Christianity, Roman Catholic, Issues in Science and Religion (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
The most distinctive features of Roman Catholicism that influence the religion-science dialogue are its hierarchical and authoritative structure and its emphasis upon the rational foundations for religious belief. Many of the divisions that have occurred within Christianity in the course of history have their origins in one or both of these characteristics of Roman Catholicism. The history of the interaction within Roman Catholicism between science and religion has been dominated by its hierarchical structure. On the other hand the insistence on reason as fundamental to the relationship of human beings to the universe and, therefore, to the creator of the universe has played an important role in the birth of modern science and provides a platform for the dialogue between the belief system of Roman Catholicism and other disciplines, especially science.
Views of nature
The Catholic belief system includes the fundamental affirmation that nature has a rational structure which human intelligence is capable of probing and, in fact, is driven to probe. The basis for this affirmation lies principally in the Johannine tradition of the Logos. John the Evangelist confronted early Christian belief with the world of Greek philosophy. In addition, early Christian reflection upon lived, historical events, especially those recorded in John's Gospel, sees in such events the insertion of God's plan, thought, and word into the universe. Thus John's use of the word Logos, inherited from the Greeks: "The Word (Logos) of God became flesh." This revelation, which the Judeo-Christian tradition believes is spoken by God through his chosen spokespersons, has enormous consequences for one's judgment upon scientific knowledge of the universe. The Judeo-Christian experience affirms emphatically the enfleshment of the divine and, since God is the source of the meaning of all things, that meaning too becomes incarnate.
Some see in this religious belief the foundations of modern science. A rigorous attempt to observe the universe in a systematic way and to analyze those observations by rational processes, principally using mathematics, will be rewarded with understanding because the rational structure is there in the universe to be discovered by human ingenuity. Since God has come among human beings in his Son, humans can discover the meaning of the universe, or at least it is worth the struggle to do so, by living intelligently in the universe. Religious experience thus provides the inspiration for scientific investigation.
To varying degrees this "Logos theology" is at the roots of all Christianity. What in it is peculiar to Roman Catholicism? In addition to the strong affirmation of this "transcendence become incarnate" by the robust system of sacraments in Roman Catholicism (shared, perhaps, also by Anglicanism), there is in Catholicism a long tradition of analogical knowledge. This reached its peak in medieval Scholasticism, and, although it has taken on many forms, is still very prominent in Catholic thought. It seeks to come to a knowledge of God, the creator, through knowledge of creation. In creation, perfections are always mixed with imperfections. If, at least in thought, the two can be separated, the perfect can then be applied to God. This analogical knowledge is also referred to as the via negativa because, even as one applies knowledge of the perfect to God, one must deny that God can be limited to this knowledge. So, the philosopher Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225274) could rightly say upon the completion of his Summa Theologica that "it was all straw."
Analogy refers to a relationship of similitudes, or of things that are similar. For instance, God is perfect love, and that can be compared with other kinds of love that one witnesses, such as the love of a mother for her child, or the long-standing love of a husband and wife for one another in a stable marriage. But then one sees imperfections in human love, and one must deny that these are present in God's love. That is the use of analogy. The implication is that God wishes to tell humans about himself/herself in creation. It follows, therefore, that a scientist, one who is also a religious believer, must find in science one way to seek to know God. Roman Catholicism in its view of nature is profoundly convinced of this.
It is important to note the logical sequence here. It is not that one comes to believe in God by proving God's existence through anything resembling a scientific process. God is not found as the conclusion of a rational process like that. One believes in God because God gave himself/herself to one. Faith is a personal relationship of love with God and God initiated gratuitously that relationship. No one merited it. No one reasoned to it. Faith is "arational." It does not contradict reason, but it transcends it. Once one has entered into that relationship, one can seek to deepen it through a scientific knowledge of God's creation. This is a very characteristic stance of Catholic intellectuals.
History of the interaction between science and religion
Because of the dominant hierarchical and authoritative structure of the Catholic Church the history of the interaction between science and religion will necessarily focus upon that structure. This is not to deny that influential Catholic thinkers, such as the paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881955), the astronomer and cosmologist George Lemaître (1894966), and others, have not had an impact, but they are not typical of Catholicism in regard to the interaction with science.
Four case histories indicate that the relationship between religion and science in Roman Catholicism has, in the course of three centuries, passed from one of conflict to one of compatible openness and dialogue. The four periods of history are: (l) the rise of modern atheism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; (2) anticlericalism in Europe in the nineteenth century; (3) the awakening within the Church to modern science in the first six decades of the twentieth century; and (4) the Church's view at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The approach of science to religion in each of these periods can be characterized respectively as: (l) temptress, (2) antagonist, (3) enlightened teacher, (4) partner in dialogue.
In his detailed study of the origins of modern atheism, Michael Buckley concludes that it was, paradoxically, precisely the attempt in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to establish a rational basis for religious belief through arguments derived from philosophy and the natural sciences that led to the corruption of religious belief. Religion yielded to the temptation to root its own existence in the rational certitudes characteristic of the natural sciences. This rationalist tendency found its apex in the enlistment of the new science, characterized by such figures as Isaac Newton (1642727) and René Descartes (1596650), to provide the foundation for religion. Isaac Newton marks the real beginning of modern science. Although the Galileo case, as it is called, provides the classic example of confrontation between science and religion, it is really in the misappropriation of modern science by Isaac Newton and others to mistakenly establish the foundations for religious belief that the roots of a much more deep-seated confrontation can be found. From these roots, in fact, sprung the divorce between science and religion in the form of modern atheism. Thus, science served as a temptress to religion. The certainties born of the scientific method gave birth to the desire for identical certainties as a foundation for religious belief. That desire was radically misplaced and led to a lengthy period of misunderstanding between religion and science.
Certain episodes during the nineteenth century reveal aspects of the second movementnticlericalism. Its influence on the development of the relationship between science and religion in Catholicism are described by Sabino Maffeo in the second edition of his history of the Vatican Observatory. In fact, the founding of the Observatory in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII is set clearly in that climate of anti-clericalism, and one of the principle motives that Leo XIII cites for the foundation of the Observatory is to combat such anticlericalism. However, after having shown clearly the prevailing mistrust of many scientists for the Church, he terminates the document in which he established the Observatory by stating:
. . . in taking up this work we have put before ourselves the plan that everyone might see that the Church and its Pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but that they embrace it, encourage it, and promote it with the fullest possible dedication (quoted in Maffeo, p. 315 ff.)
Although the historical circumstances did not provide a healthy climate for a dialogue between religion and science, the founding of the Vatican Observatory, even if couched in triumphalistic terms, proved to be a positive contribution to the dialogue, both at the time of its foundation and in its subsequent history.
When one speaks of the awakening of the Church to science during the first six decades of the twentieth century, one is really speaking of the personage of Pope Pius XII. The Pope had an excellent college-level knowledge of astronomy and he frequently discussed astronomy with researchers. However, he was not immune to the rationalist tendency and his understanding of the then most recent scientific results concerning the origins of the universe led him to a somewhat concordant approach to seeing in these scientific results a rational support for the scriptural, and derived doctrinal, interpretation of creation. It was only, in fact, through the most delicate but firm interventions of Georges Lemaître, the father of the theory of the primeval atom that foreshadowed the theory of the Big Bang, that the Pope was dissuaded from following a course that would have surely ended in disaster for the relationship between the Church and scientists.
The specific problem arose from the tendency of Pope Pius XII to identify the beginning state of the Big Bang cosmologies, a state of very high density, pressure, and temperature, which was, at that time, thought to have occurred about one to ten billion years ago, with God's act of creation. Lemaître, in particular, had considerable difficulty with this view. Although he was a respected cosmologist, he was also a Catholic priest, and, since solid scientific evidence for his theory was lacking at that time, he was subject to the accusation that his theory was really born of a spirit of concordism with the religious concept of creation. In fact, it was only with the discovery in 1965 of cosmic background radiation that persuasive scientific evidence for the Big Bang became available. Lemaître insisted that the primeval atom and Big Bang hypotheses should be judged solely as physical theories and that theological considerations should be kept completely separate.
Galileo and Darwin
There are two episodes in the history of the interaction between Catholicism and science that merit special attention. The cases of Galileo Galilei (1564642) and Charles Darwin (1809882) have, at least in the popular mind, become myths that are thought to exemplify the interaction.
In view of Galileo's increasing promotion of Copernicanism the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Catholic Church in 1616 issued a decree that declared that the Copernican theory that the sun moved was absurd in philosophy and heretical, and the theory that the Earth was not immovable was absurd in philosophy and suspect of heresy. These carefully honed distinctions between philosophy and religious belief reveal the exaggerated rationalism of Catholicism at that time. Philosophy, of course, referred to the philosophy of nature, what people today call physics. Heretical meant that the philosophy contradicted Scripture. The physics was that of Aristotle; Scripture was limited to the literal meaning and to the understanding of the Church Fathers. On both accounts the decree was, by hindsight, grossly in error. This is touted as a conflict between science and religion, but of all things it was clearly not that. Science was never a partner in the discussions. Galileo's telescopic observations, which convincingly supported Copernicanism even though they were not proofs, were never subjected to discussion. Furthermore, religion in the name of Scripture was not a principal protagonist. A philosophical conviction that Aristotle was correct led to an insistence on a literal interpretation of Scripture. Uncritical and untested convictions about the nature of the universe dominated the scene on the part of the Church. In 1633 Galileo was condemned to house arrest for life because he had disobeyed, by his publication of the Dialogue, a private edict given to him in 1616, as a consequence of the above decree, not to support Copernicanism. A final judgment upon this case must be that the Church erred gravely at that time in not allowing an internationally renowned scientist to pursue his research. It did so because its authoritarian structure embraced a renunciation of reason. Aristotelian natural philosophy was the standard, not because it was reasonable but because it was imbedded in all Catholic theological thinking of that epoch. A fracture had occurred between reason and authority, two basics of the Catholic way.
The case of Darwin is different; in confronting Darwinian evolution, it was Catholic doctrine that was at stake. There are two fundamental doctrinal assertions that appeared to be under attack: The human being is a special creature, in whose origins God directly intervenes; and the supernatural cannot be reduced to the natural.
Since the time of Darwin, as biological, chemical and physical evolution became ever more acceptable scientifically, the Catholic Church has struggled to understand its doctrinal heritage in light of the new science. On October 22, 1996, a message of John Paul II on evolution was received by the members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the occasion of a meeting sponsored by the Academy on The Origin and Evolution of Life. This message is in continuity with the posture of openness characteristic of modern Catholicism. Whereas the encyclical of Pope Pius XII in 1950, Humani Generis, considered the doctrine of evolution a serious hypothesis, worthy of investigation and in-depth study equal to that of the opposing hypothesis, John Paul II states in his message:
Today almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical [Humani Generis], new knowledge has led to the recognition that the theory of evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis.
The Pope wished to recognize the great strides being made in the scientific knowledge of life and the implications that may result for a religious view of the human person. For him, however, some theories of evolution are incompatible with revealed, religious truth. These include materialism, reductionism, and spiritualism. But at this point the message embraces a true spirit of dialogue when it struggles with the opposing theories of evolutionism and creationism as to the origins of the human person. And this is obviously the crux of the message.
The dialogue progresses in the following way: (1) The Church holds certain revealed truths concerning the human person; (2) Science has discovered certain facts about the origins of the human person; (3) Any theory based upon those facts that contradicts revealed truths cannot be correct. Note the antecedent and primary role given to revealed truths in this dialogue; yet note the struggle to remain open to a correct theory based upon the scientific facts. The dialogue proceeds between these two poles. In the traditional manner of papal statements, the main content of the teaching of previous popes on the matter at hand is reevaluated. And so the teaching of Pius XII in Humani Generis that, if the human body takes its origins from preexistent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God. Is the dialogue therefore resolved by embracing evolutionism as to the body and creationism as to the soul? It must be noted that the word soul does not reappear in the remainder of the dialogue. Rather the message moves to speak of "spirit" and "the spiritual."
If the revealed, religious truth about the human being is considered, then there is an ontological leap or an ontological discontinuity in the evolutionary chain at the emergence of the human being. Is this not irreconcilable, wonders the Pope, with the continuity in the evolutionary chain seen by science? An attempt to resolve this critical issue is given by John Paul II's statement in his 1996 message that:
The moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of [scientific] observation, which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being.
The suggestion is being made, it appears, that the ontological discontinuity may be explained by an epistemological discontinuity. Is this adequate or must the dialogue continue? Is a creationist theory required to explain the origins of the spiritual dimension of the human being? Are we forced by revealed, religious truth to accept a dualistic view of the origins of the human person, evolutionist with respect to the material dimension, creationist with respect to the spiritual dimension? In the last paragraphs concerning the God of life, the message gives strong indications that the dialogue is still open with respect to these critical questions.
The dialogue at the beginning of the twenty-first century
Although there are many others, the sources for deriving the most recent view from Roman Catholicism concerning the relationship of science and faith are essentially three messages of John Paul II, two of them given in 1979 and 1986 to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and the third in 1988 to the Vatican Observatory. The public has emphasized the statements made by the Pope concerning the Copernican-Ptolemaic controversy of the seventeenth century. In his statements concerning Galileo the Pope essentially does two things: He admits that there was wrong on the part of the Church and apologizes for it, and he calls for a serene, studious, new investigation of the history of that time. However, there are matters that are much more forward-looking and of much more significance than a reinvestigation of the Galileo case.
Especially in the 1988 message, given on the occasion of the tricentennial of Newton's Principia Mathematica, John Paul II clearly states that science cannot be used in a simplistic way as a rational basis for religious belief, nor can it be judged to be by its nature atheistic or opposed to belief in God.
... Christianity possesses the source of its justification within itself and does not expect science to constitute its primary apologetic. Science must bear witness to its own worth. While each can and should support the other as distinct dimensions of a common human culture, neither ought to assume that it forms a necessary premise for the other. (quoted in Russell et al., p. M9).
The newest element in this view from Rome is the expressed uncertainty as to where the dialogue between science and faith will lead. Whereas the awakening of the Church to modern science during the papacy of Pius XII resulted in a too facile an appropriation of scientific results to bolster religious beliefs, Pope John II expresses the extreme caution of the Church in defining its partnership in the dialogue: " Exactly what form that (the dialogue) will take must be left to the future" (quoted in Russell et al., p. M7).
See also DARWIN, CHARLES; GALILEO GALILEI; SCIENCE AND RELIGION, MODELS AND RELATIONS; TEILHARD DE CHARDIN, PIERRE
Buckley, Michael J. At the Origins of Modern Atheism, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987.
Hesse, Mary B. Models and Analogies in Science. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966.
John Paul II. "Message to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences," October 23, 1996. Published in the original French in L'Osservatore Romano, 23 October 1996. English translation available in Origins (Washington, D.C.: Catholic News Service) 26, no. 22 (14 November 1996).
Lemaître, George. "The Primeval Atom Hypothesis and the Problem of Clusters of Galaxies." In La Structure et L'Evolution de l'Universe. Bruxelles, Belgium: XI Conseil de Physique Solay, 1958.
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Pius XII. Humani Generis: Encyclical letter concerning some false opinions which threaten to undermine the foundations of Catholic doctrine, August 12, 1950. In Acta Apostolicae Sedis, Vol. 44. Vatican City: Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1950.
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