SOME 700 Christian and Jewish leaders from 97 countries met with
leading scientists and academics here last week to discuss modern
social and scientific challenges for today's religious leaders.
"Never has man been so close to being a partner with God in
creation nor has he had as much power to do good as harm," says
David Rosen, former chief rabbi of Ireland. That is the raison dtre
of the unprecedented conference he helped organize.
Participants ranged from Indian nuns and Brazilian rabbis to
well-known leaders of the religious world. They included Cardinal
Joseph Ratzinger from the Vatican, widely considered a
representative of conservative Roman Catholicism; the Most Rev.
George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, who heads the Anglican
Church in Great Britain; and Rabbi Rene Sirat of France, president
of the Conference of European Rabbis.
This ecumenical event came in a favorable context: A peace
process is going on in the region, and in December, Israel and the
Vatican established diplomatic relations. But it was harshly
criticized by the ultra-Orthodox Jewish establishment in Israel as
an unnecessary contact with the Christian world.
Not surprisingly, the ethical questions raised by the advance of
biotechnology dominated the debates.
The complex relationship between science and moral principles is
not a new theme. "500 years ago, the French writer Francois
Rabelais was already saying that `science without a conscience
spells doom for the soul,' " Mr. Sirat says. "We religious
leaders must recognize that our scientific knowledge is limited and
that the religious answers lag far behind scientific progress."
Jose Maria Cirarda, the Catholic archbishop of Pamplona, Spain,
attended a workshop on the beginning of life and another on
bioethics. "It is the first time that I've heard such clear and
accessible exposes by scientists," he says. "And it's also the
first time that I have listened to a rabbi explain the Jewish
definition of the beginning of human life. For him, it is when the
fetus has a human appearance; for us, it starts at the moment the
ovule has been fertilized. But I value above all how the scientists
here refuse to take a moral stand and turn to us, clergy, to give
the ethical answers."
This call from the scientific world for moral guidance was
emphasized by Prof. Patricia Baird, who directs genetic research at
the University of British Columbia. "We must ask ourselves how we
will use our increasing scientific knowledge. Some of the new
technologies are beneficial, but if they are misused they represent
a danger for the social fabric. It is necessary to look for an
international and global ethic. …