“The Pope? How many divisions has he got?” sneered Josef Stalin in 1935, upon hearing the suggestion that the Soviet Union go easy on its Catholic population.

Although Pope John Paul II leads a large flock — there are more than a billion baptized Catholics on the planet today — it remains true that he commands no divisions full of soldiers. His leadership is moral rather than military. And today, the Catholic Church’s moral leadership is putting smiles on the faces of many scientists. Legions of them, you might say.

Bet you didn’t expect to hear that. When people think about science and Catholicism, they’re likely to conjure up images of Galileo’s persecution in the 17th century. The famous Italian astronomer was forced to denounce his claim that the earth moved through space. This was said to contradict scripture.

Although the Church has made peace with Galileo’s discovery and many other scientific ideas, it still carries a lot of historical baggage. Lots of people assume that science and faith simply can’t be reconciled. I certainly don’t subscribe to this view, but there’s no denying it’s out there.

And that’s why so many folks are surprised to learn that the Vatican is one of biotechnology’s best friends.

Consider this passage from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which represents the official catechism approved by the Holy See:

“The Christian vision of creation makes a positive judgment on the acceptability of human intervention in nature. … Nature is not a sacred of divine reality that man must leave alone. … The human person does not commit an illicit act when … he intervenes by modifying some of their characteristics or properties.”

That’s a powerful and persuasive statement of principle, and it applies to burning logs for fire as much as it does to modifying genes to protect crops from pests. At least that’s my view. And it’s shared by many prominent Catholics who have spoken at prestigious conferences in Rome, organized by the Vatican to explore the opportunities and controversies surrounding biotechnology.

“Questions concerning the acceptance of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the problems that they might pose have been taken seriously ever since the development of recombinant DNA technologies 31 years ago,” said Peter H. Raven, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in a speech at the Pontifical Gregorian University in September. “It has become clear that there is nothing intrinsic to the process of genetic modification by the production of transgenic organisms that makes them unsafe in any respect.”

Raven went on to point out that farmers have been genetic engineers for more than 10,000 years, crossbreeding their crops to build better plants. “There is simply no justification for regarding imprecise traditional methods of transferring genetic traits as safe, but modern precise ones as unsafe,” he said.

These words are tremendously encouraging to hear because the Catholic Church is the spiritual home of so many people. It is also deeply concerned with the wellbeing of the world’s poorest nations and their citizens and understands how biotechnology can help alleviate human suffering.

And the fact that the Vatican is headquartered in Europe–where biotech foods have encountered much skepticism–makes its openness to biotechnology even more encouraging.

“One might well ask why a general ban on GM foods and the cultivation of GM crops exists in Europe,” said Raven. “In view of the lack of evidence that such cultivation would be harmful, one can only conclude that the reasons for the ban are emotional, personal, and political.”

He concluded with this vital observation: “It is important to keep in mind that all of this controversy is taking place without a single case of human or animal sickness or environmental problem anywhere in the world reliably attributed to GM crops!”

It’s important to remember that these statements about biotechnology don’t carry the same weight as a papal encyclical on the topic. But they’re incredibly important and extremely encouraging–and they prove that when it comes to biotechnology, the Catholic Church is a moral leader in the scientific forefront.