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Address at the University of Pisa

1989, September 24

Where ever man is the Church must be there as well, and there is an important connection between science and faith.  The University is at the service of man, and needs a developed sense of responsibility in the academic world. The scientist is faced with the moral question in a particular and unavoidable way, to exert the fruit of his labor to help or harm mankind. The scientist must evaluate himself, the methods and forms, and means and ends of his activity to find a secure personal sense of responsibility. Ethical vision on a different scale of values ruled by love and illuminated by faith is needed by the sciences that are aware of man’s finiteness. The scientist precisely because he sees better and more, has a more strict duty, to praise, to admire, to thank God in the works of his creation.

Rector Magnificus, Distinguished Professors, Co-workers and dear Students of the Athenaeum of Pisa!

I must first of all express my deep gratitude for the cordial and sincere greeting which all of you here present extended to me through the Rector Magnificus, your representative and spokesman.  To this greeting I reply with the wish not only of personal well-being for each one of you, but for the “fortunes” of this historic University, and I extend these good wishes to the academic communities of the other two university institutes in Pisa which I will be visiting shortly.

I am truly happy to have the opportunity of this triple meeting, and I consider it of the greatest importance for my pastoral ministry to spend a good part of this Sunday morning with you and with the colleagues of the abovementioned schools. After my visit to the cathedral, I am happy to come to these prestigious academic seats of the city, which take the form of chairs (cathedrae) of another type and purpose, but not unrelated to my pastoral mission. From the cathedra of the Christian faith I have come to the cathedra of the sciences, whose purpose is to prepare, to from, to elevate man: and where man is, there by her innate right and duty should the Church also be!  So I think that the itinerary I am following this morning can point symbolically to the path that brings science and faith together.

In expressing my good wishes for the “fortunes” of your university I am not referring only to its development, to the betterment of its structures, to its organizational and administrative efficiency but above all to its growth “ab intus” in responding with timeliness and prudence to its connatural educational and formational objectives, in interpreting the new demands of this age of ours, in setting itself as an indispensable goal the service of man.

In actual fact, precisely in view of the service to mankind, the subject of the relationship between science and faith, which is a recurring theme of philosophical speculation throughout the ages and the object of assiduous and often painstaking reflections, proves once again to be relevant and open to further and profitable examination.

Indeed, the questions remain, with unaltered and stimulating validity: is there really an opposition between God and man?  If the latter reaches God through the path of faith, will every access to the divine through the path of reason be precluded? And if it pertains to reason to promote research and to arrive at scientific knowledge, are not research on God and a scientific knowledge of God also possible?

These question —which put forward again the theme of the intellectus quaerens fidem and of the research which mediates the passage from the phase of the quaerere to that of the invenire— assume more concrete consistency if they are inserted and integrated into the ethical dimension.  In its indispensable commitment of research and of service, science has an intrinsic morality to respect: while the horizons towards which it moves appear ever more vast, the individual who cultivates it and develops it discovers; at the same time, new limits, doubts and difficulties. In the light of past experiences, of goals already reached or already in sight and unfortunately, also of the possible dangers, today more than in the past the question of the relationship between research and morality asserts itself. Before the scientist, who inquires and examines in order to have a deeper and better understanding, the mysteries of nature and, above all, the mystery of man himself draw near and become almost palpable. Pressing forward almost to the borders of reality and of live, he feels as it were a shudder in his very daring and cannot refrain from questioning himself not only on the general sense of his own cognitive endeavor but also on the final outcome and on the moral validity of such a task. Fixing his gaze on the most hidden forces of nature and adopting the most daring methodologies to dominate them and utilize them, man realizes the risk of abuses and of going beyond the limits.

I am speaking to an expert audience, so I can limit myself to the brief mention of a few undeniable facts, such as the ecological peril, the accumulation of highly devastating arms, the very good grounds for certain denunciations and accusations. In the area of human life, everyone is aware of the wonderful advances in biology and in bio-engineering, but we likewise know the dangers of too daring operations which involve unacceptable forms of manipulation and of alteration. As you know, I myself have on various occasions recalled the urgency and duty to proceed in such delicate matters with extreme caution, this means- without imposing restrictive limits on research- respect for the supreme laws of nature and of life, adaption in every phase of research to the requirements deriving from the dignity of the human person. In a word, it means a sense of responsibility.

In the face of such contradictions between the finality of scientific knowledge and the results to which it can lead on the practical plane, speaking about responsibility cannot remain a purely theoretical matter- as though the accused were science in itself – but should reach the subjects who are involved in it personally.  It is not only appropriate but necessary and obligatory to speak of the responsibility of scientist, which should be evident in their adherence to that ordo rerum which they are in process of gradually discovering in its marvelous complexity, in their respect for the ontological transcendence of the human person over the other beings of the world and of nature, when they apply to them the instruments of scientific research, and finally in their taking into account the possible consequences at the practical level of the knowledge reached or attainable in the purely theoretical sphere.

We are unfortunately living through an unpublicized and terrible experience: that of a serious ecological deterioration, no longer ascribable to external agents, but to the inconsistency of some of our own modes of behavior. Precisely such an experience, far from driving us away, should rather draw us closer and bring us back to the centre of our existence, because it once again and imperatively sets before us the theme of the meaning of life and of our being in the world. The scientist is as it were placed by his own researches and discoveries at a crossroads, to the extent that he and the fruit of his labor can help or harm mankind it is to him before all others that the moral question presents itself in a very practical, unavoidable and, I would say too, preliminary way. Before he sets to work at his specific task, he could well heed the invitation of Saint Augustine who though not a scientist in the modern sense of the term, was a most refined thinker and a passionate inquirer into the truth: “Do not look outside, look within yourself; truth is found within man” (De vera religione 39, 72: PL 34,154). Simultaneously with, indeed prior to, the external approach to things, he must turn an attentive and penetrating gaze into himself to evaluate the methods and forms, means and ends of his activity. From such an examination, the truly personal sense of his responsibility as a human being, as a scientist and as a researcher will emerge more secure and more mature.

Today scientist themselves are complaining of over specialization and are rightly asserting the necessity of new syntheses capable of connecting the plurality of the acquisitions, the knowledge, the techniques that are accumulating with surprising rapidity in the various disciplinary and sub-disciplinary fields.  However, if it is true that science does not limit itself to observing and cataloguing, but intervenes in natural processes to transform reality —and at times it is a question of radical interventions which can also upset the natural rhythms and introduce grave disorders into the order of the world— there will not be valid new syntheses if the authentic sense of life and a complete ethical vision are not integrated into them. Before the enduring mysteries of the microcosm and the macrocosm there is a growing awareness, in spite of the prodigies of science and technology, of the finiteness of human forces. The certitudes of reason, real and solid though they may be, at a certain point come to a stop so that one is induced to look for support to other certainties based on a different scale of values ruled by love and illuminated by faith in order to resolve one’s doubts and to solve dramatic problems.

While certain excessive promises of the so-called “technological hope” are being put into perspective and the conceptions of a well-being founded on false values are declining, the urgent necessity of a rescue operation is being felt. It is primarily up to you, as scientists and researchers, to lead the way in this direction. The quality of your work stands to gain from this and so does the human dignity of science, which is a great moral element to consider.

I do not wish my reflections to be such as would limit that just freedom or “legitimate autonomy” (the phrase is that of the Second Vatican Council) which should be enjoyed by anyone like you who is engaged, or rather, pledged to research in the vanguard of contemporary science.  Quite the opposite! The Church has confidence in, promotes and encourages your commitment.  In this regard I would like to recall to your attention a brief statement of the Council itself: “When man works in the fields of philosophy, history, mathematics and sciences and cultivates the arts, he can greatly contribute towards bringing the human race to a higher understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 57). 

I spoke to you at the beginning of the connection between the cathedral Church and the chairs of science of which this University consists the scientist also is called to exercise his own type of “priest-hood”.  Yes, in a true sense every scientist is a priest: that end which the Lord God assigned to the first man at the moment of creation and which is offered again with undoubted moral relevance to everyone who comes into this world- to be ruler of creation- has a particular and privileged application for the scientist. Precisely because he sees better and more, he has a more strict duty, on the one hand to acknowledge, to praise, to admire, to thank God in the works of his creation and on the other, to make proper and responsible use of his own talent and of the conquests, little and great, which are its fruit.

For the final point of my address, I would like to draw from a reading which the liturgy assigns to this very day.  In a letter to the disciple Timothy, Saint Paul affirms that God desires “all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Tim 2:4). On the long and tiring journey that brings us closer to the truth, Divine Providence has assigned a role to you too, distinguished teachers and dear students of the University of Pisa, in the footsteps of the renowned masters who taught and lived here: first of all the great Galileo Galilei, then the vast host of doctors and mathematicians and, closer to our age, sociologists like Giuseppe Toniolo, physicists like Enrico Fermi and so many other scholars of the human sciences.

Along with the truth —researched, loved, defended, proclaimed— the human divine, temporal and eschatological work of salvation will proceed in parallel fashion.  Nor will this happen only for you, but also for every other human being, whom you rightly regard as your colleague, as your student, your pupil, but always as your brother or sister. 

Source of the English text: Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition, 1989, October 30, pp. 13-14.