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The Ethical Issue of Stem Cell Research from The Point of View of Religion

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For Roman Catholic adherents, their lived attitudes, values, and beliefs diverge in certain ethical decisions compared to the teachings of the Catholic Church. These traditional ideas presented by the Church are being challenged by a more secular society in today’s time. There has been a shift in ethical perspectives from the laity, away from the traditional teachings of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, as shown specifically in the ethical issue of embryonic stem cell research. The diverging views of the laity are shaped by contemporary society and the various ethical theories that underpin Catholic adherents’ experiences, including informed conscience and proportionalism. To investigate this issue, qualitative research was conducted in the form of interviews with the laity of the Roman Catholic Church, exploring their attitudes regarding stem cell research and why they feel a difference between Church ideas and the laity exist. As a result, an identifiable divergence was discerned.

The teaching authority of the Church, the Magisterium presents what is morally and ethically acceptable through the eyes of a Catholic lens. These ideas are derived from the Word of God, being elucidated from both scripture and tradition. It forms adherents’ lived actions. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (demonstrating the beliefs of Catholics) supports this by stating that ‘the task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church. However, controversy regarding the role of the Magisterium has become prevalent, the argument stemming from the concept that there are limits in the nature of the teachings and determining certain ethical dilemmas with infallibility – the inability to be wrong. We see adherents challenge the role of the Magisterium due to its myopic constitution. Only the pope and bishops are involved in the process, creating a demographic only representative of elderly males, who are unmarried and engage in a life of celibacy. A secondary school Catholic teacher commented on this in an interview, stating, ‘in some ways the Magisterium is a dictatorship. The decisions are being made for the people but not by the people”. The narrow demographic that forms the Magisterium presents views that are not representative of all adherents, and as a result, divergence in ideas arises.

The ethical issue of stem cell research has caused a variation in ideas between the Church and the laity. The science of stem cells can be divided into two parts: adult cells (tissue-specific) and embryonic cells (pluripotent). For the purposes of this investigation, embryonic stem cells will be addressed. ‘Stem Cell Australia’ defines pluripotent cells as ‘the most primitive type of stem cell. They can be maintained as self-renewing stem cells indefinitely in the laboratory. This characteristic is important for research, but the process to attain these cells is where a conflict of ideas occurs. It is important to note that the Church supports the evolution of science – viewing it as a hope for those who need it. It is only when human life is disrespected through the destruction of an embryo, resulting in the loss of the dignity of a person. Accordingly, the Church accepts the notion of adult cell research, as it doesn’t destroy human life. The Church views the use of embryos as immoral, as shown in encyclicals including ‘Dignitas Personae’ and ‘Evangelium Vitae’, as well as from prominent Catholic figures. Pope John Paul II stated in the encyclical ‘Gospel of Life’, ‘The human body is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception. Specifically, in ‘Evangelium Vitae’, the importance of human life and dignity is shown as humans are a “manifestation of God in the world, a sign of his presence, a trace of his glory”. This idea is corroborated in ‘Dignitas Personae’ illustrating that the role of the Church isn’t to dictate what occurs in the medical field, but that to ensure, “the ethical value of biomedical science is gauged in reference to both the unconditional respect owed to every human being at every moment of his or her existence and the defense of the specific character of the personal act which transmits life”. It is therefore clear that there is no legitimate way to obtain embryonic cells in the eyes of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. The Church’s view has identified a clear divergence in ideas between the Church and the laity, as a result of the ethical theories followed.

Interviews were conducted to evaluate the degree to which Magisterium’s teachings are embraced by the laity. The interviewees consisted of adherents that attended mass, a teacher and candidate for a Doctorate in Philosophy, a neonatologist, and a Christian Brother. Of those who attended mass, five assented to Church teaching, an example shown from a mid-50s Australian male. On the issue of embryonic stem cell research, he explained how in his opinion “it goes against the dignity of the human person”. Another five of the mass attendees dissented the Church’s teachings, viewing stem cell research as an “important part for society. To develop as a community and to further human development. It is also important to note, that four adherents dissented conditionally. Various reasons included that it not be used for research and that it was done ethically, as shown by another interviewee, a secondary school teacher, explaining, “that there should be careful guidelines and ethical policies around the use of embryos”. The divergence in perspectives is explained by an interviewed Christian Brother, representing the Church’s teachings, stating, ‘No longer are the laity ‘blindly obedient’ to the rules/teachings of the church’. Although their ideas are built on various backgrounds, this evidence gives an in-depth understanding to why and how the laity are following their own ideas, astray from Church teachings. More and more are adherents following their own conscience.

Catholic moral theology brings forth the notion of ‘primacy of conscience.’ Interchangeable with ‘informed conscience’, it shows an adherent’s conscience is the final and overarching authority in deciding moral and ethical behavior, even if it contradicts the Church’s teachings. This idea is illustrated by the interviewed Christian Brother, showing that ‘The church sets out the ideal. But in the end, an individual is answerable to his/her God. He/she must follow his/her conscience’. Corroboration is shown through various encyclicals such as ‘Gaudium et Spes’, which states, “It is their task to cultivate a properly informed conscience and to impress the divine law on the affairs of the earthly city” and through Pope Francis, stating ‘The contemporary world risks confusing the primacy of conscience, which must always be respected’. Collectively, these three Church sources support the importance of forming a personal conscience and following it when in conflict with Church teaching. The distinctive views from the laity are a result of the many ethical theories that underpin adherent lived experiences. These theories include the notion of informed conscience, principlism, and proportionality. These concepts account for the difference in the Church and the laity’s views. An example of informed conscience from a lay person is demonstrated through a neonatologist that was interviewed. Given her former occupation, she explained how she supported embryonic stem cell research, dissenting from the Magisterium, due to the benefits, even though it conflicted with her religion. Conversely, using a principlist standpoint, a mid-50s Australian female stated, “An embryo is still life from conception and ending its life is wrong. Only God should have the power to give and take life”. Another mid-60s male adherent spoke about his proportional “type of view that in special circumstances if it is the only thing that can save another human then it is ok, but not for research”. Not only a result of an informed conscience but other ethical theories are seeing a divergence between the Church and the laity.

The change away from traditional teachings from the Church by the laity results in diverging views in certain ethical dilemmas, including stem cell research. This has occurred due to lay people’s increased use of various ethical theories when forming ethical perspectives. Leading Catholic moral theologian, Richard McCormick explores the importance of strict ideas by the Church and a more situational approach, stating, ‘Catholics must learn to distinguish between universally binding moral principles and specific applications. The latter allows for a diversity of opinion… To fail to make this distinction is to degrade the teaching authority’. Although sharing discourse on ethical dilemmas, the laity and Church continue to have differing ideologies. 

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The Ethical Issue of Stem Cell Research From the Point of View of Religion. (2022, August 30). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from
“The Ethical Issue of Stem Cell Research From the Point of View of Religion.” GradesFixer, 30 Aug. 2022,
The Ethical Issue of Stem Cell Research From the Point of View of Religion. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 Sept. 2022].
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