Truth About Trade & Technology, February 2, 2006
VATICAN VIEWS ARE UNDER DELICATE STRAIN
[Rachel's introduction: "The authorities called to make decisions concerning health and environmental risks sometimes find themselves facing a situation in which available scientific data are contradictory or quantitatively scarce. It may then be appropriate to base evaluations on the precautionary principle." -- Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace]
By Tony Barber
[RPR introduction: This article originally appeared in the Financial Times (London, UK) Feb. 1, 2006.]
If the Vatican were to endorse genetically modified organisms, it would have a profound impact on global discussion of the issue. With a flock of 1.1bn faithful, the Roman Catholic church's ethical messages penetrate the whole world.
But GMOs are a divisive issue in the church, pitting clergymen sympathetic to their use (who have enthusiastic support from the US embassy to the Holy See) against others who express opposition.
Perhaps for this reason, the Vatican under Benedict XVI, who was elected Pope last April, has yet to take a definitive stance.
Some African and South American bishops have doubts about GMOs because they worry that control of world food supplies will rest with a few giant companies. GM crop use in developing countries may exacerbate the poverty and vulnerability of poor farmers, they say.
But advocates of GMOs in the church contend that there is a moral obligation to eradicate hunger if the technology exists to do so. By 2025, half the world's population will be living in regions with severe water shortages, so higher-yield crops that need less water must be developed, they argue.
The most authoritative Vatican statement on GMOs appeared in a 2004 publication, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, prepared by the Holy See's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In a passage devoted to safeguarding man's environment, the council pleased supporters of GMOs by stating: "In effect, nature is not a sacred or divine reality that man must leave alone... The human person does not commit an illicit act when, out of respect for the order, beauty and usefulness of individual living beings and their function in the ecosystem, he intervenes by modifying some of their characteristics or properties."
However, opponents seized on another pair of sentences in the compendium that said: "The authorities called to make decisions concerning health and environmental risks sometimes find themselves facing a situation in which available scientific data are contradictory or quantitatively scarce. It may then be appropriate to base evaluations on the precautionary principle."
In other words, the jury is still out as far as the Vatican is concerned. This conclusion seems reinforced by the fact that the compendium was reviewed before publication by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- the Vatican organ that enforces theological discipline and that Benedict ran for 24 years before he became Pope.
Cardinal Renato Martino, the 73-year-old Italian prelate who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is seen as one of the Vatican's highest-level supporters of GMOs. He organised a scientific conference on the matter in 2003, describing the stakes involved as "high and delicate" but stressing the Vatican's view that it was a field of inquiry "subject to evolving research".
On one point, the Vatican seems certain not to budge. Those who support contraception as a way of limiting families and thereby improving access to food find no support at all at the Holy See.