A three day conference on adult stem cell research began today at the Paul VI Hall in Vatican City. The conference was sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture, as well as NeoStem, one of the leading developers in the field of cellular therapy. The purpose of the conference is to not only discuss the scientific advancements in adult stem cell therapy, but also to bridge the gap between science and faith.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi opened the event by greeting the scientists, researchers, scholars, doctors and patients who were in attendance. The research that will be the topic of various discussions, he said, “will have a profound impact in people’s lives.”
“You will see that this research leaves a positive trace not only in the lives of patients, but their families as well,” he said.
Cardinal Ravasi reflected on three terms in his opening address: culture, anthropology, and faith. Regarding culture, the cardinal referred to the debate between adult stem cell versus embryonic stem cell, stating that it is a “quintessential problem within our culture” which created a rift, or a division, between science and the humanities.
“Science and our anthropological quests: these two realities are bound. Otherwise science becomes blind, at times even violent,” he said. “Let us think of the humanities. Being intellectual runs the risk of thinking we are above people, that we are confined to our brains.”
Emphasizing this point, Cardinal Ravasi quoted famed scientist Albert Einstein’s message to mankind on behalf of the scientific community: “Remember your humanity and forget the rest…”
“We must recover this importance that science has in order to enrich our thinking,” Cardinal Ravasi said.
Science and Faith
The president of the Pontifical Council of Culture continued his discourse, focusing on the second aspect of his address: anthropology. Cardinal Ravasi spoke on the works of Aristotle, as well as Plato, who spoke on the division of the soul and the body.
The image used by Aristotle in his minor works states that the soul is bound to the members of the body as prisoners in Etruria are bound.” The Etrurian barbarians, he explained, would punish their prisoners by tying them face to face with corpses. “Christianity, however, has added something new: the Incarnation; the Word of God and Man’s flesh,” he said. Reflecting on the sacredness of the human body, Cardinal Ravasi stated that “we are a body; we do not own a body, WE are the body.”
“The work we do for the body is what we do for all humans. Our body is the fundamental liaison. Everything we do for our body is for all humans,” the cardinal said.
Speaking on his third point, on faith, Cardinal Ravasi contemplated on the significance of the conference taking place in Synod Hall, where almost one month ago, the College of Cardinals met for the General Congregations prior to the conclave.
“Each cardinal had there own assigned seat and we experienced the most collegial moments,” he said. “The theme of faith is in the air in this ambience, but even more so in this conference that is sponsored by the Holy See.”
“As a matter of fact,” he continued, “the schism that we have to mend is science and faith. And more and more nowadays, the human person does not have one single type of knowledge.”
“Think about the knowledge of love. Falling in love that has its own grammar and syntax, its own way to express itself. Think of the language of the arts that helps us to understand science through our insight.”
Cardinal Ravasi stated his hope that the meetings would demonstrate how necessary the union between faith and science is. ”Faith without science is blind. Science without faith is lame,” he said.
“The knowledge of a person is the joining of two paths, sometimes this encounter leads to tension and this is the reason why I would like to invoke an image.” Cardinal Ravasi held an image of a detail from the Sistine Chapel: the hand of God touching the hand of Adam. The image, he said, shows “the union between the transcendent figure of God and the weak hand of human nature.”
Cardinal Ravasi concluded by giving the image along with an award of recognition to Dr. Robin Smith, president of the Stem for Life Foundation and CEO of NeoStem, expressing his gratitude for her efforts in bridging the gap between science and faith with her work on adult stem cell research.
‘An Alliance of Heart and Mind’
Also opening the conference on adult stem cell therapy was Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Bishop Carrasco de Paula stated that the research on the application of stem cells was “very promising right now” though not without its challenges.
“The subject of the therapeutical use of adult stem cells, is a difficult challenge with clinical economic and ethical consequences. And right now, the problems I have seen that are insurmountable are of those that are embryonic.
Bishop Carrasco said that he was sorry that the Catholic Church’s expectations regarding stem cell research are not understood, particularly in the fight against illnesses. However, he said, “right now, I think we proved that the Church is not against scientific research.”
“There is room for a possible friendship between science and faith,” he continued. “Faith is based on words, on confidence; science is based on verification of facts. They are quite different but not enemies. The Catholic faith has nothing against stem cells. They are a part of the biological world we live in. They are a demonstration of God’s power, of human potential.”
Bishop Carrasco stated that while the scientific research on stem cells is encouraging for people, the Church would also like to add their input on the research.
The cultural impact of the discussions on adult stem cell research, he said, “will be deep and will have an impact in the quality of life of our patients.”
“I think that this must become a real benchmark for our society. We must build an alliance between heart and mind. Our patients will be deeply grateful to us,” he concluded.