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The Newark, N.J., Roman Catholic Archdiocese has told pastors and Catholic school officials that holding Ice Bucket Challenges, a popular fad that has raised millions of dollars to combat a crippling illness, conflicts with church teachings by funding embryonic stem-cell research.
The warning was issued in a letter from a church official and with the blessing of Archbishop John J. Myers. It said some of the research funded by the ALS Association, which receives much of the money from the Ice Bucket Challenge, involves embryonic stem-cell research, which is opposed by the Catholic Church because of conflicts with its antiabortion mission.
The challenge involves dumping ice water on participants' heads and donating money for research into ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The Rev. Lawrence Fama, director of the archdiocesan Office of Respect Life, called the challenge "a stunt" that can be "fun and engaging," but questioned whether the practice conflicts with "Catholic moral teaching."
Newark is one of just a few dioceses across the nation that have issued advisories about the Ice Bucket Challenge, which has become a social media sensation.
The archdiocese sent the letter Thursday to principals at all 94 Catholic schools in the archdiocese, and to pastors and religious education staff at 218 parishes. It suggested sending donations to organizations that don't use embryonic stem-cell research.
The ALS Association responded to the warnings with a statement saying it primarily funds adult stem-cell research, which is not opposed by the Catholic Church. The statement went on to say that the association is funding one study that uses embryonic stem cells, and that research is funded by "one specific donor who is committed to this area of research."
"In fact, donors may stipulate that their funds not be invested in this study or any stem-cell project," the statement said.
It was unclear what impact the archdiocese's letter would have. Catholic schools won't be back in session for another week and a half. Pastors were sent the letters for informational purposes, said archdiocesan spokesman Jim Goodness, but it's up to them to decide how or whether they will share that information with parishioners.
Embryonic stem-cell research does not rank as a major issue for most Catholics. In a 2009 Gallup survey, 63 percent of Catholics said embryonic stem-cell research was "morally acceptable."
This is not the first time the archdiocese has instructed parishioners to be cautious of popular fundraisers. Goodness said a similar letter was sent about Susan G. Komen, a foundation for breast cancer research, raising concerns about the organization's support of stem-cell research, and Planned Parenthood, whose clinics offer contraception and abortions.
"It's something that normally our Office of Respect Life would do for a regular education thing for parishes, to remind them this is Catholic teaching on a particular subject," Goodness said.
While Myers did not write the letter last week, he has been outspoken on other issues and their relationship to Catholic doctrine, including same-sex marriage. He has been especially vocal on abortion, having published a five-page letter a decade ago stating it was dishonest for Catholic officeholders who favor abortion rights to receive communion.
Last September, Pope Francis said church leaders had become too focused on social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, and had strayed from their pastoral mission of helping the poor.
Goodness said the guidance regarding donations to ALS does not conflict with the pope's message, and merely tells people to be aware of potential conflicts with Catholic teaching.
Raul Caceres, a Teaneck parishioner who has campaigned against lavish upgrades to Myers' future retirement home, said the letter is an example of the archdiocese defying the wishes of Pope Francis.
Caceres, a surgeon, said he disagrees with church teaching on the issue of embryonic stem-cell research. "I'm a doctor; how could I oppose that?" he said.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not issued any letter or advisory on the matter of donations to the ALS Association, said spokesman Don Clemmer.
ALS attacks the nerve cells of the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary motion. The bucket challenge began modestly to raise awareness and money to fight the disease, but exploded as a social media phenomenon. The campaign now appears to be among the most successful grass-roots charitable fundraising efforts in history.
The challenge calls on people to post videos on social media of having a bucket of ice dumped on their head - either by themselves or someone else. They also have to publicly name others to do the same thing within 24 hours or donate $100 to the ALS Association. Many people do both.
Since July, videos of participants being doused with ice water have blanketed Twitter and Facebook. Celebrities including Taylor Swift, Oprah Winfrey and Derek Jeter have taken the challenge and posted their videos online.
The ALS Association has received $53.3 million in donations, compared with $2.2 million during the same period last year from July 29 to Aug. 21.