New biological technologies [130 – 136]

I have begun to publish sections and segments of the Popes letter on OUR network of blogs as well as on Linkedin & Quora and will add my comments over time. Pappa francescos 180 page letter is much less about religion than it is about nature and the planet earth. He proposes some fairly radical yet simple and understandable solutions for humankind. It is way past time to start paying attention to what we are all doing or allowing others to do.

130. In the philosophical and theological vision
of the human being and of creation which
I have presented, it is clear that the human person,
endowed with reason and knowledge, is not
an external factor to be excluded. While human
intervention on plants and animals is permissible
when it pertains to the necessities of human
life, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches
that experimentation on animals is morally acceptable
only “if it remains within reasonable
limits [and] contributes to caring for or saving
human lives”.106 The Catechism firmly states that
human power has limits and that “it is contrary
to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or
die needlessly”.107 All such use and experimentation
“requires a religious respect for the integrity
of creation”.108

131. Here I would recall the balanced position
of Saint John Paul II, who stressed the benefits
of scientific and technological progress as evidence
of “the nobility of the human vocation
to participate responsibly in God’s creative action”,
while also noting that “we cannot interfere
in one area of the ecosystem without paying
due attention to the consequences of such
interference in other areas”.109 He made it clear
that the Church values the benefits which result
“from the study and applications of molecular
biology, supplemented by other disciplines such
as genetics, and its technological application in
agriculture and industry”.110 But he also pointed

106 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2417.
107 Ibid., 2418.
108 Ibid., 2415.
109 Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace, 6: AAS 82
(1990), 150.
110 Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (3 October
1981), 3: Insegnamenti 4/2 (1981), 333.

out that this should not lead to “indiscriminate
genetic manipulation”111 which ignores the
negative effects of such interventions. Human
creativity cannot be suppressed. If an artist cannot
be stopped from using his or her creativity,
neither should those who possess particular gifts
for the advancement of science and technology
be prevented from using their God-given talents
for the service of others. We need constantly to
rethink the goals, effects, overall context and ethical
limits of this human activity, which is a form
of power involving considerable risks.

132. This, then, is the correct framework for
any reflection concerning human intervention on
plants and animals, which at present includes genetic
manipulation by biotechnology for the sake
of exploiting the potential present in material reality.
The respect owed by faith to reason calls for
close attention to what the biological sciences,
through research uninfluenced by economic interests,
can teach us about biological structures,
their possibilities and their mutations. Any legitimate
intervention will act on nature only in order
“to favour its development in its own line, that
of creation, as intended by God”.112

133. It is difficult to make a general judgement
about genetic modification (GM), whether vegetable
111 Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace, 7: AAS 82
(1990), 151.

112 John Paul II, Address to the 35th General Assembly of the
World Medical Association (29 October 1983), 6: AAS 76 (1984), 394.

or animal, medical or agricultural, since
these vary greatly among themselves and call
for specific considerations. The risks involved
are not always due to the techniques used, but
rather to their improper or excessive application.
Genetic mutations, in fact, have often been, and
continue to be, caused by nature itself. Nor are
mutations caused by human intervention a modern
phenomenon. The domestication of animals,
the crossbreeding of species and other older and
universally accepted practices can be mentioned
as examples. We need but recall that scientific developments
in GM cereals began with the observation
of natural bacteria which spontaneously
modified plant genomes. In nature, however, this
process is slow and cannot be compared to the
fast pace induced by contemporary technological
advances, even when the latter build upon several
centuries of scientific progress.

134. Although no conclusive proof exists that
GM cereals may be harmful to human beings, and
in some regions their use has brought about economic
growth which has helped to resolve problems,
there remain a number of significant difficulties
which should not be underestimated. In
many places, following the introduction of these
crops, productive land is concentrated in the
hands of a few owners due to “the progressive
disappearance of small producers, who, as a consequence
of the loss of the exploited lands, are
obliged to withdraw from direct production”.113
The most vulnerable of these become temporary
labourers, and many rural workers end up moving
to poverty-stricken urban areas. The expansion
of these crops has the effect of destroying
the complex network of ecosystems, diminishing
the diversity of production and affecting regional
economies, now and in the future. In various
countries, we see an expansion of oligopolies for
the production of cereals and other products
needed for their cultivation. This dependency
would be aggravated were the production of infertile
seeds to be considered; the effect would
be to force farmers to purchase them from larger

135. Certainly, these issues require constant attention
and a concern for their ethical implications.
A broad, responsible scientific and social
debate needs to take place, one capable of considering
all the available information and of calling
things by their name. It sometimes happens
that complete information is not put on the table;
a selection is made on the basis of particular interests,
be they politico-economic or ideological.
This makes it difficult to reach a balanced and
prudent judgement on different questions, one
which takes into account all the pertinent variables.
Discussions are needed in which all those
directly or indirectly affected (farmers, consumers,

113 Episcopal Commission for Pastoral Concerns in
Argentina, Una tierra para todos (June 2005), 19.

civil authorities, scientists, seed producers,
people living near fumigated fields, and others)
can make known their problems and concerns,
and have access to adequate and reliable information
in order to make decisions for the common
good, present and future. This is a complex
environmental issue; it calls for a comprehensive
approach which would require, at the very least,
greater efforts to finance various lines of independent,
interdisciplinary research capable of
shedding new light on the problem.

136. On the other hand, it is troubling that,
when some ecological movements defend the
integrity of the environment, rightly demanding
that certain limits be imposed on scientific research,
they sometimes fail to apply those same
principles to human life. There is a tendency to
justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation
is carried out on living human embryos.
We forget that the inalienable worth of
a human being transcends his or her degree of
development. In the same way, when technology
disregards the great ethical principles, it ends up
considering any practice whatsoever as licit. As
we have seen in this chapter, a technology severed
from ethics will not easily be able to limit its
own power.


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