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Cadavers at St. Kate’s: New lab gets archbishop’s blessing

September 23, 2011

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Archbishop John Nienstedt blesses one of two new human anatomy labs in the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health at St. Catherine University Sept. 19. (Dianne Towalski / The Catholic Spirit)

Archbishop blesses new anatomy lab at St. Catherine University — and yes, Catholics may donate their bodies to science

As far as unique events go in the life of an archbishop, this one might find a place near the top of the list: Blessing a lab where medical students will dissect human remains in the interest of science.

That’s what Archbishop John Nienstedt did this week at the invitation of St. Catherine University, which dedicated two new human anatomy labs in Mendel Hall on the school’s St. Paul campus.

The labs will be used by physical therapy students — who previously had to travel to the University of Minnesota to dissect cadavers — as well as eight other academic programs, including nursing and biology. More than 500 students are expected to participate in classes in the labs this semester.

Studying anatomy using real human bodies offers students an educational experience and research opportunity they can’t get from books and computer models alone.

But is it something the church approves?

Yes. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that if a person freely gives proper consent, “donation of organs after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as a manifestation of generous solidarity.”

And the U.S. bishops state in their “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” that “Catholic health care institutions should encourage and provide the means whereby those who wish to do so may arrange for the donation of their organs and bodily tissue, for ethically legitimate purposes, so that they may be used for donation and research after death.”

Bodies used for scientific research must be treated with reverence and respect and the remains properly interred afterward. St. Kate’s plans to start each semester with a religious service to give students an opportunity to express thanks for the gift provided by each donor.

The new labs are a place where faith and science meet — something that Archbishop Nienstedt noted at Monday’s blessing:

“In educational circles, one of the big themes today is the relationship between faith and science. So often people think that there is no relationship. What we are doing here today really is the highlight of the complementarity of these two forms of learning, these two forms of living — because it’s our faith that really gives us the profound reverence and respect that we have for each human person as a son or daughter of God. And the science helps us, it leads us to foster [and] promote the discovery of that human body — what makes it tick, what makes it run — and to promote, in the end, therapies for healing and discoveries that will give us new insights into how we can live better. And, so, it’s very appropriate it seems to me that we ask God’s blessings upon this work today because it really is the best of what we’re about, bringing faith and science together.”

Read more about the labs in next week’s issue of The Catholic Spirit.

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Look skyward tonight for the ‘Tears of St. Lawrence’

August 12, 2011

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Each August, skywatchers are treated to the Perseid meteor shower — one of the best annual displays of “shooting stars.”

This year the Perseids peak on the night of Aug. 12-13, although the nearly full moon will interfere with your ability to see many meteors — debris left by Comet Swift-Tuttle through which the Earth passes. If you’re lucky, this year you might see as many as a few dozen per minute.

The shower gets its name from the location in the sky from which the meteors appear to radiate — in this case, a point near the border between the constellations Perseus and Cassiopeia, although the meteors might flash anywhere across the sky.

The Perseids are also known in some circles as the “Tears of St. Lawrence”  — named after the third-century martyr whose feast day, Aug. 10, typically falls when the meteor shower is most visible.

The easiest way to watch the Perseids is to lie back in a comfortable lounge-style chair with a blanket and snacks. Plan on staying outside for an hour or two for the best viewing experience.

For those in the Twin Cities area and western Wisconsin who would like to learn more about the Perseids and the night sky, the University of Minnesota astronomy department is hosting a free Perseid Meteor Shower Party from 9 to 11 p.m. Aug. 12 at William O’Brien State Park near Marine On St. Croix. The evening will include a short indoor presentation and then telescope viewing of celestial objects in addition to meteor shower watching. For more information, call 651-433-0500.

So pray the skies stay clear and make it a family night under the stars, planets and the Tears of St. Lawrence.

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What’s causing the drought in East Africa?

July 26, 2011

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A woman holds her baby outside a tent serving as a medical clinic established by the African Union peacekeeping operation in Mogadishu, Somalia, July 16. (CNS photo/Stuart Price U.N. handout photo via Reuters)

The drought in East Africa is reportedly the region’s worst in six decades, and it threatens the lives of millions of people with food shortages. Thousands are fleeing Somalia to seek food in Kenya and Ethiopia, according to Catholic Relief Services, which is responding to the disaster.

But what is causing this severe drought and the looming threat of famine?

Rains that normally fall from October to December in parts of Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia failed to arrive last year. This year, spring rains were less than adequate, according to CRS, and many areas have now missed two growing seasons. Consequently, food prices are rising beyond affordability.

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of California in Santa Barbara believe that the trend of decreasing precipitation will continue and that it’s linked to global warming.

According to a press release earlier this year from the USGS:

“As the globe has warmed over the last century, the Indian Ocean has warmed especially fast. The resulting warmer air and increased humidity over the Indian Ocean produce more frequent rainfall in that region. The air then rises, loses its moisture during rainfall, and then flows westward and descends over Africa, causing drought conditions in Ethiopia and Kenya.”

These scientists concluded, after examining the region’s weather and climate data, that most of that warming is the result of greenhouse gas and aerosol emissions from human activities.

The situation in East Africa is one example of how climate change is negatively impacting world populations. And it is the world’s poor who are paying the heaviest price.

The long-term solution is to work to reduce greenhouse emissions. But, right now, what’s most needed is a generous response to the needs of those immediately affected by the drought and food shortages. You can help by making a contribution to CRS to help its efforts in East Africa.

And prayers are always needed for the hungry, for those working to assist them and for the future, which remains uncertain.

According to CRS:

“What will happen next is weather dependent. If the fall rains appear on schedule, they will be a great help, although we still must ensure that farmers have seeds to plant, because the crop failure has left many without seeds. If the rains do not appear or are deficient, then the food crisis will worsen considerably as hunger becomes more acute and displacement more widespread. If the rains are too strong, falling on the parched ground, they could wash away crops and lead to flooding.”

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As Space Shuttle era ends, a question: Was it worth it?

July 7, 2011

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Space Shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center at 10:26 a.m. central time on July 8 to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.

It will be the final mission of the shuttle program, which began in 1981 with STS-1 (STS stands for “space transportation system”) and now ends with STS 135.

Shuttle flights — a total of 134 up until Friday’s launch — can count many successes over the last three decades: The deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope as well as the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter and Magellan spacecraft to Venus have given us new insights about our solar system and the universe beyond. Hundreds of scientific experiments have been conducted in orbit. And shuttle missions have been instrumental in the construction and maintenance of the International Space Station, which could nurture continued global collaboration in the fields of science and space exploration.

Of course, there also have been tragedies: the 1986 loss of the Challenger and its crew of seven 73 seconds after liftoff. And the break up of Columbia over east Texas in 2003 that killed seven astronauts.

As the last shuttle mission looms, I’ve been wondering how we as Catholics should be thinking about space exploration and its future.

Were the shuttle missions worth it? Should we as a nation continue to invest in a space program given the other challenges we face as a planet — problems like poverty and environmental degradation that would seem to need more immediate attention?

On the other hand, I recall the recent satellite linkup between Pope Benedict XVI and 12 astronauts aboard the ISS. One astronaut noted that the science and technology designed and used for the space station could lead to adaptations on earth that would lesson conflict — sometimes violent conflict between nations — over energy resources.

I would also add that exploring the universe can help us better understand God’s creation and our place in it — and wouldn’t God want us to do that?

On the eve of this last Space Shuttle flight, I’m curious what other Catholics think about these questions. What are your thoughts?

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Pope, astronauts talk about peace, prayer, the environment

May 21, 2011

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YouTube Preview ImagePope Benedict XVI spoke today via satellite linkup with 12 astronauts, including crewmembers from the space shuttle Endeavour, currently aboard the International Space Station.

“Humanity is experiencing a period of extremely rapid progress in the fields of scientific knowledge and technical applications,” the pope said according to a transcript of the event provided by Vatican Radio.

“In a sense, you are our representatives — spearheading humanity’s exploration of new spaces and possibilities for our future, going beyond the limitations of our everyday existence. We all admire your courage, as well as the discipline and commitment with which you prepared yourselves for this mission,” he said.

The pope also asked the crew several questions. Here are some highlights from the conversation:

Pope Benedict asked the astronauts if they ever wonder, as they fly over nations and continents, how science can contribute to the cause of peace in a world racked by violence. He noted that shuttle astronaut Mark Kelly’s wife, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was the victim of violence herself, and the pope expressed his hope that her health would continue to improve.

Kelly, a Catholic, responded:

“Thank you for the kind words, Your Holiness, and thank you for mentioning my wife Gabby. It’s a very good question: We fly over most of the world and you don’t see borders, but at the same time we realize that people fight with each other and there is a lot of violence in this world and it’s really an unfortunate thing. Usually, people fight over many different things. As we’ve seen in the Middle East right now: it’s somewhat for democracy in certain areas, but usually people fight for resources. And it’s interesting in space … on earth, people often fight for energy; in space we use solar power and we have fuel cells on the space station. You know, the science and the technology that we put into the space station to develop a solar power capability, gives us pretty much an unlimited amount of energy. And if those technologies could be adapted more on earth, we could possibly reduce some of that violence.”

Pope Benedict, citing environmental threats facing the planet, asked the astronauts what issues people needed to be more attentive to.

Space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. said: “On the one hand, we can see how indescribably beautiful the planet that we have been given is; but on the other hand, we can really clearly see how fragile it is. Just the atmosphere, for instance: the atmosphere when viewed from space is paper thin, and to think that this paper-thin layer is all that separates every living thing from the vacuum of space and is all that protects us, is really a sobering thought. …”

Garan said he was filled with hope to think that the international partnership that led to the construction of the space station could be applied to other issues. “That just shows that by working together and by cooperating we can overcome many of the problems that face our planet,” he said.

Pope Benedict asked the astronauts about the most important message they would like to convey, especially to young people, when they return to Earth.

Shuttle crewman Mike Fincke responded:

“Your Holiness, as my colleagues have indicated, we can look down and see our beautiful planet Earth that God has made, and it is the most beautiful planet in the whole solar system. However, if we look up, we can see the rest of the universe, and the rest of the universe is out there for us to go explore. And the International Space Station is just one symbol, one example of what human beings can do when we work together constructively. So our message, I think — one of our many messages, but I think one of our most important messages — is to let the children of the planet know, the young people know, that there is a whole universe for us to go explore. And when we do it together, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish.”

The pope then went on to ask the astronauts whether, in the midst of their work and scientific research in space, they ever have time to stop and reflect on the origins and destiny of the universe and humankind.

Shuttle astronaut Roberto Vittori, who brought along a coin given to him by the pope that shows the “Creation of Man” painted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, said that while work in space is intense, “we all have an opportunity, when the nights come, to look down on Earth: Our planet, the blue planet, is beautiful.”

Vittori added: “I do pray for me, for our families, for our future. I took with me the coin and I allow this coin to float in front of me to demonstrate lack of gravity. … I’d like to allow this coin to float to my friend and colleague [space station astronaut Paolo Nespoli]. He will make the return to Earth on the [Russian Soyuz capsule]. I brought it with me to space and he will take it down to Earth to then give it back to you.”

The pope then spoke in Italian with Nespoli, whose 78-year-old mother died in Italy at the beginning of May while he was serving on the space station. The pope said he prayed for the astronaut’s mother and asked how he was coping.

“Holy Father, I felt your prayers and everyone’s prayers arriving up here where outside the world … we have a vantage point to look at the Earth and we feel everything around us,” Nespoli replied in Italian, according to the Huffingtonpost.com.

Pope Benedict concluded the conversation by saying he would continue to pray for the astronauts and imparting his apostolic blessing.

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Can you hear me now? Pope to make long distance call to space

May 19, 2011

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International Space Station

On Saturday at 1:11 p.m. Rome time (6:11 a.m. Minnesota time), Pope Benedict XVI will speak live via satellite with astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

The event, meant to honor the last flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, will be streamed on the Internet at the Vatican Radio-CTV site, according to the Holy See Press Office.

There are 12 astronauts aboard the space station, including Col. Roberto Vittori, an Italian who is part of the Endeavour’s crew and who is carrying a silver medal from the pope, Vatican Radio said.

Endeavour, which launched May 16 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida,  is scheduled to return to earth June 1.

While Vatican Radio said the communication by Pope Benedict would mark the first time a pope converses with astronauts while they are in space, it is not the first time a pope has sent a message to astronauts.

Pope Paul VI sent a note to the Apollo 11 astronauts — Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin — to celebrate the first moon landing in 1969.

“Honor, greetings and blessings to you, conquerors of the moon, pale lamp of our nights and our dreams,” Pope Paul told them, according to a Catholic News Service story from 2009 marking the event’s 40th anniversary.

The pope also met with the astronauts later that year at the Vatican.

“Man has a natural urge to explore the unknown, to know the unknown; yet man has also a fear of the unknown,” he told them. “Your bravery has transcended this fear and through your intrepid adventure man has taken another step toward knowing more of the universe.”

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Can an unborn child feel pain?

April 21, 2011

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During an in-womb procedure to correct spina bifida on a 21-week-old fetus, the baby's hand grips the finger of Dr. Joseph Bruner in an operating room at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., Aug. 19, 1999. (CNS photo by Michael Clancy)

Minnesota legislators are considering a proposal that would prohibit most abortions after 20 weeks gestation because of scientific evidence that an unborn child feels pain by this age. The proposal follows from a state law passed in 2005 requiring abortion providers and referring physicians to inform a woman that pain-reducing medication is available for her unborn baby prior to an abortion.

In addition to their legal applications, these laws also serve an educational purpose. They help people to understand that children in the womb — even only halfway through a pregnancy — are real human beings. They are growing rapidly, and they perceive pain. Subjecting them to abortion makes a procedure that is already inhumane seem all the more horrific.

Not everyone, however, agrees with the science the laws are based on. A quick review of the scientific literature on the topic reveals a lack of consensus among doctors and researchers about the age at which a fetus begins to feel pain. A 2005 article, for example, in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that “evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.”

One of the arguments is that the nervous system of a fetus isn’t developed enough to feel pain the way you and I do — that at 20 weeks, pain signals don’t reach the cerebral cortex where pain is perceived.

But more has been studied and written since that article was published. I remember a long story from 2008 in The New York Times Magazine that cited the views of a number of doctors and researchers who disputed the idea that unborn children don’t feel pain.

Dr. Kanwaljeet Anand, a fetal pain researcher now working at the University of Tennessee, noted in the article that a structure called the fetal subplate zone of the brain is functioning by 17 weeks and is capable of processing pain signals.

The article also cited research conducted by Nicholas Fisk, a fetal medicine specialist and director of the University of Queensland Center for Clinical Research in Australia.

He had conducted research that, he said, shows fetuses as young as 18 weeks respond to invasive procedures with an increase in stress hormones and by forcing more blood to the brain to protect it from a perceived threat.

The magazine article explains:

“Fisk says he believes that his findings provide suggestive evidence of fetal pain — perhaps the best evidence we’ll get. Pain, he notes, is a subjective phenomenon; in adults and older children, doctors measure it by asking patients to describe what they feel. (‘On a scale of 0 to 10, how would you rate your current level of pain?’) To be certain that his fetal patients feel pain, Fisk says, ‘I would need one of them to come up to me at the age of 6 or 7 and say, “Excuse me, Doctor, that bloody hurt, what you did to me!” ‘ In the absence of such first-person testimony, he concludes, it’s ‘better to err on the safe side’ and assume that the fetus can feel pain starting around 20 to 24 weeks.”

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, wrote about several problematic elements of the JAMA article when it was published six years ago.

He also pointed out something very important that today’s doctors and scientists should remember: “If there is uncertainty about when the infant in utero can begin to feel pain, should we not err on the side of caution and presume that she is entitled to pain medication when being subjected to typically painful or noxious stimuli?”

Father Pacholczyk, who holds a doctorate in neuroscience from Yale University, added:

“Yet a deeper concern remains. By offering pain control during an abortion, we still would not succeed in redeeming or sanitizing the act itself. Pain-free killing is still killing. But at least by encouraging abortion doctors and their pregnant patients to consider the pain the infant may experience, they may be prompted to consider a deeper dimension of what they are doing. By challenging their highly suspect presumptions about fetal pain, they may ultimately be pushed to look not only at the discomfort implicit in the procedure, but to revisit the more basic question about the practice itself which brings the life of an innocent human being to an untimely and unjust end.”

Some Minnesota legislators are now revisiting “the more basic question” and calling for a ban on abortions after 20 weeks as another step in ending a procedure that is immoral at any time — and that science persuasively shows is the painful taking of a human life.

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A month to learn more about the heavens

April 16, 2011

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April marks Global Astronomy Month — 30 days that annually bring together astronomy enthusiasts to cultivate interest in sky watching among the general public.

Astronomy clubs, planetariums, observatories, amateur observers and others around the world are sponsoring a host of GAM educational and viewing opportunities. There are online events and even an astropoetry blog.

GAM, organized by a group called Astronomers Without Borders, hopes to ride the wave of enthusiasm about space that accompanied 2009’s Year of Astronomy, an observance the Vatican said could help people better appreciate the beauty of God’s creation.

GAM is a great opportunity to introduce youth to the wonders of the universe. I realize that convincing kids to stand under the night sky to learn the constellations or peer through a telescope to spy the rings of Saturn may seem like a tough sell in an age when video games and multimedia entertainment options compete for young people’s attention.

I know because I have a 12-year-old son who, it seems, would spend all day playing computer games if you let him. But I have also heard him express awe at seeing sunspots through a telescope with a solar filter and shout with excitement as he watched the bright streaks of meteors flash across the sky. After such experiences, I typically field a litany of questions from him about the phenomena and why they happen.

Video games are fun, he once told me. But this cool stuff is real. And, he’s been hooked ever since.

I think other kids would get excited about astronomy, too, if they had a chance to experience it the same way. That’s what GAM is all about.

There is still time to take advantage of official GAM events, but you can do a lot on your own, too. Purchase an inexpensive star map and make it a family contest to see who can identify the most constellations. A simple guidebook will explain the mythological stories behind the star formations. (Astronomy magazine has a good website to help kids learn constellations.)

Looking at the moon though binoculars is a pretty awesome sight. The rings of Saturn currently are in position to be seen clearly with a small telescope. And, this month also brings the Lyrid meteor shower (The best viewing conditions will be under rural skies on the night of April 22/23.)

The Vatican had its own astronomy event this month when Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Vatican astronomer, gave a talk on faith and science April 7 at the American Academy in Rome.

It was on a hill in that location 400 years ago that Galileo gathered with the top scholars of his era to look through his telescope, an instrument he helped to perfect just a few years earlier. They saw the moons of Jupiter — no doubt an awesome sight for these privileged few.

Astronomy has come a long way since Galileo. Thanks to a variety of cheap and plentiful resources, sky watching is now accessible to anyone who is interested.

So, take advantage of GAM to learn more about heavens. If you have kids, pull them away from the video games for a while to show them the cool graphics God has waiting for them in the night sky.

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Are Catholic universities doing enough to foster the religion-science dialogue?

April 7, 2011

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CNS photo/NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team, Reuters

New scientific advancements are rapidly changing the way we live and how we think about the world and the universe. At the same time, these advancements often raise new moral and religious questions.

Unfortunately, “few Catholic universities have devoted resources to educating theologians willing to engage with the scientific world,” says Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio, in a recent article in America magazine, “Faith and The Cosmos: Can Catholic Universities Foster Dialogue Between Religion and Science?”

In this well-written commentary, Sister Delio, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, argues that Catholic universities need to do more to become leaders in promoting the religion-science dialogue. And that includes engaging seminarians more on the topic so they are better prepared to address important pastoral issues when they become priests.

The church has a valuable contribution to make in this area. Sister Delio writes:

“While the church recognizes the importance of science for the development of faith, it also recognizes the limits of science as the ultimate horizon of meaning. . . .

“Theologians are needed to reflect on the big questions of meaning and purpose in light of evolution, ecology and technology, as well as to comment on the moral questions raised, especially by the biomedical sciences.”

The latter field is especially in need of clear reflection in light of the moral and ethical dimensions of stem-cell research, cloning and care for the terminally ill.

Sister Delio’s article is well worth taking the time to read.

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Should Minnesota end moratorium on building nuclear power plants?

April 2, 2011

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Bills to end the moratorium on nuclear power plant construction (HF 9 and SF 4) were introduced at the start of this year’s legislative session by Rep. Joyce Peppin (R-Rogers) and Sen. Amy Koch (R-Buffalo). The House and Senate passed different versions of the bill in February, and a House-Senate conference committee was appointed to work out the differences.

Proponents say lifting the moratorium is necessary for the state to consider all options for its energy needs. That, however, was before the nuclear plant disaster in Japan raised new questions about the future of nuclear power.

In Minnesota, which has nuclear power plants in Monticello and Prairie Island, the concerns are mostly focused on the waste such facilities produce.

Gov. Mark Dayton has said he would sign a bill lifting the state moratorium that has been in place since 1994 only if certain conditions are met, including the establishment of a national nuclear waste storage location — something that doesn’t exist at this time.

I remember hearing those concerns when I was a reporter with the St. Cloud Visitor in the mid-1990s, when Northern States Power (which later became part of Xcel Energy) wanted to build 17 steel casks at its Prairie Island plant to store spent nuclear fuel rods until a national nuclear disposal site was opened.

When I visited the area for a story at the time, some residents felt the cask storage would be safe. They had greater fears about the economic impact on the area if the plant ran out of space and had to shut down. Others — including the adjacent Prairie Island Indian Community — felt that accommodating more nuclear waste posed an added threat to residents and the environment.

In the end, the company did get its 17 casks, and it has added more since then. While there have been no serious accidents at the plant, long-term storage questions persist. Back in the 1990s, the government was working to establish a long-term repository under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But funding for the project has been cut.

That brings us back to the current proposal before the Minnesota Legislature.

The Minnesota Catholic Conference, the social policy voice of the state’s bishops, opposes lifting the ban because of concerns about the lack of a long-term storage facility and the future safety of communities located near short-term waste containment sites, according to Katie Conlin, the organization’s interim social concerns director.

The church doesn’t oppose nuclear energy outright, however. Indeed, it recognizes that nuclear energy offers an alternative to reliance on coal and other energy sources that produce carbon emissions and contribute to the problem of global warming — at least until other sources of power like wind and solar energy can be developed on a wider scale.

But an accident — even if it is an extremely rare event — at a nuclear power plant could have implications for human and environmental health that are more far-reaching and longer-lasting than an accident at a coal plant.

In a recent column in The Visitor, newspaper of the Diocese of St. Cloud, Professor Bernard Evans of the St. John’s School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville, said prudence and solidarity should guide local discussions on the issue:

“To build nuclear power plants without having a clearer plan about the long-term storage of highly radioactive waste seems imprudent,” Evans said. “If the virtue of prudence directs us not to act in ways that may endanger others, then we must look elsewhere to satisfy our ever-increasing energy needs. That is not an easy task because the continued burning of coal also presents a danger to future generations.”

What do you think is the prudent approach and the right approach to meet today’s energy requirements? Should Minnesota lift its moratorium on new nuclear power plants or keep it in place?

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