The pope's mixed record on science

January 24, 2008

An Editorial in this week's Lancet looks at Pope Benedict XVI's mixed record on science, following the cancellation of his speech at a university in Rome after protests erupted over his past defence of the Catholic Church's 1663 heresy trial of Galileo. Lecturers and students at La Sapienza University accused the Pope of being hostile towards science.

The Editorial says: "In his 3-year papacy, the Pope has shown signs of supporting science. He has said that â€Ëœthere is much scientific proof in favour of evolution'. In 2006, the Vatican sponsored a scientific conference on climate change. And, in a speech released ahead of last year's UN conference on the issue, Benedict said: 'Humanity today is rightly concerned about the ecological balance of tomorrow.'"

Unfortunately, however, when it comes to global health, the Pope has made less positive statements. Despite asking the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care to undertake a scientific, technical, and moral study on HIV/AIDS prevention, Benedict has not changed the church's position on the use of condoms to prevent infection. This conservative pontiff has also reasserted the church's staunch opposition towards abortion.

The Editorial adds that not all of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics agree with the Pope's positions on science and health. There are many Catholics and clerical leaders who realise the importance of condoms in tackling HIV/AIDS pandemic and who know that 68 000 women die each year from unsafe abortions. It highlights the positive example set by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who was a candidate for the papacy in 2005. Cardinal Martini has backed condoms to fight HIV/AIDS, and said the legalisation of abortion has had the positive effect of reducing the numbers of illegal abortions. Catholic aid workers who do remarkable and essential work in low-income countries have also bent Vatican policy, in some cases privately distributing condoms to patients with HIV. It concludes: "It is progressive Catholics like these who remind us that science and religion are not incompatible. Dialogue between scientists and Catholic leaders must always be kept open, on university campuses and elsewhere, even if scientists disagree with the church's interpretation of the world around us."


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