Category: Feature

Fr. Griffin: “Pope defends faith as a way to truth”

I am looking foward to reading the new encyclical Lumen fidei, issued by Pope Francis and started by Pope Benedict. For now, here is some commentary from MercatorNet by Fr. Carter Griffin. The topic of the enyclical, faith and its role in our modern “rational” world, is of definite importance for understanding science’s place in our lives. — MB


Pope defends faith as a way to truth

by Fr. Carter Griffin

Pope Francis has written an encyclical on faith, Lumen Fidei, not only for those who struggle Pope Francis ( believe in Christ, but for those who struggle to believe anything at all. The starting point for this encyclical is that contemporary men and women have painted themselves into a philosophical corner, too confident in their vision of truth to see its inadequacies, too skeptical in their vision of faith to see its possibilities.

Building on the work of his predecessor Benedict XVI, Francis offers a well-timed and well-aimed letter to those yearning for a life of faith built on foundations of objective truth.

The Pope expresses the modern dilemma about faith and truth as follows. “In contemporary culture,” he says, “we often tend to consider the only real truth to be that of technology: truth is what we succeed in building and measuring by our scientific know-how, truth is what works and what makes life easier and more comfortable. Nowadays this appears as the only truth that is certain, the only truth that can be shared.”

Read more →

Faster than Light, Out of the Blue

Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier, from The Right Stuff (1983)

Technological optimists like to compare the sound barrier, broken by Chuck Yeager in 1947, to the speed of light, which achieved a cosmic significance with Einstein’s theories. Just as the former was said to be impassable, the optimists hope that, with enough grit and technological determination, we’ll find a way around the latter as well. Popular Science posts an article today about current research into ways to travel faster than light. While readers ought to keep in mind today’s date, the article’s topics aren’t entirely jokes, even if they are quite fantastical—that is, though the ideas aren’t anywhere near practical use, they are at least related to some real principles of physics.

That said, the sound barrier and the “light speed barrier” are two fundamentally different things. The sound barrier is created by the opposition of forces created when you try to push one object (an airplane) through a resistant medium (the air). At a certain point, the force of the air pushing back against the forward-moving plane becomes so great that two major problems present themselves: the plane can fall apart due to the stresses placed upon it, and the plane can become uncontrollable. Breaking this barrier involves building a plane that can reach the necessary speeds, handle the stresses placed upon it, and remain under the pilot’s control. Historically, this took a series of ever-improving designs combined with trial and error, sometimes fatal. The engineers who built the planes were good at making things that go fast; the pilots were brave while taking their machines to their physical limits.

The same approach can’t be used to get around the speed of light, however, because the speed limit of light is of a fundamentally different nature than the speed of sound. The speed of sound is basically a local phenomenon. It will be different in different media, and even for different objects moving through a given medium. You can, however, get past it with enough effort. The speed of light, however, is not the same sort of “barrier” created by local forces and circumstances acting on a spacecraft as it travels faster. Instead, the speed of light is built into the very nature of motion through space itself. Read more →

Nature: “The Church is Science-Friendly”

Pope Francis ( 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.



Discovery News Welcomes(?) Pope Francis

Discovery News 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!

What Pope Benedict Taught About Science and Reason


Pope Benedict steps down from the Chair of St. Peter today. The inveterate intellectual, his papacy has been marked by a strong defense of reason. This despite the assurance of so many modern atheists that the pursuit of reason and the religious faith that Pope Benedict championed are incompatible. For the question of science and reason, which concerns us here, Benedict is interested chiefly not to show that some particular scientific argument supports the faith, but rather that faith in God provides the ground for the reason that underlies all of science as a whole. “The Bible is not intended as a manual of the natural sciences; it wants to help us understand the authentic and profound truth of things,” he said recently. Likewise, he writes in Jesus of Nazareth, “Faith in the one God is the only thing that truly liberates the world and makes it ‘rational.’ When faith is absent, the world only appears to be more rational. In reality the indeterminable powers of chance now claim their due; ‘chaos theory’ takes its place alongside insight into the rational structure of the universe, confronting man with obscurities that he cannot resolve and that set limits to the world’s rationality.” This is the the first lesson that should be remembered from Benedict’s teaching: that it is the Faith, not materialism, that justifies trusting in reason. Only if reason and order lie behind the material world is science, as a pursuit of true knowledge, possible. As he had written previously in Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, “It is an obvious fact that the rational character of the universe cannot be explained rationally on the basis of something irrational! This is why the Logos that is at the origin of all things remains more than ever the best hypothesis, although this is of course a hypothesis that demands that we give up a position where it is we who are in charge and that we take the risk of assuming the position of humble listeners.”

The second key point of Benedict’s teaching that bears on science is his insistence that Creation is good. It is of course true that science gets into trouble by denying the reality and possibility of sin, as when ethical and moral concerns are set aside for the sake of technical accomplishment. On the other hand, the study of the natural world is often motivated by a basic human wonder, a sense that what is is in some mysterious way good and beautiful. Benedict assures us that this is indeed the case: “Creation is therefore directed towards the coming together of God and his creatures; it exists so as to open up a space for the response to God’s great glory, an encounter between love and freedom….To say that God created light means that God created the world as a space for knowledge and truth, as a space for encounter and freedom, as a space for good and for love. Matter is fundamentally good, being itself is good.” This point is easy to overlook, but it underlies the dynamic nature of Christianity and the centrality of love. Monism, of either the pantheistic or materialistic variety, lends itself to fatalism and stoicism. If what is is just some necessary evolution of matter or a devolution of some abstract “All”, then whence comes that freedom we experience in ourselves, and more importantly, whence enters love? In a recent Wednesday audience, Benedict expanded on this idea: “The fundamental truth that the stories of Genesis reveal is that the world is not a collection of contrasting forces, but has its origin and its stability in the Logos, the eternal reason of God, who continues to sustain the universe. There is a design of the world that is born from this Reason, the Spirit Creator. Believing that this is at the basis of all things, illuminates every aspect of life and gives us the courage to face the adventure of life with confidence and hope. So the Scripture tells us that the origin of the world, our origin is not irrational or out of necessity, but reason and love and freedom. And this is the alternative: the priority of the irrational [and] of necessity, or the priority of reason, freedom and love.”

The alleged conflict between science and faith is based in a stunted view of reason and a misguided skepticism, not one based in the nature of either reason or faith themselves. Pope Benedict has responded to the challenge of the partisans of “reason” by providing reason with a stronger and deeper justification than the skeptics philosophies can give it. He has responded to the claim that the church is opposed to science and reason not by clinging to one particular scientific theory, but by embracing and defending reason itself unabashedly. As he moves into a life of prayer, a life which I suspect may be even more beneficial for the universal Church than we may ever know this side of eternity, and a new Bishop of Rome takes on the leadership of the Church, I have no doubt that the body of Benedict’s teaching will be bearing great fruit for the Church’s intellectual life and her wholehearted embrace of reason for years to come.

On Saint Paul

Conversion of Saint Paul (Caravaggio)

Conversion of Saint Paul (Caravaggio)

January 25th—Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul

During his human life, Jesus chose twelve men to be His apostles; it was these men who formed the authoritative leadership of the Church after the Resurrection. Yet we also find among the apostles another figure: a man who did not join them until after Christ’s death and Resurrection, Saint Paul. After the Gospels, the book of Acts begins with the Twelve, but it ends with Paul. The epistles of the New Testament are predominated by Paul’s writing. Paul’s influence is such that some have claimed, implausibly but perhaps not unexpectedly, that Christianity is in fact a Pauline invention. How are we to understand, then, this preeminence of Paul? Why was Paul chosen to be one of the foremost spreaders of the Gospel in the early Church? Why do the Twelve, who spent their time with Christ while he was alive, seem almost to take a back seat to the zealous evangelism of this newcomer, who not only didn’t know Christ until after His Resurrection, but  was also an earlier persecutor of the Church?

The apostles are, first and foremost, witnesses. Christ is only significant if He is, in fact, the true historical figure we claim Him to be. In the end, it must be true that Christ lived and died and rose just as the Gospels claim that he did, or our faith is in vain (to quote Paul himself). Not being there ourselves to witness it historically, we must rely on the witness of the apostles. The Twelve were all there; they saw Jesus in his ordinary human life. They scattered when He was crucified, it is true, but they were there during His ministry, and they saw Him after the Resurrection. The Twelve, as witnesses, are witnesses of Christ’s real life, death, and Resurrection. They are necessary for our belief that He really lived.

Paul is a little different. Paul’s encounter with Christ is not less real than that of the Twelve, yet it is distinct in that it is solely an encounter with the risen Christ. Paul is, in a sense, an Apostle for the latter time, an Apostle not for the days of the Incarnation, but for the Last Age. Salvation history may be divided into three periods: the time before Christ, the time during His life, and the time after His Resurrection. Paul belongs entirely to this last period. St. Paul is the first apostle whose experience of Christ is like ours, in that it occurred after the event. Paul is chosen, in his own words, “last of all.” Yet this last place of witness is the first, in fact, of the modern Church.

There is no end to the reasons of Providence. I can only speculate, but Paul’s early influence might have been God’s way of emphatically beginning the mission of the missionary Church. Read more →

Today in Washington

March for Life (NCR)From the March for Life website:


Pro-life: the Human Rights Issue of Today

The 40th March for Life

Jeanne Monahan and Patrick Kelly

January 22nd marks the 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and on the 25th we will commemorate that solemn occasion with the 40th anniversary of the largest human rights demonstration in the world, the MARCH FOR LIFE.  With the passing of the pro-life leader and visionary Nellie Gray, a change in leadership has occurred, and with this new leadership comes big plans for the March as we go forward.

This year in particular we aim to raise awareness in the minds of all Americans of the 40th Anniversary and the toll this has taken on these United States. Our theme includes an equation–40=55M, to signify that in the forty years since Roe v. Wade, 55 million of our fellow human beings have lost their lives to abortion. Fifty-five million is nearly the population of California and New York combined.  Clearly, abortion truly is the human rights abuse of today and our theme this year reflects this reality.

Read here.


Image: National Catholic Register

On Attenborough

Sir David Attenborough, the famed BBC naturalist, has caught my attention twice in the past day. First, Sir David has said some unkind things about mankind—namely, that we aren’t so good for the planet. Marcus Roberts at MercatorNet has a response here.

Since others are taking on the job of responding to the substance of Attenborough’s comments, I want to look at him from a slightly different angle. This brings me to second time he has caught my attention today, which is in tonight’s episode of Nature, which I am watching as I write this. The next few episodes of the show will be focusing on Attenborough’s career as a naturalist-presenter for various nature programs over many decades.

I’ll confess to being a fan of Sir David as a nature presenter, if not as a deeper thinker. My wife and I have spent many hours watching and rewatching our copies of his series, along with others in our extensive science documentary collection. What Attenborough and many other science popularizers do so well is present the delight of science well. What they do poorly is philosophy. I am reminded of Walker Percy’s comments (which I’ve posted here before) on Carl Sagan, who like Attenborough was someone else whose philosophy and theological understanding was poor, and whose delight in science was genuine. Percy wrote:

“Yet one is not offended by Sagan. There is too little malice and too much ignorance. It is enough to take pleasure in the pleasant style, the knack for popularizing science, and the beautiful pictures of Saturn and the Ring Nebula.

Indeed, more often than not, I found myself on Sagan’s side, especially in his admiration for science and the scientific method, which is what he says it is — a noble, elegant, and self-correcting method of attaining a kind of truth — and when he attacks the current superstitions, astrology, UFO’s, parapsychology, and such, which seem to engage the Western mind now more than ever — more perhaps than either science or Christianity.

What is to be deplored is not Sagan’s sophomoric scientism — which I think better than its counterpart, a sophomoric theism which attributes the wonders of the Cosmos to a God who created it like a child with a cookie cutter — no, what is deplorable is that these serious issues involving God and the nature of man should be co-opted by the present disputants, a popularizer like Sagan and fundamentalists who believe God created the world six-thousand years ago. It’s enough to give both science and Christianity a bad name.

Really, it is a case of an ancient and still honorable argument going to pot. Even arguments in a college dormitory are, or were, conducted at a higher level.

It is for this very reason that we can enjoy Cosmos so much, for the frivolity of Sagan’s vulgar scientism and for the reason that science is, as Sagan says, self-correcting.”

Something similar can be said of Attenborough. His scientism is sophomoric; his love of his scientific subject is genuine. And that delight is something that those of us who are concerned with the question of the relationship between religion and science would do well to note. Christians, rightly or wrongly, often approach science with the defenses already up. The result is that we too often end up focusing on the apologetics and the arguments, rather than the substance of the science. It’s similar to what may often happen in Christian art and fiction: by trying too hard to be “Christian”, it sometimes ceases to be art.

So, too, do many find in Christian treatments of science all Christianity, and no science. To clarify, I do not mean that we need to try to use more science to prove Christianity. What I mean is that we need to get into a habit of giving science its due. When Sagan or Attenborough are honestly delighted by nature, our response should first be, “Yes, it is wonderful!” and not, “But you’re a dumb atheist!” Rather, as Percy says, let us enjoy the beauty that we both, atheist and Christian, can see and acknowledge in nature. Only then, by acknowledging the real substance of scientific beauty, can we use that beauty and delight as a pointer to something more—and lay the ground for a defense of the human prerogative from the misguided ideology of Attenborough’s latest remarks.

Video: Nature/PBS

Higgs on Dawkins’ “Fundamentalism”

One of this past year’s biggest science stories, of course, was the news from the CERN that a signal consistent with the long-sought Higgs boson had been found in data from the world’s largest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider. The Higgs was named after physicist Peter Higgs, who was one of the first to describe the role of the proposed particle in giving other particles their masses.

I do not know much about him personally, but Dr. Higgs seems to be a fairly sensible fellow. For instance, when the Higgs boson was given the nickname the “God particle” in a book by physicist Leon Lederman, and the name was picked up by the press, Higgs was among those who lamented its misleading implications.Peter Higgs (MFO/G-M. Greuel)

Now he has weighed in with some gentle criticism of Richard Dawkins’ more strident “atheistic fundamentalism.” Despite being a non-believer himself, Higgs says,

“What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.”

Higgs’ comments are found in the Guardian’s coverage of Higgs recent interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, and goes on to report:

[Higgs] agreed with some of Dawkins’ thoughts on the unfortunate consequences that have resulted from religious belief, but he was unhappy with the evolutionary biologist’s approach to dealing with believers and said he agreed with those who found Dawkins’ approach “embarrassing”.

This sympathy between atheistic fundamentalism and the religious fundamentalism it chiefly reacts to is not a new observation. Both cases share a reductionist view of reality, choosing interpretation through a narrow principle—strict materialism in one case, an erroneously shallow biblical literalism in the other—which fails to do justice to the depths of reality.

However, in an attempt to avoid fundamentalism, there is another error that is frequently pursued instead: that of an improper “open-mindedness.” Higgs says, for instance, “Anybody who is a convinced but not a dogmatic believer can continue to hold his belief.” This tolerance towards belief while rejecting “dogmatism” is a theme that has seemed to be getting more common lately, but this seemingly reasonable position is really just a confusion—as can be seen from Higgs saying, immediately after rejecting dogma, that one can “hold their belief.” As Chesterton said, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

It is not, therefore, holding to dogmas (or certainties, even religious ones) that is the problem, because the whole point of intellectual investigation is to find certain truths to cling to. The problem, rather, is in reducing reality and its investigation to a false simplicity. Dawkins makes much of the notion that his view is based on evidence. Catholics ought to wholeheartedly agree with his demand for evidence, but the Catholic ought also to recognize that more kinds of evidence are convincing than simple scientism. Materialism, it turns out, might not be a position that is reached by following the evidence, but is rather an a priori philosophy which rules out some kinds evidence—dogmatically—from the get-go.


(Image: MFO/G.-M. Greuel)

Go Irish, In Space!

As a Notre Dame alum, I had to share this video discussion with astronaut Kevin Ford, Notre Dame ’82, discussing the Irish’s current 12-0 football season and life as an astronaut with South Bend’s WNDU TV and the student newspaper The Observer.