How Should the Catholic Church Interact With Science?
I. Do Not Judge Scientific Truth

causality

Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.
–Pope St. John Paul II, “Letter to Rev. George Coyne,S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory.”

This is the first in a series of articles about how the Catholic Church should deal with matters related to science.  In this piece I’ll argue that evaluating the scientific validity of theories or hypotheses is outside the Church’s domain.  As a corollary, the Church should not incorporate the results of science (which can change) into Catholic teaching.

In subsequent articles I’ll discuss

  • how the Church can foster discussion about intersections between Catholic teaching and science,
  • how results from science can be used to justify Catholic teaching (e.g prolife),
  • which applications of science—that is to say, what technology—should be rejected by Catholics.
AXIOMS FOR HOW THE CHURCH AND SCIENCE SHOULD RELATE

Here are propositions I’ve defended that can be regarded as axioms, foundations for how the Church should deal with science.   They summarize the stance I’ve taken in my web-book,Truth Cannot Contradict Truth, and in other articles.

  • The Catholic Church is not the enemy of science and, indeed, was the midwife of science for Western civilization.
  • The Catholic dogma, Creatio ex Nihilo, God created the universe from nothing, is consonant with settled cosmological science.
  • Logic and rational inquiry have limitations and exceptions. Also, science, which employs several modes of rational inquiry, requires both theory and reproducible empirical validation: for example, science can neither disprove nor prove the existence of a Trinitarian God.
  • There is no conflict between Catholic Teaching and the science of common descent (evolution) provided we acknowledge that the human soul is uniquely bestowed by God at the moment of conception.  Moreover, there are several theories to explain how evolution occurs.
  • Cognitive science explains how the brain works but does not tell us how consciousness works or what a soul is.   Philosophers disagree generally about “the hard problem of consciousness.”   What Catholic teaching says about the soul is not challenged by scientific findings or philosophical conjectures.
  • Miracles have occurred and will occur.  Although such events are outside the realm of scientific inquiry, they are validated empirically and by faith.

Just as science and technology do not tell us what our moral or religious beliefs should be, so our Catholic faith can not help us to judge what is good or bad science, as I’ll demonstrate below..

JUDGING THE SCIENTIFIC VALIDITY OF THEORIES AND HYPOTHESES

1. The Galileo Affair—Should the Church Judge Scientific Truth?
In 1633 the Catholic Church made a big mistake: it convicted Galileo of heresy for advocating the Copernican theory, that the earth revolved around the sun.   That is a bald statement of a much more complicated situation,  as I’ve said in another article and in my web-book, “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth,” (Essay 1, Sec. 4.1)

George Sim Johnston, gives a fine analysis in his article, “The Galileo Affair.”

“The Galileo affair is the one stock argument used to show that science and Catholic dogma are antagonistic. While Galileo’s eventual condemnation was certainly unjust, a close look at the facts puts to rout almost every aspect of the reigning Galileo legend.”
–George Sim Johnston, “The Galileo Affair

Summarizing Johnston’s arguments, one can say that both Galileo and some Church officials were at fault, that it was a different time with different concerns–high officials in the Church, initially sympathetic to Galileo, were defending orthodoxy against the onslaught of the Reformation.

Galileo was condemned not for his advocacy of the Copernican theory per se, but for his position that Scripture was to be interpreted loosely (even though St. Augustine had also argued for a non-literal interpretation of Genesis). And Galileo’s science was not entirely correct: he proposed circular orbits for the planets and an incorrect theory of tides. All this is dealt with at greater length in the article linked above. Nevertheless, this one piece of history has been the cannon used in the war of materialists against the Church to support their perceived conflict between the Church and Science.

In 1979 Pope St. John Paul II asked the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to make an in-depth study of the affair. Commenting on their report in 1992, he said, as an apology, explaining what had happened:

“Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system. The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture….”
–Pope St. John Paul II, “Address to Pontifical Academy of Sciences”, as quoted in L’Osservatore Romano N. 44 (1264) – November 4, 1992

2. Cardinal Schonbrun and Intelligent Design—Should the Church Judge Scientific Truth?
Clearly the Church should not make judgments on scientific matters when the science itself is not settled, Church dignitaries should carefully consider whether it is necessary that they support one of several contending interpretations.  Cardinal Schonbrun caused much controversy by  publishing an essay in the New York Times, “Finding Design in Nature”, that seemed to support the theory of Intelligent Design as opposed to the neo-Darwinian mechanism of evolution.
The essay was criticized by a number of Catholic scientists, including the then director of the Vatican Observatory, and by the physicist, Stephen Barr, in an article in First Things. Cardinal Schonbrun enlarged on his position in a later article in First Things and explained that he was not necessarily supporting Intelligent Design theory, but that God guided all events, including evolution, and that our universe is not the product of chance. I certainly agree with that opinion.  It was a good save!

3. Pope Francis and Anthropic Global Warming (AGW)—Should the Church Judge Scientific Truth? 
I’m very much afraid that Pope Francis has repeated the mistake made by Cardinal Schonbrun, by advocating the truth and perils of Anthropic Global Warming in his Encyclical  Laudato Si.  In statements from the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Science there are judgments and statements that are contentious, that are not held by all scientists.   For example, it is not the case that polar ice and Himalayan snow are decreasing (they continually melt, but the net amount is not decreasing due to global warming–see evidence from satellite images.)

I don’t propose in this essay to debate extensively the merits of AGW.  (See “Scientific Integrity: Lessons from Climategate,” Laudato Si on the Science of Global Warming.“)  On the other hand, it is essential that two points be made:
  • First, it is not true that a “97% consensus” of scientists support the AGW / Climate Change proposition.   See, for example the 97% myth.   And in any case, scientific theories and propositions are not judged by majority vote, but by empirical confirmation.   Before the Michelson-Morley experiment a majority of scientists believed in the ether as the medium for propagation of electromagnetic waves;  afterwards, not many.
  • Second, the extent of data massaging (“fudging”) revealed in the Climategate excerpts and of fiddled temperature data from Paraguayan weather stations   should cause one to regard reported temperature increases with more than usual skepticism.
Accordingly, global warming caused by human production of CO2 is by no means a settled scientific issue.  For a fuller account see Andrew Montford’s “The Unintended Consequences of Climate Change Policy”.

 

4. LeMaitre & Pope Pius XII: the Big Bang as Doctrine—Should the Church Judge Scientific Truth?
Pope Pius XII wanted to use the Big Bang theory of Abbe LeMaitre as evidence in a proof for God, supported by the Church. (See here.) Abbe LeMaitre dissuaded him from doing so by arguing that scientific theories are tentative, subject to change, and that certainly isn’t a property one should expect of a religious truth.  After his conversation with Abbe LeMaitre, Pope Pius XII evidently agreed.  He made no further proposals about the Big Bang as part of Catholic theology.

5. Evolution, Cosmological and Biological—Should the Church Judge Scientific Truth?
Perhaps the most contentious topic is evolution, both cosmological and biological.  I’ve discussed this in several articles (see “Did Neanderthals have a soul,” “Can a faithful Catholic believe in science,“) and in Essay 5 of my web-book, “Evolution: No War between Science and the Church,”) so I’ll not repeat those arguments here.

I will assert, however, that this is a battle between those Catholics who, like some evangelical Protestants, believe that Scripture should be taken as literally true, and those, like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who believe that the Bible is not a science textbook but a guide for how to live.

As Pope St. John Paul II remarked (and I paraphrase), there are a number of theories explaining evolution (the theory of common descent of species from some single organism) but the empirical facts support the general notion of common descent.   The problem is that many people (including some scientists) confuse evolution—common descent—with the Darwinian model for evolution (the survival of the fittest).

Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Pius XII asserted that any theory of evolution which regards man as a totally material being and does not take into account a soul imparted by God, could not be true.  (Again I paraphrase.)

CATHOLIC TEACHING IS ETERNAL, SCIENCE CHANGES

The Dogma and Doctrine of the Church are handed down from God as eternal truths, whereas theories and fundamental principles of science can change, supplanted by new theories and new empirical evidence.  Accordingly, for Church officials to evaluate scientific theories—settled or unsettled—is a serious mistake.  They assume knowledge and authority which they don’t have.  And such judgments are not in accord with how the truth of Dogma and Doctrine is established, by Revelation and Tradition, rather than by empirical validation.

Nevertheless, the Church should be involved in scientific matters, as I’ll argue in future articles.

 

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16 thoughts on “How Should the Catholic Church Interact With Science?<br>I. Do Not Judge Scientific Truth”

  1. Great article! Just want to note that Cardinal “Schonbrun” should be “Schoenborn” (or Schönborn) to prevent confusion…

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  5. I wonder what you might think of the theory (existence?) of dark matter. Recent physics work has indicated that dark matter, which supposedly makes up 80% or so of the universe, existed BEFORE the “big bang”. That seems like a revolutionary and highly destabilizing discovery that revitalizes belief in a supernatural existence prior to the formation of the material world – all supported by physics, the science of the material world! Here’s an article on dark matter preceding the big bang: https://scienceblog.com/509408/dark-matter-may-be-older-than-the-bigbang-study-suggests.

    1. Thanks for the comment and the link, Chris. I’ll say this before I read it. Much of the Cosmology that denies the “Big Bang” (i.e. denies “Creatio ex Nihilo”) is not supported by empirical evidence, i.e. replicable observations that can be used to either falsify or support the hypothesis in question. Accordingly, such hypotheses are not science, as I term science, but rather mathematical metaphysics. I’d put bubble universes in this class. The only proposal that was susceptible to empirical verification (and was disproved) was Penrose’s conformal cyclic cosmology. (See here:
      https://wmbriggs.com/post/18701/)
      I’ll read the linked article and modify what I’ve said above if it does appear that empirical support is offered for the proposition. Thanks again.
      LATER
      I’ve looked at the original article (Phys. Rev. Letters) and since I don’t subscribe, can only read the abstract. There’s a mention there of “testable” of the notion of “scalar field fluctuations” that provide the mechanism for pre-existent dark matter, but nothing other that would yield empirical tests. I would classify this as an offspring of the “quantum field fluctuations” notion that has been previously used to support something pre-existent to the Big Bang.

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  7. Doesn’t the validity of the heliocentric, Copernican depiction of planetary motion require the equal validity of a geocentric depiction of that same motion? Consider a circular stadium with a circular track surrounded by spectator stands. Circling the track is a single cyclist riding a bike at constant speed. There are three surveillance cameras recording the motion. One is mounted on the retaining wall of the track facing the center of the stadium with a full view of the track, the bike, and much of the stands. The second is mounted on the frame of the bike, facing the retaining wall. The third is similarly oriented, but is mounted on the hub of the rear wheel of the bike. The first video record is easy to interpret as a stationary stadium with the bicycle in motion with its rear wheel rotating. The second depicts the stadium in motion, similar to a view of the inside wall of a rotating cylinder. The third depicts the stadium in motion, rotating from right side up to down and back again. If any of these video records is judged to be valid, must not all three be judged to be valid? Surely, the ease of interpretation, due to the choice of one particular reference as stationary, does not determine validity.

    1. Thanks, Bob for this comment, but I can’t reply directly to it because I don’t understand it. The most obvious and direct confirmation of the heliocentric hypothesis is Galileo’s observation of the phases of Venus. See here (scroll down the page to get to the venus phase part):
      http://ircamera.as.arizona.edu/NatSci102/NatSci102/lectures/galileo.htm
      I don’t see how these would be same for the three models you set up.
      Or are you saying, absent such data as the phases of Venus, the choice of the origin of coordinate system is arbitrary, so rotation of point B (earth) about point A (sun) can be equally taken as rotation of point A (sun) about B (earth)? Actually, if one takes dynamics into account the simplest picture of rotation is about the center of mass, but in this case that’s almost where the sun is.

  8. I concur in your reply to me. However, I would direct your criticism to Darwin, not to Dawkins. Any data that could be interpreted as compatible with the Darwinian algorithm of the random generation of mutants and their culling by non-random selection would also be compatible with an algorithm of the non-random generation of mutants and their culling by random selection. The application of random and non-random to materiality is an analogy based on whether one chooses to imply the human knowledge of material order or to imply the human ignorance of material order, respectively. https://theyhavenowine.wordpress.com/2017/11/30/the-meaning-of-random-and-non-random/

  9. thanks for your comment Chris. There are two answers to the apparent lack of transitional species: 1) there is no such lack given the frequencies of mutations and sparsity of fossils (see
    https://ncse.com/creationism/analysis/transitional-fossils-are-not-rare )
    2) evolution does not proceed by small gradual changes but by big jumps, the so-called “punctuated equilibrium” hypothesis of Steven Gould and ???
    I personally do not credit the neo-Darwinian model for evolution; a number of scientists, both theists and atheists, also think this model, survival of the fittest by small gradual incremental changes, mutations, is not satisfactory to account for common descent.

    In my opinion what cinches common descent is the phylo-genetic tree, the changes in DNA and protein chemistry for living beings. Do a web search and you’ll see lots of articles on this.

  10. How do we harmonize common descent with the Cambrian Explosion, and the absence of transitional species in fossil records? Darwin himself predicted such transitional species would be found in the fossil record and as I recall, all but prepared to invalidate his own theory if they weren’t found. So far, they haven’t been.

    1. The evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, has demonstrated that Darwinian evolution by stages increases mutational efficiency by eliminating the possibility of the generation of many intermediate mutations. Transitional gaps are of the nature of the Darwinian algorithm applied by gradual stages. In his 1991 lecture “Climbing Mount Improbable”, Dawkins illustrated this by comparing a single stage of evolution affecting three mutation sites of six mutations each with its replacement by a series of three substages, each affecting one mutation site. In the single stage the beginning mutation and the ending mutation are generated, while the 214 intermediate mutations are also liable to be generated. In the series of three substages, only 14 of the 214 intermediates are liable to be generated.

    2. Thanks for the comment Bob. My problem with Dawkins example is that it is computer modeling. Like all computer modeling efforts (including those for climate change) what you get is what you put into it, so that it’s possible to achieve a desired result by appropriate assumptions for probabilities, correlation coefficients, etc.

      I prefer science that based on theory AND data, for example Stoeckle and Thaler’s work on “Why should mitochondria define species?” (See here:
      https://phe.rockefeller.edu/docs/Stoeckle_Thaler%20Human%20Evo%20V33%202018%20final.pdf )
      which shows not a continuity, but gaps between mitochondrial clusters for different species.

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