Are we alone in the universe? The ultimate question of life beyond Earth and the solar system takes center stage in a science conference led by the Vatican Observatory and the University of Arizona this week.
Nearly 200 scientists are attending the conference, called “The Search for Life Beyond the Solar System: Exoplanets, Biosignature & Instruments,” which runs from March 16 through 21 in Tucson, Ariz. The Vatican Observatory is co-hosting the conference with the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory.
At the BBC, Professor Jaclyn Dufflin (a self-described atheist) discusses her research into the Vatican’s investigation of alleged medical miracles, including her own role in the investigation surrounding the canonization of Marie-Marguerite d’Youville.
“Suddenly, I realized with amazement that my medical work would reside in the Vatican archives. In that same instant, the historian in me wondered, what were all the other miracles that had been used for canonizations past? Were they healings too? What diseases were cured? Was medical science involved in the past as much as it is now? What did the doctor witnesses do and say”
“The astonishing thing to me about astronomy is not only that the universe makes sense and I can come up with equations and explain it,” he continued, “but the way it makes sense is beautiful.”
“God chose to create a universe that was at the same time logical and beautiful, one that I can enjoy with my brain and enjoy with my heart,” he stressed, going on to say that this “tells me something about who God is and how He creates and how He’s expecting me to relate to Him.”
Addressing the fact that many are surprised at the existence of the Vatican Observatory, Br. Consolmagno stated that “that’s part of the reason we exist; to surprise people.”
“To make people realize that the church not only supports science, literally… but we support and embrace and promote the use of both our hearts and our brains to come to know how the universe works.”
Image: Catholic News Agency
The Vatican Information Service reports:
“Vatican City, 5 April 2013 (VIS) – This morning in the Holy See Press Office, a press conference was held to present the Second International Vatican Adult Stem Cell Conference, “Regenerative Medicine: A Fundamental Shift in Science & Culture”, which will place in the new Synod Hall of the Paul VI building in the Vatican from 11–13 April. Participating in the press conference were: Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture; Dr. Robin Smith, president of The Stem for Life Foundation and CEO of NeoStem; and Msgr. Tomasz Trafny, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture’s Science and Faith foundation.
[Msgr. Trafny explained,] “We want “to have a cultural influence on society, pointing to research models of excellence that are, nevertheless, in tune with the highest moral values of protecting the life and dignity of the human being from the moment of conception. However, we are aware that you cannot permanently influence society and culture without the constant and far-sighted support that comes from religious, social, and political leaders, from the community of entrepreneurs and from benefactors who are ready to commit to developing long-term scientific, bioethical, and cultural research.”
More information is also available from Zenit.
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!
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”.
Pope Benedict XI addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Thursday, where the group was assembled for its Plenary Assembly. From the speech:
“Indeed, the significant discoveries and advances of recent years invite us to consider the great analogy of physics and biology which is clearly manifested every time that we achieve a deeper understanding of the natural order. If it is true that some of the new notions obtained in this way can also allow us to draw conclusions about processes of earlier times, this extrapolation points further to the great unity of nature in the complex structure of the cosmos and to the mystery of man’s place within it. The complexity and greatness of contemporary science in all that it enables man to know about nature has direct repercussions for human beings. Only man can constantly expand his knowledge of truth and order it wisely for his good and that of his environment. “
The Pontifical Council for Culture, together with NeoStem, the Stem for Life Foundation, and STOQ International have announced next year’s Vatican-hosted conference on adult stem cell research. From the press release:
NEW YORK, Nov. 1, 2012 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — The Stem for Life Foundation, NeoStem, Inc. (NYSE MKT:NBS), The Pontifical Council for Culture, and STOQ International today announced that they will host The Second International Vatican Adult Stem Cell Conference: Regenerative Medicine — A Fundamental Shift in Science & Culture, from within The Vatican, April 11-13, 2013.
This event is part of a five-year collaboration between The Stem for Life Foundation, a not-for-profit organization devoted to raising global awareness of the therapeutic potential of adult stem cells, NeoStem, an emerging leader in the fast growing cell therapy industry, The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture and its foundation, called STOQ International (Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest).
With renowned journalists serving as moderators — Meredith Vieira from NBC News, Bill Hemmer from The Fox News Channel, Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal and Dr. Max Gomez from WCBS-TV — The Second International Vatican Adult Stem Cell Conference will feature leading adult stem cell scientists and clinicians, thought leaders of faith, ethics and culture, business leaders as well as Ministers of Health, Ambassadors to The Holy See and regulatory officials from around the world. During the event, adult stem cell scientists and clinicians will present an array of medical advancements and ongoing research occurring throughout the world, including the ability to grow replacements for damaged and diseased organs; restoring heart function after a heart attack; growing new skin for burn victims; rebalancing our own immune systems, pushing back a rising tide of chronic disease; advancements in cancer therapy; preventing organ rejection and addressing a range of other conditions and trauma, such as MS, traumatic brain injuries and cardiovascular disease via adult stem cell therapies. Throughout the event, patients will share their own stories of the unique, powerful treatments that have helped address their disease and reduce suffering.
Vatican Radio hosts an interview with Fr. Gabriel Funes, S.J., head of the Vatican Observatory, on the landing of the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars:
“I think everybody should be happy with the success of [the start of] this mission,” he said, adding, “we now have to wait for results, to see if we can learn more about Mars and the possibility of organic elements on the surface of Mars.”
Asked whether Catholics and believers in general have anything to fear – whether from from the search for extraterrestrial life in particular or from scientific exploration generally, Fr. Funes SJ responded, “No, of course not – we are not afraid of science, we are not afraid of new results, new discoveries.” The Director of the Vatican Observatory went on to explain that the Church is deeply committed to scientific research. “That’s the reason why the [Holy See] has an observatory,” he said. “Whatever the truth might be, we are open to new results, once they are confirmed by the scientific community.”