The Catholic Church has never had a particularly easy relationship with science. After all, this is the institution that sentenced Galileo Galilei as a heretic for his theories on the universe during the Roman Inquisition.
Two thousand years later, the church forgave Galileo and called the whole misunderstanding a “tragic mutual incomprehension” but it remains safe to say the Vatican doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to empirical open-mindedness.
So onlookers were surprised when the Vatican announced it would be hosting a global conference on the highly controversial issue of stem-cell research in Rome over four days in late April. The church held a similar conference in 2010 and 2011, which focused on its recommendation that stem-cell research should be limited to adult cells that can be harvested from live donors, not embryonic cells that destroy the source.
But this year’s conference schedule featured some of the world’s foremost experts in embryonic research as keynote speakers—leading some scientists to think that the Vatican might actually be looking for enlightenment on the topic.