FaithWorld

Vatican daily says pill pollutes, causes male infertility

The Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano published an article over the weekend claiming that the contraceptive pill pollutes the environment massively, contributes to male infertility and causes abortions. Those claims, if true, hit lots of hot buttons about science, ethics, faith and government policy. They should make headlines around the world. But apart from the Italian press, for which this is a home game, they haven’t. Why not? (Photo: Japanese contraceptive pills, 26 Aug 1999/Kimimasa Mayama)

It’s probably because the article also sets off lots of red lights for anyone trying to assess the validity of its claims. Its author Pedro José Maria Simón Castellví, head of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, makes several scientific-sounding claims but basically asks the reader to accept them on faith. Castellví says his article is based on a 100-page report by a Swiss doctor, Rudolf Ehmann, but doesn’t quote directly from it or say where it can be found.  This can’t be for lack of space, because he fills several lines with florid praise for the report with comments such as: “The original German text is beautifully written … it is written with all the scientific requirements, without any inferiority complex toward any discussion of obstetrics and gynaecology…”

The article’s headline — “Humanae Vitae – A Scientific Prophesy” — also hints its purpose is probably more religious than scientific. Humanae Vitae is the 1968 encyclical that reaffirmed the Church ban on artificial birth control. Its 40th anniversary last July prompted a series of Catholic statements, articles and conferences defending what was probably the most controversial encyclical of the 20th century. The major bioethics paper put out by the Vatican last month made several references to Humanae Vitae to bolster its argument.

Castellví’s article is still only available in the original Italian.  Silvia Aloisi in our Rome bureau provided FaithWorld with this quick summary of the article and comment in the Italian press:

The contraceptive pill is abortive, pollutes the environment and contributes to male infertility, according to an article published in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.  The head of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations (FIAMC), Pedro José Maria Simón Castellví, wrote in the article that the pill had “devastating effects on the environment by releasing tonnes of hormones into nature.”

What’s the use of apologising to Darwin?

Charles DarwinThe Church of England has just issued an apology to Charles Darwin for opposing his theory of evolution when The Origin of Species first came out 150 years ago. The Roman Catholic Church says it sees no need to say “sorry” for its initial hostility to the same theory. But both are now reconciled to evolution as solid science and are getting active in presenting their view that it is not incompatible with Christian faith. Is one approach better than the other to get this message across?

Next year’s double anniversary — the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species — is one reason to speak up about evolution. Another is the fact that evolution has become an increasingly controversial public issue, especially in the United States, and the debate is dominated by mostly conservative Protestant creationists and “intelligent design” supporters on one side and agnostic/atheistic scientists on the other.

A first edition of The Origin of Species, 13 June 2008/Lucas JacksonThat debate is so entangled in U.S. politics — the latest chapter being the questions about Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s views on teaching creationism in schools — that a less polarised view has a hard time getting heard. Trying to walk a middle path can be a tricky business, too, as Rev Michael Reiss in Britain has learned. A biologist and Anglican priest, he has just had to resign as the Royal Society‘s director of education after causing an uproar among scientists by saying creationism could be discussed as a “world view” in science class. He wasn’t advocating it, but thought that simply telling students with creationist views that they were wrong would turn them off science completely.

Vatican sees “urgent” need to review Darwin and evolution

Darwin dolls for sale at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, 15 Nov 2005/Shannon StapletonThe Vatican famously “thinks in centuries”. It’s useful to remember that when reading the announcement from its Pontifical Council for Culture about a conference it plans to hold in Rome on Darwin and evolution. Pope Benedict has shown a keen interest in the issue and debated it in a closed session with some former doctoral students in 2006. The Vatican now wants to hold a week-long public conference next March entitled “Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories — A Critical Evaluation 150 years after the The Origin of Species“.

The announcement (translated from the original and more florid Italian) said: “150 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is difficult to find a scientific sphere entirely free from direct or indirect influences of the theory of evolution. Especially in recent decades, this theory has experienced so many changes, and such significant changes, that a critical reflection is very urgent. Moreover, there are obvious philosophical and theological problems raised by the theory of evolution that cause many emotional and even ideological reactions.”

STOQ logoThe conference from March 3 to 7 will be organised by the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and the University of Notre Dame in the United States, as part of a wider project called STOQ (Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest). It will be attended, the announcement declared with a flourish, by “luminaries of science and famous philosophers and theologians”.

Now they say incense could cause cancer

A man prays at the Yong He Gong (Tibetan Lama) Temple in Beijing, 7 July 2008/David GrayThere was a report last May saying researchers had found incense was a mind-altering substance. Now comes news of another scientific report saying it could cause cancer. Given its ceremonial role in several religions, this attention to incense is made for a blog like this one.

These reports leave an interesting question unanswered, however — why are scientists studying this now? Is there an upswing in incense burning around the world? Could this be linked to the Catholic Church’s plans to revive limited use of traditional liturgies? It’s hard to imagine that scientists would be watching religious trends. Is this just a coincidence?

Pope Benedict’s evolution book finally comes out in English

Creation and Evolution bookcoverAn English translation of Pope Benedict’s 2006 discussion of evolution with his former students has finally come out and I recommend it to anyone who’s confused about where the Roman Catholic Church stands on this issue. It’s called Creation and Evolution and is publised by Ignatius Press in the U.S. The discussion was held in German and the original text, Schöpfung und Evolution, appeared in April 2007.

I mention the confusion about this issue because a 2005 New York Times op-ed piece by Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn prompted supporters of “intelligent design” (ID) to think the Church was embracing their argument. He denied that to me in an interview a few months later. So when it became known that Benedict would discuss evolution with his former doctoral students — his so-called Schülerkreis — at Castel Gandolfo in September 2006, there was considerable interest in what he would say.

Schöpfung und Evolution bookcoverThe German publisher, Sankt Ulrich Verlag in Augsburg, sent me a PDF version of the book in German under embargo, so I wrote a news story the day it appeared. In the book, Benedict said science was too narrow to explain creation, which was not random as Darwinists insist, but has a rationality that goes back to God. He argued this on philosophical and theological grounds, not on the faith arguments that creationists use (“the Bible says so”) or the biology-based examples that ID prefers to argue that some life forms are too complex to have evolved.

Is incense a mind-altering substance?

A Kashmiri Hindu woman buring inceFayaz Kablinse at Lord Shiva’s wedding anniversary in Srinagar, 6 March 2008/Ask any altar server or visit any busy Chinese temple and you can smell for yourself that incense can be overpowering. But is it a mind-altering substance? A kind of drug that puts the faithful at ease and fosters feeling of peace and togetherness? And if it is, why aren’t more people flocking to services where clouds of incense billow up out of swaying golden thuribles, rise from joss sticks lit by the faithful or fill the air at other religious rituals?

The incense-as-a-drug thesis comes from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Their FASEB Journal has published a paper arguing there could be a biological basis for the use of incense because it seems to have the effect of a psychotropic drug that helps relax people.

As the scientists put it after testing this on mice,“incensole acetate (IA), a resin constituent, is a potent TRPV3 agonist that causes anxiolytic-like and antidepressive-like behavioral effects in wild-type (WT) mice with concomitant changes in c-Fos activation in the brain.”

Dutch play probes “mercy killing” as euthanasia deaths fall

Alzheimer’s patient in Dutch nursing home, 7 May 2008/Michael Kooren“The Good Death,” a play about euthanasia, has brought the issue of “mercy killing” to Dutch theatres at a time when such deaths are falling. They dropped to 2,325, or 1.7 percent of all deaths in 2005, from 2.6 percent in 2001. Playing to packed houses throughout the Netherlands, which legalised euthanasia in 2002, the play shows the law has not removed the moral dilemma for many involved.

In fact, part of the reason for the drop in euthanasia deaths could be that agonised doctors are opting to give patients heavy sedation until they die, rather than putting an end to their lives. Even some patients who have asked for euthanasia are given continuous deep sedation instead. This feature by our Netherlands chief correspondent Emma Thomasson looks at the issues involved.

This raises the question of whether deep sedation, while being presented as palliative care that is ethically acceptable for many faiths, is not in fact “euthanasia lite.” Or at least whether it is being used as such. The British Medical Journal has suggested this in a report that prompted an editorial and a lively reader discussion. “Although the exact cause of this trend is unclear, there are indications that continuous deep sedation may in some cases be being used as a substitute for euthanasia,” a report in Science Daily said.

Is there a “religionome” and can it be mapped?

An undated image of the human brain taken through scanning technology, /Sage Center for the Study of the Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara/HandoutNeuroscientist Andrew Newberg has an intriguing idea: is there a “religionome” similar to the human genome and can scientists map it? He raised this idea at a recent Pew Forum conference on religion and public life in Key West, Florida, where he discussed the topic of why belief in God persists.

Newberg’s work focuses, among other things, on his view that we are biologically driven to find meaning in our lives. He argues that our brains have the capacity to create and perpetuate systems of belief that take us beyond our basic survival needs. These beliefs are biologically rooted in the brain, he thinks, but are also given form by our peers, parents and society.

Newberg is an Associate Professor in the Department of Radiology and Psychiatry, Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and director and co-founder of the Center for Spirituality and the Neurosciences, all at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He talked with Reuters on the sidelines of the conference, organized by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, to flesh out his vision.

Is “God Particle” the right term for massive mystery in physics?

Peter Higgs at CERN, 7 April 2008/poolOne of the most brilliant simplifications I’ve ever come across is the term “the God Particle.” Physicists think this subatomic speck of matter, if it is ever found, could explain the mysterious code at the origin of the physical world. To know this would be to “know the mind of God,” as Einstein wanted to do. The Nobel Prize winning physicist Leon Lederman wrote a book with that name 15 years ago that was so interesting that even a physics klutz like myself (I almost failed it in high school…) read and enjoyed it.

It turns out, though, that the physicist who launched the hunt for this elusive particle doesn’t like its nickname. “It embarrasses me,” Peter Higgs said in Geneva this week at a news conference our correspondent Robert Evans attended. “Although I am not a believer myself, it’s a misuse of terminology that might offend some people.”

Higgs, now 78, first proposed a theory of the particle officially knows as the Higgs boson 40 years ago. CERN, the giant nuclear research centre at the French-Swiss border near Geneva, is building a vast underground particle collider to try to find it. “The likelihood is that the particle will show up pretty quickly … I’m more than 90 percent certain that it will,” Higgs said after visiting the collider due to start working early next year.