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Address on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of Galileo’s publication, Rome

1983, May 9

Ladies and Gentlemen,

1. In addressing you who honourably represent the rich horizons of modern science, I wish in the first place to thank you cordially for your visit, and to tell you that your presence here this morning seems to me have a deeply symbolic value, for you attest to the fact that between the Church and science a fruitful dialogue is being developed.

And I am not alone in welcoming you. My brothers, the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church present in Rome, and other leading figures of the Holy See-whom I am pleased to greet with you and whom I likewise thank for being here-testify to the importance that the Church attributes to this dialogue.

We cast our mind back to an age when there had developed between science and faith grave incomprehension, the result of misunderstanding or errors, which only humble and patient re-examination succeeded in gradually dispelling. And so we should rejoice together that the world of science and the Catholic Church have learned to go beyond those moments of conflict, understandable no doubt, but nonetheless regrettable. This was the result of a more accurate appreciation of the methods proper to the different orders of knowledge and the fruit of bringing to research a more rigorous attitude of mind.

The Church and science itself have reaped great profit from this and have discovered through reflection and sometimes painful experience the paths that lead to truth and objective knowledge.

2. To you who are preparing to mark the 350th anniversary of the publication of Galileo Galilei’s great work, Dialoghi sui due massimi sistemi del mondo. I would like to say that the Church’s experience, during the Galileo affair and after it, has led to a more mature attitude and to a more accurate grasp of the authority proper to her. I repeat before you what I stated before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 10 November 1979: “I hope that theologians, scholars and historians, animated by a spirit of sincere collaboration, will study the Galileo case more deeply and, in frank recognition of wrongs, from whichever side they come, will dispel the mistrust that still forms an obstacle, in the minds of many, to a fruitful concord between science and faith, between the Church and the world. I give all my support to this task, which will be able to honour the truth of faith and of science and open the door to future collaboration” (AAS [1979], pp.1464-1465).

As you know, I have asked for the formation of an interdisciplinary research team for the careful study of the whole question. Its work is progressing very encouragingly, and there are good grounds for hoping that it will make an important contribution to the examination of the whole matter.

3. The Church herself learns by experience and reflection, and she now understands better the meaning that must be given to freedom of research as I said to the representatives of the Spanish universities on 3 November 1982: “The Church upholds freedom of research, which is one of the most noble attributes of man. It is through research that man attains to Truth - one of the most beautiful names that God has given himself. This is why the Church is convinced that there can be no real contradiction between science and faith, for the reason that the whole of reality ultimately comes from God the Creator. This is what is stated by the Second Vatican Council (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 36). I have stated this myself on a number of occasions in addressing men and women of science. It is certain that science and faith represent two different orders of knowledge, autonomous in their processes, but finally converging upon the discovery of reality in all its aspects, which has its origin in God (cf. Discourse in Cologne Cathedral, 15 November 1980, no. 8)” (L’Osservatore Romano, 4 November 1982, p. 2).

One thus perceives more clearly that divine Revelation, of which the Church is the guarantor and witness, does not of itself involve any witness, does not of itself involve any particular scientific theory, and the assistance of the Holy Spirit in no way lends itself to guaranteeing explanations that we would wish to profess concerning the physical constitution of reality.

The fact that the Church has been able only with difficulty to make advances in such a complex sphere should neither surprise nor scandalize us. The Church, founded by Christ who called himself the Way, the Truth and the Life, still remains made up of individuals who are limited and who are closely bound up with the culture of the time they live in. So it is that she declares that she is always interested in research concerning the knowledge of the universe, whether physical, biological or psychological. It is only through humble and assiduous study that she learns to dissociate the essential of faith from the scientific system of a given age, especially when a culturally influenced reading of the Bible seemed to be linked to an obligatory cosmogony.

4. To return to the case of Galileo, we certainly recognize that he suffered from department of the Church. But in his time, there were not lacking Catholic centres which were already cultivating with great competence, over and above theology and philosophy disciplines such as history, geography, archaeology, physics, mathematics, astronomy and astrophysics; and these studies were considered necessary for a better knowledge of the historical evolution of man and of the secrets of the universe. Brilliant forerunners had even put Catholics on the guard, urging them not to set up an opposition between science and faith. This is what wished to affirm on 15 December 1979, at the Gregorian University, whose researches and professors were known in his own time to Galileo. “And while we must recognize that students of that time were not unaffected by their cultural milieu, we can nevertheless note that there were brilliant forerunners and freer minds, like Saint Robert Bellarmine in the case of Galileo Galilei, who wished that useless tensions and harmful rigidities between faith and science could be avoided” (AAS [1979, p. 1541]). These facts confirms us in the indispensable need for a frank and open dialogue between theologians, scientific specialists and those who exercise leadership in the Church.

5. Hence we can see that age-old relationship between the Church and science have brought Catholics to a more correct understanding of the sphere of their faith, to a sort of intellectual purification and to a conviction that scientific study deserves a commitment to unbiased research which, in the final analysis, is a service to truth and to man himself. We should add that the Church recognizes with gratitude all that she owes to research and science. I had occasion to say this to the Pontifical Council for Culture on 18 January 1983: “Let us think of how the results of scientific research help us to know the universe better, to understand better the mystery of man; think of the advantage which the new means of communication and contact among people offer to society and to the Church: let us think of the ability to produce incalculable economic and cultural wealth, and especially to promote the education of the masses and to cure diseases previously thought incurable. What admirable achievement’s “All this is to man’s credit, and all this has greatly benefitted the Church herself, in her life, her organization, her work and her own activity” (L’Osservatore Romano, 19 January 1983, p. 2. No. 6).

6. And if we address ourselves now more directly to the science world does one not see today how the greater sensitivity of scholars and researchers to spiritual and moral values brings to your disciplines a newdimension and a more generous openness to what is universal? This attitude has greatly facilitated and enriched the dialogue between science and Church.

It is of course required that you adopt a method of advanced specialization so as to carry ever further forward your discoveries and your experiences, and one cannot help but admire the rigour and intellectual honesty, the disinterestedness and self-denial which so many researchers bean witness to as they dedicate themselves to their studies with a real spirit of mission.

7. Moreover, the scientific world, having now become one of the principal sectors of activity in modern society, is itself discovering, in the light of reflection and experience, the extent and at the same time the seriousness of its responsibilities. Modern science and the technology that derives from it have become a veritable power and form the object of socio-economic policies or strategies, which are not neutral as regards the future of man. 

Ladies and gentlemen, you who are engaged in the sciences: you possess considerable power and responsibility, and these can become decisive for the orientation of tomorrow’s world. On many occasions I have expresses the Church’s great esteem for the collective effort made by people of sciences to ensure that the urgent objective which are required by the pursuit of the development of man and peace may prevail. You know that a moral transformation is needed if we want the scientific and technical resources of today’s world to be effectively placed at the service of man. At Hiroshima before the united Nations University on 25 February 1981. I stated: “The people of our time possess in the first place tremendous scientific and technological resources. And we are convinced that these resources could be far more effectively used for the development and growth of peoples… All of this obviously presupposes political choices, and, more fundamentally moral potions. The moment is approaching when priorities will have to be redefined. For example, it has been estimated that about a half of the world’s research workers are at present employed for military purposes. Can the human family morally go on much longer in this direction?” (ASS 73 [1981], pp. 424-425).

Ladies and gentlemen, you enjoy immense moral influence in order to assert the properly humanistic and cultural objective of science. Strive to defend man and his dignity at the centres of decision-making which govern scientific policies and social planning. You will always find an ally in the Church each time that you strive to promote  man and his authentic development.

8. It is also assuredly from within that the Church concerns herself with your work. For none of the things that can deepen knowledge of man nature and the universe can leave us indifferent. All scientific progress, pursued with rectitude, honors humanity and is a tribute to the Creator of all things. You investigations constitute an extension of the marvelous revelation that God give us in his work of creation. The Church does not first turn to your discoveries in order to draw from them facile apologetic arguments  for strengthening her beliefs. Rather she seeks, thanks to you to expand the horizon of her contemplation and of her admiration for the clarity with which the infinitely powerful God shines through his creation.

For the believer, the most specialized research can thus become a highly ethical and spiritual act. For the saints study was player and contemplation.

Yes, the Church appeals to your capacities for research in order that no limit may be placed upon our common quest for knowledge. Your specialization of course imposes upon you certain rules and indispensable limitation in investigation; but beyond these epistemological limits, let the inclination of your spirit carry you towards the universal and the absolute. More than over before our world needs intellects capable of grasping the whole picture and of enabling knowledge to advance towards humanistic understanding and towards wisdom. In a word, your knowledge must blossom wisdom; that is, it must become the growth of man and of the whole man. Open your minds and hearts fully to the imperatives of today’s world, which aspires to justice and to dignity founded on truth. And you yourselves, be ready to seek all that is true, convinced that the realities of the spirit form part of what is real and part of the whole Truth.

Ladies and gentlemen, your task is noble and very great. The world looks to you and expects from you a service which matched your intellectual capacities and ethical responsibilities.

May God, the Creator of all things, who is present in the immensity of the universe and in each of our hearts, accompany you in your work and inspire your admirable work.

Source of the English text: Osservatore Romano, English Weekly Edition, 1983, May 30, pp. 7-8.