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A Pioneering Pontificate: Reflections from a Scientist


Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows what is within man. He alone knows it. 
(John Paul II, Inauguration Homily)

The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavours in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead at least blind
(Albert Einstein, The World as I see it)

If I ask whose work are the sun, the moon, the earth, the stars, their placement and motion I believe I would be told that they are the work of God; and if I ask who dictated the Sacred Scriptures, I know that I would be told that it is the Holy Spirit, that is to say God. The world therefore is the work and the Scriptures are the words of the same God.
(Galileo Galilei, Lettera ad Elia Diodati, 15 gennaio 1633, in Opere, a cura di A. Favaro, Firenze 1968, XV, p. 24)


In this year when Pope John Paul II will be formally proclaimed a Saint of the Catholic Church, I am deeply honoured at being asked, as a scientist and a Catholic, to reflect from amongst the Pope’s many and key contributions to the human spirit, on his concern to promote a renewed and positive dialogue between science and religion. I have been very fortunate to work in astronomy, an area of research that fascinates most people because in some way it seeks to give answers to questions that human beings have asked since time immemorial. Where do we come from? What was the origin of our world and our universe? How did it all happen and why? These questions cannot only be answered by scientific research but have deep links to other forms of knowledge: we also raise the same questions and find answers in the philosophical or theological spheres. John Paul’s message has helped me reflect and reconcile the answers to these questions in a way that I believe would not have been possible in earlier times and gave me continued moral support to seek the truth that is God in all of his creation.

While the views of John Paul II on the relationship between science and faith may best be appreciated from many of the messages that he wrote after he became Pope, his concern for an improved dialogue was already evident from earlier days.

As the Archbishop of Cracow he actively participated in the deliberations of the Vatican Council II and had a seminal role in drafting the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes, in particular those sections that bear on the role of the Church in the world. He was already keenly interested in questions that affect the search for human knowledge in disciplines such as philosophy, metaphysics or the so-called natural or “hard sciences”, and their connection to faith and religion. In one of his written statements in support of the we read: “The affirmation of the world (by the Church) already implies the beginning of a good dialogue. Once that it recognizes the autonomy of the world’s reality, the Church provides an excellent service to the construction and development of the world, and it always wanted to do so. The Church wants to serve the world in every possible way, in particular at the service of morality and truth, to be carried out according to the principle of transcendence that is the result of Redemption’s work.” (Gaudium et spesConcilii Vaticani II Synopsis, ed. by F. Gill Hellin, int. E/5608, p. 1352).

He was obviously already anticipating what became his key contribution to the renewed and profitable open dialogue between religion and science. During his pontificate John Paul II wanted to see that the Church was fully engaged with the world and in particular with the sciences that have a fundamental role in shaping the world and its future.

The openness of the Church for a dialogue with the world of science was a welcome change from what many in the scientific community perceived to be the attitude of the Church in previous centuries. The Galileo affair had a profound and lasting negative impact on the relationship between religion and science. Throughout the 400 years that have since passed, many scientists refused to have a meaningful dialogue with the Church and chose to ignore its teachings even when they did not contradict or stand in the way of the development of scientific knowledge. On the other hand the Church often regarded with suspicion, or even fear, the results from scientific research, should the knowledge of the physical world somehow contradict the interpretation of the scriptures.

During the 20th Century this state of affairs begun to improve. Pope Pius XI founded (or re-founded) the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to “surround himself with a select group of scholars, relying on them to inform the Holy See in complete freedom about developments in scientific research, and thereby to assist him in his reflections”. In his Encyclical Humani Generis (1950), Pope Pius XII had already stated that the Church accepted the theory of evolution to explain the origin of the human body, though worthy of further investigation, insofar as we state that the souls are created immediately by God. However these steps, while very important and positive, were clearly not enough of a change to warrant a truly warm reception from the scientific community.

From the very beginning of the papacy of John Paul II there was a reinvigorating view on the relationship between the natural sciences and religious belief. At the Second Vatican Council with the encyclical Gaudium et Spes the Church expressed its support for the freedom of research, confident that there can be no contradiction between science and faith. John Paul II went considerably further and provided the intellectual vision needed to help create this new open dialogue.

John Paul II was troubled that Galileo’s case had led to long lasting misunderstanding and contrast between faith and scientific knowledge. In many of his speeches Galileo’s case is discussed as something “painful”, a missed opportunity that during several centuries has alienated science and religion. Theology has missed the opportunity to become open to scientific discoveries and the new ideas and problems brought-up by these discoveries while science has become disinterested and often antagonistic to religion. In his Address to the Pontifical Academy of Science on October 31, 1992, he said: “From the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment down to our own day, the Galileo case has been a sort of "myth", in which the image fabricated out of the events was quite far removed from reality. In this perspective, the Galileo case was the symbol of the Church's supposed rejection of scientific progress, or of "dogmatic" obscurantism opposed to the free search for truth. This myth has played a considerable cultural role. It has helped to anchor a number of scientists of good faith in the idea that there was an incompatibility between the spirit of science and its rules of research on the one hand and the Christian faith on the other. A tragic mutual incomprehension has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith”.

He decided to act on this problem and in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the recurrence of Albert Einstein’s centenary birthday (1979) there are more references to Galileo than there are to Einstein and his role in fundamentally changing the paradigm of Physics and Cosmology. This was obviously not by chance. John Paul II took advantage of this opportunity to openly state that the Church had erred in its dealings with Galileo and recognized and deplored certain unwarranted interventions: “We cannot but deplore —it is written in number 36 of the conciliar constitution Gaudium et Spes— certain attitudes (not unknown among Christians) deriving from a short-sighted view of the rightful autonomy of science; they have occasioned conflict and controversy and have misled many into thinking that faith and science are opposed». Furthermore he stated: “For in this affair the agreements between religion and science are more numerous and above all more important that the incomprehensions which led to the bitter and painful conflict that continued in the course of the following centuries… The search for truth is the task of basic science. The researcher who moves on this first versant of science, feels all the fascination of St. Augustine's words: Intellectum valde ama  — Love intelligence and the function that is characteristic of it, to know the truth. Pure science is a good, which every people must be able to cultivate in full freedom from all forms of international slavery or intellectual colonialism. Basic research must be free with regard to the political and economic authorities, which must cooperate in its development, without hampering it in its creativity or harnessing it to serve their own purposes. Like any other truth, scientific truth is, in fact, answerable only to itself and to the supreme truth, God, the creator of man and of all things.”

These statements had a very positive reception by the scientific community, which nevertheless was still skeptical of whether these words reflected a real long-lasting change in the Church’s attitude towards science. Most likely the watershed in the relationship came after the Discourse when he decided to establish a commission to review the so-called Galileo case. “To go beyond this stand taken by the council, I hope that theologians, scholars and historians, animated by a spirit of sincere collaboration, will study the Galileo case more deeply and, in loyal recognition of wrongs from whatever side they come, will dispel the mistrust that still opposes, in many minds, a fruitful concord between science and faith, between the Church and the world. I give all my support to this task, which will be able to honour the truth of faith and of science and open the door to future collaboration”.

The commission worked on and off from 1981 to 1992 when it presented its final report at a very formal ceremony. John Paul II fully embraced its findings that provided a balanced view of the case. He accepted the shortcomings of the Church: “By virtue of her own mission, the Church has the duty to be attentive to the pastoral consequences of her teaching. Before all else, let it be clear that this teaching must correspond to the truth. But it is a question of knowing how to judge a new scientific datum when it seems to contradict the truths of faith. The majority of theologians did not recognize the formal distinction between Sacred Scripture and its interpretation, and this led them unduly to transpose into the realm of the doctrine of the faith a question which in fact pertained to scientific investigation.”

The Pope remarks that in fact the Bible does not concern itself with the details of the physical world is a reflection of Galileo‘s voice: “There exist two realms of knowledge, one which has its source in Revelation and one which reason can discover by its own power. To the latter belong especially the experimental sciences and philosophy. The distinction between the two realms of knowledge ought not to be understood as opposition. The two realms are not altogether foreign to each other; they have points of contact.”

The relationship between faith and science, between the Christian message and scientific knowledge, is a delicate subject and will always be susceptible to varying perspectives. While the new position of the Church regarding the whole Galileo affair had the greatest resonance amongst the scientific community, John Paul’s vision fostered an open dialogue with all areas of knowledge. For example in his Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the subject of evolution (1996) he wrote: “A theory is a meta-scientific elaboration, distinct from the results of observation but consistent with them. By means of it a series of independent data and facts can be related and interpreted in a unified explanation. A theory's validity depends on whether or not it can be verified; it is constantly tested against the facts; wherever it can no longer explain the latter, it shows its limitations and unsuitability. It must then be rethought. Furthermore, while the formulation of a theory like that of evolution complies with the need for consistency with the observed data, it borrows certain notions from philosophy of nature... The better the Church's knowledge is of their essential aspects, the more she will understand their impact. Consequently, in accordance with her specific mission she will be able to offer criteria for discerning the moral conduct required of all human beings in view of their integral salvation.”

Later in his encyclical Ratio et Fides (1998) he defines the framework for the different but intimately connected roles of faith and reason. He reviews and summarizes his perspective on the role of the scientists and encourages us not to loose sight of what should really be the ultimate goal of our quest: “In expressing my admiration and in offering encouragement to these brave pioneers of scientific research, to whom humanity owes so much of its current development, I would urge them to continue their efforts without ever abandoning the sapiential horizon within which scientific and technological achievements are wedded to the philosophical and ethical values which are the distinctive and indelible mark of the human person. Scientists are well aware that the search for truth, even when it concerns a finite reality of the world or of man, is never-ending, but always points beyond to something higher than the immediate object of study, to the questions which give access to Mystery” (n. 106).

While John Paul II took a radically novel approach in fostering a renewed dialogue, he also sought to clarify the Church’s role in this dialogue. Religious experience and science do not need to be in conflict, both scientific research and the quest for God are profound expressions of our reality as human beings. The bond between science and religion is the quest for the Truth. As he wrote on June 1, 1988, to George Coyne, Director of the Vatican Observatory, Exactly what form that dialogue will take must be left to the future and will evolve over time. Can science also benefit from this dialogue? In what way do scientific discoveries participate in the search for the ultimate truth? How can theology and philosophy shape and encourage this search? Even after this many years the revived relationship between science and religion does not have all the answers. But the dialogue that is intensifying between theology, philosophy, and science can first of all lead to an understanding of the objectives and the limitations of each of these disciplines and then prepare for each in its own specific field to contribute to the quest for that Truth which is God.

As Christians we celebrate the proclamation of John Paul II as a Saint and as scientists his leadership in overcoming the controversies and mistrust of past centuries and transforming the relationship between the Church and the scientific community into one of positive and creative interactions.

His legacy will have a profound and long lasting impact on both the world of science and the faith of believers.


© 2014 Duccio Macchetto and INTERS - Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion and Science