Missouri Roman Catholics who attend Mass Sunday can expect to hear a homily against embryonic stem cell research and a statewide petition drive aimed at allowing Missourians to vote on a constitutional amendment to protect the research.
Earlier this month, the bishops of the four dioceses that make up the Catholic province of St. Louis decided to direct priests to convey the church's position from their pulpits this Sunday.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Friday that the Catholic church is using the first Sunday of Advent to launch a campaign aimed at keeping Catholics from signing the petition, and to teach them the Catholic view of the issue.
The Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, which includes business interests, universities and patient groups, announced the petition in October. Secretary of State Robin Carnahan approved the petition last week. The coalition has already begun airing advertisements.
The initiative is believed to be the first of its kind. Some believe its success could help fuel a national movement to protect stem cell research through state constitutional amendments.
It isn't just Catholics who are opposed. In June, the editor of "The Pathway," the Missouri Baptist Convention's newspaper, called embryonic stem cell research "highly speculative and dangerous" and "the greatest moral issue facing Missourians since the state ratified the 13th and 14th Amendments abolishing slavery."
Former Republican Sen. John Danforth is the honorary co-chair of the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, and an ordained Episcopal priest. He said initiative opponents should ask themselves two questions.
"First, do you believe the cells in the Petri dish are the equivalent to a 10-year-old child with a disease that may be preventable with this research?" he said. "And second, if you do believe that, do you believe the government should pass legislation to enact that religious proposition?"
The Catholic church believes embryonic stem cell research destroys human life and is therefore akin to abortion. Church leaders, however, say they support adult stem cell research.
In a letter to his priests dated Nov. 10, St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke told them: "Without an understanding of the true nature of the 'Initiative,' Catholic voters may be inclined to sign the petition. In order to avoid Catholic voters succumbing to the false promises and statements made by this initiative's proponents, it is important that voters in our parishes receive appropriate scientific, moral and ethical information."
The bishops also have asked every Catholic parish to hold an educational event to discuss the topic.
"The whole purpose is to educate the public that this coalition wants to amend our constitution to give free rein to do whatever scientists want to do with our embryos," said Molly Kertz, director of the St. Louis archdiocese's Respect Life apostolate.
In a recent column in his archdiocesan newspaper announcing the campaign, Burke wrote about the "intrinsic evil" of embryonic stem cell research, and the moral consequences of signing the petition.
"To sign a petition favoring the initiative is to promote the culture of death which tragically besets our nation and constitutes a cooperation in the destruction of human lives at their very beginning," he wrote.
In a sample homily provided to each Catholic pastor in the state, the Missouri Catholic Conference suggests the priest end with, "Our hope and our prayer this day is that - by our words and actions as faithful Catholics - we can shape the policy of our state over this next year so that our state laws and policies respect human life at its very beginnings."