.

The wisdom of the 2000 year-old Catholic Church, built on a previous 1800 years of Judaism, is incomparable. Anyone believing they are wiser than Church teaching is probably headed for expensive consequences. There are more than 600,000 frozen embryos currently being being stored for illicit purposes including use as stem cells. Most are doomed. What will loss of their lives cost us?

Benedicamus Domino.