design and is non-negotiable. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Riazat Butt, Wednesday 23 February 2011 12.46 GMT guardian.co.uk
Despite its engagement with astronomy and new stance on condom use, the Catholic church is unlikely ever to soften its attitudes to stem cell research and evolution
the Vatican is boldly going where no Catholic priest has gone before has stirred up excitement as the religious institution sinks its teeth into something considerably more ancient and unfathomable than itself – the universe.
Alas, the much talked about collaboration between the Italian space agency and the Pontifical Lateran University has yet to launch. But the initiative is another sign that the Vatican wants to be taken (more) seriously on science.
In the past, Roman Catholicism has hardly covered itself in glory when it comes to science. It took the Vatican more than 350 years to admit it was wrong about Galileo, cementing its contrition by erecting a statue of him in 2009. Its pronouncements over the years on life issues have often put it at odds with the scientific community, not to mention its historical vacillation over the theory of evolution. Blogger Sensuous Curmudgeon has a pair of posts on the subject.
But the Vatican's impending partnership with the Italian space agency (ASI), coupled with a greater willingness to open up – whether it's through the pope's astronomer Guy "baptising aliens" Consolmagno embarking on speaking tours or holding science events in Rome (even if they are sometimes behind closed doors) – is evidence that it is more comfortable with its scientific endeavours.
Up to a point. Priya Shetty is among those to note that the Vatican is hosting an Aids conference on 28 May, but wonders whether a forthcoming update on bioethics issues in stem cell research and reproductive technology will be as "pragmatic" as its new stance on condom use.
Pragmatism is something of a deal breaker for the Vatican. It will not endorse or explore anything that contradicts church teaching, which is why it prefers stem cell research on adults and stops short of giving its wholehearted endorsement to evolution. As Peter Raven tells Science Magazine: "There is belief in a creator who existed before the big bang and set the universe in motion, which is something that cannot be proved or disproved by science."
The official Vatican position on evolution tilts towards intelligent design. Its point man on the subject, Cardinal Schönborn, says: "Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of 'chance and necessity' are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence." Ouch.
Whatever outsiders might think, the Vatican's scientific activities are pretty radical by its own standards, but it isn't about to stop promoting belief in a creator or espousing certain values on life issues. But are these non-negotiables too great an impediment for it to be a true scientific innovator?