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Science and the Catholic Church’s mission, challenges and opportunities

Date: 
2017
DOI: 
10.17421/2037-2329-2017-GT-1

I. Science, secularization and New Evangelization - II. Science, atheism and secularization - III. The influence of scientific culture on the proclamation of the Gospel - IV. Key points and suggestions for scientists and theologians - V. Beyond the most common clichés – VI.Views of science around the time of the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization and Pope Francis 2013 document Evangelii gaudium - VII. Concluding remarks and some specific proposals

I. Science, secularization and New Evangelization

In contrast with the general disengagement trend of postmodernist thought, scientists are seen by the Catholic Church as learned interlocutors, who embody specific rational needs, despite their being rightly or wrongly associated with agnostic or atheistic ideas. Within the ‘New Evangelization’ task set by the Catholic Church at the beginning of the third millennium, the encounter with scientific culture should be seen not only as a challenge, but also, and even more so, as a significant opportunity.

There are some knots which have to be untied. First, we have to make it clear that scientific culture cannot be hastily associated with atheistic or agnostic thought. Such an association, which is amplified by the media, has an ideological origin. This can be shown both within a theoretical framework, by examining the relationship between faith and reason historically forged by Christianity, and within a phenomenological-existential context, by turning to the history of scientific thought and to several scientists’ biographical profiles.

The second critical knot concerns the relationship between scientific culture, technological progress and secularization, taking the latter to be a hurdle to the spread of the Gospel and synonymous with materialism. As the theologian Jean Danielou (1905-1974) put it years ago: “If secularization is tantamount to the gradual disappearance of a more or less mythical view of the universe, where scientific advances teach us to make a distinction between primary and secondary causes, then I would say that in this case secularization is a merit of modern culture. In that sense, it is by all means clear that none of us can deny that secularization is a wonderful achievement. It would be absurd to even attempt to oppose science simply because it replaces some mythical representations or certain magic rituals. If, though, secularization is interpreted as meaning that from now on the scientific way of accessing knowledge would become the only kind of knowledge, thereby implying the end of metaphysics and the beginning of the dictatorship of the sciences, then I would say that this would amount to a frightening cultural regression. The universe may well be the object of scientific knowledge and at the same time continue to be the starting point of metaphysical knowledge; in other words, it may well lead us to know something different from its own sheer phenomenological laws.” (Danielou, 1972, p. 76). All too common in theological analyses is the inevitable association of science with secularization is all too often taken for granted on the basis of a view of science and technology which, since Max Weber (1864-1920) and, later, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), has influenced sociological and philosophical thought, engendering a view that Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998) would eventually phrase as follows: I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it.” (Lyotard, 1994, p. xxiv).

Typically, to back up the above argument, reference is made to some influential figures of 18th-century Enlightenment and of 19th-century materialism. Considering scientific progress a cause of disbelief and a driver of secularization has thus become a view that most authors find easy to embrace: initially referred to as deviations from a scientific mind-frame, secularization and materialism end up turning tragically into synonyms of ‘scientific worldview,’ or sometimes even of ‘scientific method.’ This generates a way of thinking that in many cases actually influences the theoretical and cultural contexts within which pastors and theologians must discuss the relationship between science, society and the Church.

Such a state of affairs is particularly harmful both for theology and for Christian faith, for it impedes intelligent consideration (Lat. intus legere) of scientific endeavor, which then gets shoved aside as a liability and is not seen, as indeed it should be, as an asset in the balance sheet of the field forces working towards a new evangelization. The very position of the Magisterium of the Church towards science is perceived by public opinion above all in terms of cautious watchfulness regarding technological, or, more specifically, bio-technological, applications. This position is usually associated to a renewed self-criticism regarding certain historical events of the past, which would periodically be recalled for the purpose of stating that the circumstances which resulted in those mistakes are no longer applicable. Although the reflections of Church Magisterium on sciences and technological-scientific activities are more substantial and complex, in general public opinion moves along different lines, almost exclusively underlining defensive attitudes or those favoring a peaceful and definite separation.

A reflection on the advancement of a new evangelization effort targeted at scientific culture in turn calls for a reflection on the roots of the predominant negative view of science. Is it only a matter of communication strategies, or is the relationship between Christian faith and scientific thought mediated, and sometimes filtered, by prejudices affecting their mutual dialogue not only within public debate but also in the context of theology and of the Church? Scientific work and its outcomes, we should bear in mind, are popularized by the media, swinging the image of science between triumphalism and catastrophism, presenting it either as a solution for all the humankind’s problems or as a cause of imminent self-destruction. This kind of mediation and prejudice may have negative impacts on an underequipped theology and on deficient religious teaching, generating uncertainties which sometimes creep into ecclesial reflection or into pastoral planning documents. An in-depth knowledge of a culture is always the first step towards the inculturation of faith into new peoples and contexts; similarly, the evangelization of scientific culture cannot occur unless sufficient familiarity with the language and the contents of sciences is regained. The Catholic faithful active in the scientific environment certainly are familiar with such a language and contents, but pastors and theologians tasked with orienteering and serving their action do not seem to be.

 

II. Science, atheism and secularization

As we have just outlined above, when we think about science’s claim to credibility in the Western world, our imagination goes towards Galileo’s and Newton’s century, and after that to the 18th century, age of Enlightenment. The mention of the latter evokes a spontaneous association between protagonists of the sciences and the goddess of Reason: in the forms of deism that spread at the time, reference to God is at best relegated, when not outright rejected, in a critical, conflictual relationship with Christian Revelation. The state of the sciences during the 19th century evokes the progressive influence of materialism and its diffusion in cultural environments of France and England, both critical of Christianity. That is the century of Darwin, an author that many people (wrongly) consider as having delivered the final blow of science to faith in God as Creator. If we limit our reflection to the more emblematic clashes, it is easy to understand the genesis of the opinion, still very common today, according to which scientific progress is necessarily considered a cause of incredulity and a factor of secularization. In reality, plenty of writings have been produced that present a different view on the matter, often accepted with little dispute, aimed at demonstrating the presence of Christian faith in the history of science. (cf. Frankenberry, 2008; Stark, 2006). In the 18th century, almost 30% of scientists—their biographies are easily available in historical reference sources—were Christian clerics, and in the 19th century many were also great believers (cf. Tagliaferri and Gentile, 1989). To use an example, if we go back to Darwin’s letters or his autobiography, we would find that the English naturalist was loathe to use the theory of biological evolution by natural selection, as an instrument to deny or affirm God’s existence. Today we have enough evidence to say that the rise of science in the Western world was not in opposition to theology (or the Church), but was rooted precisely in the conception of the relationship between God and Nature, forged in the Christian theology of Creation. The rediscovery of the Christian origins of many philosophical conceptions, basis of the development of scientific thought, has been possible thanks to a process of study and revaluation of sources, begun with the publication of the first volume of the Système du Monde (1913) by Pierre Duhem (1861-1916). During the last decades, the works of many authors have contributed to this process, such as A. Koyré, A. Crombie, E. Mascall, S.L. Jaki, O. Pedersen, T. Torrance, as well as the reflections of the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. All these authors have progressively shown that Creation theology, natural philosophy and in general the Christian relationship between God and Nature, were what allowed the rise of the scientific spirit, and most of its conceptual categories, to occur.

Scientific method cannot be seen as a result of the emancipation of science from theology, but as the product of a rational mentality heavily in debt to Judeo-Christian Revelation as regards some of its principal contents. To state a few: the induction principle, favoured by the idea of a transcendent God who grants autonomy to his own creation; faith in a Logos, source of rationality and order, through which everything has been made; the universality and stability of natural laws, more comprehensible in light of a principle of creation which affirms all properties of physical reality, in space and time, as effects of a single cause.

 

III. The influence of scientific culture on the proclamation of the Gospel

When discussing evangelization and inculturation of faith in the technical-scientific ambit, we are not referring to a cultural élite or to a niche of experts to whom we talk about God resorting to intellectual parameters which may not even interest the majority of the community. Rather, in keeping with some well-known reference points in the Second Vatican Council documents (cf. Gaudium et spes, nn. 5, 33), the task in question involves contemporary society at large. This is the interlocutor to whom the twenty-first century Catholic Church wishes to begin again to proclaim the mystery of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, as the center of the universe and of history (cf. Redemptor hominis, n. 1)– universe and history as visible to anyone and nowadays mostly judged through scientific categories, ones that evangelization cannot overlook. We will now analyze some aspects of the influence that scientific culture exerts on Gospel propagation.

First of all, in the globalized world scientific knowledge nowadays represents the implicit cultural context for any parties involved in a dialogue. Whether scientists or not, the recipients of today’s Gospel proclamation generally manifest a forma mentis [a ‘frame of mind’] —to use phrasing from Gaudium et spes, n. 5— that is significantly shaped by the achievements of the sciences. The latter are held to be an authoritative source of knowledge, often the most authoritative one; scientists and researchers are well-received by the general public even when speaking on social and moral issues. Scientific thought provides an ever higher number of people with a reference framework to evaluate statements, situations and events. On social networks, not rarely do we come across the widespread opinion that religion —particularly Christian religion— no longer holds, especially when confronted with the new knowledge afforded by the sciences.

Secondly, there are several achievements of contemporary scientific research which call on Christian theology to elaborate new and sound syntheses between faith and reason. Nowadays, a number of teachings drawn from biblical Revelation need to be presented through a compelling hermeneutics suited for those familiar with natural sciences, psychology and history. This calls for an in-depth analysis which theology or catechesis did not require even a few decades ago. Think, for instance, of the timeframe stretching from the appearance of Homo sapiens on earth to the rise of the earliest oral traditions collected in the biblical narratives of the origins, including those concerning the primeval Revelation and the original moral fall. Think of the morphogenetic and phylogenetic traits of human beings within the extended evolution of life on our planet, as well as in relation to what caused that evolution, and of the possibility of providing a scientific description of many aspects traditionally associated with a human being’s spiritual life, such as emotions, feelings and the neuro-physiological dimensions of free will. Think also of the huge cosmic space-time scenarios in which we now know our tiny planet to be located, forcing us to change radically the categories of human history, including considering plausible for life (even intelligent life) to be present elsewhere. Think of the questions posed by Christian eschatology concerning the link between history of the universe and history of salvation. Finally, in the longer term, one ought to consider the possibility —no longer that remote— of synthetizing living organisms in a laboratory, along with the trans-humanist thinkers’ push to act on the evolution of the human species, with changes breaking with the past and opening up completely unprecedented scenarios. For many of these questions theological and philosophical thinking can take —and is indeed already taking— some viable paths; however, these scenarios must not be set aside as futuristic fruits of the imagination, simply because theologians do not know their language or implications. The time and ways these issues are to find their place in the theologian’s schedule will depend on many factors, but clearly, sooner or later, given the scientific culture we are now moving in, they will inevitably have to be tackled.

A third aspect of how scientific culture is seen to impinge negative connotation on evangelization consists in the way scientific applications have changed and continue to change the life of individuals and society. It is apparent to all that relationships between human beings, including working world and market, the education of the new generations and our relationship with things, have deeply changed as a result of the information technology revolution, the wide-spread virtual reality operating context, and the new opportunities offered by global communication. The newly arising context will also necessarily impact the way human beings understand themselves and the meaning of their relationships with others, and how this affects their intellectual, emotional and relational spheres. The applications of sciences that are changing our way of living include the new biomedical and biotechnological applications, as well as robotics, domotics and the gradual integration between human functions and operations entrusted to machines. Even though the way of looking at these new contexts aims to highlight the underlying ethical issues, one should not forget that this transformation first entails a new relationship between human beings, their potentialities and expectations. The Gospel message, therefore, has to deal with what man can expect of technology, what he can trust and entrust to it —all aspects now closely related to human happiness and aspirations, as well as to how to live and how to die.

 

IV. Key points and suggestions for scientists and theologians

We should start with a small but necessary clarification. When we speak of a new evangelization, the subject entrusted to evangelize scientific culture is not only the Church through her pastoral documents or the events she organizes in a somewhat institutional way. The subject proclaiming the Gospel to a scientific environment is, first of all, any member of the Christian faithful who acts and works in the scientific world. Contrary to what the mass media perceive and spread, the number of believers, including Catholics, working in the field of scientific research is very significant. Scientists who are believers  deserve the support of pastors and the necessary assistance of philosophers and theologians to reach a profound synthesis between faith and reason, a synthesis that for various reasons often remains unachievable to them. Among other factors, we may number: the lack of a philosophical and theological language that may be equally beneficial to scientists; as well as training programs which are too generic and lacking in culture.

In order to overcome a neutral and instrumental view of science and to promote a view of scientific culture capable of joining in the Church’s task for a new evangelization, we will now consider and develop the following ideas, as outlined below:

1. Scientific enterprise participates in the human journey toward truth. Albeit within the boundaries proper to its own method, science perceives some light of the presence of the Logos, by whom and through whom all things were made. When a man of science carries out his research with right intention, with no ideological pre-comprehensions or egoistic aims, by studying nature, cosmos and life, he can glimpse the presence of the Logos that Christians know as the imprint of the Word in creation. We have many evidences of this from scientific history (even recent history); although it is true that these often concern a generic openness to the Absolute, it is the task of Christian theology to show its connection with the unique God revealed in Jesus Christ. The bond between scientific enterprise and the truth represents an important countertrend to relativism and indifferentism. Nature is a source of beauty and meaning: it deserves to be investigated with sacrifice and dedication, as it leads toward the true and the good. The short and incisive Message of the Council to Scientists that Pope Paul VI consigned in 1965 to Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), representing Men of Thought and Men of Science, asserts this simple idea: science looks for truth and in this activity men of science express, even if unconsciously, their research for God. “A very special greeting to you, seekers after truth, to you, men of thought and science, the explorers of man, of the universe and of history […]. Hence our paths could not fail to cross. Your road is ours. Your paths are never foreign to ours. We are the friends of your vocation as searchers, companions in your fatigues, admirers of your successes and, if necessary, consolers in your discouragement and your failures.” (Paul VI, Second Vatican Council’s Message to Scientists, 8.12.1965)  In today’s cultural context, in which few people are disposed to aim for the truth and to dedicate their whole existence to research, men of science that act rightly and with unselfishness should be upheld as an example by the Church, giving moral content to the attraction they already hold over the general public as a result of their research.

 2. Scientific enterprise reveals and increases human dignity; science is not an impersonal and purely objective activity: it is a value in itself. Science is a body of knowledge worthy of being taught and transmitted, an important source of education and training even in spiritual values. Human beings have an undeniable vocation to the unity of knowledge; science plays an important role in achieving such a unity. Without a convincing synthesis between reason and faith, between what we study in nature and what we believe about nature, the evangelization of learned men and scholars would be impossible, or would only remain superficial. Being correctly informed of and educated about science’s discoveries and progress, is a right of every human being, and the disclosure of this knowledge is a duty. Given its immanent and personalistic dimension, scientific knowledge represents an opportunity and a source of education towards spiritual values. A Statement of the Pontifical Academy of Science drawn up at the end of a Conference in 2001, outlines the educative value of science, its promotion of creativity, rationality and sensitivity to beauty; therefore it considers scientific activity as one of the highest manifestations of the human spirit (cf. The Challenges of Science. Education for the Twenty-First Century, Pontifical Academy of Science Scripta Varia, n. 104, Vatican City 2002, pp.290-292). Sign of the desire of an integrated intellectual experience – sign that evangelization should serve and enhance – is the inextinguishable human vocation to the unity of knowledge, that still today finds authors who reflect on it and uphold it as an ideal for university life. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) affirmed: “All branches of knowledge are, at least implicitly, the subject-matter of its teaching; these branches are not isolated and independent one of another, but form together a whole or system; that they run into each other, and complete each other, and that, in proportion to our view of them as a whole, is the exactness and trustworthiness of the knowledge which they separately convey; that the process of imparting knowledge to the intellect in this philosophical way is its true culture; that such culture is a good in itself; that the knowledge that is both its instrument and result is called Liberal Knowledge” (Newman, 1852, Discourse IX, 1). The unity of knowledge should be actionable also for the religious person, as a condition to reach a convincing synthesis between faith and reason, and, to achieve that condition, scientific reason plays a determining role.

3. Science has a tremendous capacity for the achievement of the common good and for the development of peoples. Scientists, precisely because they know more, should serve more. (cf. John Paul II, Speech to the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Science, 11.11.2002)  When we speak of science or technology, we should not just remember the risks of biology, biotechnology, or nuclear physics; we should also mention the enormous potential science and technology have for the common good, thus balancing sometimes catastrophic visions transmitted by the media or presented in public debate. If the human family can communicate today in a global and effective way, if conditions and quality of life are better, if men have more free time and fewer ties to servile activities, and if, not least importantly, we better know the human body, its biological origins and our position in the cosmos, we owe it all to scientific knowledge. The proclamation of a Gospel of charity and communion reveals that all these potentialities and knowledge are oriented to the headship of Jesus Christ; moreover, they all have to be informed by that same headship. Therefore, knowledge must be placed at the service of the small and defenseless, and authority has to be converted into service in the image of Him, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (cf. Col 2:3)

 

V. Beyond the most common clichés

Evangelizing in depth means overcoming some common clichés, often used to express the relationship between the ‘reading’ of material reality provided by science, and the ‘reading’ of the created world provided by Christian Revelation. Too strong a separation between these two ‘readings,’ the scientific and theological ones (NOMA, that is, Non Overlapping MAgisteria perspective), should be avoided. Sometimes proposed to erase undue invasions between different fields, this division of tasks often entails giving up on answering difficult questions or on elaborating synthetic knowledge. A total independence between the Word of God, pronounced about reality and from whom the reality has origin, and scientific knowledge about the world and the history, would enclose the biblical-revealed reading within the boundaries of the myth, where it would remain significant only on a private and subjective level. In one occasion, Joseph Ratzinger warned against this easy way out, in which sometimes also catechesis and predication have fallen: “When we are made to distinguish between images and their meaning, our first sensation is one of liberation, but on second thought a question emerges: why has this not been said before? For certainly it must have been taught differently before, otherwise there would never have been, for example, a process against Galileo. We begin to suspect that perhaps, in the end, that conception is only a trick of the Church and the theologians, who, not knowing how to proceed forward, but not wishing to admit it, proclaim for themselves a mask and entrench behind it. And in the general view of things, I regard this interpretative art—I use this term with no intention of minimizing it—with which we are confronted daily, also in relation to other texts, and one has the impression that the history of Christianity in the last four hundred years has been a continual retreat, in which, piece by piece, the affirmations of faith and theology are taken away, always finding some new means of expression to solve problems. But if we take a more comprehensive view of the path trodden, we can barely help fearing that we are being pushed gradually into the abyss, and that the moment will come in which there will no longer be anything to defend nor to dissimulate, in which the whole terrain of Scripture and faith will be taken up by reason, a reason that will earnestly seek to eliminate all else. […] Just give us some time: eventually all will be made clear and there will no longer be any place to which theology can retreat.” (Ratzinger, 2012, pp. 45-46) If the strategy is to separate the image from its meaning, enclosing the biblical message only within the second aspect and declaring an image anything that surpasses our present knowledge, then sooner or later, Ratzinger continues, we will ask ourselves what remains of miracles, of Jesus’ Resurrection and of all Christian teachings that supersede the range of natural phenomena.

A total separation and independence between scientific knowledge and Revelation could only favour – and in fact does favour – new forms of fideism, a very common attitude today, especially among men of science who believe in God. Fideism becomes in fact the only way to avoid opposing science and faith, when we lack access to the intellectual and philosophical instruments necessary to forge harmonic knowledge, with full awareness of the common ground between the two—nexus, analogies, openness and continuity—, but also to deal with eventual problems that could emerge if we seek epistemological accuracy and exegetical maturity. The medieval universities were directed towards this synthesis, for example with the model of subaltern sciences. Forward-thinking proposals of synthesis between faith and reason recently made include works by such authors as Rosmini (1797-1855), Newman, Blondel (1861-1949) and Maritain, or even an original and suggesting synthesis, although not exempt from risks, as the one of P. Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).

All of this is well and good. However, evangelization should also avoid the temptation to breeze over essential differences, and flee from a sort of forced and shallow synthesis that solves possible conflicts only apparently, and whose inconsistency will emerge as soon as knowledge makes progress, both in the general cultural environment as well as in the individual baptized person. It wouldn’t be correct to search in sciences for a foundation and a “demonstration” of the faith, but it is right to be able to show the consonance and the harmony of science with what we believe. Theology and catechesis should not engage in battles to contradict or reduce scientific results that the community of researchers consider certain, on the grounds that they are contrary to Revelation; neither should they qualify as “hypotheses” affirmations that science considers widely accepted, in the thinking that this action will suffice to calm people dawn, and forgetting that truly scientific hypotheses will not be in collision with the contents of faith.

Theology and catechesis are called to focus their energy on understanding scientific results, on being able to place them in a correct philosophical epistemology, on distinguishing between what scientific data say and what popularizing mediation or ideological propaganda wrongly affirm. Already Aquinas in the Summa Contra Gentiles, exhorts not to undervalue knowledge of nature, both because our knowledge of God for the most part depends on our knowledge of the creatures and because error regarding creatures often becomes error regarding our idea of God (cf. Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles, II, 2-3, II, 4).

Finally, of utmost importance is the removal of clichés in the historical field, especially those involving events which require contextual and hermeneutic clarification. When promoting the evangelization of scientific culture, it is important to remember the positive historical role played by Christian theology, creation theology in particular, for the birth and development of the scientific method in the Western culture. The unreliability of those judgments charging the Church with having hampered the development of science must be defended and clarified. In relation to that, some questions associated with the Galileo affair and the legacy of Giordano Bruno must be properly explained. These are two issues to which men of science are particularly sensitive and which are often exploited for ideological purposes, causing a major obstacle to the spread of the Gospel; and this is possible partly due to some historical and epistemological ignorance shared by the general public. Today, the position of the Catholic Church regarding the beginning of human life and her denial to manipulate human embryos must also be thoroughly explained and grounded, since the general public erroneously considers as scientific activity what actually belongs to market or economic strategies.

 

VI. Views of science around the time of the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization and Pope Francis’ 2013 document Evangelii gaudium

In order to better evaluate the role scientific culture may play in the context of a new evangelization, it is instructive to look back at what happened on the occasion of the 2012 Synod of Catholic Bishops devoted to the new evangelization for the transmission of the Christian faith. In fact, technical-scientific research was one of the six sectors mentioned by that Synod and proposed for reflection to the general Assembly. In a document issued to help Bishops prepare their talks we read the following statement: “The fifth sector is scientific and technological research. We are living at a moment when people still marvel at the wonders resulting from continual advances in scientific and technological research. All of us experience the benefits of this progress in our daily lives, benefits on which we are becoming increasingly dependent. As a result, science and technology are in danger of becoming today’s new idols. In a digitalized and globalized world, science can easily be considered a new religion, to which we turn with questions concerning truth and meaning, even though we know that the responses provided are only partial and not totally satisfying. New forms of ‘gnosis’ are emerging where technology itself becomes a kind of philosophy in which knowledge and meaning are derived from an unreal structuring of life. These new cults, increasing each day, ultimately end up by turning religious practice into a clinical form of seeking prosperity and instant gratification.” (Secretary of the Synod for the New Evangelization, 2012, Lineamenta, n. 6).

The scenario outlined here mainly refers to the influence that scientific thought exerts on contemporary society’s way of thinking and living, especially due to the images of science portrayed by the mass media and in public debate. This preliminary document expressed the concern that science could be raised to a new religion by the imposition of its method of acquiring knowledge on other areas of reality and by the allure of materialistic models due to the excessive trust widely put in technical capability.

To speak of science by pointing out the deviations of scientism or warning about the dangers arising from technology neglecting the good of man, ultimately expresses understandable concerns. However, in my opinion, this could end up by endorsing a view of scientific activities which tends to set a dialectic opposition between science and ethics, science and wisdom, science and religion. Christian faith would then be tasked with reminding science about its limitations, its shortcomings, and its ever-present risk of rising to a criterion of interpretation and judgment of the whole of reality. An undoubtedly legitimate point of view underlies such concerns. Yet, if this perspective were not completed by looking at science from other angles, that view would not integrate all dimensions of scientific activity, for instance as they were highlighted by both the Second Vatican Council, and later on by the teachings of John Paul II and of Benedict XVI, the latter being less extensive but equally profound. Scientific achievement —as the Magisterium of the Church has repeatedly stated— is indeed an achievement of truth, positively contributing to learning about the cosmos and man’s own role within it, with unquestioned potential for serving humankind and the quality of its life on earth. Science possesses significant humanistic dimensions which qualify it as a value in itself, namely a spiritual value.

In fact, as early as the middle of the 20th century, top scholars have demonstrated how science remains ‘open’ to its philosophical foundations; science is not a closed, self-referential kind of knowledge —and, in this sense, true science cannot become an ideology. It presupposes not only logics, but also ontology and a philosophy of nature. Moreover, authors such as Wittgenstein, Gödel, Tarski or Turing have demonstrated that the need for logical and ontological foundations is perceived ‘from within’ the formal language of science. Scientific reason ‘extends’ itself to the point of requiring the introduction of typically philosophical notions within the horizons of science. These new openings prove some degree of convergence with what the magisterium of Benedict XVI has repeatedly emphasized regarding the urgency of a ‘widening reason.’ In this sense science seems to offer noteworthy opportunities, thanks to its rigorous and demonstrative nature. This is an occasion, a sign of the times, which should not be overlooked.

After the work of the 2012 Synod, on November 24, 2013, Pope Francis issued a document entitled Evangelii gaudium. Although the Holy Father refers to some of the propositions approved in that Synod, he develops his own thought in quite a personal fashion. One of the passages of most interest for science is perhaps the following: “Proclaiming the Gospel message to different cultures also involves proclaiming it to professional, scientific and academic circles. This means an encounter between faith, reason and the sciences with a view to developing new approaches and arguments on the issue of credibility, a creative apologetics, which would encourage greater openness to the Gospel on the part of all. When certain categories of reason and the sciences are taken up into the proclamation of the message, these categories then become tools of evangelization; water is changed into wine. Whatever is taken up is not just redeemed, but becomes an instrument of the Spirit for enlightening and renewing the world.” (Evangelii gaudium, n.132).

According to Pope Francis’ remark, scientific categories and insights can become (I would say must become) a tool for evangelizing, thereby turning the water of science into the wine of truth, the only and one truth to which faith and reason together belong. In the following section, we will offer some suggestions along these lines, reflecting upon what positive role scientific culture could play in a new evangelization. It is important to underline that science cannot be considered as a source of trouble for faith or for the Church, but rather as an ally and a fascinating partner. In a word, scientific culture is a sector of the present century’s life offering the Church important opportunities.

 

VII. Some suggestions for scientists and theologians

Finally, here are some suggestions for scientists who are also believers, for pastors and theologians. I think that the New Evangelization in the context of scientific culture may largely depend on how we succeed in putting them into practice.

In proclaiming the Gospel, the example of people who were sincere men and women of faith and good scientists must often be mentioned and highlighted. There are many suggestive historical examples in this respect. There is no shortage of testimonies, but they must be made known to faithful Catholics and to the public at large.

Catholic scientists should not limit themselves to ‘being present’ in the world of science, but they are also called on to ‘evangelize scientific research’ from within, steering it towards truth and goodness. To this end, Catholic scientists are encouraged to sincerely seek the unity of knowledge, by gaining greater insights into those aspects of their faith that have a major relationship with their scientific research, thus achieving a higher synthesis between faith and reason. The first and most important evangelizers in the technical-scientific environment are not pastors, nor theologians, but the lay faithful that are professionally active in scientific research and in those places where this culture is forged.

On their side, Pastors must prepare themselves to proclaim the Gospel in a contemporary society which is highly influenced by the rationality of science. It is hoped that in the future the institutional studies training pastors for the priesthood and beyond will pay greater attention to scientific results and to scientific thought in general. This is especially necessary in those geographic areas particularly involved in the task of a new evangelization, where scientific culture has become part of the way of thinking and judging of a very broad range of people.

Finally, theologians’ interest for science is very welcomed. In dialoging with science, theologians are not only invited to study the compatibility between scientific results and biblical Revelation, but also to make use of proven scientific knowledge as an aid to better understand the Word of God. In this way the proclamation of the Word will become more profound and meditated and, therefore, more effective and helpful.

The above-listed suggestions are certainly demanding. Yet, they are all mentioned and contained, in a seminal fashion, in the exhortations of the Second Vatican Council, and they have all been personally exemplified by qualified actors all along the history of theology and of the Church. The value of scientific enterprise and the role it plays in the progress of humankind, in the search for truth and for the good, cannot be underestimated. Aware of that Pastors and theologians are called to help scientists, believers or non-believers, to discover the dignity of the role they play in society and in the Church. This was well grasped by one of the sharpest commentators of Gaudium et spes, Henri de Lubac (1896-1991), who exhorted modern apostles as follows: “They should not be led, through fear of the consequences drawn by atheism, to depreciate science or to curse technology; rather, they should not link them with a denial of faith they do not entail at all. Let them prove true friends of those who may have been misguided on the way; let them, then, offer them a hand and invite them to continue along the way together, till the end, when new light will shine on both of them.” (De Lubac, 1985 p. 223)

Bibliography: 

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