Nature posts an editorial today, “A pope for today“, displaying some optimism about the Catholic Church’s attitude towards science and welcoming the new papacy of Pope Francis:
“We know little about Bergoglio’s views on scientific issues, which he has hardly written about. The hordes of scientists among the Church’s 1.2 billion baptized members would like to hear more. And his chemistry degree in itself says little about the Pope’s attitudes to science. But what is clear is that, contrary to widespread belief, the modern Catholic Church is science-friendly and Pope Francis will no doubt continue, and perhaps deepen, that tradition.”
As with the video done by Discovery News, posted below, it is good to see that some parts of the mainstream science commentary are becoming more willing to admit that the Church is not categorically opposed to science, and are recognizing the central role the Church and the Catholic intellectual tradition have played in the building up of the scientific enterprise.
Still, there is a sense here that it is the Church that needs to do all the opening up, and that the secular culture of “science” has already got it all right. The editorial states: “Scientists who have taken part in such discussions tell of thought-provoking and constructive debates, with the Church being open to ideas and often changing doctrines as a result”—as for instance with respect to evolution. Yet on the other hand, it is pointed out that the Church continues to hold its “damaging” position on condom-use in the prevention of HIV. “It can only be hoped,” Nature’s editors write, “that Pope Francis will have a more enlightened approach.” They just assume that the “enlightened” approach is the one that treats people as a herd in need of a simple technical solution, rather than the Church’s reactionary (I suppose) preference for encouraging a community capable of responsible behavior and mutual aid and obligation.
The editorial shows a similar confusion about just what the nature of various Catholic teachings are. After stating that the Church has “changed doctrines” in response to science, it goes on to say that “But whereas doctrines can be tweaked, the Church will not compromise on its central dogmas, such as the sanctity of human life and that life begins at conception.” But that life begins at conception is not a dogma of the Church, for instance, but rather just a recognition of what is accessible to any careful biological observation: that a new human life begins at conception. That is, the Church does not call us to fideism on this question: it is evidence and reason that she asks us to accept.
I would like to suggest, therefore, that it may not just be the Church that needs to adjust in response to the expanding knowledge of science (though that is of course needed). Perhaps the seeming new openness on the part of the scientific culture to the Catholic Church’s, specifically, attitude towards science might be met with a more serious consideration of the Church’s claims with respect to the nature of reason and faith. “Clashes are inevitable between people of different beliefs, but both science and religion are best served by building bridges across the divides. How Pope Francis responds to issues where the two meet will be an important mark of the man,” says the editorial. Yes—and likewise, how scientists respond to Pope Francis as he continues the teaching of the Church will be an important mark of themselves.