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Natural Sciences, in the Work of Theologians

Date: 
2008
DOI: 
10.17421/2037-2329-2008-GT-5

I. Introduction - II. From Dialogue to Intellectual Integration: Some Epistemological Grounds. 1. Ways for Developing the Dialogue between Theology and Science. 2. When Theology approaches Science: a Couple of Clarifications. - III.The Usage of Natural Sciences in Theological Work: a Brief Status Quaestionis. 1. How Theologians look at the Sciences. 2. The Intellectual Endeavor carried out by Thomas Aquinas. 3. The “Spirit” of the Second Vatican Council and its further Application. - IV. The Scientific Image of the World and its Main Implications for the Theological Understanding of Biblical Revelation. 1. A Brief Overall Outlook on Recent Scientific Achievements. 2. Room for a Theology of Science and a Theology of Nature. - V. Towards a Genuine Development of Christian Doctrine.

I. Introduction

Theology seeks to provide the understanding of the Word of God in the light of faith. It seeks to explain the internal coherence of this Word and to clarify the different implications it entails. In so doing theology naturally encounters other sources of knowledge and takes into account their contents. Although theologians “descent” from Biblical Revelation towards created things, they cannot ignore the need for an “ascent,” that is, from philosophical and scientific knowledge towards the knowledge provided by God’s Word, in order to achieve a better understanding of the latter. The need for such a dialogical movement was already shown by St. Anselm’s understanding of theology as fides quaerens intellectum, still one of the best definitions of its rational task. It means that the theological understanding of things is to be “sought out,” but also “required” and “loved” by faith, according to the multiple nuances encompassed by the Latin verb quaerere. Historically, such an understanding originated from different sources, which concerned not only philosophy proper, but also that knowledge of nature corresponding to “natural philosophy,” as it was called for a long time. When the scientific method was established, claiming its autonomy with respect to philosophical knowledge, theology had been confronted with two different interlocutors, philosophy and science, as well as two different realms, i.e. the humanities and the natural sciences. Thus the task of theology became ever more complex because of the different methods and different epistemological viewpoints adopted in each subject area. In the Modern Age, the complexity of the task of theology increased due to the breakthrough of two major issues (or, perhaps, simply their modern re-proposition), namely the new perspective brought about by the relevance of history and the debate about the possibility of a quest for the truth.

Questioning the use of the results of the natural sciences in the work of theologians goes beyond simply questioning about the dialogue between science and theology. Rather, it should be considered as the natural outcome of the dialogue itself. A genuine use of scientific results implies the responsibility of turning one’s interest from merely providing a judgment of mutual compatibility, to facing the challenge that theology and science may provoke intellectually of each other. In fact, scientific results not only supply a deeper understanding of Revelation, but they might also require a new reading of the Word of God. Science asks for reading such a Word under new lights, and perhaps within unprecedented frameworks, which in turn raise new problems and call for more in-depth analyses. It is clear, then, that the “use” of sciences in theological work is quite far from the idea of instrumental or ancillary view of science —a view which is certainly inadequate to philosophy or human sciences as well. To use scientific results in theological work means, rather, to see them as sources of inspiration and of dogmatic development. It is a role that obliges theologians to take upon their shoulders the work of understanding how to interpret these results and the intricacies that they entail.

If we compare the relationship existing between theology and philosophy to that between theology and the natural sciences, we detect some resemblances and marked differences. On the one hand, the interpretation of scientific data is often theory laden and hence requires some discernment by theologians, just as it happens when considering philosophy. On the other hand, many results of science, that we are able to verify in an objective and universal way, are marked by such a “proximity” to reality that the knowledge they bring about has a high degree of reliance when compared with other sources of human knowledge. Experience plays a key-role for both philosophy and science and it is taken into due consideration by theology as well. The realist framework theology usually works with provides a precise vision of the link existing between history and truth, and reassures that an access to the truth starting from reality is possible. However, with respect to our topic, a relevant difference between philosophy and science must be underlined here. Whereas theologians are acquainted with the main notions of philosophy, whose role is well acknowledged by their official curriculum of studies, the kind of expert knowledge needed for a thorough understanding and evaluation of scientific results today escapes the great majority of theologians, also on account of the sophisticated theoretical and experimental tools used by contemporary science. If they have any scientific competence, it comes from training received in parallel with their own philosophical and theological studies.
In this essay, after introducing some epistemological assumptions which I believe should govern the dialogue and the interaction between theology and science (Section II), I present a brief status quaestionis of the presence of the natural sciences in theological works (Section III). The main scientific achievements with which theology has to reckon with today will be shortly summarized (Section IV), and, finally, a few guidelines for a proper use of science in the development of dogmatic theology will be schematically suggested (Section V).

II. From Dialogue to Intellectual Integration: Some Epistemological Grounds

Today, new philosophical premises and a new cultural climate allow for theology and science to overcome conflictual relationships and to foster a fruitful dialogue. There is a general agreement amongst various authors on the factors that have produced this change of perspective (cf. Polkinghorne, 1986, 1998; Gismondi, 1993; Haught, 1995; Barbour, 1997, 2000). They usually refer to the decline of the deterministic and mechanistic views of science, and of the closed, self-referential intent of logic and mathematics, within which scientific knowledge had entangled itself for such a long time, preventing it from engaging in dialogue with other sources of knowledge. It must be pointed out also that the rediscovery of scientific enterprise as an “activity of the person,” opened it to the canons of personal knowledge (think, e.g., of the value of tradition, the integration of analogical, symbolic and aesthetical language within the logical-mathematical discourse, etc.). Finally, we witness today the rise of philosophical, and sometimes even existential and religious questions, from within the scientific work, though, clearly, these cannot be formalized nor solved on the basis of scientific method alone. In the domain of history and culture, one could also mention the rediscovery of a meaningful link between Christian theology and the development of Western scientific thought. On the part of theology, an important changing factor is now the gradual, though slow, reception of the contemporary scientific view on the physical cosmos, on life and the evolution of the human being, a view that today constitutes the legitimate horizon to correctly understand the Biblical doctrine of creation and the history of salvation.

1. Ways for “developing” the Dialogue between Theology and Science. The most obvious area of reflection in such a dialogue is provided by the interpretation of reality. It is precisely in this area that early conflicts arose between a scientific and a religious “reading” of the world. Once you come to recognize, thanks to more correct hermeneutics, the possibility of simultaneous and different readings of reality, no longer at odds with each other, past errors may be clarified and the foundations laid for future peaceful interaction.

Beyond a non-belligerent phase, characterized by the simple clarification of the terms used by the two disciplines, a first chance to develop the dialogue between theology and science is offered today by moving from “essentialist” categories towards “personalist” ones. In this way, the epistemological problem is redirected to a more anthropological domain. In this respect, I observe that scientific thought itself has gradually re-evaluated a number of factors of knowledge of a personal, heuristic, aesthetic, and intuitive kind. For a long time, science has underestimated these factors by reductively identifying rationality with formal-logical rationality. This would entail daring to consider the question of the unity of knowledge, that is, the unity of the knowing subject’s intellectual experience. The focus would then no longer be on how theology and scientific knowledge might cooperate in their interpretation of reality, but on how various forms of knowledge may contribute to the subject’s own self-awareness and to the determination of his or her existential choices, not least the religious one. This would realize a shift from a “notional” assent —resulting from logical analysis— to a “real” assent —resulting from the convergence of clues coming from all sources of knowledge, including those which cannot be formalized in quantitative terms. It is the path offered in a masterly way by J.H. Newman in his work A Grammar of Assent (1870). To turn from epistemological and essentialist categories towards anthropological and personalistic ones is a change that has also ethical implications, providing the basis for overcoming the idea of the “neutrality of science.”

There is, however, a further step in developing this dialogue within a strictly theological and not merely philosophical domain: it concerns the possibility, for theology and science, of accepting a mutual, “intellectual challenge.” This is no longer a challenge proceeding from conflicts; rather, it is seen as the opportunity to submit one’s results to the other party’s reflection: “the dialogue should continue and grow in depth and scope. In the process we must overcome every regressive tendency to a unilateral reductionism, to fear, and to self-imposed isolation. What is critically important is that each discipline should continue to enrich, nourish and challenge the other to be more fully what it can be and to contribute to our vision of who we are and who we are becoming.” (John Paul II, Letter to the Director of the Vatican Observatory, June 1, 1988 ). The possibility of including firm scientific results into theological reflection has a dogmatic grounding in the equivalence that theology recognizes between the Word which creates the world and the Word which interprets and directs history, i.e., between God as he shows himself in the works of Creation, and God as he definitely reveals himself in the Incarnation of his Logos. An invitation not to neglect this match is offered by John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et ratio (1998): “The unity of truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, as the principle of non-contradiction makes clear. Revelation renders this unity certain, showing that the God of creation is also the God of salvation history. It is the one and the same God who establishes and guarantees the intelligibility and reasonableness of the natural order of things upon which scientists confidently depend, and who reveals himself as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (n. 34).

While avoiding any naïve concordism, one should rather take into serious account the consequences of that “unity of truth” mentioned above. The evaluation of theories and results coming from a scientific domain certainly has a cost for the theologian; it requires a new effort as well as the acquisition of new competencies. Nonetheless, employing this knowledge to contribute to a genuine “homogeneous development of dogma,” as fundamental theology would call it, should be seen as a real gain (see below, V). In other words, the natural sciences, which caused a great deal of “trouble” for theology, may yet be seen as a positive spur for speculation. We have to notice, it is true, that “theology” and “dogmatic progress” are not one and the same thing. Exploring new paths is a task of theological reflection, not of official dogmatic formulations. The latter compound in an authoritative and stable form the outcome of an in-depth study which may, as history shows, take centuries. However, true progress in dogmatic formulations, though the fruit of a slow and pondered elaboration, would not be possible without a speculative development of theological reflection.

2. When Theology approaches Science: a Couple of Clarifications. If theology is meant to see the natural sciences as a positive source of development, it ought to engage in clarifying a couple of important issues. The first is to take a stand on the meaning of the “truth” of science; the second is to be ready to define more precisely, and even revise, some theological terms and categories, in the light of well established scientific results on nature and on the human being. Actually, many of these results turn out to be quite independent of any specific philosophical framework.

In relation to the first clarification, theology should not insist too much either on the fallibility of scientific enterprises —as if it were a necessary premise to dialogue— or on the supposedly utterly conventional nature of scientific knowledge, overemphasizing the complete equivalence and the continuous change of its interpretative models. Though these epistemological approaches may be partly justified, if we use them incorrectly we may end up averting scientific knowledge from its goals. This would confine science once again within the closed horizon of studying merely phenomena (phainómenon, that is, what appears), with the only task of safeguarding appearances, one which Copernican science and Galileo’s work had appropriately meant to move away from. Although the history of scientific thought has certainly not been producing a unified way of interpreting “phenomena,” and their links with the world of events made different readings possible, nonetheless, science as a whole could be reasonably understood as nothing but the gradual progression of provisional formulations towards the truth of things. Scientific knowledge, naturally feeding into philosophical reflection, also shares in that metaphysical effort that Fides et ratio identifies as the urgent need “to move from phenomenon to foundation.” (n. 83). The world of experience is not a closed and self-referring courtyard, but it is the gate through which one enters in order to ascend towards the essence of things. It may be significant to note, in this respect, that the document just cited mentions the acquisition of knowledge by empirical science in order to show —in analogy with philosophical thinking— that the search for truth is not genetically frustrated, but it is capable of resting on secure data: “This is what normally happens in scientific research. When scientists, following their own intuition, set out in search of the logical and verifiable explanation of a phenomenon, they are confident from the first that they will find an answer, and they do not give up in the face of setbacks. They do not judge their original intuition useless simply because they have not reached their goal; rightly enough they will say that they have not yet found a satisfactory answer.” (n. 29).

In highlighting the search for truth within scientific research, and the real progress of its knowledge within a realist epistemological framework, superficial prejudices such as the opposition between “how” and “why”, or the insistence on the “limitations” of science, can be reduced in emphasis or even avoided. Scientific research attempts to come up with answers to some definite “whys” and, within its specific formal object, it deals with an “unlimited” material object. It would not be difficult to show that even those limitations of which science becomes aware while reflecting on its own methodology (incompleteness, unpredictability, inadequacy of reductionism, need for holism, etc.) are rather claims to its “openings,” that is, results that highlight the transition of scientific method towards higher levels of understanding. These level correspond to more general formal objects and languages, which transcend science but lead science to recognize its very foundation, which lay upon a philosophical, meta-empirical ground. If we think to the path followed by Ludwig Wittgenstein in logic, that led him to realize the need for transcending language, we can easily see that a similar road can be followed also in other branches of knowledge. Accordingly, one should put more emphasis on the “foundations” of scientific knowledge, than on its “limitations.” Amongst the prejudices to be overcome there is also the claim to solve complex issues in the debates between science and theology by affirming that a statement of science would not contradict Revelation because, in the end, we are simply dealing with “scientific hypotheses.” This intellectual attitude stems from an ambiguous and incorrect epistemological view. If that particular statement of science is truly scientific, based on arguments developed in compliance with correct methodological procedures, theologians should expect that, in principle, that statement would not contradict Revelation, even as a hypothesis.

A second question concerns the use in theological discourse of terms with a strong cosmological connotation, such as earth, heaven, life, death, time, space, light, origin, , end, etc. Of course, the language of theology is necessarily richer than that of science, while resorting to analogical, symbolic, poetic, or doxological expressions: nevertheless, this does not prevent theologians from seeking to be as linguistically accurate as possible, a requirement to which scientists are very sensitive. In the Middle Ages, theology and science used the same terminology: nowadays this is no longer the case, and when this happens it is almost invariably cause for confusion: take the word “nothing,” or the very notion of “creation.” The use of two notions would call for special attention: transcendence and experience. In treating the former, critical as it is to the entire theological discourse, theologians should be able to show at which level it operates with respect to the analysis of the sciences, and how it relates to the epistemological and anthropological openings of science itself; in the use of the latter, critical as it is to the entire scientific discourse, they should be able to explain in which way the experience of divine things and the experience of material things both intersect the sphere of the historical, sensible world.

To be convinced of how relevant this issue is, it would suffice to think how deep is the need to propose a language on God that may sound more meaningful to today’s people, whose culture is shaped by scientific rationality (cf. Gaudium et spes, 5). The implications in the pastoral domain are obvious to all: “without valid reflections which may be capable of clarifying (and of articulating) the possible link existing between the historical path of humankind, the evolution of the universe and God’s action in the world, any talk of God’s reality and of his presence runs the risk of being culturally irrelevant and meaningless for life.” (Italian Conference of Bishops, Tre Proposte per la ricerca, 1999, n. 35; cf. nn. 27-37). Similar caveats are contained in other pastoral documents of the Roman Catholic Church, just as the one issued in 1999 by the Pontifical Council for Culture (cf. Toward a Pastoral Approach to Culture, 23.5.1999, n. 35). A few years have passed since the declaration of the former Secretariat for the Dialogue with Non-Believers, now Pontifical Council for Culture, pointed out that: “Christians do not consider science as a threat, but rather as a manifestation, at a deeper level, of God as Creator. On the other hand, scientific culture calls on Christians to mature in their faith, to be prepared to open up to the language and researches of scientists, and especially to use their discerning faculties vis-à-vis the technical applications of science.” (in “Atheism and Dialogue”, 16 (1981), p. 231).

To merely assert the “compatibility” between a scientific reading of the world and the reading provided by Judaeo-Christian Revelation, theologians might endorse the easy, first-order solution of considering science and theology as two completely separated realms. Each of them would have its own incommensurable language, so that two completely different “linguistic games” can be played, without any rule in common. The language and the logic of personal commitment would be confined to religion only, while impersonal and thus universally objective knowledge would be proper to science only. According to this view, science itself would be only an expensive play, and theologians need not take scientific results too seriously. It is quite clear for theology that an approach capable of accepting the “challenge” posed by science, is much more demanding. This certainly implies for theologians some problems to solve, but also lets them use scientific results in a positive way, as a valuable source of speculative reflection and dogmatic development. To do this, however, they must adopt exactly the opposite attitude: they must take science seriously.

III. The Usage of Natural Sciences in Theological Work: a Brief Status Quaestionis

Generally speaking, both theological thought and the Church’s Magisterium have paid less attention to natural sciences than to the humanities. The greater weight attributed to the latter is due both to their role as auxiliary sciences in the study and the interpretation of the Sacred Scripture (history, philology, etc.), and as sciences appropriate to the study of the historical and existential dimensions of the addressee of the Gospel message, that is of the human being (psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.). Recent examples of the little attention paid to the natural sciences are the absence of any reference to them both in the Vatican II Constitution Dei Verbum (1965), devoted to divine Revelation, and in the Document of the PBC The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993). If we look further back, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter, Providentissimus Deus (1893), suitably recognises that “knowledge of the natural sciences will be of great help to the teacher of Sacred Scripture,” although the main goal of this knowledge seems to be to define the areas of their competency, rather than foster the use of scientific results; a few lines further, in fact, that document adds: “Knowledge of the natural sciences will be of great help to the teacher of Sacred Scripture. Indeed there should be no real disagreement between the theologian and the physicist, provided that each confines himself within his own territory, watching out for this, according to St. Augustine's warning, ‘not to make rash assertions, and to declare the unknown a known’ (incognitum pro cognito),” (DH 3287). However, an important assumption that would have later justified the idea of a positive contribution of the natural sciences to theology was contained, in a nutshell, in the document Dei Filius (1870) of the Vatican I Council, when it speaks of the “mutual help” to be granted by reason and faith in the understanding of dogmas (cf. DH 3019).

1. How Theologians look at the Sciences. One may well wonder why theological textbooks over the last 30 to 40 years have been so prudent, even quiet on this issue. The book series Mysterium salutis, which meant to identify the main lines of theological renewal from Vatican II onwards (Mysterium Salutis. Grundriß heilsgeschichtlicher Dogmatik, edited by J. Feiner e M. Löhrer, 5 vols., Einsiedeln 1965-1976), was eloquently silent. Up to the 1980s, textbooks on Creation or on Theological Anthropology containing links with natural sciences were very rare. Usually, they addressed these issues in a cursory and imprecise fashion, almost as if treading on a minefield. As a consequence, the doctrine on divine Providence, which necessarily requires a look at the natural world as such, seems to have been eclipsed. The gradual rise of interest witnessed at the close of the 20th century was mainly spurred by reflections on the ecological crisis and by the renewed focus on classical borderline issues known as the “problems of the origins” (of the cosmos, of man, of life) with an annex concerning the final scenarios (future of humankind and of the cosmos). However, most of the reflections offered by theologians usually respond only to those scientists’ works which had such a remarkable philosophical impact on culture and on public opinion, that theology was bound to take them into account.

Among contemporary theologians, however, the works of Karl Rahner (1904-1984), Wolfhart Pannenberg (born 1928), and Jürgen Moltmann (born 1926), should be remembered as an example of theology which seems to have taken natural sciences seriously. Rahner tackled this issue in the form of short essays without leaving us any structured methodological proposal (however, some seminal suggestions can be found in his essay Naturwissenschaft und vernünftiger Glaube, 1981). He devoted major interest to the scientific language of theology and to the origin of human beings within an evolving world, including the problem of monogenism and the role of Christ in the cosmos. Pannenberg has developed a significant philosophical reflection in dialogue with science in a number of extensive monographs devoted to this issue (cf. Pannenberg, 1973, 1975, 1993), as well as in a number of scattered articles, the latter has developed a significant philosophical reflection in dialogue with science, especially in his Systematic Theology (3 vols., T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh 1991-1998, cf. ch. VII: “The Creation of the World”). Moltmann has written a treatise on Creation containing interesting points for a dialogue with science and collected a number of essays on theology and science in the book Science and Wisdom (cf. Moltmann, 1985, 2003). However, more than considering the influence of scientific data upon theology, he was mainly interested in fostering an alliance between science and religion in order to save our planet from the danger of a future destruction. From an epistemological standpoint, it should be noted that Pannenberg’s and Moltmann’s works manifest an idealist philosophical viewpoint, which, by displacing the issue of truth on the far away escathon, it ends by affecting also their reading of the real work of science.

Alongside these three authors, it is worth mentioning Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007), whose philosophical-theological production has copiously touched on the links between theology and science, especially regarding the search for a more satisfactory theory of knowledge and exploring the historical influences that the Trinitarian dogma and the doctrine of the Incarnation had for our view of the natural world, including our way of doing science (cf. Torrance, 1989, 1992, 1997, 2001). We should not forget the contribution made by Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984), whose philosophical insights originally grew out of his interest in searching for a theological method more respectful of contemporary rationality (cf. Insight. A Study of Human Understanding, 1957; Method in Theology, 1972). Theologians to be mentioned here also include authors such as Juan Luis Ruiz de la Peña, Karl Heim, Langdon Gilkey, Eric Lionel Mascall, Dennis Edwards. All these scholars have worked in the area of theology, that is, they are properly known as theologians. Far greater is the number, of course, of philosophers who have recognized the value of sciences for the thought and life of believers, as Jacques Maritain and Jean Ladrière did, just to mention two of them. Even bigger is the number of contemporary authors who devote themselves primarily to the study of the relationship between theology and science as such; again, their standpoint is mainly epistemology, not dogmatic theology, nor they are, strictly speaking, theologians, at least in the sense this word has in Roman Catholic circles.

The case of the French Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) is here worthy of particular attention. Teilhard was not a theologian, nor did he use the natural sciences within a systematic theological project. However, his thought has greatly influenced and still influences theology (for a concise review of his impact, cf. Latourelle, 1994). Admittedly with some uncertainties and ambiguities, he is indeed the first author who tried to “reconsider” the results of science —particularly the evolutionary path of the cosmos and of life— in the light of Biblical Revelation, while offering original interpretations with implications on a much wider scale than expected. His reading of the relationship between the Incarnated Logos, the human being and the cosmos, inspired by his observations as a palaeontologist, and by his vibrant, and at times mystical reflections as a believer, has become a sort of model framework within which some theologians ended up interpreting central issues, such as the relationship between nature and grace or that between creation and redemption. However, if judged as a theological project, Teilhard’s thought does not offer fully convincing solutions regarding issues of paramount importance for Christian doctrine, such as the understanding of original sin or the ways in which God is present in the cosmos. For this reason, some aspects of his thought can lead to conclusions that, in some specific issues, might differ from the teachings of Revelation.

A bird’s eye view of 20th-century theology as a whole would lead us to conclude that, apart some few exceptions, no particularly productive dialogue with scientific thought ever took place. I am thinking of a kind of dialogue that was not to be confined to marking boundaries or to clarifying errors, but one that would manage to use, in a careful but fruitful manner, some of the results and the new perspectives that 20th-century scientific research was able to hand over to the world of learning as a whole. The philosophical repercussions of many scientific achievements was reflected in the wide-ranging debates that science spurred amongst philosophers, rather than amongst theologians. These debates, however, mainly focused on epistemological aspects, and only seldom affected anthropological or existential considerations, which, paradoxically, are more likely to be found today in scientific rather than in philosophical works. The causes of the delay of theology are historically complex, but among them there is the gradual loss of its “academic room.” At least in a number of countries of Christian Catholic traditions, theology itself abandoned (sometimes unwillingly) university campuses and remained confined to seminaries and to Pontifical universities. The situation of the Churches born from the Reform is something different, since their Schools of Divinity usually share the same university campus where other schools and Faculties operate, though the dialogue between the two sides is not so effective as expected. Concerning the training of the clergy, usually run in seminaries, we have to say that in the last 100 or 150 years important scientific subjects were excluded from their curricula, and more generally from philosophical-theological studies. Although the development of the natural sciences in our times has resulted in an expansion of knowledge that is no longer comparable with 19th-century learning, the presence of subject matters such as physics, astronomy, logic or biology, in the ratio studiorum of 19th-century seminaries, showed at least a kind of sensitivity that later would fade away. Such a state of affairs has increased the cultural gapbetween theological reflection and scientific reasoning, which had slowly (yet inexorably) been felt in early modern times.

Quantitative evidence, for those who love data, is provided by a simple analysis of the scientific biographies contained in the monumental Dictionary of Scientific Biographies (edited by C. Gillispie, 16 vols., New York 1970-1980); it turns out that the percentage of scientists that were also secular or regular clerics of Christian Churches still covered in the 18th century 30% of all recorded biographies, but these dramatically plummeted to 10% in the early 19th century, before being reduced to very few personages in the 20th century. Although this data is no proof of the “efficiency” of the dialogue between theology and science —as the people in question were merely scientists who were clergy but not theologians at the same time— it still provide an important indication of how scholars who were trained first in philosophy and theology, later on decided to dedicate themselves to the study of various fields science as professionals familiar with research and experimental science.

Among Italian authors it is worth mentioning Antonio Stoppani (1824-1891), a priest and a geologist, whose case is particularly interesting from a historical point of view. He was the first to produce a complete geological survey of the Italian territory (Il Bel Paese, 1875 – “Our Beautiful Country”) and combined his scientific production with very attentive apologetic work, as well with a lively and more mature concern for the formation of the clergy in the area of the natural sciences. Despite its misleading title, in his work Il dogma e le scienze positive, ossia la missione apologetica del clero nel moderno conflitto tra la ragione e la fede [“Dogma and positive science, or the clergy’s apologetic mission in the modern conflict between reason and faith”] (Milan 1886), he does not present an instrumental view of science as ancillary to a naïve concordist or a kind of polemical apologetics. Though taking into account the constraints of the rhetorical discourse of his times, he offers, rather, a precise methodological vision: “to clarify the errors of science by science itself.” By that he meant to stress the need for the clergy to attain a more profound competence in science, in order not to avoid or to underestimate the issues in question, but to tackle them with competence and provide a better service to theology. Some titles of the chapters in this work, such as “Condizioni speciali del moderno conflitto tra la scienza e il dogma e conseguente necessità degli studi naturali” [Special conditions of the modern conflict between science and dogma and subsequent need for natural studies] (cf. pp. 48-75) or “Come lo studio delle scienze fisiche e naturali sia per l’universalità del clero cattolico specialmente indicato” [How the study of the physical and natural sciences should be particularly suitable for the whole of the Catholic clergy] (cf. pp. 227-236), show by themselves what kind of project this scholar was pursuing.

2. The Intellectual Endeavor carried out by Thomas Aquinas. It is no idle exercise, in the present study, to look back at an even more distant past to find an instructive model in the work of Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274). It is commonly held among historians that, although he did not directly have a hand in the development of experimental sciences, he contributed to raise renewed interest in the study of nature by making Aristotle known in Western Christian universities, and facilitated the introduction of much scientific knowledge of the time into theological thinking. The Papal encyclicals Aeterni Patris (1879) and Fides et ratio (1998), do not fail to single out Aquinas as a model for scholars and an expert of the scientific learning of his time, who, by his wise discernment, was able to begin a constructive and fruitful dialogue where others had only seen obstacles or complications.

A fresh appreciation of Thomas Aquinas’s method and spirit may therefore turn out to be useful for the current renewal of a theological approach to scientific learning, in spite of the gap separating us from the historical context in which he lived and worked. A recommendation by Pope John Paul II is no doubt explicit in this respect: “Contemporary developments in science challenge theology far more deeply than did the introduction of Aristotle into Western Europe in the thirteenth century. Yet these developments also offer to theology a potentially important resource. Just as Aristotelian philosophy, through the ministry of such great scholars as St. Thomas Aquinas, ultimately came to shape some of the most profound expressions of theological doctrine, so can we not hope that the sciences of today, along with all forms of human knowing, may invigorate and inform those parts of the theological enterprise that bear on the relation of nature, humanity and God?” (John Paul II, Letter to the Director of the Vatican Observatory, June 1, 1988).

These are not isolated remarks. The same idea was authoritatively taken up, as hinted above, in the encyclical letter Fides et ratio, which presents St. Thomas as a “searcher for truth,” wherever it might be found and by whomsoever it was studied and taught. Recalling a passage of pope Paul VI’s letter Lumen ecclesiae (1974), John Paul II writes: “Thomas possessed supremely the courage of the truth, a freedom of spirit in confronting new problems, the intellectual honesty of those who allow Christianity to be contaminated neither by secular philosophy nor by a prejudiced rejection of it. He passed therefore into the history of Christian thought as a pioneer of the new path of philosophy and universal culture. The key point and almost the kernel of the solution which, with all the brilliance of his prophetic intuition, he gave to the new encounter of faith and reason was a reconciliation between the secularity of the world and the radicality of the Gospel, thus avoiding the unnatural tendency to negate the world and its values while at the same time keeping faith with the supreme and inexorable demands of the supernatural order.” (Fides et ratio, 43). And, also: “Profoundly convinced that ‘whatever its source, truth is of the Holy Spirit’ (omne verum a quocumque dicatur a Spiritu Sancto estSumma Theologiae, I-II, q. 109, a. 1, ad 1um) Saint Thomas was impartial in his love of truth. He sought truth wherever it might be found and gave consummate demonstration of its universality.” (ibidem, 44). The aim of such exhortations is not a predestined celebration of Aquinas’s thought: it is an invitation to accomplish in our time what St. Thomas did in his life. It is easy to see that nowadays such an endeavor would involve not only philosophical knowledge, but also that derived from the natural sciences.

Bearing in mind the present context and the need of “translating” Aquinas’ observations into a language capable of including the contemporary sciences as we now know them, it is interesting to re-read what he stated in the opening of Book II of the Summa Contra Gentiles. In that section he comes to the lucid conclusion that “it is therefore evident that the consideration of creatures has its part to play in building the Christian faith.” Here I refer to some of the most illuminating excerpts: “The meditation on divine works is indeed necessary for instruction of faith in God. First, because meditation on His works enables us to admire and reflect upon His wisdom. For things made by art are representative of the artist itself, being made in the likeness of the artist. […] Secondly this consideration [of God’s works] leads to admiration of God’s sublime power, and consequently inspires in men’s hearts reverence for God. For the power of the worker is necessarily understood to transcend the things made. And so it is said: ‘If they,’ namely the philosophers, ‘admired their power and effects,’ namely of the heavens, stars and elements of the world, ‘let them understand that He that made them is mightier than they.’ (Wis 13,4). […] Thirdly, this consideration incites the souls of men to the love of God’s goodness. […] Fourthly, this consideration endows men with a certain likeness to God’s perfection. For it was shown in Book I that, by knowing Himself, God beholds all other things in Himself. Since, then, the Christian faith teaches man principally about God and makes him know creatures by the light of divine revelation, there arises in man a certain likeness to God’s wisdom. […] It is therefore evident that the consideration of creatures has its part to play in building the Christian faith.” (Book II, ch. 2).

A little further, Aquinas’ argument seems to involve even more directly the realm of “natural philosophy,” when he claims that a careful knowledge of creatures helps avoid making mistakes concerning the knowledge of God: “The consideration of creatures is further necessary, not only for the building up of truth, but also for the destruction of errors. For errors about creatures sometimes lead one astray from the truth of faith, so far as the errors are inconsistent with true knowledge of God. Now, this happens in many ways. First, because through ignorance of the nature of creatures men are sometimes so far perverted as to set up as the first cause, as if it were God, that which can only receive its being from something else; for they think that nothing exists beyond the realm of visible creatures. […] Secondly, because they attribute to certain creatures that which belongs only to God. This also results from error concerning creatures. For what is incompatible with a thing’s nature is not ascribed to it except through ignorance of its nature […]. Thirdly, because through ignorance of the creature’s nature something is subtracted from God’s power in its working upon creatures. […] Fourthly, because man, who by faith is led to God as his last end, through ignorance of the nature of things, and consequently of his own position in the universe, believes that he is subject to other creatures to which he is in fact superior. Such is evidently the case with those who subject human wills to the stars.” (Book II, ch. 3). These remarks require no further comment. The conclusion at which St. Thomas arrives, linking up with Augustine and through him with the great tradition that preceded him, is still relevant nowadays: “It is, therefore, evident that the opinion is false of those who asserted that it made no difference to the truth of the faith what any one holds about creatures, so long as one thinks rightly about God, as Augustine tells us in his book On the Origin of the Soul [IV, 4]. For error concerning creatures, by subjecting them to causes other than God, spills over into false opinion about God, and takes men’s minds away from Him, to whom faith seeks to lead them.” (ibidem).

After Aquinas, an author who deserves to be mentioned for his inspired view about the role of the natural sciences in the work of theologians is Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639). A philosopher contemporary of Galileo, Campanella wrote a brilliant essay in defense of the heliocentric system supported by the Italian scientist, titled A Defense of Galileo. An Inquiry as to whether the Philosophical View Advocated by Galileo is in Agreement with, or is Opposed to, the Sacred Scriptures (1622). Developing the metaphor which looks at the natural world as a book written by God, and arguing within a context much wider then the controversial comparison between the two chief cosmological systems of that time, Campanella reminds the theologians about the existence of a huge biblical, patristic and theological tradition which considers the created world as the revelation of the glory of God. According to Campanella, who prohibits Christian thinkers from studying nature is just prohibiting them from being Christians. Christian doctrine recommends to investigate natural phenomena precisely because it does not fear truth, a truth they believe to belong to the One God who created the heaven and the earth (cf. A Defense of Galileo, ch. III).

3. The “Spirit” of the Second Vatican Council and its further Application. The poverty of explicit references to the natural sciences in the Church’s 20th-century Magisterium, in sharp contrast with its developments concerning philosophy and the humanities, should not lead theologians to pay less attention to science in their work. In line with what I cited above regarding Thomas Aquinas’ model, we may trace promising hints in some documents of the Second Vatican Council which, in their “spirit,” perhaps more than in the “letter,” would seem to encourage scholars to move in this direction. It was a specific intention of the Council, as is well known, to urge to present the Gospel message in a way that would better suit men and women of our times, in the awareness that “the experience of past ages, the progress of the sciences, and the treasures hidden in the various forms of human culture, by all of which the nature of man himself is more clearly revealed and new roads to truth are opened, these profit the Church, too.” (Gaudium et spes, 44). This and other passages that mention sciences add no explanation concerning the ways in which they may contribute to theology. Yet some passages by the Council’s Fathers deserve a special attention.

Gaudium et spes contains significant references to the sciences in various places. Having recognized that the study of various disciplines, such as philosophy, history, mathematics and the natural sciences, contributes to raise the cultural and social conditions of humanity, and having called to mind that the progress of the sciences and of technology can promote a kind of phenomenism and agnosticism when their method is exalted as the supreme norm to search for global truth, the text points out that “those unfortunate results, however, do not necessarily follow from the culture of today, nor should they lead us into the temptation of not acknowledging its positive values. Among these values are included: scientific study and fidelity toward truth in scientific inquiries, the necessity of working together with others in technical groups, a sense of international solidarity...” (Gaudium et spes, n. 57). Taking into due consideration potential temptations and sometimes real misconceptions, the positive appreciation of scientific learning that also engages theologians in a fruitful dialogue with the world, may be deduced from the contents of another passage: “The recent studies and findings of science, history and philosophy raise new questions which affect life and which demand new theological investigations. Furthermore, theologians, within the requirements and methods proper to theology, are invited to seek continually for more suitable ways of communicating doctrine to the men of their times; for the deposit of Faith or the truths are one thing and the manner in which they are enunciated, in the same meaning and understanding, is another.” (ibidem, n. 62).
Echoing what Pius XI had already written in his Constitution on the formation of the clergy, Scientiarum Dominus (1931), namely that the Catholic religion has to dread ignorance of truth more than any other enemies (id unum timet: veritatis ignorantia), the Second Vatican Council’s decree on the formation of priests, Optatam totius, underlines the need for candidates to the priesthood to possess an adequate formation in the humanities and the sciences as a condition to enter higher education (cf. n. 13). In fact, for an in-depth study of theology “account should also be taken of the more recent progress of the sciences. The net result should be that the students, correctly understanding the characteristics of the contemporary mind, will be duly prepared for dialogue with men of their time.” (n. 15). Finally, in the declaration Gravissimum educationis, it is stated that Catholic universities and theological schools of Church universities, shall promote closer co-operation with other centers of teaching devoted to scientific research (cf. nn. 10-12).

And yet it is in the teachings of John Paul II, often given in the form of addresses to the world of academia and of learning, that we find a kind of synthesis of the “spirit” of the Second Vatican Council, and a genuine development of its exhortations. Although he has not left any specific legislative indications —the Constitution on the reform of ecclesiastical studies, Sapientia christiana (1979) contained no indications as to the role of the natural sciences— there is no doubt that the whole of his long pontificate, and the sincere concern he has shown towards the world of science, as witnessed by his courageous and unprecedented statements, have been radically and positively reshaping the Church’s attitude in this area. A further quotation from the already mentioned Letter to the Director of the Vatican Observatory (1988) is clear enough in this respect: “If the cosmologies of the ancient Near Eastern world could be purified and assimilated into the first chapters of Genesis, might contemporary cosmology have something to offer to our reflections upon creation? Does an evolutionary perspective bring any light to bear upon theological anthropology, the meaning of the human person as the imago Dei, the problem of Christology —and even upon the development of doctrine itself? What, if any, are the eschatological implications of contemporary cosmology, especially in light of the vast future of our universe? [...] Questions of this kind can be suggested in abundance. Pursuing them further would require the sort of intense dialogue with contemporary science that has, on the whole, been lacking among those engaged in theological research and teaching.” Finally, in one of his last speeches delivered in 2003 to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, John Paul II asserted once again the uniqueness of Truth, affirming that scientific research may help theology to understand better and better the content of Revelation: “We are united in our common desire to correct misunderstandings and even more to allow ourselves to be enlightened by the one Truth which governs the world and guides the lives of all men and women. I am more and more convinced that scientific truth, which is itself a participation in divine Truth, can help philosophy and theology to understand ever more fully the human person and God’s Revelation about man, a Revelation that is completed and perfected in Jesus Christ.” (Address to the Pontifical Academy of Science, November 10, 2003, in OR November 10-11, 2003, p. 5). In contrast with what may have happened in other periods of the Church’s history, it seems we are living in a time when the Church’s Magisterium indicates guidelines which anticipate theological research, and indicate a road along with theology still seems unprepared to proceed.

IV. The Scientific Image of the World and its Main Implications for the Theological Understanding of Biblical Revelation

A number of results achieved by contemporary science should not be ignored by theologians. They represent a new source of knowledge, that those whose research work is to understand God’s Word should take into account. Based on these results, theologians can suggest, or at times even set forth, a new interpretation of some passages of Holy Scripture. Though the dogmatic content and the genuine meaning of what is revealed by God do not depend, as such, on the results of science, nevertheless the understanding of the Word of God may be advanced through them. This might even result in a better clarification of the internal coherence of Revelation and in a deeper insight into its implications for the people’s faith. Let me offer here only a general and abridged synthesis of some of the most important scientific results which are good candidates for bringing about a number of interesting implications. The widespread popularization of such results made them part of the “shared scientific knowledge of our times,” and it saves us from providing point-by-point bibliographical references. Confining our analysis to the natural sciences, the theological areas mainly concerned by our topic are: fundamental theology, the treatise on creation, theological anthropology, eschatology, and to a certain extent Christology.

1. A Brief Overall Outlook on Recent Scientific Achievements. As is well known, physical cosmology is probably the branch of knowledge most responsible for having expanded our horizons. We now have sufficient data to conclude that the physical universe possesses a long and huge evolutionary history. It has undergone a slow and continuous development over time, starting from an initial phase capable of “containing” —in physical conditions of extremely high density and temperature, and of incredibly limited size— all the matter and energy currently in existence. We cannot rule out that the universe may coexist with other space-time independent domains, totally separate from one another and having different evolutionary histories; therefore, we must better qualify and distinguish between a “physical” and a “philosophical” (and also a “theological”) definition of the universe. The space-time horizon which characterizes our understanding of the universe in which we live has been extraordinarily widened, necessarily leading to a “space-time re-setting” of humankind and its cosmic habitat. Such “re-setting” implies a new physical and temporal context we can no longer ignore, just as, in the past, we could not ignore the new worlds reached by great geographic discoveries or the new cosmological assessment originated by the Copernican revolution. The time spanning from the formation of the first chemical elements to the appearance of life on earth, and from the rise of its most elementary forms to the appearance of humans, was incredibly long, much longer than could be expected even one century ago. Within their specific object and methodology, the natural sciences have been capable of tracing back, without any significant interruption, the key steps of that history, and they are able to predict some of its principal future scenarios. The latter also are characterized by very long, but not infinite time spans, enough to tell us that the conditions adequate to host life are placed within suitable “time windows”: such conditions could not have arisen before a specific cosmic age, and that from a certain time onward they will no longer arise.

But the wide spaces and great time spans involved, far from being redundant, have been strictly necessary to produce the conditions, places and times allowing for the slow synthesis of chemical elements and the subsequent formation of the physical scenarios and biological niches suitable to host life. Besides, as the results associated with the Anthropic principle suggest, we know that there is a delicate “primeval fine tuning” of the physical structure of the universe, and of the physical, chemical, and biological conditions on which life —due to appear very much later— would then be base. Today we know that for the appearance of human life here and now, the initial conditions of the cosmos have been as important as (and in some ways much more important than) the innumerable, contingent cosmic and biological events, which have taken place throughout the evolutionary history of the universe.

As regards to the laws governing the universe, we know that the physical universe is not always governed by laws that may be mathematically formalized and wholly predictable. The universe is not deterministic nor “undetermined”: its basic components possess specific and stable properties, showing qualities of identity and universality on a large cosmic scale. However, besides “entities,” the universe is made up, above all, of “relations,” that often determine many elementary cosmic properties. In the physical universe nothing is totally isolated, because the nature of any part depends on the history of the whole. In the universe there is a positive quantity of information, which is non-reducible to the support of matter or energy through which information itself is conveyed. Above the whole scenario of the laws of nature, the question of the origin of their intelligibility and rationality emerges, as well as that of their accordance with our processes of knowledge. Again, as far as cosmic structure is concerned, we know that distinctions between matter and energy, space and time, matter and void, have to be reinterpreted through totally new categories: matter and energy can mutually transform each other; the flow of time depends on the curving of space, hence on the matter contained in it; physical void, once the universe exists, houses very high energies which may in turn be transformed into huge quantities of matter. Nature is truly capable of emergence and novelty. Her history is not merely that of slow and gradual decay towards uniformity: conceding that this holds true on a very large scale, on a small and intermediate scale new and more complex structures may arise, in which information is accumulated and grows. Physical reality remains something truly “open” to the novelty of history.

Biology, for its part, has shown that the human body is like a summary of the long history of the cosmos and of our planet. Almost all the information essential for the bodily development of each individual is contained within a tiny genetic set, shared to a very large extent with inferior animal species. Each living being is endowed with a specific genetic code which may be likened to a “program,” capable of reconstructing, in a non-reductive but informational fashion, its physical and biological structure, and the various biological processes which control its life and development. Today we know that the different forms of life on our planet have undergone slow changes leading to the appearance of new species and to the disappearance of others. Such a long, temporal path not only displays a development or a growth, but also a real evolution. Various factors have contributed, and partly still contribute, in uneven ways, to make that evolution possible: the working of a natural selection; the adaptation of living beings to the different environments in which they have to survive, and correspondingly the adjustment of predator’s morphology to the efficiency or predation; the development of precise organismic functions; the existence of internal processes, which, through their gradual emergence seem to have progressively channeled living beings towards more complex and perfected forms. It belongs to common, and also to scientific experience, that among all the others biological species, the species Homo sapiens stands as a climax, a unique and singular case of a living being whose phenomenology cannot be entirely reduced to the biological panorama surrounding it, though being ourselves part of it. The times and the ages that have marked the appearance of the human being on earth and the gradual ascent of the first humans towards the achievements of civilization and learning, have been much longer than ever expected, much more distant in the past than we could have reasonably imagined only a few decades ago. Contemporary astronomical observations outside the earth’s atmosphere have revealed to us that the presence of stars with planets around them is a relatively widespread phenomenon: no other forms of life, even basic ones, have been observed, but the hypothesis that extraterrestrial life may have developed in environments similar to ours is quite plausible. Finally, it is scientific research again that teaches us that owing to the size of the universe, and on the basis of the time scales involved when communicating through space, it is not possible (nor will it ever be) to acquire complete information from all regions of the universe in order to check the potential presence of other intelligent beings: it is thus a possibility which cannot be invalidated on the basis of a priori arguments.

2. Room for a Theology of Science and a Theology of Nature. The sketchy list of results and perspectives drawn up above could have been even longer. I insisted on the results pertaining to the cosmological domain, and, to a lesser extent, on the challenges coming from biology or physical anthropology; I could have added other results, having a similar philosophical relevance, from the field of high energy physics, of quantum mechanics, of chemistry or biochemistry, of zoology or of human physiology. Contemporary results of mathematical sciences and logic, which also have a considerable philosophical bearing, may be considered to come from the domain of philosophy, rather than from the natural sciences. My concern, however, is not to supply here a thorough and in-depth list of results: what is at stake is to evaluate whether such results are solely a source of “trouble” for that interpretation of the world and human history, along with their relationships with God, that theologians make on the basis of Revelation; or, rather, whether the lessons we are taught today by the natural sciences may be a positive source of theological progress. True progress, however, is only feasible when, in the event of problems, these are tackled and possibly solved by proposing new ways of understanding. And a better understanding of divine Revelation, while increasing its intelligibility, enhances the credibility of the faith in a scientific context as well.

We should not forget that today science provides theology with a much wider framework to understand one of its pivotal issues: what it means “to be a creature in a created world.” The meaning of terms such as “creature” and “world” gains a weight and a context today that they did not possess before. If, of course, this does not directly enhance the dogmatic content of the theological notion of Creation understood as an act ex parte Dei, it certainly improves our insight into the implications of “creation” when understood as a relation and as a created effect. Again in the realm of the theology of Creation, it is not without interest to note that the fine-tuning of those physical and biological conditions on which the universe would be in due time built up, arose in the very beginning of the development of the cosmos, well before its subsequent long-term biological evolution. Those who want to philosophically interpret fine-tuning in terms of purpose could also see the potential Christological resonances of the teleological, and no longer geometrical, centrality of life and of the human being within the cosmos. Perhaps, even the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh might profit from the acquired knowledge of what genetic information actually is, having in mind the inevitable dissolution of the human body. Would those Christian thinkers that pay so much attention to the “theology of the body,” a body sharing in the image of God, capable of revealing the personal dimension of the subject and of being the temple of the Holy Spirit, simply be confused or would they rather be enlightened by the fact that such a body, even before being “human,” encloses a very long evolutionary, cosmic and biological history? And how would one grasp the order and harmony of a nature crowned by the creation of human beings, if one considers that in the history that preceded Homo sapiens innumerable species appeared and disappeared, through mutual competition and sometimes painful conflicts? At the level of salvation history, might the very long ages which passed from the first appearance of the human species on earth facilitate the understanding of the relationship between objective and subjective redemption, considering above all that the great majority of human beings that have lived so far have never come into contact with the message of salvation of Christ’s Paschal event? These are just hints —in this case, too, the list may grow larger— that may suffice to give a sense of what I mean; not just these scientific results are potentially fruitful in themselves, but also that there is a need for serious and thorough interdisciplinary work, calling on scholars to use all their competence to carry it out.

On the other side of the balance, of course, we could find problematic issues to solve. It becomes important to explain, for instance, the relationship between the “first” and the “new creation”, finding suitable ways not to contradict our current knowledge of the material universe as well as of its past and future scenarios. An evaluation of the elements of continuity and discontinuity operating within that relationship, about which Biblical Revelation also informs us, should further be carried out on the basis of scientific insights, while consequent possible implications for eschatology, including intermediate eschatology, should be carefully examined (see Ellis, 2002; Russell, 2006). I should explicitly make clear that we are dealing with “implications,” not necessarily with “problems;” it is nothing but a “common quest for understanding,” from which the intelligibility of Revelation might take full advantage. Thinking of the “physical” dimension contained in the relationship of continuity/discontinuity between the first and the new creation, theology should also define more precisely some elements of the doctrine of Original sin, such as the difference between its moral and physical consequences. Leaving out the hermeneutics underlying the Biblical account —it being the exegetes’ own task to explain it in accordance with the essential content of dogma— it seems clear that the historical entrance of sin into a world which had been in existence for a long time, is presented with its definite consequences not only for human nature, but also for the material world as a whole. Thus theology is asked to clarify whether the element of “discontinuity” introduced by such consequences may have any observable counterpart also for science. If so, a dialogue with the sciences would shed light on the way of viewing human death. For instance, it may suggest ways of distinguishing between death understood as the completion of a biological cycle —which science tells us occurs in nature well before the appearance of Homo sapiens— and death understood as the dramatic way in which a conscious rational creature feels the end of its physical existence, an experience that puts in doubt the goodness of its Creator. A dialogue with the sciences may further suggest that the disorder brought into nature by human sin would allow for interpretations stressing its anthropological implications (as a disorder introduced into the relationship between the sinner and nature) without necessarily insisting on its physical or natural implications (as a disorder within nature itself). Different ways of understanding what “physical pain” is, and what it means in God’s plans, would also emerge. Finally, we could derive some implication for the correct understanding of the relationship between the historical and meta-historical dimensions of Original sin itself.

The meaning and the logic of the history of salvation —being the history of God’s freedom and of human freedom— certainly exceed what is expressed by the evolutionary histories of the cosmos and of life, and by any of its possible reconstructions provided by the sciences. And yet, the history of salvation is carried out in, and intertwined with those histories studied by science. The realism of the mystery of the Incarnation, by which the Word-Logos, while taking upon himself human nature, also took up all its relations with creation, calls upon us to take into due consideration this intersection by fully exploring its consequences.

The importance all this has for theology recently raised the need to develop a “theology of science” (cf. Heller, 1996, pp. 95-103) or even a “theology of nature.” (cf. Ganoczy, 1992; Pannenberg, 1993). Despite all the limitations of these theological approaches (sometimes called “theologies of,” and thus not always met with favor because they are seen as potential sources of fragmentation), I believe that enough material is now available to start thinking along these lines. “Theology —as a contemporary author puts it— can only make a useful contribution inasmuch as it keeps in touch with the rest of the sciences. And in saying so we refer not just to the need for theology to make itself heard, but to the fact that it needs itself to listen to other sources of knowledge [...]. Theologians, just like any other scientists, need to be humble and to be so to an even greater extent; not only because they receive their knowledge from the word of God, entrusted to the Church, before which they have to maintain an attitude of devout attentiveness, but also because they recognize that theological science will not authorize them to do without other kinds of knowledge.” (Illanes, 1982, p. 887).

V. Towards a Genuine Development of Christian Doctrine

Among the authors of the past who were fully aware of the value of the natural sciences for human knowledge, including theology, cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) must be certainly mentioned. Even though he did not leave any particularly elaborate discussion of this matter, it is worth remembering that, in an epoch of hot debate and sometimes outright conflict between science and religious thought, he did not fail to offer meaningful reflections on the issue of evolution. His interest in the results of science was sincere and fully thought through: “We live in a wonderful age; the enlargement of the circle of secular knowledge just now is simply a bewilderment, and the more so, because it has the promise of continuing, and that with greater rapidity, and more signal results. Now these discoveries, certain or probable, have in matter of fact an indirect bearing upon religious opinions, and the question rises how are the respective claims of revelation and of natural sciences to be adjusted. Few minds in earnest can remain at ease without some sort of rational grounds for their religious belief; to reconcile theory and fact is almost an instinct of the mind. When then a flood of facts, ascertained or suspected, comes pouring in upon us, with a multitude of others in prospect, all believers in Revelation, be they Catholic or not, are roused to consider their bearing upon themselves…” (Apologia pro vita sua [1864] [London: Dent, 1993], p. 290).

Thomas Aquinas told us about the need of taking into consideration the study of nature in order to speak correctly of God. Now we turn to Newman to take a further step forward: How could the sciences of nature become a source of real development for Christian doctrine? The search for a proper methodology and for suitable guidelines to attain such a goal is a question that is still an open. A possible answer could be achieved by considering the useful remarks Newman made in his essay The Development of Christian Doctrine (1845). There he draws up a list of seven criteria that would guide the authentic historical development of a doctrine, as distinct from what determines its corruption. The context of his reflections is not provided by the dialogue of theology with the sciences, but by history at large as a yardstick for the progress of human enterprises. He wonders how Christian doctrine may incorporate new knowledge or new events occurring in history, without losing its own identity. How did it do so in the past? How could it continue to do so in the future times? It is ultimately a reflection upon the criteria of theological work, which, being faithful to its sources and method, proposes new avenues to be taken and new ways of understanding, so making explicit what is still implicit and unexpressed in the body of Biblical Revelation. The criteria suggested were thus summarized by Newman himself: “I venture to set down seven Notes of various cogency, independence and applicability, to discriminate healthy developments of an idea from its state of corruption and decay, as follows: There is no corruption if it retains one and the same type, the same principles, the same organization; if its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases, and its later phenomena protect and subserve its earlier; if it has a power of assimilation and revival, and a vigorous action from first to last.” (The Development of Christian Doctrine, [London: Longmans, 1914], p. 171). Bearing in mind the context outlined in the previous sections about the possible intellectual contributions of the natural sciences to theology, I shall attempt to apply these criteria to our topic. I propose here the same headings reported by Newman (cf. ibidem, pp. 171-203).

a) and b) Preservation of its Type and Continuity of its Principles. These two first criteria indicate in a nutshell the “identity” of the subject which develops. If theology wishes to take into account the results of the natural sciences, it must continue to be what it is, namely genuine theology, with its own method and its own customary sources. Theology does not have to turn into physics or into biology, nor theologians into laboratory researchers. Certain strains of contemporary theology, I suppose, have attempted to link up with the sciences precisely in the direction opposite to the one suggested by Newman, namely by choosing to adopt their methodology. The inclusion of authors such as Kuhn or Popper in many theological textbooks shows this quite clearly.

c) Power of Assimilation. It indicates the openness of theology to truth and history, resulting from its openness to the mystery of Being or to the mystery of God. Genuine theology has an ability to assimilate new true portions of knowledge, whatever they are (see above, III.2), without corrupting its own identity or breaking into pieces. This Newmanian criterion points to the possibility of “reinterpreting reality”, again and again, by embracing its demands for truth. In recent history, theology has had to reinterpret certain contents of Revelation, due to the new perspectives on nature and human life brought about by the work of Columbus, Copernicus, Darwin, Freud or others. So did also those theologians who tried to comprehend an evolutionary picture of creation on the basis of reflections developed first by Bergson, and later by Teilhard de Chardin, supplying useful elements to provide new and more demanding syntheses.

d) Logical Sequence. The use of scientific results and of their implications must be such as to maintain the logical consistency of revealed truths, in other words, not to contradict what has already been accepted as sound doctrine. This is ultimately no more than a direct application of the principle of the analogy of faith or analogia fidei. At first sight it would seem difficult to reconcile certain scientific data with the body of Christian doctrine. However, after examining its true scientific value, and once these results have been correctly interpreted and cautiously adopted, sooner or later they will inevitably shed new light on other contents of Revelation. The overall new vision resulting from the adoption of this fresh knowledge will turn out to be more consistent than the earlier one.

e) Anticipation of its Future. If they are truly genuine, new developments should contain seminal material implicit in Biblical Revelation or in earlier theological traditions. At the same time, a proper improvement of doctrine, made possible by the input of a new scientific knowledge, is expected to anticipate a comprehension of the Word of God that will become clearer only later on. For instance, a synthesis between creation and evolution could be foreseen by properly interpreting some passages from the book of Genesis, or referring back to Augustine or Thomas Aquinas, or by finding seeds of it in St. Paul’s Christology. The unlimited richness of the revealed divine Word implicitly justifies the application of this criterion.

f) Conservative Action upon its Past. Scientific or cultural revolutions inevitably occur. They are not, however, entirely destructive for theology or science. Any genuine development is always somewhat “conservative.” As a result of the dialogue with the sciences, theology can adopt a new philosophical reference model as long as it preserves all the aspects of the dogma that were easily explained by the previous model. Something similar ultimately happens in the case of physics, where the so-called “classical” solutions are surpassed by those provided by quantum or relativity theories, but do not lose the content of truth they had in the previous theory. In fact, quantum and relativistic solutions often retrieve some “classical” truth in the form of particular cases within a more general interpretative framework. Consider the following examples: a different formulation of the mystery of the transformation of the Eucharistic bread and wine (transubstantiation) adjusted to contemporary scientific categories, could only be accepted if all previously accepted dogmatic aspects are preserved, and a better explanation of what the previous framework eventually failed to show is provided; likewise, if new forms of intelligent life were to be discovered in the universe, the fundamental elements of Christian Christological doctrine must be preserved, although included within an inevitably much wider horizon. Current doctrinal formulations are thus theology’s “classical” solutions: to accept new developments means preserving what was provided for by previous solutions, thus acquiring a new and better knowledge.

g) Doctrinal Strengthening. According to Newman, any genuine doctrinal development produces a strengthening in its contents as well as in the Institution professing it. If theology ever used the results of the sciences incorrectly, it would sooner or later notice a weakening in its own ability to make sense of things, and in its own prophetic dimension —“you will judge them by their fruits,” as we are reminded by the Gospel (cf. Mt 12,33). Spiritual guidance and a fair amount of humility would then be needed to change the direction.

If in the present article I have insisted on the contributions that science can give to theological reflection, I do not ignore that implications are mutual. There is a sound influence of religious and philosophical views on science, more precisely on researchers who do science. As in the past, new insights for philosophical and scientific thought have been given to science by Biblical Revelation, through the intellectual mediation of theology. In many other entries of this Encyclopedia these implications have been comprehensively highlighted. I am convinced that without a sufficient assimilation of scientific knowledge in the work of theologians —respectful of the past but open to future developments, cautious in discernment but also courageous in the face of truth— theology could run the risk of engaging only in “defending” what a given age has understood about the doctrinal content of the faith. As a result, it could impede the genuine development of Christian doctrine, even to the extent of possibly weakening believers’ mission of proclaiming the Gospel, in a credible and significant way, to men and women of all ages. Finally, the presence of the sciences in theological work does not merely respond to utilitarian or ancillary criteria: believers know that scientific research is a value in itself and, just like any other human activity and any sincere desire for knowledge, is meant to play a precise role in the divine plan for creation, the plan for leading all things, by human work, to the Father, through Christ, in the Spirit.

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