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Address to the Ettore Maiorana Research Centre, Trapani

1993, May 8

Ladies and Gentlemen,

1. With joy I have come here to Erice to meet you, men and women from various parts of the world, having in common an identical, great love for science and the desire to explore its limitless horizons to the benefit of all humanity. I thank Prof. Antonino Zichichi, distinguished sponsor of this centre, Messrs S.C.C. Ting, Tsung Dao Lee and Kai Seigbahn for the profound considerations they have offered.

I am quite pleased with the spirit sustaining your scientific community, which for decades has fostered a fruitful exchange in many disciplines at the highest levels of scientific research on technical problems, the solution of which is extremely critical for the very future of humanity and the planet.

Thank you for your invitation to me I gladly accepted it because I also find it particularly significant that your centre is not limited to specialized or compartmentalized interests, but rather prefers to deal with areas and questions of a global nature that are particularly urgent in their demand for a constructive relationship between the perspectives of science and the distinctive aspects of religious experience. Furthermore, the fact that your centre is located in such an ancient, suggestive structure once belonging to the children of the Poverello of Assisi, which still retains all its “Franciscan” simplicity, offers a most conducive atmosphere for this cordial encounter between science and faith, and seems to invite us to offer that hymn of praise with which Francis, delighting in the beauty of the cosmos, and becoming, as it were, the spokesman of all creatures, loved to lift up his heart to the “Most High, all-powerful, good Lord”.

I have sought to remove all obstacles to dialogue

2. From the beginning of my Pontificate I have taken pains to emphasize that the dialogue between science and faith is not merely possible, but essential; I have been committed to removing the obstacles which could still impair its constant development.

In that regard it seemed important to resolve, once and for all, some perennial controversies which unfortunately have undermined the good understanding between the Church and the scientific community. I am referring, in particular, to regrettable past events of history, such as the “Galileo case”. On 19 November 1979, in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the occasion of the commemorations marking the centenary of the birth of Albert Einstein, I suggested an objective review of the Copernican-Ptolemaic controversy of the 17 th century. On that occasion I said “I give all my support to this task which could do honour to the truth of the faith and of science and open the doors for future collaboration” (Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, Vol II, 1979, p. 1111). To the same Academy on the same occasion of the 50 th Anniversary of its refoundation, I spoke of the necessity of fostering such a dialogue, and I wanted to emphasize the same urgency in a message for the 300 th anniversary of Isaac Newton's publication of the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, recalling that science and religion are at the service of the human community, and expressing the wish for a common search based on critical frankness and an exchange that will not only continue but also grow in quality and scope (cf. Letter to Rev. G. Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory, 1 June 1988).

In the same perspective I was pleased to make my own the conclusions of the Pontifical Commission which I had charged with studying the above-mentioned controversy. Indeed, “the Galileo case”; as I observed, “has been a sort of ‘myth', in which the image fabricated out of the events was quite far removed from reality. A tragic mutual incomprehension has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith. The clarifications furnished by recent historical studies enable us to state that this sad misunderstanding now belongs to the past” (Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 31 October 1992, n. 10, cf. L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 4 November 1992, p. 2).

3. However, what direction will the dialogue between science and faith take in the future? My reflection takes its cue from the bronze inscription unveiled here today: “Science and faith are both gifts of God”.

This terse statement not only excludes the idea that science and faith must view one another with mutual suspicion, but also shows the deepest reason calling them to establish a constructive and cordial relationship. God, the common foundation of both; God, the ultimate reason for the logic of creation which science explores, and the source of the Revelation by which he freely gives himself to man, calling him to faith, in order to make him a son instead of a creature, and opening to him the gates of intimacy with him. The light of reason, which makes science possible, and the light of Revelation, which makes faith possible, emanate from a single source. They are two distinct, autonomous trajectories, but by their very nature they are never on a collision course. Whenever some type of friction is noted, it is the symptom of an unfortunate pathological condition.

Church acknowledges mind's ability to know truth

Therefore the Second Vatican Council affirmed the legitimate autonomy and immense value of scientific knowledge (cf. Gaudium et Spes, n. 59). The Church does not hesitate to recognize that all authentic scientific progress — and likewise every technological advance which truly serves the total welfare of the human person — is to be considered as a priceless gift of God.

4. In what sense is science a “gift” of God? Such a statement could seem ambiguous, even provocative, to a person without faith if it were to be understood as playing down the natural capacity of the mind to grasp reality by means of a rigorous logical and cognitive procedure. Such a sense, however, is quite far from the thinking of the Church, which even in the realm of faith rejects a blind “fideism” (cf. Denzinger-Schönmetzer, 2009). There is even greater reason to acknowledge the human mind's natural capacity to obtain truth in its own areas of experience and knowledge of the world.

Admitting this, far from excluding the “gift” of God, presupposes it. We need only consider that since they are created, human beings and the whole world are constituted as a “gift” flowing from free design of divine love. “What do you possess”, the Apostle Paul reminded the Christians of Corinth, “that you have not received?” (1Cor 4:7). However, beyond this basic, constitutive question, the human being's entire journey along life's many paths, including the exalting one of scientific knowledge, is accompanied by divine Providence which, without detracting anything from the role of the intellect, follows, enlightens and guides it in a mysterious dialogue with human freedom. In God, therefore, even in the diversity of their paths, science and faith find their principle of unity. The same God who manifested himself in Revelation is the one who has left his imprint on the great book of nature, and is mysteriously present in history through his Providence. “In him”, St. Paul says to the Athenians, “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). At times one can fail to recognize his hand, and unfortunately even among scientists there are those who openly deny him. However, it is the very history of science, with its undeniable and endless perfectibility, which precludes a senseless, haughty scientism and suggests to science, together with courage and confidence in research, the wisdom of humility, at least in leaving open the metaphysical questions about the ultimate and transcendent principle of existence. Furthermore, no one more than the scientist, dealing on a daily basis with the mystery of nature, often obliged to confine its study to fragments and to admit its boundless immensity, is able to perceive his own growth in knowledge as a “gift”, frequently an unwitting one, which fills him with awe, and causes “gratitude” to well up on his lips and in his heart. This grateful, ever new wonder of the mind is the natural field for the meeting of faith and science. Albert Einstein observed significantly: “What is eternally incomprehensible in the world is precisely the fact that it is comprehensible” (cf. Journal of the Franklin Institute, 1986, vol. 22). It is an irrepressible sense of wonder which the believer expresses through prayer whenever he discerns in the mystery of the world the echo of a greater mystery and exclaims with the psalmist: “O Lord, our Lord, how glorious is your name over all the earth!” (Ps 8:22).

Both science and faith have ethical responsibilities

5. The dialogue between science and faith, each respecting the other's areas, is doubly necessary in the domain of applied science . Here, in fact, to the so-called “contemplative” dimension, which by its very nature has a moral dimension, there is an added demand of an operative nature with decisive implications in the practical field of ethical discernment. It is at the level of applied science that humanity experiences, for better or worse the power of scientific knowledge. If human life is at enormous risk today, it is not because of the truth discovered through scientific research but because of the deadly applications made of it on the technological level. Another inscription found in your centre reads as follows: “As in the days of swords and spears, so too today in the era of missiles, more than arms, it is the human heart which kills”.

It is therefore correct to note that such a distinction, so easy in theory, is more difficult in practice because in concrete living situations there is a natural connection between scientific research and technology. Both of them, however, must take on a precise ethical responsibility in regard to their relationship and applications. The stakes are too high to be taken lightly. Unfortunately, the present situation of the world does not seem to be very changed from how I described it several years ago in the above-mentioned message: “So much of our world seems to be in fragments, disjointed pieces. So much of human life is passed in isolation or in hostility. The division between rich nations and poor nations continues to grow; the contrast between northern and southern regions of our planet becomes ever more marked and intolerable. The antagonism between races and religions splits countries into warring camps; historical animosities show no signs of abating. Even within the academic community, the separation between truth and values persists, and the isolation of their several cultures — scientific, humanistic and religious — makes common discourse difficult if not at times impossible” (Letter to Fr. George V. Coyne, S.J., op. cit.).

6. In recent years we have witnessed rapid and surprising social transformation. Among these, how can we fail to mention overcoming the rigid division of the world into opposing ideological, political and military blocs? It is because of this event that the threat of the “nuclear holocaust” has been removed, at least to a large degree. In this same span of time, however, other emergencies of a planetary nature have reached levels of extreme danger, making us see the risk of a type of “environmental holocaust” due to the careless destruction of critical ecological resources and the increase of ever more insidious attacks on the defence of and respect for human life. The unbridled race by the few and privileged to hoard and exploit the earth's resources is laying the foundations of another form of cold war, this time between the planet's North and South, between the highly industrialized countries and the poor nations, which cannot be ignored by those who take the world's fate to heart. Threatening clouds are ounce again gathering on mankind's horizon.

7. Distinguished members and collaborators of this scientific community, in renewing the expression of my sincere appreciation for your farsighted timeliness in having placed the hopes and challenges of today's world at the centre of your research, I feel it my duty to urge you to assume your responsibilities with generosity. If the threat of an environmental holocaust is to be faced and resolved, scientists like you must make their contribution in a manner that is skilled, coordinated and persevering. I am grateful for all that you are doing in this regard. I thank you also for having offered me, as a gift which I greatly appreciate, the results of your activity, the prelude to further achievement for the good of humanity. I appreciate in particular your deep commitment on behalf of the young scholars from developing countries entrusted to the careful guidance of eminent scientists who freely offer their work. Be sure of this: scientific volunteer work is one of the most noble forms of love of neighbour.

Ethical goodness is another name for truth

8. Another sentence inscribed on the bronze work of Umberto Mastroianni recalls that “man can perish as a result of the technology he has developed, but not of the truth discovered through scientific research”. Whenever scientific activity has a positive effect on respect for and protection of human dignity, it contributes significantly to building peace. Therefore it is necessary to be tireless in promoting a scientific culture capable of looking always at “the whole person” and “the whole of peoples”, serving the universal good and solidarity. In this regard, great importance is attached to making progress in the dialogue between science and faith. We must work together to re-establish the connection between truth and values, between science and ethical commitment. We must all be truly convinced that progress is really such if it is at the service of the true and total well-being of individuals and of the whole human family. I am therefore compelled to emphasize once again what I have stressed more than once, namely, that although science's main task is to seek the truth in the free and legitimate liberty belonging to it, scientists are nevertheless not permitted to prescind from the ethical implications concerning the means of their research and the use of the truths they discover (cf. Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 31 October 1992, n. 13). Ethical goodness is simply another name for truth sought by the practical intellect. Obscuring or offending the practical dimension inevitably harms the understanding of its “theoretical” applications as well, at least in those sectors with more immediate effects of an operative nature.

Your centre is sensitive to the prospects of a truly “global” science, and I am pleased to see that you have dedicated a great deal of your time and commitment to dialogue about the ethical implications of various discoveries in the realm of the physical and biological sciences.

Therefore, please allow me to tell you once again of my “admiration”, and at the same time, express my greatest encouragement. My well-founded hope is that the Church and the scientific community may share their wealth of knowledge and experience in an ever more intense, cordial and fruitful dialogue so that all creatures may participate in fulfilling God's loving plan. Thus they will experience an abundance of divine blessing. “May you be blessed by the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps 115:15), a blessing which I gladly implore today for this your Ettore Maiorana Centre and the whole scientific community of Erice. Peace is always the fruit of love. May you scientists who especially cultivate the intellect also cultivate love.

Source of the English text: Osservatore Romano, English Weekly Edition, 1993, May 19, pp. 4-5.