Monday, December 14, 2009

Troubling discussion with Fr. Prieur about embryonic stem cell research

John Pacheco at Socon Or Bust recently wrote a thought-provoking piece about Fr. Michael Prieur.  John and I researched that piece together, although John did virtually all the work in writing the article.  Collaboration among bloggers is a beautiful thing, as varied skill sets can be combined.  

If you haven't read John's article, I would highly recommend it. In my current post, I would like to focus on Fr. Prieur's controversial paper on embryonic stem cell research.  In the paper, Fr. Prieur and nine co-authors argue that it's morally licit for Catholics to conduct research on embryonic stem cells as long as the killing of the embryo and the extraction of its cells are done at another facility and that the Catholic researcher doesn't agree with the killing of the embryo.

Here are some important chronological markers to keep in mind before we go further:
  • In 2000, the Pontifical Academy for Life published a Declaration in which it clearly stated that it's morally unacceptable to conduct research on embryonic stem cells, even if the killing of the embryo and the extraction of its cells had been done at another facility and that the Catholic researcher didn't agree with the killing of the embryo.
  • In 2006, Fr. Prieur published his paper, which referenced the 2000 paper above, but his conclusions contradicted those of the Pontifical Academy for Life.  What Fr. Prieur was advocating in this paper was almost word-for-word what the Pontifical Academy for Life was condemning.
  • In 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued Dignitas Personae and re-affirmed what had been said in 2000. 

My correspondence with Fr. Prieur
Inspired by some comments I received on earlier posts about Fr. Prieur, I decided to contact the author directly on this matter before John went public with his article. I don't want to publish my confidential correspondence with him, but I can give you the gist of the discussion.

I asked Fr. Prieur if his views expressed in 2006 had changed after the CDF published Dignitas Personae in 2008.  He didn't answer directly or admit that he was mistaken, but he politely said that he subscribed wholeheartedly to Dignatas PersonaeI then asked him if he was planning on publishing an article to explain the change in his views since 2006.  Given that he's such a renowned bioethicist and theologian and that many people rely on his judgment, I figured it would be prudent for him to set the record straight so that nobody would be misled by his 2006 article.  His response was short and non-committal, but still polite. Feeling somewhat confused, I asked him why he would publish a paper in 2006 that was inconsistent with the prohibition published by the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2000.  He abruptly replied that he was terminating the discussion.  That was the end of it.

Fr. Prieur's bishop didn't agree

As I dug a little further into this issue, I discovered that one of Fr. Prieur's co-authors made a presentation of the main conclusions of their paper at the annual conference of the Catholic Health Association of Canada, on May 15, 2005.  Note Slide 4, which I have copied on the right.  The slide admits that although the Bishop of London, Ronald Fabbro, agreed with many aspects of the paper, he didn't think he could approve of any embryonic stem cell research at St. Joseph's hospital, where Fr. Prieur is a key advisor.  Sure enough, St. Joseph eventually created guidelines stating "No Fetal Stem Cell Research."  I contacted St. Joseph's before writing this post and they confirmed that they still do not conduct any embryonic stem cell research.

Red flag flashing!!!  If your bishop doesn't agree with the key conclusion of your paper, shouldn't that be a warning sign?  Do you imagine how many health practitioners at that conference came away with a misguided view of Catholic morality with regards to embryonic stem cell research?  Notice how the slide says "Interest from across Canada."  So many people led on the wrong path.  You also have to wonder why Bishop Fabbro encouraged them to publish their paper anyways. 

CCCB was publicly opposed to embryonic stem cell research in 2003

In 2003, three years before Fr. Prieur's paper was published, Canada's legislators were crafting the Assisted Human Reproduction bill, which would cover issues such as cloning, IVF and embryonic stem cell research.  At the time, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) published a position paper in which they expressed, among other things, their opposition to embryonic stem cell research.  Here's the key excerpt, which was completely consistent with the Pontifical Academy for Life:

Some argue that the embryos who remain after fertility treatments will die anyway, so why not use them in order to do some good? It is not necessary that we do something with these embryos so that some good or meaning will be given to their lives. There is good and meaning in their lives simply because they are intrinsically human which also means from a faith perspective that they are known and loved by God. It is unnecessary to search for meaning on their behalf, especially when such a search is really nothing more than a way of justifying the decision to release human embryos for research purposes.

While we realize that our position on protection of the embryo will preclude embryonic stem cell research in which so many hopes have been invested, we are convinced that adult stem cell research, which is showing remarkable promise, can still go forward and has every potential to fulfill those hopes. We could thereby signal to the world, in a global arena influenced by strong commercial interests in the area of the reproductive technologies, that Canada is committed to honouring, protecting and including everyone in the human family.

Red flag #2!!!!  The CCCB was publicly opposed to embryonic stem cell research.  That probably explains Bishop Fabbro's hesitation with regards to Fr. Prieur's paper.  So why did he go ahead and publish it?  

So you've go the Pontifical Academy for Life saying "No".  You've got your own bishop saying "No".  You've got the CCCB saying "No".  Why did Fr. Prieur say "Yes"?

"Little old ladies" outsmart big-shot bioethicists

Two months before the CCCB published their position paper in October 2003, the Catholic Women's League (CWL) of Canada published their own position paper on the topic in August.  Some people dismiss the CWL as a bunch of old ladies who just bake pies and have interminable meetings.  I think that's unfair.  I believe that most CWL members are women full of faith. They may not have PhD's in theology, but they make up for it by an openness to God's grace.

In their position paper, the CWL cites the 2000 paper by the Pontifical Academy for Life (you know, the one that Fr. Prieur dismissed) in order to justify their opposition to embryonic stem cell research.

Red flag #3!!!  Isn't it disturbing that a lay association like the CWL is able to read and understand the prohibition by the Pontifical Academy for Life and yet Canada's leading Catholic bioethicists don't get it or don't want to get it?

"At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants." (Matthew 11:25)


Fr. Prieur's decision to publish the article despite all these red flags is quite disturbing.  Being in a position of great visibility and influence in the field of bioethics, he bears a great responsibility for his actions.  This is even more true in light of the fact that he teaches theology at St. Peter's Seminary.  The formation of our future priests rests in his hands.  

This isn't a witch hunt against Fr. Prieur.  I tried to get his version of the story, but he wouldn't answer the burning question.  The whole point of this post is to warn people of this erroneous teaching and to exhort Fr. Prieur (as I did in my last email to him) to publicly recant his position. That's the only option left for him. He must publish a retraction or a correction so that nobody else is misled by his 2006 paper.  

Matthew 18:6-7: ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!