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John Paul II and Contemporary Science


Blessed John Paul II, who beginning on April 27th, 2014, will be Saint John Paul II, was a Pope interested in scientific themes. One of his initiatives clearly highlighted his passion for promoting the dialogue between modern science and the Catholic faith. Since the Second Vatican Council, many people within the Church began to debate about the condemnation of Galileo. In the 19th century, due to some anti-clerical movements, Galileo’s condemnation gained new attention, blossoming into the "Galileo affair". For most of our contemporaries, Galileo’s trial in 1633 was still the symbol of the rejection of modernity by the Church. Pope John Paul II fulfilled the desire expressed by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council to acknowledge more openly that the condemnation of Galileo was a mistake. In so doing, the Catholic Church had a new opportunity to reaffirm the respect for the natural sciences she had throughout history, one that was confirmed by the Vatican Council II and then faithfully developed in the following years.

1. The attitude of John Paul II towards natural sciences was not something circumstantial. In fact, on several occasions, he praised the work done in universities, encouraging its development. In the Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (August 15, 1990) addressed to the Catholic Universities, he stated: «The dialogue between Christian thought and modern science is of special interest for the University» (n. 46). In different speeches given to academics, John Paul II addressed this issue by praising the unity of knowledge and the convergence towards the love for truth, one to be constantly sought. This desire for unity is built upon a theological idea: the work of God bears the footprints of His unity. This is why the diversity of knowledge must converge to unity. In different speeches given to academics, John Paul II explained that the dialogue between science and theology has a purpose: «the integration of knowledge, a synthesis in which natural scientific knowledge finds its meaning in the context of the integral vision of man and of the universe, of the Ordo rerum» (Speech given to the intellectuals and academics in Ibadan, Nigeria, February 15, 1982). The latter expression, used in theology, is at the basis of the appreciation of John Paul II for the natural sciences, one that arises, in turn, from the faith in God the Creator.

2. John Paul II did not intend to suggest a specific philosophical vision of the world to achieve a unification of knowledge; instead he returned to the roots of scientific research and praised the man of science who seeks truth, respecting its transcendence. This is evident in the praises that John Paul II gave to famous scientists, in particular Gregor Mendel and Georges Lemaître and, more broadly, in the encyclical Fides et Ratio. In this document John Paul II did not intend to offer a synthesis between the secular view of the world as depicted by modern science and the vision given by the Bible or Tradition, but, rather, he addressed the search of the truth by the human intellect. The “wise” scientist might not have an entire vision of wisdom, however, he does not stop the search for truth and strongly believes in the intelligibility and reasonableness of the natural order of things (cf. Fides et Ratio, n. 29). The research scientist enjoys discovering the secrets of nature by experiencing the joy of knowing and keeping an open spirit that is fully in agreement with Revelation (cf. n. 30). Indeed, “pure science is good because it is knowledge and therefore perfection of man in his understanding” (Speech given to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, November 10, 1979). This is a further witness of John Paul II’s appreciation for the work of scientists.

3. John Paul II gave different speeches to scientists, to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and also in several places that he visited during his apostolic journeys. A central theme in his talks was the call for responsibility. As scientific discoveries offer today new ways of acting with power, the Pope invited all to a moral awakening. We all remember the exhortations given by John Paul II to respect life, but he also referenced other themes such as environmental issues, disarmament, in particular the nuclear controversy, and the application of scientific discoveries for the development of human populations. All these are part of the Church’s view for the respect of nature and for acknowledging the greatness of the human being. This responsibility for the scientist relies on the unity of the work of God, and, for this reason, the Church's social doctrine must be in dialogue with the modern knowledge, and be clarified and justified also by scientific knowledge.

4. The appeal for responsibility relies on a concept important to John Paul II: the greatness of the human being based on his creation in the image and likeness of God and the incarnation of the Word. Commenting on the greatness and transcendence of the human being is one of the Pope’s speeches most frequent subject. When visiting the CERN in Geneva (June 15, 1982), a symbolic place for basic scientific research, after emphasizing the value of scientific work, John Paul II insisted on the dignity of man, of whom science shows “the greatness and the mystery”. He further explained the “greatness” of human reason, as shown by producing science, and the “mystery” of the search for truth, always greater than our experience. A similar appreciation for science appeared in the famous text addressed to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996, where he recognized the value of the scientific theory of biological evolution. The admiration for science is intimately linked to the recognition of the transcendence of the human being. Although the human being takes part in the biological dynamics of speciation, when he appears a threshold is crossed. Today, for John Paul II the relevant place for the dialogue between science and faith is anthropology, rather than cosmology.

5. The words of John Paul II on science reveal a widespread concern. The Gospel is for him the sign of a new humanity, according to God’s plan. During his pastoral activity in Poland, both as chaplain for young people and as a bishop, John Paul II highlighted that science allowed human capabilities to flourish; he noted that scientific ideas were beneficial for the project of society that fascinated the Europeans, and his discourses help to discern between materialistic options and the humanism that is at the basis of modern science. His evangelizing activity and pastoral directives aimed to promote a culture in which science was not only respected, but also developed for the service of human beings. In this vision, in which faith rescues science, when the latter wants to become an absolute, John Paul II did not focus his attention only on specialized aspects of science; rather, he talked of “scientific culture”. For the Pope, the notion of culture was an expression of the greatness of the human being, responsible for his future, for education, and authentically concerned for the common good. This perception, explained in the well-known speech given to the UNESCO in 1980, was then developed by the guide lines he gave to the works of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

6. The value of science is based on the privileged place that man occupies in the whole of nature. This is a metaphysical option. According to John Paul II, the appreciation of scientific knowledge does not derive only from a theocentric approach, as it happened for instance in Scholastic theology; it derives mainly from an anthropocentric view: it is in the human being where the key of the intelligibility of the universe lies. John Paul II’s appreciation for scientific culture operates within a Christological perspective, the same he adopted since his first Encyclical Redemptor hominis (1979).

7. Finally, John Paul II wanted to underline an important dimension of science, always present in the Christian tradition: the sense of prayer and contemplation. For John Paul II, science is not only a theoretical knowledge or a practical activity designed to generate well-being, nor only a drive towards a more complete humanism. Scientific knowledge should lead to contemplation, in which the first step is to have a sense of astonishment in front of the mystery of being. This same attitude is the source of the life of prayer; it relies on the eschatological perspective that Christians celebrate at the end of the liturgical year, with the solemnity of Christ the King of the universe.

The seven points listed above rely on a structured point of view. Firstly, the awareness that the current crisis of civil society requires the awakening of an intellect open to faith. This awakening must be built on strong foundations, on an order we could identify with seven pillars of thought brought about  by a Christian worldview. These are: truth as the driver of research; unity as an horizon of research; culture, based on the openness towards the work of others; respect for everything that has been given by the Creator; the place of the human being in nature; human responsibility and concern for the future, and finally the mystery, understood as the presence of eternity within time, through the resurrection of Christ.