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Address to Scientists at CERN, Geneva

1982, June 15

Geneva, Discourse to the Scientists at the European Centre for Nuclear Research

Mr. Director General,

Ladies, Gentlemen, and dear Friends

1. I feel honoured to visit you today. And I express to you all my gratitude for your invitation and your welcome to this European Centre for Nuclear Research. Yes, I am very happy to meet you and your families.

The prodigious things which you have shown me and explained to me help me better understand what the essential function of CERN has been for almost thirty years now, that of placing at the disposal of scientists. - I believe there are more than two thousand of them coming from one hundred forty national universities or laboratories – some installations for research into the physics of particles which could not be obtained through only the national resources of each country. Thus CERN is the principal European centre for basic research into the composition of matter, and in this field it has a place among the largest centres in the world.

2. What characterizes you most of all is that you are researchers. What unites you, researchers and technicians, is your competence in the service of a wholly disinterested cause: pure research, whose only scope is to advance scientific knowledge. You do so thanks to the high-quality instruments which are completely at your disposal, especially the particle accelerators and the compartmentalized storage rings; but what guides you is your passion for discovery.

3. Your pursue in common this noble ideal of scientific research. Today, in a field which requires so many instruments, much competence and a great amount of informational data, it could be no other way. It is no longer possible to imagine lone researchers. But I believe that I can emphasize the wide participation, the attitude of collaboration, the receptive spirit which particularly underscore the working atmosphere of CERN, which do it great honour. Even the location of your laboratory is symbolically astride the border between French and Swiss territory. You come from twelve member states which generously support this prestigious enterprise, but you also accept other scientist from the West or the East, belonging to countries committed to very different political policies. Independently of political interests or personal ambitions, you work in groups with one another, united in the same research, and this is what allows you to establish communications on a truly world-wide level. Yes, here is truly achieved one of the most wonderful aspects of science that of uniting science.

4. But I pause for a moment over what makes up the specific nature of your research it explores even more deeply the innermost structure of matter, therefore what can be called the “infinitely small”, at the limits of what is measurable in the microcosm, atoms, electrons, nuclei, protons, neurons, quarks… In short, the secrets of matter, of its composition and of its basic energy are what you are seeking to decipher. It is for this reason that all scientific circles, and also the entire cultural world, love to reflect upon such problems, and it can be said that all men are interested, or at least concerned, since it is a part of their own mystery which is revealed.

5. I say “a part”. Since before the immensity and the complexity of the things still to be discovered in this field, you, as true scientists, are filled with humility. Do elementary and indivisible parts of matter exist? It is as if these questions retreat as you advance step by step.

And above all, other questions arise which are even more fundamental to knowledge, but they are in the limits of the “exact sciences”, of the natural sciences, or, rather, already beyond in the field of philosophy. Your science also allows these questions to be better put the philosophers and to believers: what is the origin of the cosmos? And why do we find order in nature?

If there was a time in which certain scientists were tempted to enclose themselves in an attitude steeped in “scientism” – which was more a philosophical choice than a scientific attitude, whishing to ignore other forms of knowledge – that time has passed. The majority of scientist admit that the natural sciences, with their method based upon experience and upon the reproduction of results, cover only a part of reality, or rather, they arrive at it under a certain aspect. Philosophy, art, religion and above all the religion which is conscious of being linked to a transcendent revelation, perceive other aspects of the reality of the universe, and especially of man. Pascal spoke, although in another sense, of three orders of greatness in man, the greatness of power, the greatness of intelligence and the greatness of love, each of them infinitely surpassing the other and calling, moreover, this Other who is the Creator, Father of all men as their source and their end, since “man infinitely surpasses man”.

6. On the other hand, you too highlight the greatness and the mystery of this man. The greatness of his investigative power, of his reason, of his capacity to arrive at a grater truth, his power of will in the generous pursuit of a disinterested long journey. His mystery also, and perhaps, the vast newness of pure research on the nature of matter is, finally, less important than the exciting newness of man’s attitude, who feels very small in the face of these discoveries. Yes, what change in the scientific picture of the world, as we inherited it from our fathers, as they had received it from he generations who preceded them in the great community of man! But, at the same time, permit the believer that I am to say it in all simplicity, what continuity in the design of God the Creator, who made man “in his image and likeness”, entrusting to him the mission of “subduing” the whole world that he had created out of love and about which the author of the first book of the Bible. Genesis, never ceases to repeat with wonder: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).

Physicists, you yourselves must display here your energies and your competence with only the scientific methods of the natural sciences. But as men, you cannot help but ask yourselves other fundamental, existential questions about which I spoke, which are answered by philosophical wisdom and faith. I hope that some men of research are also upon this terrain, since you know that opposition between these fields could not exist, but rather harmony, that of being men open to the fullness of the truth. On the other hand, I know that personally a certain number of you are believers and share, for example, the convictions of the Christian faith, without its causing the least disturbance in the precision of you scientific work, nor in the mutual respect which you must show among yourselves. I would further say, doesn’t the basic structure of matter reveal to everyone a logical order which seems much closer to a transcendent philosophical interpretation of natural phenomena than that of a purely materialistic conception?

To Christians I say, as I stated to the students and professors of the Catholic Institute of Paris: “May you unite existentially, in your intellectual work, two levels of reality which too often tend to be opposites, that is, the search for truth and the certainty of already knowing the source of truth” (Address at the Catholic Institute of Paris, 1 June 1980, no. 4).

8. The Church well maintains the specific distinction between scientific and religious knowledge and their methods. She is also sure of their complementary nature and of their deep harmony around one and the same God, Creator and Redeemer of man. She wishes to clear up every misunderstanding in this regard. She respects, in its order, natural science, which for her does not represent a threat but rather the manifestation of God the Creator. She rejoices in its progress and therefore, ladies and gentlemen, encourages your research that is carried on in the spirit which we have explained.

In addition, she admits that the scientific culture of today asks of Christians a maturing of their faith, a receptivity to the language and to the questions of scientists, a sense of the levels of knowledge and of the various approaches to truth. In short, she wishes that the dialogue between science and faith, even if historically there have been tensions between them, enter into an ever more positive phase and that it become more intense at every level.

The love for truth, sought with humility, is one of the great values capable of uniting today’s men through the various cultures. Scientific culture is not opposed to humanistic culture, nor to mystical culture. Each authentic culture is open to essential, and no truth exists which cannot become universal. For this reason I recently wished to create in Rome a “Pontifical Council for Culture”, well aware of this fundamental reality which unites all men, and I explicitly wanted this Council to be open to all researchers and research centres. This tells you how happy I am about the opening of CERN to all those who wish to participate in its research, even if these researchers are not an integral part of its structure. True research, as culture, unites communities of men, going beyond frontiers and every type of difference.

9. As I said at the beginning: you are dedicated to pure research. In this very place, technicians are at the service of science. And I have only touched upon the area of cultural investigation.

In any case , in conclusion, allow me to mention the possible applications of your research, even if they are outside the limits of your work, your responsibilities and the scope and the scope of this centre. History has shown us that the discovery of new phenomena leads, with time, to wonderful, often completely unexpected, uses of them. The governments and technicians of your countries are surely already following your research with even greater interest ina-much as they expect, sooner or later, to make great use of it. And what uses of it cannot be foreseen beginning with the structure of the atom and of its possible disintegration?

Man may be able to draw the best or the worst from its best for the service of man and his progress in applications which have to do with his health, his food resources, his energy sources, and the protection of nature; and the worst, which would be the destruction of the ecological balance, dangerous radioactivity and, above all, the destructive weapons which are already terribly dangerous because of their power and their number.

I said it at UNESCO on 2 June 1980, I repeated it before scientists at the United Nations University in Hiroshima on 25 February: we are faced with a great moral challenge which consists in harmonizing the values of technology originating with science with the values of conscience. “It is necessary to rally consciences”. The cause of man will be served if science is joined with conscience. In other words, it is necessary to control with the greatest care the way in which man makes use of these discoveries and the intent which will determine his choices.

The Church has spoken enough of the danger of atomic weapons, and I myself have taken enough initiatives in this regard, therefore, I refrain from saying more here. But, even for the peaceful use of nuclear energy, as I reminded the members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 4 November 1980, the Church hopes, with so many men of good will, that all the consequences will be carefully studied-concerning, for example, the influence of radioactivity, genetics, contamination of the environment, waste storage – that strict measures will be taken, and that information be at the level of these problems. The Holy See has a permanent representative at the International Atomic Energy Commission in Vienna, whose aim is to show the Church’s interest in the peaceful and safe use of nuclear energy.

With regard to you, this is not your direct responsibility. Nevertheless, you see better than others what is at stake, and consequently the promotion of information in these fields falls especially on your shoulders particularly with regard to those responsible for technical application, as does insisting that the results of science, as marvellous as they are, never be turned against man at the level of technology, and that they be used solely for the benefit of mankind by persons inspired by the greatest love for man.

10. In conclusion, I give you my best wishes. I hope that the scientist, at the level of his culture, will preserve the sense of the transcendence man over the world, and also of God over man, and that at the level of his actions, the universal sense of brotherly love for which Christ, in a special way, gave the world a desire, may be added to the universal sense of culture which characterizes him. I repeat in this regard my appeal to UNESCO: “Yes, the future of man depends upon the primacy of the spirit! Yes, the peaceful future of mankind depends upon love!”.

Source of the English text: Osservatore Romano, English Weekly Edition, 1982, July 26, pp. 7-8.