Science, faith must work to common good

  • April 1, 2010

TORONTO-The relationship between science and religion has never been easy but in an era of momentous scientific discovery Fr. Rob Allore believes honest conversation between the two groups has never been more essential.

Allore, who straddles the two worlds as a Jesuit priest and research scientist, told a packed auditorium at the University of St. Michael’s College that rapid developments in stem cell research and the human genome project are changing the nature of a conversation that has been ongoing for centuries.

He said it is important for the two groups to communicate openly and work towards the common good, even though that may sometimes be difficult.

“Some of the dialogue will be done standing up speaking to each other and some if it we will have to do ourselves down on our knees,” said Allore.

Allore spoke March 25 at the Cardinal Ambrozic Lecture in Bioethics organized by the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute. In his address — “Science and Religion in Conversation: Seeking the common good” — he called for a sincere conversation between science and religion in which each side would be open to “conversion” in order to achieve shared objectives.

“It is a difficult process,” he said. “We don’t presume it to be easy but we do presume it to be necessary.”

Advancements in stem cell research and progress in the human genome project are leading to exciting discoveries that will have a profound impact on health and medicine. As scientists learn how stem cells work, there is potential to eradicate a host of genetic disabilities and diseases, create organs for transplant and, eventually, perhaps even retard the aging process.

The ethical debate around using embryonic stem cells may eventually be resolved by recent discoveries of how to create induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, using a patient’s own cells from skin, blood, etc.

“This changes the conversation completely,” he said.

In any event, said Allore, human embryonic stem cells are not an issue for Catholic researchers because they can conduct quality research by using mice. Still, he said, iPS cells “changes the game.”

An open conversation between religion and science is necessary because, even though both groups are fundamentally in search of truth and promote a healthy world view, there are differing views about the business applications of scientific discoveries. Allore said science has become interwoven with big business and politics, causing additional stress for both the scientific and religious communities.

As one example, he pointed out how some companies have been quick to capitalize on human genome advances by providing DNA testing to individuals at a cost of $1,000 to $2,500. The tests provide data on potential health risks but could lead to people that are “worried-well” and inclined to seek follow up consultations that can place additional burdens on an already overburdened health-care system.

Also, Allore said it would be wrong to create a system where only people of means have access to these genetic advancements. The science-church dialogue must include common-good provisions to bring this new knowledge to the poor.

“There is a huge possibility to improve health in the developing world,” he said.

“What our faith tradition offers, which is a good addition to the dialogue, is the idea of the common good,” Allore said.

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