REPORTS that the Pope may be preparing to endorse the cultivation of genetically modified crops will have surprised those who believe that the Church is always steadfastly opposed to the latest technological developments.
Scientists have long assumed that the Catholic Church would oppose every element of the so-called "biotech revolution" that is expected to reshape life in the new millennium. They felt confirmed in their prejudice when the Vatican condemned in vitro fertilisation in 1978, and, more recently, when it spoke out against human cloning.
But they will be baffled if the Pope gives his backing to the genetic modification of plants and animals when the Vatican publishes a document on the subject next month. They
will ask why the Pontiff approves of the
genetic manipulation of plants and animals, but not of the genetic modification of human beings, which, in their eyes, holds out the promise of curing many of the diseases that presently plague humanity.
There are, as yet, few clues to the Pope's line of thinking. Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has disclosed that John Paul is investigating whether GM foods hold the answer to world starvation and malnutrition. It is right that the Pontiff considers the matter carefully. The rapid advances in biotechnology present some of the most serious moral issues of our age. As the Pope considers the issue, he will be aware that the very future of humanity may be at stake. For it is possible that, as the champions of the technology assert, GM food will alleviate the suffering of the world's poorest people. Genetic modification may boost crop yields and make our crops and farm animals resistant to disease. Food surpluses could be given to the developing world, where 24,000 people die every day from starvation.
The Pope will also take account of the opposition to GM foods. The green lobby argues that modified crops will contaminate the environment, with devastating effects on wildlife and natural plant life. They predict that this will lead to the emergence of "superweeds" and the disappearance of familiar species of insects and birds. Archbishop Martino has hinted that the Pope will dismiss these arguments against "Frankenstein foods". The Pontiff will also reject the simplistic "nature good, man bad" thinking found among the less sophisticated opponents of GM food. Drawing upon the rich tradition of Christian humanism, he is likely to argue that the relief of human misery is the paramount consideration, and that unless there is compelling evidence of the dangers of GM food, then it is to be welcomed.
Their is an urgent need for guidance on this matter. Catholic charities are in the front line of the struggle to end world hunger, and they need to know whether it is morally permissible to distribute GM foods. Last year the American Catholic Relief Services attempted to export thousands of tons of modified cornsoya blend to India, but found its way blocked by the Indian authorities. A clear declaration of principle from Pope John Paul II will enable Church charities to come to the aid of the hungry in the most effective way possible.