Sen. Arlen Specter at town hall meeting (Photo: Williamsport Sun-Gazette)

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., made a false accusation against the Catholic Church during debate on the Senate floor over federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, according to Catholic News Service.

Arguing President Bush’s opposition to the federal funding on moral grounds could seriously set back scientific discovery, Specter said: “Pope Boniface VII (sic) banned the practice of cadaver dissection in the 1200s. This stopped the practice for over 300 years and greatly slowed the accumulation of education regarding human anatomy.”

Specter not only misidentified the pope, the Catholic news site asserts, but most historical sources indicate no pontiff in history was responsible for the type of ban cited by Specter.

Boniface VII, CNS explained, was an antipope who held the papacy during three separate periods in the late 900s. Boniface VIII served from 1294 to 1303.

The news service said some sources cite the possible cause for confusion in “De Sepulturis,” a papal bull issued in 1300.

“Persons cutting up the bodies of the dead, barbarously cooking them in order that the bones being separated from the flesh may be carried for burial into their own countries, are by the very fact excommunicated,” says one translation of the document.

The Catholic Encyclopedia says the “only possible explanation of the misunderstanding that the bull forbade dissection is that someone read only the first part of the title and considered that … one of the methods of preparing bodies for study in anatomy was by boiling them in order to be able to remove the flesh from them easily, (and) that this decree forbade such practices thereafter.”

According to German author Heinrich Haesar, in his 1845 textbook “The History of Medicine,” dissection of cadavers continued without hindrance during the Middle Ages in European universities, run under the direction of church leaders.

Guy de Chauliac, considered the father of modern surgery, was the personal surgeon to three popes in the 14th century and a promoter of dissection in anatomical studies.

The Catholic Encyclopedia says “this fact alone would seem to decide definitely that there was no papal regulation, real or supposed, forbidding the practice of human dissection at this time.”

In his Senate speech, Specter said one of the victims of the papal ban was Spaniard Michael Servetus, who “used cadaver dissection to study blood circulation” in the 1500s and was “tried and imprisoned by the Catholic Church.”

Servetus, however, encountered trouble with Catholic officials not for his medicine but for his theological questioning of the Trinity, infant baptism and original sin, according to the Servetus International Society, founded to promote his legacy.

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