How Should the Catholic Church Interact With Science?
III St. John Paul II’s Rapprochement

pope, john paul ii

Turning to the relationship between religion and science, there has been a definite, though still fragile and provisional, movement towards a new and more nuanced interchange. We have begun to talk to one another on deeper levels than before, and with greater openness towards one another’s perspectives. We have begun to search together for a more thorough understanding of one another’s disciplines, with their competencies and their limitations, and especially for areas of common ground. In doing so we have uncovered important questions which concern both of us, and which are vital to the larger human community we both serve. It is crucial that this common search based on critical openness and interchange should not only continue but also grow and deepen in its quality and scope.
—Pope St. John Paul II, Letter to Fr. George V. Coyne, Director of the Vatican Observatory, on the Occasion of the study week, “Physics, Philosophy and Theology—a Common Quest for Understanding,” 1987.

From saintedward-com
Our Times: Pope St. Paul II’S Rapproachment With Science

This article, the third in a series (see here and here), will deal with Pope St. John Paul II’s rapprochement with science. I choose his practice as a model for how the Church should deal with science.

Let me add: the term “rapprochement” has been chosen with care: “an establishment or resumption of harmonious relations” (Oxford English Dictionary).   The term is applied to peace treaties after a state of war, and although the Catholic Church has not declared war on science, there are those scientists who do think there is such a war, and there are those advocates of scientism—that science explains all we need to know about the world—who have declared war on the Church.    These last ignore the founding contribution of the Church to the establishment of science (see here).

There are three ways in which Pope St. John Paul II tried to bring about this rapprochement:  1) redressing the Galileo Affair;  2) making the position of the Church on evolution clear and consistent with both dogma and science;  3) instituting conferences on how Divine Intervention might be manifested in several scientific disciplines.      The first two have been dealt with here.   Accordingly, I’ll focus on the third, which has been an invaluable resource for me in learning about the intersection of science and religion.

A Quest for Common Understanding- Divine Intervention Conferences
In 1987 Pope St. John Paul II instituted the first of a series of conferences, held at the Papal Summer Residence, Castelgandalfo, bringing together scientists, philosophers and theologians.    Not all of these were Catholic and, indeed, a few were not even theists, as the term is commonly understood.
He addressed the conferees at this first meeting (“Our Knowledge of God and Nature: Physics, Philosophy and Theology”) via a letter to George Coyne, SJ, Director of the Vatican Observatory.  (I recommend the reader go to the link for that letter, to get the full import of St. JP II’s thoughts on science and the Church.)  He stressed first the contributions science could make to the Church and the Church to science, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”  

He showed a sophisticated knowledge of frontier research in physics and biology in his comments on how scientists were trying to achieve a unified picture of scientific theory in physics and biology:

The unity we perceive in creation on the basis of our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord of the universe…seems to be reflected and even reinforced in  what  contemporary science is revealing to us….Contemporary physics forms a striking example.  The quest for unification of all four fundamental physical forces–gravitation, electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear interactions–has met with increasing success….In the life sciences, too, something similar has happened.  Molecular biologists have probed the structure of living material…(and) have discovered that the same underlying constituents (genes and proteins coded by genes) serve in the make-up of all living organisms on earth.” St. John Paul II, letter to George Coyne.

Although Pope St. John Paul II argued that science and theology could, and should, mutually enrich the other, he did not think they should be unified, as in unified science or unified theology:

By encouraging openness between the Church and the scientific communities, we are not envisioning a disciplinary unity between theology and science like that which exists within a given scientific field or within theology proper….The Church does not propose that science should become religion or religion science…To be more specific, both religion and science must preserve their autonomy and their distinctiveness….Christianity possesses the source of its justification within itself  and does not expect science to constitute its primary apologetic (emphasis added).   Science must bear witness to its own worth….neither ought to assume that it forms a necessary premise for the other.”   ibid.

The quotation above reminds me of my encounters playing harmony parts (tenor and bass) in our Church instrumental group:  the musical lines are distinct, for the most part different,  but the harmony enriches the melody, as does science, theology.

Although Pope St. John Paul II respected the integrity and distinctiveness of science and theology, he did emphasize that they could and should enrich each other in areas such as cosmology and molecular biology, and, accordingly, set up conferences to effect such enrichment.   He stressed the importance of putting scientific findings in a proper context and the difficulty of doing such in our contemporary setting:

“For the truth of the matter is that the Church and the scientific community will inevitably interact….Christians will inevitably assimilate the prevailing ideas about the world, and these are inevitably shaped by science.  The only question is whether they will do this critically or unreflectively, with depth and nuance or with a shallowness that debases the Gospel and leaves us ashamed before history.   Scientists, like all human beings, will make decisions on what gives value and meaning to their lives and to their work.   This they will do well or poorly, with the reflective depth that theological wisdom can help them attain, or with an unconsidered absolutizing of their results beyond their reasonable and proper limits.” ibid.

The last sentence in the above quote applies very well, I believe, to those cosmologists such as Stephen Hawking and cognitive scientists such as Stephen Pinker, who deny God on the basis of a limitless science.

I’ll have to add that all the insights above (with the possible exception of the musical analogy) are those of  Pope St. John Paul II.   I’ve been blessed in being able to bring these to the attention of others.

And, finally, as a postscript, here is a list of these conferences and links to the proceedings published by the Vatican Observatory and University of Notre Dame Press.   On the web page of the Center for Natural Sciences and Theology that lists the books, you will see images of each book.  If you click on the book image, there will appear article headings at the right of the web-page, which will link to the article of interest.

Physics, Philosophy and Theology–A Quest for Common Understanding.
Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature–Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action. 
Chaos and Complexity–Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action.
Neuroscience and the Person–Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action.
Evolutionary and Molecular Biology–Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action.
Quantum Mechanics–Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action.

Should the Church Forbid Use of Some Technology?

This is the way the Church should deal with science.  Do not pronounce judgments on whether some scientific proposition is correct, but do promote discussion of that science which intersects Catholic teaching.

However the Church has a duty to delimit which applications of science are acceptable, that is to say, how and when technology can be used by Catholics and be compatible with Catholic teaching.   I’ve discussed one such application elsewhere: Designer Babies vs Catholic Teaching.   In the fourth of this series, I’ll treat this subject generally.

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5 thoughts on “How Should the Catholic Church Interact With Science?<br>III St. John Paul II’s Rapprochement”

  1. Pingback: Biotechnology and Bioethics: What the Catholic Church Says

  2. Bob, This is another interesting and informative article. Regarding technology and the morality of one or another technological application or artifact, I think it’s most helpful to avoid an automatic association between science and technology (not saying that you are doing that). Guardini has a helpful approach that speaks of “technique” as an array of instrumentally oriented human activities, and Heidegger (and many others, including the neo-marxist Frankfurt School) are helpful in seeing technology as more of a type of activity, grounded in instrumental control over our environment, society, and self, that is embedded in relationships as well as our experience (or distortion) of reason itself. I think this broader set of perspectives – even though they are more complex and often obscure – helps us to gain understanding of the unique way that modern science develops technology, rather than seeing technology as an inevitably proper and exclusive product of scientific efforts. Both John Paul II and Pope Francis reflect this broader wisdom and draw on such philosophers in their approaches to technology.

  3. Thank you for your comment, Howard. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say “how should the Church interact with the results of science?” But that would be too long for a header, and, alas, somewhat pedantic. The great thing about the English language is that meaning can be inferred through a variety of misuse. Or, to quote, Lewis Carroll

    “When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’”

  4. The Church is a thing. Science is not a thing, but an activity; it sounds like a noun, but it’s really like “throwing”, which is an activity that, as a gerund, can be used as a noun. The question, then, is something like, “How should Tua Tagovialoa interact with throwing?” He doesn’t “interact” with throwing; he sometimes throws, and sometimes does not. He interacts with Nick Saban, but not with throwing.

  5. Pingback: MONDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

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