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Declaration on Modern Science and Non Believing

1981, April 3

At the end of its Plenary Assembly held in Rome from March 31 to April 3, under the presidency of the Most Reverend Archbishop Paul Poupard, the Secretariat for Non Believers released the following statement:

Prepared by means of a worldwide consultation mediated by the Bishops; Conferences, the work of the Assembly was guided successively by the Speakers, the Most Reverend Members: Mark Hurley, Bishop of Santa Rosa (U.S.A.), John Gran, Bishop of Oslo (Norway), Alfonso López Trujillo, Archbishop of Medellín (Colombia), Benvenuto Matteucci, Archbishop of Pisa (Italy), assisted by four Consultors, respectively, Fr. Robert Brungs, S.J. (St. Louis, U.S.A.), Fr. Franc Rode, C.M. (Ljubljana, Yugoslavia), Fr. Georges Cottier, O.P. (Geneva, Switzerland) and Fr. Hervé Carrier, S.J. (Canadian) of the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Participating in the Assembly were 22 Members, Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops, and 12 experts from North and Latin America, Africa and Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

At a specially scheduled Audience, the Holy Father, John Paul II, urged the Assembly to keep up its ecclesial commitment to dialogue with non believers and to witnessing Christ within different cultures and in union with the respective Episcopal Conferences: “... encouragement to keep up your efforts. Continue to prepare the way for the Gospel, to build bridges ... ”

1. Modern science does not lead to non belief

Confronting the natural sciences, believers hold a positive attitude. Science per se does not threaten the faith. Clear evidence of this is drawn from recent surveys conducted in the United States, a nation which has been particularly outstanding for scientific development.

— In surveys on the reasons for non belief, “sciences” is at the bottom of the list.

— Among science professors in U.S. universities, better than 80% affirm belief in God. Natural sciences professors are more likely to be believers than those in the human sciences (sociology, psychology, etc.).

— Reasons for non belief are to be sought in the type of upbringing one has received, life-styles, dominant cultural values, etc.

2. But Science does have an indirect influence on culture through technology and popularization

Technology has changed the way people live: Consumerism, mass media, individual and family mobility, new styles of work and recreation.
This mentality transforms traditional institutions especially the family, educational institutes, churches in their social function.

3. New ethical problems arise in the scientific-technological society

Modern science has developed techniques which give rise to grace ethical problems, namely,

a) the techniques of modern warfare, capable of exterminating all humankind, of upsetting, even in peace-time, the entente between nations;

b) the techniques of biological experimentation threaten the human being in his body, his dignity, desacralizing the meaning of life;

c) the techniques which have subverted sexual morality: abortions on a mass scale, sterilization, contraception etc.;

d) a particular problem arising from the revolution in social communications media which afford incomparable benefits for man, but can also contribute to his degradation;

e) informational technology (powerful computers) has brought about a new “technotronic” society with hitherto unheard-of advantages but also with problems regarding the freedom and dignity of the human person.

4. Science and technology in communist countries

Scientific practice in communist countries encounters similar problems aggravated by the fact that the official culture is atheistic. The concept of person as an individual in society is not based on spiritual presuppositions but on a materialism which pervades the whole culture, the research institutes, the universities, etc. This does not mean that scientists as individuals do not ask themselves questions concerning the ultimate values of life and human destiny. But the official practice of science and the use of technology are conditioned by a culture which is areligious, even anti-religious.

5. “Science must ally itself to conscience”, John Paul II

John Paul II’s discourses at the UNESCO (February 6, 1980) and at Hiroshima (February 25, 1981) insisted on the absolute necessity of not dissociating science and conscience: «I believe that our generation happens to be faced with a great moral challenge which consists in having to harmonize the values of science with the values of the human conscience. When I spoke at the UNESCO on June 2, 1980, I launched an appeal which I put you again today: "For one who has taken cognizance of the situation … a conviction is bound to follow, a conviction that is at the same time a moral imperative: consciences must be mobilized! The efforts of human consciences must be increased in proportion to the increased tension between good and evil which afflicts mankind in the 20th century. One must be convinced of the primacy of ethics over technology, of the primacy of person over things, of the superiority of spirit over matter (cfr. Redemptor Hominis, 16). The cause of mankind will be served if science helps human consciences. The man of science will truly help humanity if he will preserve the sense of man’s transcendence over world and of God over man (Allocution to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, November 10, 1979, n. 4)". The cause of mankind will be served if science allies itself to conscience.» (L’Osservatore Romano, February 25, 1981).

6. Themes for further research

a) The relationships between faith and science have different emphases in the different parts of the world; in North America, in Europe, in the new nations. A further comparison seems worth-while.

b) It will be necessary to study in greater depth how the “scientific mentality” and, in particular, a certain scientistic trend, have favored a growing agnosticism, with reductive explanations regarding the composition of matter, the origin of life, etc. which start off ascribing everything to chance, that is without the Creator.

c) True ‘rationality’ cannot stop at the phenomenological explanation of reality but must include other forms of human reasoning open to symbolic language, to the meaning of life, of death, of man’s spiritual destiny,

d) The natural site for dialogue between science and faith is the university. In the Church there are over 600 institutes of higher learning where a closer collaboration between pastors and university people could help the dialogue between the values of the Gospel and those of Science.

e) Nowadays, science is organized as an “institution”: associations of scientists, ministries of science, programs and national centers for research. In the Church it seems advisable to promote analogously a better coordination of research efforts bearing on major issues. The International Federation of Catholic Universities (FIUC) has recently set up a “Centre for Coordinating Research” which is intended as a means of helping the Church conduct its own research, according to its specific goals.

f) For Christians, natural sciences are not a threat, rather, they are a manifestation, at a deeper level, of God the Creator. On the other hand, today’s scientific culture requires that Christians develop a mature faith, an openness to the language and the queries of science, especially a sense of discernment in regard to the technical applications of science. Thus science, in alliance with conscience, will be at the service of the human being, of his dignity, of his integral development.

As the Holy Father remarked at the conclusion of the Assembly’s work: “The encounter between science and faith poses problems which the believer can solve reasonably. But the mystery of faith can only be lived in an existential way. And the multiform encounter with atheism, non belief and indifference requires the involvement of believers who have developed strong convictions and are actually living their Christian experienced in other words, Christians with a solid formation, not disjoined from prayer and witness to the Gospel. Faith is a gift of God, a grace, and—it bears repeating—it presupposes love”.

Final Declaration delivered by the Plenary Assembly of the Secretariat, Rome March 31 - April 3, in Atheism and Dialogue 16 (1981), pp. 230-231.