Richard Doerflinger, the U.S. Catholic bishops' point man on bioethics and "pro-life" causes, has heard all the stereotypes too many times to count. The church is anti-science. The church is old-fashioned. The church cares more about an embryo than an Alzheimer's patient.
"Opponents have a vested interest in portraying us as the people who say no to everything, who say no to progress," he said. Yet he and the church hierarchy remain adamant that the Senate should not expand embryonic stem cell research.
In the debate over stem cell research, Catholic leaders say they face a two-pronged battle: one against public opinion that generally favors the research, even among Catholics; the other, in Doerflinger's words, against the image that "religion is out to destroy science."
In many ways, it's almost as if the ghost of Galileo -- who was hauled before the Inquisition in 1633 for his pursuit of science -- continues to haunt the church, even though the church absolved him in 1992.
As the nation's largest church -- 67 million members and counting -- Catholics are an influential voice in the debate, and the church's historic voice on ethics and science is hard to ignore. Historically, when the church speaks, people tend to listen.
Lately, however, it seems people are tuning out.
Catholic leaders oppose embryonic stem cell research because embryos, which the church considers human life, must be destroyed to harvest the stem cells that might may hold the cure to a host of debilitating diseases. Doerflinger said the science suggesting dramatic medical gains from embryo research has been "exaggerated . . . beyond all earthly bounds."
As the Senate takes up several stem cell research bills before adjourning for an August recess, Catholic leaders are facing an uphill fight where the Catholic position is not the popular one:
* In a 2004 Pew poll, 55 percent of Catholics supported stem cell research over protecting an embryo, a rise from 43 percent three years ago.
* A similar majority of Americans, 57 percent, disagreed with a statement that using embryos "comes too close to allowing scientists to play God," according to a 2004 Harris poll. Only 19 percent agreed.
* Only 39 percent of Catholics said it was "morally wrong" to use embryos in research, according to a Gallup poll in April, although opposition was stronger (56 percent) among Catholics who attend Mass every week.
So it seems that Catholics are not listening, do not care what the church has to say or perhaps aren't getting the right messages.
"When I see those kinds of polls, I just sort of shake my head and say it's further evidence that the church has failed in properly forming its parishioners," said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a conservative Catholic who opposes embryonic research. "I blame the messenger."
The bottom line for the church hierarchy is that, generally speaking, most Americans and most Catholics tend to support embryonic research that bishops oppose. But church leaders are quick to point out that what is popular is not necessarily what is right.
Why the disconnect? The Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, a neuroscientist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, said the church has been "outgunned" by high-wattage celebrities, includingactor Michael J. Fox and former first lady Nancy Reagan, who advocate for the research.
The church's message "has not gotten the kind of prime-time coverage that it should, and we're playing, in a sense, catch-up," said Pacholczyk, who frequently speaks about the church position.
Church leaders, meanwhile, contend that public support for the research is squishy, if not altogether soft. When poll questions are worded differently, the numbers are surprising:
* A LeMoyne College-Zogby International poll in March asked Catholics about "research that entails destruction of human embryos." Sixty-two percent said it was "morally wrong."
* A poll commissioned by Doerflinger's office in May asked about research where "live embryos would be destroyed in their first week of development." Just more than half -- 52 percent -- opposed it, while 60 percent supported research methods that "do no harm to the donor."
"We're against taking some human lives in the quest for helping others," Doerflinger said, "and when that's explained, Catholics listen."
Still, the church continues to wrestle with Galileo's ghost and the overall impression that Catholic leaders are ambivalent about -- or even hostile toward -- scientific research.
It didn't help when an Austrian cardinal, Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, recently pondered in the New York Times the church's views on evolution. The column seemed to have the pope's approval, prompting scientists to worry that the church was backpedaling on scientific support of evolution.
Although the church supports research on stem cells derived from adults, its opposition to embryonic research is absolute. In a letter to the Senate, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, head of the bishops' pro-life committee, called embryonic research "destructive and morally offensive." He suggested the only acceptable change to the limited federal research should be to end it "altogether."
Jewish and mainline Protestant groups that support embryonic research say part of the Catholic bishops' problem is an inconsistent message that promotes life for embryos but seems to frown on extending or improving life for patients who could be helped by the research.
"A narrow ideology of a culture of life of a few should not hamper us from getting on with a culture of life that will benefit many," said the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance.
Part of the solution, according to Brent Waters, director of the Stead Center for Ethics and Values at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary in Evanston, Ill., would be a little bit of "intellectual honesty" in the debate.
"The bishops have an obligation to state as clearly as they can the moral objections for using embryos for this research," Waters said. "But I don't think they have the right to discredit the science, at least not as bishops."