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The mission of scientists: address to the University of Trieste

1992, May 2

The Pope visited the University of Trieste, founded in 1938. The Holy Father was officially welcomed by the Rector and by the President of the International Center for Theoretical Physics. Prof. Abdus Salam, who received the Nobel Prize in 1979. John Paul II addressed his speech, speaking to them about the University’s role and the relationship between knowledge and faith.

I thank the Rector Magnificus for the sentiments expressed in the noble words he addressed to one in the name of all three present. I followed with interest the way he described the special characteristics of this cultural area, with the consequent opportunities for encounter and dialogue provided both by its geographical location and by the presence of numerous international scientific institutions.

The spokesman for these latter was Prof. Abdul Salam, who made a special point of praising the city of Trieste for the congenially of its inhabitants and the quality of the structures placed at the disposal of researchers who come together here from every part of the world. A cordial thanks to him as well.

I am happy to be here in this university to offer a special greeting to all of you, illustrious members of the Universities of Trieste and Udine, of the International Center for Theoretical Physics, of the Astronomical Observatory and of the various institutions of higher learning located in the scientific and technological research area of Padriciano. I greet also the many thousands of young people who are in this city to complete their university studies.

Here different civilizations live together peacefully: here peoples who have precise national identities live side by side, or rather, live together, in respectful and peaceful cooperation. Here, where the Adriatic forms the magnificent gulf, the sea does not separate, but rather joins, the Italian peninsula, sanctified by the evangelicalism mat martyrdom of the Apostles Peter and Paul, to the Balkan peninsula where the saintly wisdom of the brothers Cyril and Methodius flourished, here. I am happy to meet with you, distinguished ladies and gentlemen and dear friends, both in order to witness to the Catholic Church’s great esteem for scientific wisdom and for the world of studies in general, and also to bring you a word of best wishes and encouragement.

Higher studies and scientific research, both inside and outside of the specific university environment, are characterized by the note of universality. The very idea of a university, as I pointed out on 21 May 1985 at Louvain, necessarily implies universality. Humanity and its world, indeed the whole universe, present themselves to the investigation of the researcher and scholar with characteristics which can be understood by reason and communicated to others. Scientific language is such today that, by overcoming borders and barriers of every kind, it transmits words and images, communicates concepts, ideas, theories and proofs to an ever increasing number of persons, giving them the capacity to grow in learning and in humanity and to make use of the results and the concrete applications of scientific activity. One could rightly say that today, as never before, the universality of methodology, of language and of the scientific mentality has helped to change the human world. The universality of knowledge stems partly from the indomitable attraction human beings have to know the truth and partly from their need to communicate with one another to pass on their achievements or to use them for the benefit of an ever greater number of people. Despite the enormous harvest of results and the marvellous conquests that have been made in both the microcosm and macrocosm, serious difficulties still need to be overcome, new problems need to be confronted and resolved. We might think, for example, of a few infirmities which, though they base been made the object of profound study, continue to claim victims of every age and in every place. We could think also of the problems connected with the exploitation and distribution of natural resources, which science has done much to address, but which human selfishness continues to withhold from their universal destination which is clearly indicated by nature. We can only hope that ever more widely shared, sincere and effective ideas promoted among researchers, scientists and political leaders of international organizations may help to confront resolutely the age-old problems, such as that of disease, hunger or malnutrition which afflict or threaten such a large part of humanity.

This region of Italy, so fortuitously situated where North meets South and West meets Europe’s Central and Eastern region, is urged by nature and invited by history to serve as an intermediary or a link among peoples, waves of migrations and different cultural heritages. The very diversity that distinguishes the coast from the eastern Alps, the plains from the hills of Friuli and from Carnia, and the various peoples, each with their own language and culture, who in the past have been subjected to dramatic historical changes, can and should be expressed in forms of mutual integration and solidarity which would benefit this region and set an example for the ethnic communities of the neighbouring countries. Nothing can contribute to this more than the converging unity of studies, research efforts and plans for the future.

Scientific research, as technical and technological applications, the training of young people in professions hallowed by tradition or demanded by constant innovation, can determine to a great degree an improvement in peaceful coexistence and cooperation at home and abroad. Mother and mistress of the peoples who reside in these territories and in, the neighbouring lands, the Church claims to have, in this regard, the mission of supporting and encouraging the intentions and efforts of all who have made a their aim to achieve, strengthen and safeguard peace.

There is no reason for any difference, in this regard, between what the world of academic and scientific knowledge, on the one head, and the Church, on the other, can and should do. The conflicts which for a long time divided, and occasionally placed opposition between some aspects and sectors of the natural sciences and other aspects of theological knowledge, appear for the most part to be settled today. While, as I said at the University of Fribourg, “the scientistic ideology which persists in asserting the self-sufficiency of scientific endeavour, as if by itself it were able to satisfy all the essential questions of man” (Insegnamenti, vol. VII, 1, 1984, p. 1707) seems to be an irreversible crisis, the Church makes her own the beautiful statement of Galileo, according to which “Sacred Scripture and nature come equally from the divine Word, the former as the dictation of the Holy Spirit and the latter as the most observant executor of God’s commands” (Opere, edited by A Favaro, vol. V, p. 382). Science and faith meet, each respecting the competency of the other within its specific sphere.

We not only believe that nature is the work of God. We also hold, with the Apostle Paul, that “from the creation of the world, the mind can contemplate (God’s) invisible perfections in the works that he made” (Rom 1:20). The research and the practice of scientific knowledge, however, can in fact drive the searching mind to decipher the truth within the area of what can be verified by mathematics or the senses. But even when, through weakness, lack of attention, or a priori denial, the person who devotes his life to science does not encounter the mystery of the transcendent Absolute, he is bound, in the course of his studies, to run up against the problem and mystery of man, of his origin and his ultimate destiny, of his marvellous strengths and his insurmountable limitations, the darkest of which, when it is not illuminated by faith, is death itself.

Scientific knowledge does riot have its proper end in itself. It is at the service of man, of man-as-person, as well as of humanity as a whole, of man understood as humankind to - as specific difference, characterized by rite presence of spire – knowledge, conscience, will – and by conscious and free activity. In regard to man, science can neither claim to be neutral nor act so; it is at once a gift that comes from on high, and an unceasing conquest of the spirit that seeks and finds, interprets and organizes. It has a liberating and elevating function, whenever it is not exercised – as is the case in the invention and use of lethal weapons – in the service of death rather than of life, for the benefit of the power of a few rather than in the service of the rights of all.

How great, in this regard, is the responsibility of the men of science, how noble their mission, Better than many other human beings, they are able to open new horizons, to forge new paths to the ever expanding sphere of what is knowable but not yet known. He cannot be resigned to the sceptical and agnostic observation that once caused someone to say: “Ignoramus et ignorabumus” . We do not know and we shall never know. Even in self-knowledge man continually makes progress. Today, thanks to the broadening of the scientific horizons, of the sciences of observation as well as of the “humanities”, in many aspects man knows himself and his peers better than ever before. And yet the greatest problem of humanity, those that have to do with the value and end of existence, will never be solved unless, from the level of scientific achievement one does not use to a higher vision, overcoming possible cultural or migrated prejudice.

There are traces of prejudice in the way in which certain ways of doing science regard religion, the practice of faith, the moralists which the Gospel proposes, indeed demands as though being a sincere believer were an obstacle to the exercise of the maid and to the thought process. It might be useful to recall here, in this regard, two short passages of the Pensées of Blaise Pascal. This great scientist and religious thinker writes “Our whole dignity consists in thought. It is on thought that we ought to rely and not on space and time, which we do not know how to fill. Let us work then to think well, this is the principle of morality” (n. 347). “Now, the order of thought is to begin with itself, and with its Author, and its end” (n. 146). The older of thinking is correct, then, when it does not refuse to leave appropriate room for considering man, his Author, and his end. And its application is correct and beneficial when it makes progress towards benefiting man, the whole man, of every human being, according to those criteria of universality, interdependence and solidarity which modern science itself has helped to demonstrate are not only valid but indispensable for the whole world.

I fervently pray to God, the Giver of all gifts, that this may take place through your illustrious persons too and through the scientific activities that enable them; I invoke his blessing upon you, the scientific initiatives whose outcome you await and all those who are dear to you.

Source of the English text: Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition, 1992, May 13, p.3