Shock! Vatican backs stem-cell effort!

OK, gentle readers, raise your hand if you thought — after years of mainstream news consumption — that the Roman Catholic Church is opposed to all stem-cell research?

You see, that’s the strange thing about the Los Angeles Times story that just ran under the headline: “Vatican signs deal to collaborate on adult stem cell research.”

The second deck then noted: “The unusual agreement with NeoStem allows the church, which opposes embryonic stem cell use, to be seen as taking a constructive role in one of the most promising areas of medical research.”

The key word in that top headline, of course, is “adult.”

Yet another interesting word in all of that is this one — “unusual.”

You see the whole top of this story is framed in the assumption that readers will not think that the Vatican would sign on to this research agenda. That’s the twist, the big surprise. Thus, readers learn, right at the get-go:

As chairman and chief executive of her own company, Dr. Robin Smith is a significant player in the world of biopharmaceutical products and research. Self-confident, poised and well traveled, she is used to dealing with movers and shakers.

But when she negotiated an agreement with her company’s latest business partner, she didn’t deal directly with the top executive.

He is, after all, the pope.

In an agreement that tends to elicit the response “Really?,” the Vatican recently signed a $1-million compact with Smith’s New York company, NeoStem, to collaborate on adult stem cell education and research.

Note that response again: “Really?” Why does the Times think this is how readers will respond?

After all, the story quickly notes the obvious:

The partners will hold a conference in Rome in November that is expected to attract some of the world’s leading experts on adult stem cells, the less controversial cousins of embryonic stem cells. The Roman Catholic Church staunchly opposes the use of embryonic cells in research or medical therapy, a position that has put it at odds with many scientists and many practicing Catholics.

The agreement enables the church to be seen as taking a constructive role in one of the most promising areas of medical research.

The hinge point in this debate is, of course, clear — using cells from unborn humans vs. cells from adult stem cells. The adults do not have to die in order to take part in the study.

So why does the story assume that the PUBLIC would find this story surprising? Also, why does the newspaper need to assume that the Vatican’s motives in backing the research are less than sincere, which is how I think many readers will take that lovely twist of the knife, the one that says that, “The agreement enables the church to be seen as taking (italics are mine) a constructive role in one of the most promising areas of medical research.”

Here’s the point: The story assumes that readers will be slightly shocked that the Vatican is backing this science project. Yet the Vatican’s motives are easy to see.

So why the surprise?

Perhaps the surprise has something to do with many journalists consistently portraying the Vatican as the opponent of scientific research, period. Yet the Vatican can enthusiastically endorse this very promising line of research — because of a shared moral and ethical worldview on the sanctity of all human life, including that of the unborn.

The only reason for readers to be surprised is that it is unusual to read an accurate mainstream story about this topic. There is no other reason to be surprised.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia

    I’m sure lots of people do think the Catholic Church is against all stem cell research. Very few articles about embryonic stem cells actually use the term “embryonic” – whether discussing the Church’s position or run of the mill stories about the latest research.

    It’s more surprising that the writer states the Church/Pope’s motive without even quoting anybody.

  • Charlie

    The media’s reporting about stem cells has been generally sloppy in differentiating between adult and embryonic stem cell research, and has been less than honest about the significant therapeutic advances that have been made using adult stem cells. It is another area where one sees a good deal of advocacy journalism. Perhaps the LA Times has been so swept up in its own biases that it never understood, or tried to understand, the church’s position.

  • Daniel

    Yes, I get it. Apparently the Los Angeles Times doesn’t. Should it be a surprise if the comprehension level of this writer were higher than that of the author of this article, or of the Times’ editors? Or is it that the tenor of the headline is shearly sarcastic? In fact, adult stem cell research has made tremendous strides forward. embryonic stem cell research has made little substantial progress – except, that is, that it has little to offer save the boondoggles in its behalf. Advocates of embryonic stem cell research are blind to this, or, perhaps, do not care about the facts. Information on this is easy enough to obtain by those who are looking for information! Perhaps the politically charged atmosphere prevents some from being concerned about sound argumentation, or causes us even to abandon the search for the truth. When people have to resort to lies to defend their point of view, perhaps even the premises are faulty, let alone the conclusions drawn from those premises.

  • joye

    When I read lines like “an agreement that tends to elicit the response ‘Really?’”, I imagine the reporter saying “Yeah, I mean, I brought the story up around the water cooler when I was taking a break from writing it, and all my coworkers were as surprised those troglodytes are doing this as I am! Clearly this is a universal response.”

    It’s like that alleged Pauline Kael quote about not knowing anyone who voted for Nixon.

  • tmatt

    Obviously, this is not the place to praise or bash the Vatican’s stance on embryonic stem cell research.

    This is the place to comment on the media COVERAGE of these issues.

    Spiking away.

  • Mark

    This is why I love this site. Enduring for years all those little literary “twists of the knife” resulting in my wife having to endure my complaints about the unfairness of the fight: tremendous power in the hands of those controlling the means of social communication being constantly used to suppress the truth (or, in many cases, ignore the truth through incompetence). Then Terry and friends come along and shine a journalistic light on it all… Thank you!

  • Amy

    It’s very rare to see an article on stem-cell research that makes the distinction between adult and embryonic stem-cells. That has the (probably intentional) result of making anyone who opposes embryonic stem-cells (especially the Catholic Church) look like anti-science bigots who want people to suffer and die. They rarely point out that the Church supports adult stem-cell research or that every single medical advancement has been from adult stem-cells. That would ruin the narrative.

  • Dan

    Another reason the Vatican’s collaboration with NeoStem should not come as a surprise is that it is very old news. NeoStem announced the collaboration with the Vatican, and the Vatican’s $1 million contribution, in May, 2010 — near a year and a half ago.

  • Joel

    The agreement enables the church to be seen as taking a constructive role in one of the most promising areas of medical research.

    “To be seen as…?” Is it the LA’s opinion that the Church is doing this solely as a publicity move and is not actually taking a constructive role?

  • Joel

    Sorry. The LAT’s opinion.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The reason many in the media assume everything the Church says or does to do with science will be anti-science is that they are stuck in the Galileo story of about 5 centuries ago– which is never accurately told. Rare is the reporter who knows that the Big Bang theory about the start of the universe was first developed by a priest whose research was fully supported by the Church. Or the story of Gregor Mendel-another member of the Catholic clergy who first developed genetic theories. Or that Louis Pasteur was a very devout Catholic who prayed the rosary daily. I could go on a lot more, but I think the point is made.

  • Will

    And they usually generalize it to “religion” being anti-science, fitting the 19th century narrative of “the warfare of reason and theology”. After, those religiousfanatics are all interchangeable clones.

  • Bill

    I’ve met quite a few people (not just NYT and LAT reporters) who don’t seem to care about the Vatican’s position on the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells. They ignore the embryonic and declare the RC Church is opposed to stem cell research in general, and therefore, science. What would the reporting be like on organ transplants if some donors were kidnapped and relieved of their livers without their permission?

  • Michelle

    The comments on the article are worse than the article itself. So much hate in the world.

  • Joel

    Michelle, these are actually mild compared to what usually shows up on the LAT’s comment boards. It’s frustrating: the second a story with a religious angle shows up, a horde of yahoos descends on it to sneer at the very idea of religion. It makes it hard to have any actual discussion of the subject matter when you have to read past ten or twelve insulting comments to get to one actually relevant one.

    As a bonus, if the story concerns the Catholic Church in any way, the comments will immediately veer off to the pervo-priest scandal, regardless of whether that issue actually has any bearing on the story. I sometimes amuse myself by counting the number of other comments that will show up before the first obligatory fondling fathers reference. Sort of like the number of licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.

  • enness

    “and many practicing Catholics”

    Which compels one to ask, what is their definition of practicing, anyway?

  • Will

    “Godwin’s Law” has inspired “Anderson’s Law” :

    As a debate involving the Catholic Church (either a discussion about the Church specifically, or a discussion in which the Church is taking a position) grows longer, the probability of someone mentioning the sex scandal approaches one.

    And then there’s it’s corollary: Once such reference to the Scandal is made, whoever mentioned the Scandal has automatically “lost” whatever debate was in progress.