welcomes Pope Francis with a video titled “Where the Catholic Church Stands on Science”. The history of the Church’s relationship with science is complex, mainly because the history of the Church and the history of science are both complex. Why then do the partisans of science treat the issue so simplistically?
There is no need to pretend that every church official throughout history has been in the right with respect to scientific issues. Even Belloc, that stalwart defender of the Church’s history and foil to scientific pretensions, grumbled about many clerical misstatements on scientific matters. Yet, Ms. Green’s cheerful Discovery News commentary, despite her disclaimer that the history is “complicated” and her attempts to give credit where she sees credit due (for which I thank her), unfortunately repeats some simplistic understandings of events in the history of the Church and science. While proponents of science so often emphasize the importance of getting the basic facts right, it is in the arena of science history, and particularly the history of science and religion, that they so often simply repeat myths that have little bearing on the actual events of the past.
Her commentary begins with Pope John XXI’s decrees of 1277, which forbade a number of doctrines derived from Aristotle. The decrees were certainly not opposed to the recognition of “laws of nature” as such. At the time, a certain dogmatic Aristotelianism was gaining in strength, but was controversial, given that Aristotle was a pagan and his work was largely being rediscovered through the intermediaries of Muslim philosophers. Aristotle also taught some things clearly in opposition to Catholic teaching, such as the eternity of the world. Now, for all his brilliance, a number of Aristotle’s fundamental tenets about the physical world were wrong. When his teachings were suppressed, room was created for new investigations into the workings of nature which went against standard Aristotelian thought. Some historians of science ( e.g. Pierre Duhem) thus find the decrees of 1277 to be not a hindrance to early physical science, but precisely the break from rigid Aristotelianism that was needed to get empirical, investigative science started. The work of Thomas Aquinas (largely) showed that Aristotle had in fact provided philosophy (including “natural philosophy”, or modern “science”) with a strong, if not entirely impeccable, foundation, and many of the decrees of 1277 were later abrogated. The short story is that the history of the decrees is far more complicated than the simple picture of “Church vs. science”, and if anything, the decrees should be recognized as an important element that encouraged scientific investigation.
Galileo, she gets partly right. Neither Galileo nor the Church’s officials acted perfectly in the case, as Pope John Paul II recognized with his formal pardon. Still, the most important thing about the Galileo case is exactly its singular importance—that is, the fact that it and virtually it alone has taken on such mythical significance as the central event in Church/science history. Galileo’s condemnation was bad for Galileo, but he wasn’t condemned simply for the pursuit of science, and his punishment had almost no effect on the more widespread pursuit of science at the time, which was struggling not so much in conflict with the Church as with the own growing pains of a new field. Galileo’s case is indeed used as a symbol of the “culture clash” between science and religion, but it is a poor and lonely example.
Evolution and “climate change” she also gets partly right. The Chuch “endorses” neither of them as correct and true teachings, but rather leaves them open to scientific investigation, noting that properly understood, neither is in conflict with Catholic doctrine. If science discovers that evolution occurred (as Pope John Paul II acknowledged when he said that evolution was “more than an hypothesis”–this was not a statement of Catholic doctrine) then there is no need for Catholics to reject it; again, if science shows that changes in the climate will cause damage to the environment, then Catholics ought to participate in efforts to help those most affected. But what must be clear is that these are questions for science to investigate, not for the Church to teach as doctrine.
Her final comments reflect the common too-simple conflation of simple scientific facts with morals. On issues like contraception, abortion, stem cell research, etc., the Church has no problems with what the simple, biological facts are, even though those do inform our moral understanding. The Church’s guidance is rather with respect to what we should do. Even if condoms were 100% efficient (which they are not) or embryonic stem cells could cure every disease known to man (which they cannot), their use would still be unethical according to the Church. It does no good to argue about their technical effectiveness when what is in question is the morality of their use. The Church’s morals are not consequentialist: evil may not be done to achieve ostensibly good ends.
Pope Benedict’s comments with respect to condom use and HIV are also treated simplistically. His argument was not that condoms are ineffective, all other things being equal. His argument was that encouraging the use of condoms provides a false sense of security to what is still a risky activity, thus encouraging irresponsible and ultimately damaging behavior. Rather than giving people a device that still has a significant rate of failure, and then leaving them them to take their chances, the church prefers to encourage and support (rather than disparage) prudent restraint over promiscuity. The Church prefers to encourage a vibrant and responsible culture of life with its attendant behavioral standards, over simply, and with false reassurances, passing out cheap devices that usually work…
It’s good to see that Discovery News takes an interest in the election of the new pope, and that it make somewhat of an effort to see the good in the Church. Commentators on the interaction of science and religion, however, would be well advised to understand that actual issues at stake rather than reducing them to caricatures that play well as sound bites but do not reflect realities.
With respect to the commentary’s final question–that of what Pope Francis’ attitude towards science will be–she is right that the answer is: we’ll have to wait and see. I have no doubt that his attitude will not be hostile. To begin with he has an education in chemistry, and more pertinently, despite the misplaced fears of some, it is simply not true that the Church has a program of opposition to science—so there is no reason think that Pope Francis might. Although I’m certain that he would support the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI regarding the role reason in the life of faith and the search for God, I suspect that those themes will not have the same centrality in Pope Francis’ teachings as in Pope Benedict’s, not because of any shortcomings on Pope Francis’ part, but rather because of Pope Benedict’s singular excellence on the subject. If any readers have any knowledge of the new pope’s thoughts on these issues from his previous work, please share!