Genetically modified foods revisited?

VATICAN CITY — An Irish theologian, Columban Father Sean McDonagh, wrote a commentary recently after reading this CNS story.

The story and Father McDonagh’s subsequent commentary were based on an interview Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, gave the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, Jan. 1.

In his remarks on the scandal of hunger, Cardinal Martino seems to have become more skeptical of how central a role genetically modified foods should be playing in the fight against global hunger.

From our story:

Famine and lack of nutrition are to be blamed on the poor distribution of plentiful foodstuffs, not overpopulation, he said.

The responsibility for the food crisis “is in the hands of unscrupulous people who focus only on profit and certainly not on the well-being of all people,” said Cardinal Martino.

A more just system of distribution and not the manufacturing of genetically modified foods is the key to addressing the problem, he said.

“If one wants to pursue GMOs (genetically modified organisms) one can freely do so, but without hiding that it’s a way to make more profits,” he said.

Utilizing genetically modified foods calls for “prudence” because genetically modifying organisms can increase yields in some instances, he said, but people must not abuse their power to be able to manipulate nature.

This is a far cry from the Italian cardinal’s once laid-back attitude toward GM foods which he had made evident during a press conference in 2002. As CNS’s John Thavis reported back then:

A Vatican official who returned recently from a 16-year stint in the United States offered himself as a walking testimonial to the safety of genetically modified foods.

As someone who once ate bread laced with marble dust during World War II, Archbishop Renato Martino said he was only too happy to choose from today’s smorgasbord of high-tech foodstuffs.

“Look at me. I’m in good health, at least I think so. I was in the United States for 16 years and I ate everything on the market, including a lot of GM (genetically modified) food,” the [then] 70-year-old Italian archbishop told a Vatican press conference Dec. 17.

“Up to now, I’ve had no undesirable effects,” he said with a laugh. He recently took up a Vatican position after serving as the Holy See’s representative to the United Nations.

He recalled that as a boy in southern Italy during World War II, he would walk to buy a small piece of bread that “had everything inside, including marble dust.” Marble dust was sometimes slipped into the dough to add substance to the product in times of flour shortages.

But in wartime, he said, that little piece of bread was everything.

“So when someone is hungry, he adapts and eats all kinds of things. Naturally, this (genetic food) issue needs to be evaluated, but I think the whole controversy is based more on politics than on science,” he said.

Over the years, the Vatican has cautiously endorsed genetically modified foods. In 1999, the Pontifical Academy for Life gave a “prudent yes” to the genetic modification of plants, as long as the risks are “carefully followed through openness, analysis and controls.”

In 2003, Cardinal Martino’s council sponsored a study seminar dedicated to the advantages and risks of GM foods. Some noted the number of invited speakers in favor of GM far outnumbered those advocating caution, but Cardinal Martino at the time insisted the Vatican had not passed any judgment on the moral and ethical questions involved.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has shown its support for the potential of GM foods. In 2004, it released a study document that praised the important contributions GM foods could make in combating hunger.

Interestingly, in mid-May this year, the science academy is hosting a study week dedicated to transgenic plants for food security. Judging from the pro-GM flavor of the program’s introduction and the background of its invited speakers, the study session looks like it will glowingly endorse the use of genetically modified crops for feeding the poor.

What are readers’ opinions? Is there already enough food to feed the world? Is the problem of hunger a problem of distribution? Will creating special crops for developing nations help or hurt humanity?

Miracle and mystery in St. Peter’s Square


After a brief hiatus, the Nativity scene is back in St. Peter's Square. (CNS photo by Cindy Wooden)

VATICAN CITY — A miracle happened in St. Peter’s Square overnight. After being packed up and hauled away yesterday, the Vatican Nativity scene is now back.

If my colleague Cindy Wooden hadn’t had taken pictures of the empty grotto and a crane taking the star down off the tree yesterday, I would have sworn I was dreaming.

But there it was. Everyone was back: the Holy Family, the Three Kings … everyone except the angel hovering over the manger. 

What happened to bring Christmas back after staff at the office governing Vatican City told me yesterday a decision was made to be take everything down early this year? 

Passionist Father Ciro Benedettini, assistant director of the Vatican press office, anticipated our puzzlement and came to the press hall this morning armed with the following explanation:

He said, “There was a leak” in the roof over part of the Nativity scene “and since the statues are made of papier mache, they had to be moved out” temporarily. Also the electrical wiring needed to be checked to make sure everything was still safe, he said. 


But herein lies the mystery.  If the roof had sprung a leak, why had everything been removed from the scene, including the shrubs and trees planted outside? Don’t plants like a little water? 

Also the larger-than-life hand-carved statues are made of wood, which would have been vulnerable to water damage, too. In fact, the only statue made of papier mache — the angel — was still gone this morning. presepio-trees

But why had the crane been taking down the tree? The lights had been removed as well as the star at its tip. 

When we checked this morning, the tree was still standing — its lights and the star still gone and decorations at the top noticeably thinner. But all the pretty plants in front of the scene were back snug in fresh mounds of dirt… 

Why, too, did the Vatican press office take down all their decorations the same time yesterday?

A quick call back to the nice people at the Vatican’s governing office only heightened the sense of mystery. When asked what had happened, one staff member said, “It was a miracle.” 

The staffer who had told me yesterday Christmas decorations were going to be taken down early this year retracted the comment saying, “It was false.”

But Italian police who patrol the square told one Vatican journalist they had been alerted that trucks would arrive to dismantle the Nativity scene on Monday.

We’d like to think miracles do happen beyond 34th Street. But whatever the reason for the Holy Family’s return, pilgrims coming to Rome will get to enjoy the Vatican Nativity scene until Feb. 2 when it really will come down … keeping with Vatican tradition.