Category: Pope

Time & Space


SN 2014J in colour (University College London)

Twelve million years ago, a star in the galaxy we call M82 exploded. Since M82 lies 12 million light years away, the light from that explosion just reached Earth last week, being first noticed on January 21st. You may be able to see this supernova for yourself. M82 sits high in the northern sky above the Big Dipper. As of yesterday, Sky & Telescope reports the supernova’s magnitude at 10.6, within the range of backyard telescopes. The explosion was spotted serendipitously on January 21st by a group of undergraduate students and their teacher during a brief workshop at University College London.

One of the aspects that I find most interesting about this process is the extreme juxtaposition of scales of time and space. As noted, the galaxy M82 sits 12 million light years away; therefore, the light from the supernova explosion has taken 12 million years to reach us. Yet compare these huge numbers with the supernova itself: the explosion itself lasted only a matter of seconds. A Type Ia supernova, like this one, occurs when a compact white dwarf star pulls matter (via gravity) off of a much larger companion star. Eventually, enough mass accumulates on the white dwarf so as to suddenly initiate fusion, explosively releasing tremendous amounts of energy. The explosion itself lasts for a minute or so, and the brightly glowing aftermath itself persists for weeks (which at least gives us plenty of time here to catch it). Yet this brief event sheds light and energy out into space that can overpower the luminosity of an entire galaxy and can be seen in skies of a planet—our planet—millions of light years distant and millions of years in the future.


I have not yet read it, but David Bentley Hart’s new book The Experience of God sounds promising. William Carroll reviews it at Public Discourse, and Edward Feser reacts to Jerry Coyne’s comments on it here. Hart writes:

“Any argument for or against the reality of God not so understood—any debate over an intelligent designer, or a supreme being within time and space who merely supervises history and legislates morals, or a demiurge whose operations could possibly be rivals of the physical causes describable by scientific cosmology—may prove a diverting amble along certain byways of seventeenth-century deism or eighteenth-century “natural history,” but it most definitely has nothing to do with the God worshiped in the great theistic religions or described in their philosophical traditions, or reasoned toward by their deepest logical reflections upon the contingency of the world.”

And Carroll adds:

“Hart offers mostly dialectical arguments to show the incoherence of the positions he rejects. We recognize the radical contingency of the world we experience, a recognition that is not the result of a demonstrative argument but a kind of intellectual intuition based on the immediacy of our experience. This insight into the ‘absolute contingency’ of the world eludes those who embrace a materialistic metaphysics. It is also the basis for a reflection that leads to God as the absolutely necessary being.”


In honor of St. Thomas Aquinas’ recent feast day, we have this—over at BioLogos, Fr. Austriaco argues that evolution is a fitting means of creation:

“I propose that it was fitting for God to have created via evolution rather than via special creation because in doing so, he was able to give his creation – the material universe and the individual creatures within it – a share in his causality to create. In this way, he more fully communicates his perfection to his creation, thus, more clearly manifesting his glory. As St. Thomas points out: ‘If God governed alone, things would be deprived of the perfection of causality. Wherefore all that is effected by many would not be accomplished by one.’ (Summa theologiae, I.103.6)”


Stephen Hawking announces that he suspects that black holes aren’t quite what he thought they were. To wit: he thinks that the event horizon has been mischaracterized. Classically, the event horizon marks the point of no return: the line at which the black hole’s gravity becomes inescapable. Once it is crossed, there’s no way out again. Interestingly, though, in the classical view, an astronaut crossing the event horizon wouldn’t notice anything different at first. He’d just ride along across it along with everything else traveling with him. More recent quantum mechanics–based analyses, however, have suggested that the event horizon is marked by a “firewall” of astoundingly high energy created by quantum behavior at the black hole’s boundary. But Hawking now says that the whole idea of the horizon needs to be evaluated. Other physicists remain skeptical.


And, finally, Pope Francis encourages Notre Dame to resist attempts to undermine the university’s commitment to Catholic moral practice.

Image: University College London

Notable Quote: Evangelii Gaudium

Pope Francis (

Dialogue between science and faith also belongs to the work of evangelization at the service of peace. Whereas positivism and scientism “refuse to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences”, the Church proposes another path, which calls for a synthesis between the responsible use of methods proper to the empirical sciences and other areas of knowledge such as philosophy, theology, as well as faith itself, which elevates us to the mystery transcending nature and human intelligence. Faith is not fearful of reason; on the contrary, it seeks and trusts reason, since “the light of reason and the light of faith both come from God” and cannot contradict each other. Evangelization is attentive to scientific advances and wishes to shed on them the light of faith and the natural law so that they will remain respectful of the centrality and supreme value of the human person at every stage of life. All of society can be enriched thanks to this dialogue, which opens up new horizons for thought and expands the possibilities of reason. This too is a path of harmony and peace.

The Church has no wish to hold back the marvellous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences – rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry – arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it. Neither can believers claim that a scientific opinion which is attractive but not sufficiently verified has the same weight as a dogma of faith. At times some scientists have exceeded the limits of their scientific competence by making certain statements or claims. But here the problem is not with reason itself, but with the promotion of a particular ideology which blocks the path to authentic, serene and productive dialogue.

Pope Francis
Evangelii Gaudium

Notable Quote: Lumen fidei

“Nor is the light of faith, joined to the truth of love, extraneous to the material world, for love is always lived out in body and spirit; the light of faith is an incarnate light radiating from the luminous life of Jesus. It also illumines the material world, trusts its inherent order and knows that it calls us to an ever widening path of harmony and understanding. The gaze of science thus benefits from faith: faith encourages the scientist to remain constantly open to reality in all its inexhaustible richness. Faith awakens the critical sense by preventing research from being satisfied with its own formulae and helps it to realize that nature is always greater. By stimulating wonder before the profound mystery of creation, faith broadens the horizons of reason to shed greater light on the world which discloses itself to scientific investigation.”

Pope Francis
Lumen fidei

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 →

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!

More Benedict & Reason Links

I realize that linking to the Huffington Post and National Review at the same time is dangerous, like mixing matter and antimatter without a good magnetic containment field, but here you go:

Benedixt XVI: Reason’s Revolutionary“, Samuel Gregg, National Review

Pope Benedict was a Friend of Science“, Karl Giberson, Huffington Post

The Atheists’ Pope“, Jennifer Fulwiler, National Catholic Register

Helping Us ‘Turn Around’–Interview with Fr. James Schall“, Kathryn Jean Lopez, National Review

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.

Pope Benedict on Creation and Reason

From his Wednesday audience yesterday:

“But our question today is does it make sense in the age of science and technology, to still speak of creation? How should we understand the narratives of Genesis? 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. 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, of necessity or the priority of reason, freedom and love. We believe in this position.”

Read the full translation here.

Audience on Faith and Reason

The Vatican Information Service reports on Pope Benedict’s November 21st general audience:

“Benedict XVI dedicated his catechesis to the rationality of faith in God, emphasising that the Catholic tradition “has always rejected the so-called principle of ‘fideism’, that is, the will to believe against reason. … Indeed, although a mystery, God is not absurd. … If, in contemplating the mystery, reason sees only darkness, this is not because the mystery contains no light, rather because it contains too much. Just as when we turn our eyes directly to the sun, we see only shadow – who would say that the sun is not bright? Faith allows us to look at the ‘sun’ that is God, because it welcomes His revelation in history. … God has sought mankind and made Himself known, bringing Himself to the limits of human reason.

“At the same time, God, with His grace, illuminates reason and opens up new horizons, immeasurable and infinite. Therefore, faith is a continuous stimulus to seek, never to cease or acquiesce in the inexhaustible search for truth and reality. … Intellect and faith are not foreign or antagonistic to divine Revelation, they are both prerequisites for understanding its meaning, for receiving its authentic message, for approaching the threshold of the mystery. … The Catholic faith is therefore rational and also nurtures trust in human reason. … Knowledge of faith, furthermore, is not contrary to reason. … In the irresistible desire for truth, only a harmonious relationship between faith and reason can show the correct path to God and to self-fulfilment”.

Read more here.