Genetic science: ‘a potential force for good'
Written by G. Jeffrey MacDonald
September 2001



Colloquy participant the Rev. James Turturo records talking points. G. Jeffrey MacDonald photo.

 

Craigville Colloquy tackles 21st century concern

It's not every day that the topic of a theology conference makes front-page news.

But that's exactly what happened at the 18th annual Craigville Colloquy, held on Cape Cod in Massachusetts from July 9 to 13 by the UCC's Confessing Christ group. Fifty participants retreated to this oceanside village to wrestle with "Genetic Ethics and Christian Faith: A Pastoral Exploration of the Limits to Our Being Co-Creators with God." On arrival, they found their subject—and some of their concerns—dominating media reports.

A headline that week blared: "Bush Torn Over Stem Cell Research." Keynote speaker the Rev. Ronald Cole-Turner opened the Wall Street Journal one morning to find himself quoted in a column on stem cells.

By week's end, the Hyannis-based Cape Cod Times was sending a reporter to cover the church's perspectives on the week's hot topic.

"Are we timely or what?" asked the moderator, the Rev. Gary Greene of Merrimac, Mass.

Timeless questions

The pastors, theologians and a handful of lay persons present received a charge on opening day to debate timeless questions. Should science always do everything that can be done? How is identity determined by genes, faith and freedom?

"We have become the object of our own technological modification," said Cole-Turner, Professor of Theology and Ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. "That is an unprecedented situation, and I believe it deserves an unprecedented response from the church."

Cole-Turner, who has represented the UCC before the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, explained the basic science and dilemmas in two lectures. Stem cells, for instance, might be able to regenerate damaged nerves or stave off Parkinson's Disease, but scientists currently must destroy human embryos to get the cells. Gene therapy could possibly slow the development of hereditary diseases, but it might also enable parents to enhance their children's looks or intelligence as if choosing features on a new car. When has medicine gone too far?

Despite a lack of expertise in the sciences, participants through the week became increasingly committed to taking a stand on the ethical questions.

"This is much too important to be left to the amorality of market forces" in the biotechnology industry, said the Rev. Deborah Schueneman of Ann Arbor, Mich.

Dilemmas became clearer

Meanwhile, the dilemmas also became clearer with discussion.

"Did God intend for us to have our hands tied behind our backs?" asked the Rev. James Turturo, a prison chaplain from Utica, N.Y. "The Enlightenment answer would be no. The traditional church answer would be maybe—or yes. We have to figure out if that's still our answer."

To that end, five groups crafted position papers.

"We are stewards of God's creation, not co-creators," wrote one group in rejecting a common catch phrase.

"The new biotechnology will be good news, a true gift of God, when it is applied to the healing of disease," wrote another group. "Such resources must be made available to all."

Each group and presenter hailed genetic science as a potential force for good in healing bodies and alleviating suffering, despite being fraught with perils.

By week's end, participants had reckoned with biotechnolo-gy's paradoxical implications. A paraplegic might walk again. A well-off class of medical consumers might engineer their offspring to be more attractive or aggressive. Those without insurance or medical savings might be confined to watch it all from the sidelines.

In closing remarks, the Rev. Demetrios Demopulos of Fitchburg, Mass., offered his Greek Orthodox perspective.

"Bread does not exist in nature," Demopulos said. "We take wheat, water, salt, yeast and make something new. That's technology. We make something new and then offer it back to God. But if we think we can do it all, we have forgotten what our task is."

Learn more

The Craigville Colloquy is an annual presentation of Confessing Christ, a UCC group that aims to do rigorous theological inquiry in the setting of the church. To learn more about the colloquy, or to obtain a copy of this year's position papers, contact: Craigville Conference Center, Craigville, MA 02636; 508-775-1265.

See "In My Opinion" and "Current Comment" in this paper.

Want to discuss the issue? Click here to discuss Stem Cell research.

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