Food for Controversy; a Tale of Two Teachers

Genetically Modified Organisms Under Scrutiny

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By Delia Gallagher

ROME, DEC. 4, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The recent Vatican conference on genetically modified foods (or organisms) brought together 67 international experts to discuss "GMOs: Threat or Hope" at a closed-door meeting at the Palazzo San Callisto.

The palazzo is the seat of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which sponsored the event. Cardinal Renato Martino, in his opening remarks to the conference, claimed that even the Holy See felt the "pressures coming from multiple fonts and bearers of diverse, and in some ways incompatible, needs," on the question of genetically modified foods.

"We are fully aware," said the cardinal, "that what is at stake is high and delicate, for the polarization that divides public opinion, for the commercial contentions that exist at the international level, for the difficulty of defining, at the scientific level, a matter that is the subject of research in rapid evolution, for the complex ethno-cultural and ethno-political implications."

The conference itself suffered from polarization, according to some of the participants.

Margaret Mellon, an American scientist of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the conference was "weighed in favor of those in favor."

Doreen Stabinsky, a scientist for Greenpeace and one of the speakers at the conference, agreed.

"I was not initially invited to speak," Stabinsky told me. "Our executive director was invited and asked if he could send me, since he was not a scientist. He was initially told no."

"I think they [the organizers] wanted to have a panel with scientists who were in favor, and non-scientists who were not, so they could say that all the critics are non-scientists and make the position look weak," Stabinsky said.

"At this morning's session," continued Stabinsky, "there were five speakers and only one was critical of GMOs."

One critical speaker is Father Roland Lesseps, a scientist in Zambia who was for many years a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Zambia, and the Jesuits there, were a catalyst for increased debate over genetically modified foods as a means to relieve famine. In the summer of 2002 Zambia rejected aid offered by the United States in the form of genetically modified corn. This refusal was encouraged by the Jesuit Center for Theological Reflection in Zambia, led by American Jesuit Pete Henriot.

"The Jesuits in Zambia," James Nicholson, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, told me during an interview, "said better that 2 million die today, than 20 million in 10 years."

Ambassador Nicholson has been a fervent supporter of genetically modified foods in Africa. Though the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See was not involved in the organization of the GMO conference, it has held three conferences on the subject for Vatican diplomatic corps representatives this past year.

"Resistance is a mixed bag of hypersensitivity to food safety, and a European agenda of protectionism," continued the ambassador. "Meanwhile people are dying in Africa."

Father Lesseps sees things differently. In a summary of his presentation to the conference, he said that the question of GMOs is "frequently and mistakenly put as an either-or choice of feeding a hungry world."

"There are other and more suitable ways to feed a hungry world than adopting a potentially dangerous technocratic approach," Father Lesseps said. "Food is not merely another economic commodity governed in its production and distribution by the laws of the market."

According to him, "genetic modification does not meet the tests of the social teaching of the Church for genuine integral development that respects human rights and the order of creation."

While genetically modified foods may be hotly debated, one conference participant gave powerful testimony to the good that other organisms genetically modified, in this case cotton, can bring.

Thandiwe Myeni is a widowed mother of five and a school principal in Makhatini, South Africa. Since 1994, she has been a cotton farmer. In 1999, she began using insect-resistant BT cotton in addition to traditional seed.

"My experience demonstrated," said Myeni, "that BT cotton seeds resulted in 9 bales per ha [hectare], as compared to non-BT which produced 4 bales per ha. The BT plants had a significantly reduced cost in pesticide as well. Labor which would have been spent on spraying for the traditional seed, was able to be redirected to harvesting more cotton. This also reduced exposure to the toxic chemicals used in the spray."

According to Myeni, "Farmers in the Makhatini area are enthusiastic about the use of BT cotton, as it results in increased yield and profit for farmers, with less labor and time needed."

"The use of GM cotton seed has changed my life, allowing me to improve my home and farm," she said.

Such news may not appease critics who claim that the biggest problem with GMOs is that it creates a dependence of poor farmers on American companies who produce the seeds.

Ambassador Nicholson is not swayed. "They don't have to keep using it if it's not to their advantage," he said.

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Contrasting Festschrifts

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger put in an appearance at the recent "Festschrift" at the Gregorian University in honor of Father Karl Josef Becker, retired professor of dogmatic theology and consultor to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Cardinal Ratzinger spoke highly of his German compatriot. "The same roots of land and language unite us," said the cardinal. "We are close even in date of birth -- Professor Becker was born in Cologne on April 18, 1928, exactly one year and two days after me."

The two are also united in their work at the doctrinal congregation.

Thanking the cardinal for his presence, Father Becker said, "I wish that many in the Catholic Church could see in this gesture, what sort of climate we have in the CDF, Christian and human together."

A book, "Sentire Cum Ecclesia," was prepared to commemorate the event, containing articles from Cardinal Ratzinger (on the Eucharist) and a host of international theologians.

Cardinal Ratzinger called Father Becker "an authentic teacher" and lamented the absence of such instructors in the modern age.

"Our times have willingly come to be emphatically described as an era without fathers and without teachers," said Cardinal Ratzinger, "and that means an era often lacking authoritative guidance and authentic teaching, which are indispensable for the maturation of the younger generations."

"Our times," he continued, "rightly proposing new problems and new questions in theological research and the formation of theologians, cannot but adhere to the living Tradition, gathering the constant richness of successful examples of a transmission of the 'rule of faith,' given to theologians for the 'believing research of the intelligence of the faith.'"

"Today, together with Father Becker," Cardinal Ratzinger said, "we want to look with hope to the future, in which the fruits of present good work is gathered, but in which there always exists a new urgency for convincing teachers that they bring their students and disciples to a love of theological science, that is, the science of our faith, the faith of the Church."

Interestingly, the following day, I received an invitation for another Festschrift at the Gregorian -- though I doubt either Cardinal Ratzinger or Father Becker would be in attendance.

Father Jacques Dupuis' life and work as professor of Christology at the Gregorian will be celebrated this Friday by some of his colleagues.

Father Dupuis is well known for his book "Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism," which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said "contained notable ambiguities and difficulties on important doctrinal points which could lead a reader to erroneous or harmful opinions."

The Vatican congregation headed by Cardinal Ratzinger issued this judgment on Jan. 24, 2001, in a notification.

The notification takes issue with "the interpretation of the sole and universal salvific mediation of Christ, the [uniqueness] and completeness of Christ's revelation, the universal salvific action of the Holy Spirit, the orientation of all people to the Church, and the value and significance of the salvific function of other religions."

Father Dupuis signed the notification, as a sign of his agreement with its contents. Any further reprints or new editions of his book must contain this CDF warning.

The case was further flamed when Cardinal Franz König of Austria penned a letter to the British journal, The Tablet, defending Father Dupuis and chastising the CDF.

"The members of the Congregation, most of whom are Westerners, are of course very much afraid that interreligious dialogue will reduce all religions to equal rank," Cardinal König wrote. "But that is the wrong approach for dialogue with Eastern religions. It is reminiscent of colonialism and smacks of arrogance."

This was all long ago in 2001, but Father Becker and Father Dupuis are still around, as are their supporters.

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Readers may contact Delia Gallagher at delia@zenit.org.