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Some Food for The Soul: The Catholic Church is Right
to Support Genetically Modified Crops

The Ottawa Citizen
August 6, 2003

American historian Lynn White Jr.'s 1967 essay in Science titled "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis" was a watershed moment in religious thinking about the environment. In it, Mr. White argued that if we are to address environmental problems coherently, we need to understand that attitudes toward nature are ultimately rooted in religious beliefs. As he put it: "Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny -- that is, by religion." The Vatican, it seems, has taken his argument to heart.

In a press statement earlier this week, Archbishop Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said the Vatican would publish a report next month endorsing genetic modification of plants as the best way to feed the world's starving. When it comes to dealing with world hunger, "there is no room for the ideological argument advanced by the environmentalists," the archbishop said. "The Pope ardently desires to do something for the billions of people who go to bed hungry every night."

The Vatican decision has upset many environmentalists, and will undoubtedly infuriate European politicians opposed to allowing genetically modified foods into the European Union. Indeed, the head of Italy's Green Party, Alfonso Scanio Pecoraro, has already accused the Catholic Church of "using its authority to support a scam by the multinationals."

This is the voice of irrationality and fearmongering, since there is no scientific evidence that GM foods are harmful to either humans or the environment. Such irrationality also betrays ignorance about the relationship between Christianity and technology.

In his Science essay, Lynn White argued that man's capacity to wreak damage on the environment has grown out of western technological advances since Medieval times. These advances occurred in a cultural context informed by a Judeo-Christian tradition that tended to regard nature as matter to be exploited in the service of human needs. However, he also acknowledged another tradition within Christianity that posits a more positive relationship with nature, namely the idea expressed in the Genesis stories that while man has dominion over nature, it is as the steward of God's creation.

Arguably, it is this tradition that we see in the Vatican's support for genetically modified food. Some may question how the Vatican can support a technology such as GM food while opposing a technology such as cloning. The answer lies in the Church's understanding of humans as both spiritual and material creatures. Spiritually, the Church believes we are directed toward God, yet we also live in the physical world and are morally bound as creatures in the image of God to live in ways that enhance the human spirit.

Those who oppose technological innovations such as GM food forget that the purpose of scientific experimentation, as formulated by Renaissance thinkers, was to improve the conditions of human life, and this desire was rooted in the Christian concept of caritas, or charity. Technology is not necessarily an expression of man's hubristic dominance of nature; it can also express the fundamental moral obligation of God's creatures for one another.

Thus, the Vatican is on the side of the angels when it comes to GM food. There is no scientific evidence that it is harmful. And for the Catholic Church, feeding millions and helping them overcome the spiritual debilitations of hunger and poverty through technology is the Christian thing to do.