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Cloning: the bleat heard around the world

That Scottish sheep has certainly caused a stir. The world's first cloning (story, page 3) of an adult mammal has, like most big firsts, caused us to pause and ask who we are and where we're going.

Caveats and admonitions abound. Sheep and monkeys may be fine, but what about us? One biologist delighted feminists by announcing there'd be no more need for men -- and that's just for starters. President Clinton said biologists shouldn't play around with people the way they're doing with sheep. The Vatican sounded similar warnings.

This, however, may be a good time for church leaders to slow down, take a deep breath, take this whole sensational story slowly and circumspectly. The Catholic church, for one, has a dismal record of overreaction to discovery and innovation.

In the matter of innovation, scientists say, we're just getting started. To take a wacky example: In a 1995 book, Nano, author Ed Regis tells the story of K. Eric Drexler, a graduate student at MIT in the 1980s who amused his peers with speculations about "assemblers," very tiny machines measured in billionths of an inch -- just the right size, in other words, to manipulate "plain old atoms into objects, substances or other assemblers; with virtually no outlay in raw materials and no operating costs, an assembler would build any number of anything you could imagine, from pork chops to spaceships."

Lest this sound too Disneyesque, the author points out that in the 15 years since Drexler had his brain waves, "some of the 'impossible' technologies upon which his vision depended have begun to emerge" at places like IBM and Du Pont.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would look plain goofy endorsing a scenario like that. Still, we already believe some fairly unlikely things. And who would ever have believed cloning anyway? And as for the visionary Drexler, it turns out he wasn't even original: He learned later that one Richard Feynman had already spelled out the basics of nanotechnology in 1959 in an after-dinner speech later published as "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." There's nothing new under the sun. It says so in the Bible.

This brings us to the other technology story of the week: the Vatican's new guide for confessors, recommending a kinder, gentler approach to the shriving of artificial contraception. The document is called a vade mecum, a quaint, arcane name that somehow seems to belong to history. This more benign approach to contraceptive sinners is a sad, late gesture aimed at Catholics who for the most part have walked away from a sacrament discredited by the Vatican itself with the publication of Humanae Vitae a generation ago.

Please come back, the confessors are asked to say, and we won't beat you up with hellfire any more.

But there's a catch-22 here. A church that, when lost for a good argument, hews as closely as ours does to infallibility, is stuck with its history. It can't easily admit a mistake. Therefore, the artificial contraception that presumably would send sinners to hell a generation ago can't now be an indifferent matter. Rather, the same old contraception must again be pronounced "intrinsically evil." In that case, the admonition to gloss over its transgressions in confession sounds dangerously close to the relativism against which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger so recently warned the world.

The sheep was such a happy choice for this new scientific breakthrough. Cute animal. And then there's the Good Shepherd, so popular an icon in the early church, an exemplary memory to which to hark back.

William Blake in his famous poem asks the tiger, "Did he who made the lamb make thee?" Lambs are cute, but watch out for tigers.

It's a good time to be circumspect, and even humble.

Rampant rumors that Bishop John Leibrecht, a native of St. Louis and bishop of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese in southern Missouri, has been offered the Chicago archdiocese led one of his admirers in Springfield to remark, "Chicago should be so lucky." Leibrecht's name surfaced among news outlets in Chicago. The unconfirmed word is that the 66-year-old Leibrecht, who successfully negotiated Ex Corde Ecclesiae -- the Vatican document on Catholic higher education -- through rough U.S. academic waters in recent years, has been offered the post but is resisting.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 1997