God of All Creation

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 32, Lent 2005
Pat McMullan

In March 2004, the agribusiness company Monsanto applied to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) for genetically engineered (GE) wheat to be legally approved as a food. Concurrently, Monsanto lobbied but failed to have Glyphosate tolerant Roundup Ready Wheat approved for commercial planting in North Dakota, USA. This shelving of commercial planting is a significant victory in the wider campaign to protect our common genetic heritage. Moreover, the actions of Monsanto and other like companies are also a reminder to those who break bread in the memory of Jesus that the debate about transgenic foods is never far from the sanctuary.

There has been little public theological reflection on GE. At the time of the lifting of the GE Moratorium in October 2003 in New Zealand, most Catholics were happy to take their lead from our Bishops, who took a positive, though highly circumscribed, approach to GE. ‘In itself, the technology of genetic modification is not unethical. Like many human inventions it has great potential for good, but also the potential for harm which could affect not just current but future generations. Ethical and moral principles need to be at the heart of our decision-making in relation to the use of genetic modification.’[i] Unfortunately, most attention is paid to the first sentence and little to the implications of the moral framework that the Bishops outlined.

In contrast, Church leaders in the Philippines, Brazil and South Africa are strong opponents of GE. Their voices are worth listening to because transgenic crops are commercially planted in their areas of pastoral responsibility. In the words of the bishops from Botswana, South Africa and Swaziland: ‘We think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems and that it will undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.’[ii] GE is no esoteric matter for significant portions of the Catholic world.[iii]

The Vatican too has weighed into the debate, even though somewhat ambiguously. Pope John Paul II said at an open-air Eucharist with two million people in Poland: ‘Man frequently lives as if God does not exist and even puts himself in God’s place. Man claims for himself a Creator’s right to interfere in the mystery of human life. He wishes to determine human life through genetic manipulation and to establish the limits of death.’ (August 2002) There is doubt, however, wether the Pope had transgenic foods in mind.

On the other hand, there is no ambiguity surrounding Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life. He states ‘there are no specific indications from the Magisterium of the Church on biotechnology. Because of this, I have stopped all those who demand the condemnation of these products.’ He believes ‘research in the biotechnological field could resolve enormous problems as, for example, the adaptation of agriculture to arid land, thus conquering hunger.’ [iv]

Curiously, Sgreccia seems not to address the issues of unjust economic and distribution systems. Doubtless he is familiar with these issues given the Church’s active and ongoing involvement in the campaigns to cancel foreign debt that emerged on the cusp of the millennium. More pointedly, we might legitimately wonder in what way the privatisation of the gene pool through patenting is going to increase access for the poor to healthy food? Seemingly oblivious to these issues Sgreccia told a group of bishops from the Philippines who, as a conference, are vocal opponents to GE: ‘There are no impediments to animal and vegetable biotechnologies,’ [which] ‘can be justified with the motive that they are for the good of man.’[v] Important new studies would suggest a more cautious approach.[vi]

Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is another influential churchman who appears to have few personal reservations about GE. With dubious logic, he claims that the debate is ‘more political than scientific’ since he suffered no ill effects from such foods which he ate while living in New York as the Vatican’s envoy to the United Nations for 16 years.[vii] While most European States boycotted, Martino (then an Archbishop) was the Vatican representative at the WTO Ministerial Conference on Food and Agriculture held in Sacramento, California, 23-25 June 2003. This conference, sponsored by the U.S. Government (USDA, USAID, and the US State Department), was a major push to legitimise GE foods.

On various occasions Cardinal Martino has recited what may be called the ‘official’ position: ‘The Pope is greatly interested in new technologies for food development as part of a policy of sustainable agriculture … (and that he) ardently desires to do something for the billions of people who go to bed hungry every night.’ [viii] However, on the 4th August 2003 Martino was reported as saying that the Vatican would back GE food.[ix] It appeared that he had controversially entered into the feud between the EU and the US over GE produce.[x] This statement was later denied and the official position of cautious interest and the desire to feed the poor was reiterated. Nevertheless, the initial false reporting continues to be influential.

There is a rich irony for Catholics in the fact that this WTO Ministerial Conference was held in a place called Sacramento. The link between food and faith is never more poignantly realised than in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, which is, in the words of Vatican II, ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’ (Lumen Gentium, 11). In faith we believe that this sacred ritual defines, inspires and consummates us not only as followers of Jesus but also as intimate sharers in the life of God.

Fortunately while still only a hypothetical construct, it is worth pondering the implications of GE wheat on the Church’s ability to celebrate the Eucharist. [xi] The Code of Canon Law is specific about what is needed to constitute a lawful Eucharist. ‘The bread must be wheaten only, and recently made, so that there is no danger of corruption.’ (Canon 924:2) Wheat (like wine) is, to state the obvious, fundamental.

Moreover, the kind of wheat is also important. In 1982, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith forbade the local Ordinary the right to permit a priest to consecrate special gluten-free hosts for the communion of coeliacs: i.e. a person who is unable to absorb gluten, a protein found in wheat.

‘Substantially equivalent’[xii] GE wheat would be invalid for use in the Eucharist because of the addition of a new protein that makes wheat tolerant to the herbicide Glyphosate. While the Church naturally makes a direct link between wheat and the real presence, there is also an incarnation and symbolic sense of God’s presence in all food. The millions of believers throughout the world that bless their food before eating attest to this wider faith sentiment.

Like other agricultural seeds, wheat emerges out of the millennial processes of evolution, selective breeding and the guiding hand of the Creator. These seeds are part of our common heritage, which we are called to guard. However, guardianship of those seeds is now under threat as corporations like Monsanto not only patent the genes but also manipulate those patents for commercial gain.

For example, physicist and ecologist Dr. Vandana Shiva draws attention to Monsanto’s disingenuous claims ‘to have ‘invented’ the unique low-elasticity, low gluten properties of an indigenous Indian wheat’.[xiii] The net result is that the company now has a stake in all products derived from this particular wheat: e.g. flours, batters, biscuits, other edible products; and perhaps one day the hosts for Eucharist.

Last year in his meditation on the Eucharist, Pope John Paul II reflected on the many Eucharistic celebrations he has participated in across the world. These profound moments have given him ‘a powerful experience of its [the Eucharist’s] universal and, so to speak, cosmic character. Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation.’ (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 8) The Eucharist, in other words, subverts our technological despotism[xiv] and reawakens our cosmic imaginations.

The Pope articulates in an insightful way the key theological response to GE. This response is not, in the first instance, about food safety, health or biodiversity. Rather, the initial theological response proceeds from a faith-filled meditation on the universe as an orderly, harmonious whole. This whole emerges through the on-going artistry of the Creator and the inherent wisdom of evolution. Moreover, the incarnation alerts us to the sacredness of the whole.

GE is nothing short of an arrogant attempt to commodify the cosmos through technologically sophisticated but morally bankrupt science. This science is an attempt to redefine our vocational relationship with the cosmos in terms of control based on manipulation, contracts and ownership. In contrast, the majesty of the human vocation, which is found in the guardianship of the cosmos, means we must necessarily find morally objectionable this vain attempt at redefinition. For those who claim to be followers of Jesus, the cosmic order is always pure gift from God and can never be the property of multinational corporations. That is, when we are celebrating ‘on the altar of the world’ we are always affirming and acknowledging the bounteousness of a cosmos pregnant with divine meaning. Food can never be an instrumental thing. ‘Blessed are you, Lord of all creation, through your goodness we have this bread to offer…’

[i] New Zealand Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Submission to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, October 2000

[ii] ‘Catholic Bishops Speak out against GM and Monsanto Lobby of the Vatican,’ 18 September 2003, http://www.gefoodalert.org/News/news.cfm?News_ID=3585

[iii] ‘The number of Catholic faithful rose from 757 million in 1978 to 1.07 billion at year-end 2002. By continent, the increase was 150% in Africa; 74% in Asia; 49% in Oceania; 45% in the Americas; and 5% in Europe.’ Zenit.org, 10 May 2004

[iv] Pontifical Academy for Life Pronounces on Biotechnology, ZENIT, October 12, 1999

[v] John Hooper in Rome and John Vidal, ‘Vatican backing sparks GM row’, The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/gmdebate/Story/0,2763,1018256,00.html

[vi] Dr Mae-won Ho and Prof. Joe Cummins, ‘GM Food & Feed Not Fit for ‘Man or Beast’ 29 April 2004 http://www.i-sis.org.uk/ManorBeast.php

[vii] Nicole Winfred, ‘Vatican Steps into Genetic Engineering Debate,’ Vatican City, 11 November 2003, http://www.organicconsumers.org/ge/vatican111303.cfm

[viii] Eric J Lyman, Vatican Mulls View Change on GMO, UPI, 8 August 2003, http://www.upi.com

[ix] Richard Owen, ‘Vatican Hails GM Food as a Saviour,’ The Times, London, 4 August 2003

[x] J.R. Pegg, U.S. Leaders Push Europe to Allow Biotech Crops, ENS, Washington, DC, March 27, 2003

[xi] I am indebted to my confrere Sean McDonagh for the following research on the canonical status of wheat. http://www.catholicireland.net/pages/index.php?nd=100&art=386

[xii] Term used by the bioscience industry and some government regulatory agencies (e.g. US Food & Drug Agency, USFDA) to infer that GE food can be safely eaten. However, as Dr. Robert Anderson demonstrates: the term is ‘just a marketing buzzword, a declaration from an agency that is itself overseen by the industry it is set up to ‘regulate’’ Jonathan Eisen (ed.) The GE $ellout, Auckland, The Full Court Press, 2003, p.15

[xiii] Vandana Shiva, Wheat Biopiracy,’ 22 April 2004, http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2004-04/22shiva.cfm

[xiv] Pope John Paul II, ‘Ecological Conversion’, General Audience Address, January 17, 2001

Pat McMullan is a Columban Missionary. He presently works in the Columban Centre for Mission Reflection, Aotearoa New Zealand. Pat recently completed his MA thesis on globalisation and inculturation at Victoria University Wellington. This adapted article first appeared in the East Asian Pastoral Institute magazine, October 2004.

Comments are closed.