Catholic alternative to the ice bucket challenge

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, September 7, 2014

Call it a tempest in an ice bucket. That’s how Dominican Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago, thinks of the minor furor that erupted when her office told school principals to be careful about where any donations went from the trendy “ice bucket challenge.”

The ice bucket challenge is an informal, grassroots fundraiser that put more than $94 million in the coffers of the ALS Association by Aug. 27. It starts with someone — usually someone who has already done it — challenging a friend or acquaintance to make a donation to the ALS Association or another charity or to dump a bucket of ice and water over their head and post a video of it online.

The ALS Association funds research aimed at preventing or curing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. It is also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It kills by robbing victims of control over their muscles bit by bit, until finally their vital organs stop working.

Most challenge participants dump the ice on themselves, and also make a donation, before challenging more people. Its spread has encompassed athletes and movie stars.

The problem is that at least a small part of the research funded by the ALS Association involves embryonic stem cells. The Catholic Church teaches that any research involving embryonic stem cells is wrong because the only way to procure embryonic stem cells is to destroy an embryo, which is a human life.

However, research that involves so called “adult stem cells,” which can include cells taken from umbilical cords or from babies, children or adults without harming the donor, is generally acceptable under church teaching.

Sister Mary Paul said that doesn’t mean that Catholic schools cannot participate in the ice bucket challenge, whether by encouraging students or faculty and staff to participate, only that they must make sure that any donations do not go to fund research involving embryonic stem cells.

“I spoke with the director of the ALS Association in Chicago, and she assured me that donors could direct their donations away from embryonic stem cell research and that would be honored,” Sister Mary Paul said. “Or they could direct their donations to another organization, perhaps one that provides direct support to people with ALS and their families.”

Sister Mary Paul mentioned the Skokie-based Les Turner ALS Foundation, which has programs to assist ALS patients and their families as well as funding research aimed at ending the disease.

Beth Richman of the Les Foundation said that it is not currently funding any research that involves embryonic stem cells, but its policies would not preclude it from funding such research. However, donors can direct their money away from research if they choose, Richman said.

“If they would be more comfortable restricting their donation to programs that are designed to directly help people with ALS, that can be accomplished,” Richman said.

Another possible recipient would be the John Paul II Medical Research Institute in Iowa City, Iowa, which does not do any research involving embryonic stem cells, Sister Mary Paul said.

The idea of allowing Catholic schools to participate, so long as they make sure the money they raise will not pay for embryonic stem cell research, seems to have caught on in dioceses around the United States, with Catholic school leaders in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati — which media reported had “banned” the ice bucket challenge — posting video of themselves being doused to raise money for the John Paul II Institute.

Other dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Newark, the Archdiocese of New Orleans and Archdiocese of St. Louis, have issued similar guidelines

Sister Mary Paul said she, along with everyone else in the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Schools, wants to find a cure for ALS, which in the past several years took the life of one Catholic school principal and the lives of two more principals’ husbands.

The ice bucket challenge “raised awareness about the need for a cure for this dreaded disease,” she said. “If it raises funds that would lead to a cure, or assists families in caring for their loved ones, then amen to that.”

But it also has provided a teachable moment for students in Catholic schools, she said. “We want to honor their generous impulses,” she said, “but we want them to be informed donors, to understand where their money is going.”