Vatican official lauds Hopkins researchers' concerns with ethics Genetic advances require respect for life, he says

July 24, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The chancellor of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences yesterday wrapped up a visit to Baltimore by praising doctors and scientists at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine for their attention to the ethical dimensions of genetics research.

Archbishop Giuseppe Pittau, who along with Cardinal William H. Keeler met Wednesday with Hopkins researchers, said he was impressed by the way they have maneuvered through the ethical minefield that is associated with genetics research.

In addition to heading the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which advises the pope on scientific developments, Pittau leads the Vatican congregation that supervises Roman Catholic schools, seminaries and universities.

Genetic research is "a very difficult field," Pittau said yesterday at the Catholic Center, the church's downtown Baltimore offices.

"Medicine should be used for the preservation of human life. It can be used to cure, to heal," he said. But it also can be focused only on scientific advancement for its own sake, "without considering the good of humankind," he said.

At Wednesday's briefing, the Hopkins scientists told the archbishop they recognized there are limits to where their research can take them and that they consult ethics experts to determine what those limits are.

The moral musings among Hopkins researchers demonstrate the collaboration and dialogue between faith and science that the Pontifical Academy encourages, Pittau said.

Dr. Bart Charnow, vice dean for research and technology for the medical school, said Keeler and Pittau toured the hospital wards. Then, three doctors briefed the clerics on their research in genetic medicine related to eye diseases, facial disorders such as cleft palates, and the mutation of genes in cancer research.

"It was an introductory visit," Charnow said. "We hope that it helps them in their thinking about this very important aspect of medicine."

Pittau said he invited Hopkins faculty members to participate in academy symposiums, which will touch on changing concepts of the world from the perspective of biology, physics, astronomy, philosophy and theology; the implications of human activity on the climate; and food needs for Third World countries in the next millennium.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has about 35 Nobel Prize winners among its 80 members. "The pope doesn't ask them to have any kind of religious affiliation. The only thing he asks them is to be good scholars, to search for truth and at the same time to put science at the service of humankind," Pittau said.

The academy was founded in 1603. It counted Galileo among its members before he was condemned as a heretic in 1633 for asserting the Earth revolves around the sun. In 1992, speaking before the academy, Pope John Paul II acknowledged the church's error, saying the theologians who condemned Galileo neglected to recognize the difference between the Bible and their interpretation.

A proper dialogue between faith and science is a focal concern of the academy. "Galileo was a member of the academy and we had some problems," Pittau said with a grin. "And certainly the church doesn't want to have the same kind of problems today."

This month, Pittau was appointed secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, with oversight of all Catholic schools, seminaries and universities. The archbishop, who turned 70 in October, was looking forward to semiretirement after serving as rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

"At my age, I thought I had finished my jobs and I could go back to some parish in Japan and work there," he said with a chuckle. "But now the Holy Father has asked me to stay on a little longer in Rome and be part of this great enterprise of education."

Pub Date: 7/24/98

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