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"Science and non-Belief": Address to the Secretariat for Non-Believers

1981, April 2

On Thursday, 2 April, the Holy Father received the Cardinals and Bishops participating in the Plenary Assembly of the Secretariat for Non-Believers. The work of the Assembly, which lasted from 31 March to 3 April, was dedicated to the subject “Science and non-belief”, John Paul II delivered the following address.

Your Eminences, Dear Brothers in the Episcopate, Dear Friends,

1. It is a joy for me to meet this morning, for the first time, the participants in the plenary Assembly of the Secretariat for Non-Believers, with its new Pro-President and its new members. It is a question, in fact, of developing the stimulus already given by Pope Paul VI with dear Cardinal Franz Konig and the late Father Vincenzo Miano.
The subject you are now studying, “Science and non-belief”, is of vital importance, and the Holy See has long desired to promote a thorough study of it. It is part of the purpose of your Secretariat, which has received as its task both the study of atheism and dialogue with non-believers. It is quite clear to all of you, I Know, that it is not a question of a study carried out in am academic way, but of a work of pastoral reflection, which does not exclude either strictness of methods or deeply research. Certainly, you cannot dialogue, like the other two Secretariats, with adequate international authorities; your work implies rather relations with the Episcopal Conferences according to the various socio-cultural situations.

2. From the latter point of view, the subject of your research is a very rich one, if one considers that science is a question of culture, involving important consequences on mentalities, whether we are dealing with natural sciences or human sciences.
To try to understand the totality of reality is a legitimate ambition which honours man and which the believers shares. So there is no opposition at this level, but rather at the level of mentalities, when these are dominated by a scientistic conception, according to which the sphere of truth is identified with what can be known and verified experimentally. This positivistic mentality deeply marks modern culture, which is derived from the philosophy that opposes faith on the ideological plane, but not science itself. On the contrary, passionate pursuit of the “hows” calls for an answer to the “whys”.
It is the same, in a way, for the human sciences, which are witnessing an increasing development and those sphere is, moreover, more difficult to define. Do they not succumb to a scientistic pretence far more that they give proof of their real scientific nature, when their promoters tend to present as the ideal mode3l of this type of knowledge a conception reducing man ‒who is a subject‒ to an object of studies, researches and experimentations, to the exclusion of the specifically spiritual reality?

3. The development of sciences, through the increase of rationality which it brings, calls finally for an aim of totality which it does not supply: the meaning of meaning. For if it is true that science is a very special form of knowledge, it does not follow that scientific knowledge is the only legitimate form of knowledge. In this radically reductionist perspective, faith would no longer appear except as a naïve representation of reality, bound up with a mythological mentality. In a totalizing perspective, on the contrary, it is important to distinguish specific orders clearly, and, far from setting their content in opposition, to propose their integration in an epiphany of truth.
It is certain that the taking into consideration of the totality of reality is delicate  and difficult. Sometimes there is reduction from one order to another; sometimes, on the contrary, it is thought possible to scorn all articulation. A double temptation for believers must be recognized here: rationalism and fideism.

4. Moreover, more that dealing with an abstract confrontation between scientific unbelief and Christian faith, it is a question of a dialogue among men, in which the dynamics of rationality it is not at all opposed to the transcendence of faith in its specific nature, but, in a sense, calls for it. It is in the experience of life that it seems necessary to overcome the interior emptiness resulting from the collapse of meaning, when the totalization of men’s activities is set in a close d universe and is no longer assumed in a perspective that transcends them, in a supra-rational plane which, far from being a non-rational or an infra-rational one, is the foundation and the end of rationality.

5. Mention should also be made of a risk inherent in the method of scientific investigation itself. It has its object and its own requirements. But, to extent that it impregnates the whole of thought, the whole way of considering existence, it can in the sphere of faith lead to loss of the certainty characteristic of faith, where to know is also to love. Thus, this spirit of perpetual search can lead to questioning the essential truth of faith and, without, denying them, to suspending judgement and affirmation until one has himself elucidated all reason for believing and all the aspects of the Christian mystery, as if other discoveries concerning the creed itself could be expected. Certainly, it is necessary, as the Apostle Peter said, always to be capable of accounting for the hope that is in us (cf. 1 Pet 3:15). And there is real scientific work to be assiduously carried out in theology, exegesis and morality; but relying on a revealed truth, and within a total adherence already given to Jesus Christ and to his Church which does not provisionally put in parentheses the certain affirmations of the Magisterium. That is for you, naturally, a matter of course: but minds imbued with scientific research may find this a difficulty or an obstacle, for lack of comprehension of the specific and transcendent nature of faith, and they run the risk of remaining on the threshold of faith.

6. It is important to clarify this difficulty, as well as the more radical ones I previously pointed out, and to help our generation to overcome them.
As I said last 11 October, in connection with the subject you are studying, “if catechesis is insufficiently informed of the problems of the exact sciences, as well as of human sciences, in their diversity, it may accumulate obstacles in an intelligence, instead of making a way in it to affirmation of God”. This is the case when there is a real difference between the present-day image of the world conveyed by the sciences ‒and above all by the popularization  of sciences in the general public‒ and  the traditional expressions of faith, sometimes repeated without caring about real mentalities.

7. Finally, how could one forget that scientists themselves recognize that objectivity and rationality, however important they may be, do not meet man’s need to understand his destiny? But that is enough to lead them to recognize a personal and transcendent God. And some turn towards a kind of pantheism with a mystical colouring. Repudiating scientism, that science which has strayed beyond its borders, they equally reject the established Churches, because of the claim for human autonomy and criticism of a socio-political nature, united with the relativism engendered by the discovery of the various religions and the multiplications of sects.
The meeting between science and faith raises problems which the believer can adequately solve. But the mystery of faith can be lived only in an existential way. And the multiform meeting of atheism, unbelief and indifference calls for the existence of believers with strong convictions and living a Christian experience; in other words, possessing a solid formation, which is not separated from prayer, and evangelical witness. Faith is a gift from God, a grace, and once more, it presupposes love.

8. Catholic universities, philosophers and theologians, thinkers and writers, for their part, have a considerable role to play: to present a true and credible anthropology through the various cultures, that basic common ground. As I said to UNESCO last 2 June: “Man lives a really human life thanks to culture” (n. 6). It is a question of showing how man ‒and today, man marked by science and the scientific spirit‒ becomes fully man by opening himself to the fullness of the Incarnate Word: “Behold the man”.
This shows the importance for the Church of an apostolate of the intelligence. And the Secretariat for Non-Believers owes it to itself to play here an important role of stimulation, deepening, suggestions, and proposals within the Roman Curia and in the service of the local Churches confronted with the challenge of atheism and the tragedy of unbelief, in liaison, of course, with the university competences. In this way it will be able to help many believers to bear witness to the value which constitute their reason for living, to find the words to share them, and not to be afraid to assert themselves as witnesses of God in the very name of the obstinate search of Truth which, through centuries of scientific research, constitutes the grandeur, of mankind.
These reflections do not, of course, exhaust this vast subject. We will come back to it. I hope that you will find in them today an encouragement to continue your work. Keep on opening up a way to the Gospel, keep on building bridges. May the Holy Spirit enlighten you and strengthen you! With my affectionate Apostolic Blessing.

Source of the English text: Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition, 1981 April 21, pp. 8-9.