Summary: I. Introduction. - II. How (and where) to read the Magisterium of the Church on Science. 1. The Galileo affair: an essential overview. 2. The understanding of Sacred Scripture and the role of the natural sciences. 3. Church teachings and bio-medical research: some epistemological clarifications. 4. Science and the Church: two non-overlapping Magisteria? - III. The origin of man: the Magisterium of the Church and the results of the sciences. - IV. Scientific progress, human progress, and safeguarding creation. 1. Social justice and ecological responsibility. 2. New insights from Pope Francis’ Laudato si’. - V. References to the sciences in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. 1. A short historical account. 2. How the Council sees the sciences and their role for society and the Church. - VI. The contribution of John Paul II’s teachings to the dialogue between science and theology. 1. Culture, science and the search for truth in the speeches at UNESCO (1980) and Cologne (1980). 2. Theology and the sciences in the "Letter to the Director of the Vatican Observatory" (1988). 3. The Church and the University. 4. Scientific thought and the researcher’s work in the encyclical Fides et ratio (1998). - VII. Benedict XVI: recognizing the Logos of creation and widening the boundaries of reason. - VIII. Concluding remarks and contemporary views from Pope Francis' teachings.
By “Magisterium of the Catholic Church”, theology means and indicates the official teachings proclaimed by Catholic Bishops and especially by the Roman Pontiff as head of their assembly, throughout history. These teachings are intended to declare and shed light upon what Catholic faithful are asked to believe in order to be coherent with the contents of Sacred Scripture and the legacy of Tradition. Documents issued by the Catholic hierarchy have different degrees of authority. The most important ones are the teachings proclaimed by Ecumenical Councils and the dogmatic declarations – usually a very few ones – explicitly set forth by the Roman Pontiff. Also, encyclicals, letters, and speeches delivered by the Bishop of Rome have a special significance because of the role he plays in guaranteeing the unity of the whole Church.
For that which concerns the relation between faith and science or other debated contemporary issues, theologians and the Magisterium are called to work together for the spiritual benefit of the faithful. On the one hand, the bishops must, in order to fulfill their mission as custodians and authoritative teachers of the Word of God and as successors of the apostles, remind theologians of the fundamental truths which must inspire their intellectual work and of the pastoral priorities to be kept in mind. On the other hand, since theology is nothing but the exercise of a fides quaerens intellectum, theologians have to indicate to Pastors those key-issues and topics which are more present in the contemporary cultural and scientific debate and particularly strategic for the understanding of faith. It is thanks to this cooperative work between Pastors and theologians that the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be proclaimed credibly and efficaciously to all men and women in every age. In so doing, the theological work can help the Magisterium to explain the richness of the Word of God in its teaching, and respond to the questions posed by the faithful during a specific time. Occasionally, the Magisterium of a Council or of a Roman Pontiff can anticipate theologians and indicate to scholars which themes to take up and in which direction a new intellectual synthesis needs to be sought. They share a common purpose: To serve the faith of the people of God and to diffuse the Christian message with greater efficaciousness, especially in a cultural context – such as today’s – which is in a state of rapid evolution.
This mutual cooperation between the Magisterium and theology plays an important role also regarding the sciences and scientific culture in general. Recognizing that scientific research is also an enterprise for truth and knowledge, theologians have the task to listen to what science has to say, and to take into account in their own work the well documented results of the scientific community; when necessary, theologians are also called to tackle some new and cutting-edge issues. The Magisterium can intervene offering proper clarifications when some incorrect extrapolations of scientific results or imprecise divulgations of these same results seem to conflict with the truths of faith. Sometimes the Magisterium can also foresee in a prophetic way, thanks to assistance from the Holy Spirit, what the ethical and social consequences of scientific research seems to imply. It also stimulates theology to reflect on these issues, sharing the common desire to deepen the truth and to protect society from that which could danger human society instead of serving and promoting its integral development. Finally, theology also has the challenging task to interpret the interventions that the Magisterium of the Church carried out in the past epochs and apply correct hermeneutics to them. Some statements, because of the linguistic, conceptual, or cognitive context in which they were expressed, could have have lost their original meaning or could be better expressed in the light of the contemporary scientific vision of the world. In these cases the message of truth contained in them – an expression of the Spirit’s assistance to the Church of Jesus Christ – must be wisely restored, and proposed again, in a fresher language, in a context that has intellectually developed.
Deepening the knowledge of what the Magisterium of the Catholic Church teaches on subjects that are related to the sciences and to their cognitive progress is useful for several reasons. First of all, the believer can use the conclusions and guidelines of the Magisterium to reach and develop his own Christian-inspired synthesis between faith and reason, between the mission of elevating the world to the glory of God – a mission in which all baptized take part –, and the task of making society more humane through one’s professional work. In this regard, the role of lay faithful working in a scientific environment becomes ever more decisive. Their effort to reach a sincere synthesis between faith and reason, with the corresponding testimony of life that derives from it, prevents the Magisterium of the Catholic Church from being seen as a teaching coming from outside, something “before the world” or “before the sciences.” Considering science and the world as something opposed to the Church, forgets the fact that the society in general, and the scientific community in particular, include believers who know and live Church's teachings. (cf. Gaudium et spes n. 55, Lumen gentium, n. 31). The faithful who work in scientific fields also contribute to dispelling the idea that there has to be a “confrontation” (if not a clash) between the Catholic Church and the world of scientific research, more or less unconsciously considered atheistic or at least agnostic. Secondly, even those who do not share the Christian faith benefit from a more precise knowledge of what the Catholic Magisterium says. By understanding the official Church’s teachings on a specific subject, one has access to a more objective and equilibrate judgment on what the position of the Christian faith is on relevant issues, thus overcoming the image on these teachings given by the mass-media, which is often poorly informed, and sometimes influenced by preconceptions or even ideological opinions.
II. How (and where) to read the Magisterium of the Church on Science
1. The Galileo Affair: an essential overview. In general, when we talk about the relationship between the Magisterium of the Catholic Church and scientific research, people immediately think of the “Galileo affair”. One could not speak of the Catholic Magisterium in the context of the relationship between Science and Religion without at least briefly touching upon this matter. What happened on that historical occasion is certainly emblematic, but also somewhat reductive for understanding the true meaning of these relations. The story of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), of whom the Holy Office requested in 1616 to teach the heliocentric model only ex suppositione – or as a mere mathematical hypothesis because it was then considered contrary to the Scriptures –, and upon whom in 1633 a home detention was imposed for not having fulfilled this request, inclined the official organisms of the Catholic Church, in the subsequent epochs, to be more careful about science and its autonomy. Although in the context of the cosmological knowledge of the 17th Century there was no proven evidence in favor of the heliocentric model, nevertheless, the fact remains that the heliocentric model was more adherent to facts than the geocentric. Galileo Galilei had to be left free to teach the cosmological system he preferred, without any prohibition. As any other man of science, he should have the free responsibility to discuss his model in a public debate among scientists. At that time, however, the link between biblical-religious culture and profane human culture was generally very tight. This could lead, as indeed happened, to interference in their respective fields of research. However – and this is our point of interest – Galileo affair was not a conflict between the Magisterium of the Church and science, but between different scientific views; the first of which, geocentrism, had at that time a greater influence on biblical exegesis, boasting of a long-lasting tradition. Geocentrism was certainly not a truth of faith. It was not part of the Word of God, that is, those teachings that the Church had to transmit for the salvation of the faithful; nor had geocentric model ever appeared in any symbol of faith, nor had it entered as a specific point within the Catechism of the Church, although a few decades earlier the Council of Trent issued the publication of a lengthy catechism. The geocentric model was simply part of the ordinary language and way of thinking for several centuries. It should not be forgotten that biblical theology of the time of ancient Israel had had other “cosmological” models, such as that of a flat earth with the sky seen as a fixed vault near us where the planets, the moon, and the sun moved, which, in turn, were considered gods by neighboring peoples.
The story of Galileo, as we have said, falls short as example to set up and understand the relationship between the Church’s Magisterium and science. What at Galileo’s time was called the Holy Office, certainly did not have the role that bishops have when, for example, gathered in an ecumenical Council they profess a teaching, or even when they agree, each in their respective dioceses, to confess the same doctrine of faith which they propose to the faithful. Nor are the teachings of a member of the Roman Curia identifiable with the Magisterium of the Bishop of Rome when he, according to his task of presiding in charity and building the unity of the Church, teaches through documents of universal scope or, more rarely yet, through public dogmatic formulations. The Holy Office, now the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, sometimes considered warning the faithful of errors or dangers. However, it could happen that its warnings be later overcome by a new intellectual context that better frames the “errors” or expresses all the doctrine in a more successful way. The best-known example in this regard is perhaps the 1887 Holy Office judgment about some works by Antonio Rosmini, a judgment later modified on the occasion of the Great Jubilee of 2000.
Due to the role of science in contemporary society, it is today important not to have a superficial idea of what happened to Galileo; instead, it is worthwhile to know better the essentials of the affair to clarify with historical competence roles and teachings, avoiding ideological prejudices or naïve apologies. Important studies have been published, which should be known by people involved in the science and religion debate (see, for instance, Pagano and Luciani, 1984; Poupard, 1987; Greipl and Brandmüller, 1992; Mayaud, 2005). It is necessary, in fact, to go beyond commonplace explanations and be able to inform public opinion, keeping in mind rights and responsibilities of each side. This is precisely what John Paul II intended to promote when in 1979, on the occasion of a plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he asked for a commission to be set up to study Galileo’s affair serenely and more in depth. Actually, the content that public opinion had for a long time associated to the Galileo affair, has represented a major hindrance to the evangelization and the mission of the Church, especially among learned people. “I hope that theologians, scholars and historians, animated by a spirit of sincere collaboration, will study the Galileo affair 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.” (John Paul II, Speech to the Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 10.11.1979).
John Paul II’s worry was primarily pastoral in character (cf. Tanzella-Nitti, 2010). He desired that Pastors, and all who are concerned in the Church with formation and catechesis, be familiar with scientific culture, so that they may understand what belongs to science and what belongs to faith; what is true knowledge, in the natural sciences and in our understanding of the Word of God; and which topics remain open to discussion, requiring further development and a deeper research. The main heritage we can gather from the heliocentric debate, with all the corollaries it brought about, is precisely this: the search for truth should be always put in the center of discussion, because this is the only way, by means of a critical knowledge, to unify different perspectives whenever possible. There are many speeches and discourses of John Paul II that deal with the Galileo affair. Among the most important ones, in addition to the Speech to the Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, held on November 10, 1979, we mention: The Address on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of the publication of Galileo’s Dialogue of the Two Chief Systems of the World (1632), held on May 9, 1983, and the Speech at the concluding Summary presented by the special Pontifical Commission entrusted to study the Galileo Affair, delivered on October 31, 1992.
2. The understanding of sacred Scripture and the role of the natural sciences. A second issue often considered pivotal in the relationship between the Catholic Church Magisterium and science is the content of the great biblical encyclicals. These are documents signed by the Roman Pontiffs whose concern it is to guide the correct reading of the sacred texts, especially with regard to the origin of the world, of man, and of life. The first page of the Book of Genesis has considerable weight and evocative value, such as to direct (and sometimes to condition) much of the debate between science and faith. Starting from Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus (1893), and above all Benedict XV’s Spiritus Paraclitus (1920) and the Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), the encyclicals that the Roman Pontiffs dedicated to the Scriptures gradually collected the hermeneutic results of the first half of the 20th century, and also addressed their relationship with the sciences. In the second half of the 20th century, a number of documents from the Catholic Church warned against the risk of biblical fundamentalism. This is what the document of the PBC, The interpretation of the Bible in the Church (15.4.1993) talked about: “Fundamentalist interpretation starts from the principle that the Bible, being the word of God, inspired and free from error, should be read and interpreted literally in all its details. But by "literal interpretation" it understands a naively literalist interpretation, one, that is to say, which excludes every effort at understanding the Bible that takes account of its historical origins and development. It is opposed, therefore, to the use of the historical-critical method, as indeed to the use of any other scientific method for the interpretation of Scripture. [...] The basic problem with fundamentalist interpretation of this kind is that, refusing to take into account the historical character of biblical revelation, it makes itself incapable of accepting the full truth of the incarnation itself. As regards relationships with God, fundamentalism seeks to escape any closeness of the divine and the human. It refuses to admit that the inspired word of God has been expressed in human language and that this word has been expressed, under divine inspiration, by human authors possessed of limited capacities and resources. For this reason, it tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit. It fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods. It pays no attention to the literary forms and to the human ways of thinking to be found in the biblical texts, many of which are the result of a process extending over long periods of time and bearing the mark of very diverse historical situations.” (PBC, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, 18.03.1994, I, F).
Most of the apparent conflicts between evolution and creation, which some sectors of public opinion (usually with a poor theological learning) still seem to claim, can be more easily avoided by overcoming fundamentalist readings of the Bible. Sacred Scripture is compatible with various scientific and philosophical views of the cosmos and of life, provided they do not directly oppose the existence of a God, who is a personal and free subject of creative will, and the provident cause of all things. Different scientific theories explaining the appearance of the human beings on our planet are compatible with Christian teachings, provided they do not deny (and they could not, in fact, as long as they remain within the realm of empirical knowledge) that God calls to being and loves every human being in a personal way, from our ancestors to every new baby who opens its eyes to this world. The relationship between the “I” of each human person and the “You” of one’s Creator transcends matter and history. It belongs to the mystery of a Loving Creator, who is before the world and transcends the empirical analysis of the sciences. There is therefore no need to ask the biblical text to “marry” a specific cosmology or a precise reconstruction of the natural history of the earth, provided that, as we shall see in a following section, some key-points remain clear. Reading the Bible in a critical and scholarly manner, theology continues to propose the answers to those ultimate questions about the origin and the end of life, the origin and the end of history, and of the whole of creation. They are answers that believers trust be unveiled by a Divine Revelation, and that shed light on the inquiries which scientists, like all the other people, do not stop questioning.
At the same time, even though biblical exegesis is an important issue, by itself it is limited to frame in an exhaustive way how the Church’s Magisterium may enter into a relationship with science and the scientific culture in general. The Galileo affair is, after all, an expression of such a limit. It is necessary exploring these relationships moving beyond the “biblical question” or the “question of origins.” Think, for instance, that in recent authoritative documents dedicated to Sacred Scripture the natural sciences are far less present than the human sciences (cf. Dei Verbum ; Verbum Domini ; PBC, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church ). When indeed they are mentioned, it is generally to clarify diverse competencies and fields of respective investigation, not to set the canons of a specific hermeneutic to address the dialogue between theology and science. In the Anthology and Documents section of this web portal, the reader may have a look at a selection of excerpts of Magisterium documents from 1893 to 1964 on Sacred Scripture and the natural sciences. Many reasons could explain the lack, in the most recent documents, of an explicit reference to science. The most important, perhaps, is that the human sciences such as philology, hermeneutics, or history are relevant for textual analysis, and that disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, or psychology help to better understand the interlocutor to whom the Church speaks. Biblical encyclicals and other documents concerning the Scriptures do not provide programmatic principles on the relationship between faith and science; therefore, despite their undoubted importance having as main object the Word of God, by themselves they cannot address a throughout analysis on the role that the natural sciences play in the teachings of the Catholic Church.
3. Church teachings and bio-medical research: some epistemological clarifications. A third group of issues which public opinion tends to associate with the debate between Catholic Church’s Magisterium and the scientific research regards bioethics and biotechnologies. In this case too, confining oneself to this kind of documents would show again a limited vision of the relationship between Church and science. Concerning this issue, the teachings of the Church are often presented by the mass media as a kind of “brake” on the development of bio-medical research, whose experiments are called to be realized in full liberty and autonomy, with the goal of bettering the quality of human life. It is known, for instance, that Catholic Church Magisterium blames the manipulation of the human embryo (for example, its destruction for the purpose of extracting embryonic stem cells, or freezing several embryos having the intention to select only a few of them to develop through artificial fertilization), it prohibits the use of egg- or sperm-cell genetic material for cloning or creating hybrids, as well as the interruption of the embryonic development of a new human being. These exhortations are erroneously perceived by a large part of public opinion as “obstacles” to the scientific praxis necessary to improve our knowledge and to achieve new successful results. In this way, the attitude of the Church is misrepresented by various observers as being against science, analogously to what happened during the Galileo affair, an error which will consequently taint future relations between science and faith. To be honest, the discourse takes here a very different direction. The great majority of the aforementioned biogenetic practices have very little to do with science and with the health of individuals. Instead they are designed to answer demands of the market, to generate income for pharmacological industries, and to satisfy the reproductive desires of men and women, who are not warned about the fact that their desire involves the destruction of human embryos, impeding their full biological development as human beings.
At the foundation of the Church’s Magisterium teachings on the respect for human life from its conception onwards, there lies the argument for the continuity of the development of every new individual of all biological species (including the species Homo sapiens), from the moment of fertilization forward. Beyond all religious beliefs and philosophical convictions, this continuity is in accord with what science observes, making reasonable the Magisterium warn not to destroy human beings voluntarily and consciously in order to favor other human beings. Approval of such a behavior would be contradictory in terms. The “precautionary principle” with which human life must be treated, is a basic principle that goes well beyond the philosophical debate on how and when a “human soul” – as classical anthropology would call it – begins to be present in a human embryo; that is, the debate on the very moment starting from which a new human individual reaches it completeness, specific autonomy, and, on an ethical level, the dignity of personhood. Actually, the presence of the soul is not the object of scientific analysis, and neither are the concepts of person and personal dignity. Nevertheless, and precisely for that, the scope of science demands the application of a precautionary principle: if even the slightest doubt persists that a true human being could be present in a human embryo (and having also in mind that scientific results about the continuity between embryo and adult seem to rule out such a doubt), a full respect for this embryonic life must be acknowledged in any case. As we will see later, the relationship between the Christian faith and technical-scientific progress is too important, and their collaboration for the future of human society is too strategic, as to remain caught in erroneous or limited views on which each other would have to say.
The motives just mentioned show that the questions related to bioethics, although touching upon central issues of human life, do not represent a good terrain of confrontation between faith and science, al least because they are often, and fallaciously presented to the public, as something concerning scientific knowledge and cognitive progress. The Magisterium of the Church does not teach specific doctrines on what science is or should be; rather, it gives moral advices concerning ethical order and behavior. The issues concerning bioethics are framed within a philosophical stance which appeals to a natural moral law and refers to recta ratio that, in principle, could be shared by everyone. It is within this stance and making reference to this ratio that the Church’s Magisterium affirms the dignity of human life from its conception to its natural end. For this reason, many documents published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF), an organism of the Holy See at the service of the Magisterium of the Church, when explaining which principles must guide the medical profession and bio-medical activities in matter of human life, openly employ a philosophical context, not a theological one. Making use of a moral natural law, acknowledged on philosophical bases, CDF Documents emphasize the respect due when dealing with the early stages of human life, the illegitimacy of employing human embryos for experimentation – including the destructive withdrawal of embryonic stem cells and the cloning of human egg cells –, the misconduct of euthanasia disguised, the medical care to be given to terminally ill patients, and the way of understanding the donor’s death before practicing organ transplants. Among the various documents involved, it is worthwhile to mention the Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae (1995) by Pope John Paul II, which represents until now one of the most authoritative texts of the Catholic Magisterium with respect to human life. CDF documents to be recalled are “Donum Vitae on respect for human life in its original and on the dignity of procreation” (1987) and “Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions” (2007).
4. Science and the Church: Two non-overlapping Magisteria? The considerations here expounded concerning the Magisterium of the Church on science need to confront one last question, a very propaedeutic one before entering into the debated issues we will see later on in this article. Science has its own “magisterium”. It is made up of a tradition of knowledge and acquired results which allow science to “teach,” and have “teachers” (lat. Magistri). Do the Church and science, the Christian faith and scientific research, therefore have “two different magisteria” which must learn to coexist each other without overlapping? The thesis is delicate. The paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) proposed the existence of two fully independent magisteria (NOMA, or Non Overlapping Magisteria): science on the one hand, religious confessions on the other, each one serving in their proper ambit (cf. S.J. Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997), pp. 16-22 and 60-62). The idea had a large influence on certain religious circles. It is in short a re-proposition of the easy understandable and long standing division between “how” and “why” (science would respond to the “how” and faith to the “why”), which at first seems to generate order and avoid unnecessary conflicts. Many times, this thesis is part of Church’s practical and popular preaching. However, also in this case some clarifications are indeed necessary.
If the thesis of “two non-overlapping magisterial” wants to indicate the obvious difference between two formal objects when looking at reality, and emphasizes the diversity of the questions addressed within two fields of knowledge, it must be accepted without any doubt. If, instead, the thesis means a radical independence, as if the world of scientific research had nothing to do with the world that believers regard as created by God, or if it means that knowledge coming from each of the two areas remains unrelated and incommunicable, then NOMA is an unsatisfactory view and its weakness becomes immediately evident. Of course, in explaining the relationship between science and faith there is a propaedeutic to follow, regarding the audience we face. In Christian catechesis aimed at children, it may be sufficient to make distinctions in a simple way, perhaps by resorting to the difference between how and why, or by trying to help the children understand the distinct areas of competence between the sciences and the teachings of faith. However, in a catechesis for adults, in academic theology, or in lectures for priestly education, this simply distinction is largely insufficient. It will be necessary to recognize that the question on “why” has different levels: scientific, metaphysical, and theological; science has its own whys (without which it would not exist as a research for truth), yet there are other “whys” that science cannot answer because of its limited method, since they concern a foundational, ontological, and epistemological order.
There exists in each of us a need for unified knowledge. This need must be made clear in both catechesis and in university teaching. For a believer, the Word of God – present in Holy Scripture as read by the Church – is the same Word that gave rise to the world and guides its destiny throughout history. The material cosmos that our scientific instruments examine is the same cosmos created by the Word and through the Word; the truth that science seeks can only be part of that uncreated Truth revealed in Jesus Christ. To deny this would endorse in some way the doctrine of the “double truth”: that is, the two non-overlapping magisteria would soon turn into “two truths,” irreconcilable between themselves, creating a deep schism in the intellectual experience of the knowing subject. The price to pay would be thinking that faith no longer belongs to the order of knowledge, but only to that of feelings, or to personal and subjective opinions. Under this view, the teaching of the Church, Sacred Scripture, or theology itself would only concern a spiritual message detached from actual facts and history, natural history included. Accordingly, theological statements would have no implications at all for material reality. In brief, there would be two independent readings of the world, of life, and of man; two among the many possible: each of us can choose the one he or she likes, without having to consider it “the truth of facts”…
Such a division remains unsatisfactory. Sooner or later, the only way-out left open to those who endorse it would be fideism, a stance very common today in scientific circles, especially if believers who work in the field of science are not supported by a theological education comparable with, or at least adequate to their scientific learning. It is intellectually more arduous, but gnoseologically more correct and existentially more satisfying, to bravely confront the different levels of “why” existing within every “big question.” It is more challenging, and more justified, to believe that all knowledge points to one truth only, one accessed from many sides, as diverse mountainsides points, when climbing, up to the same summit. It is more difficult, but more appropriate, to maintain that the teachings of one magisterium interest the other, they provoke it, and even may help it to shed light on what it teaches. Both magisteria are taught in order to serve human dignity, increase human knowledge, and clarify human destiny.
III. The Origin of Man: The Magisterium of the Church and the results of the sciences.
At times, Church’s teachings face topics of special interdisciplinary relevance. When addressing them to faithful, it becomes clear that the results of science solicit theology and ask the Church for a new renewed synthesis between faith and reason. Among these topics are undoubtedly the so-called “questions about the origins”: origin of man, of life, and of the cosmos. In light of the biblical and methodological clarifications previously mentioned, these issues should concern more theology, especially the theology of creation, than the Magisterium of the Church. In fact, we don’t find official Church’s teachings concerning the biological origin of life or the cosmological origin of the universe: when the Church’s Magisterium speaks thereof, it offers the essential conclusions of the theology of creation (providence, finality, freedom, creation out of nothing, etc.), without proposing or examining any specific scientific model. According to some commentators, in a speech addressed to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on November 22, 1951, Pius XII (1939-1958) seemed to be in favor of the cosmological model of an expanding universe (Big Bang), well before the discovering of the cosmic microwave background at 3 °K (1964), seeming to put the Big bang theory in relationship with the Thomas Aquinas ways for the demonstration of God’s existence. However, if we analyze the discourse carefully, we are not dealing with a case of “concordism,” but with the plain idea of “consonance”: the proofs for the existence of God are and remain philosophical, not scientific. Shortly thereafter, Mons. Georges Lemaître (1966-1994), one of the fathers of contemporary cosmology and also a member of the Academy, met Pius XII personally, perhaps clarifying with him some passage of his discourse. We do not know the subject matter of their conversation. We only know that on September 7, 1952 the Pope gave a speech addressed to the Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), in which he didn’t offer any comment on a possible relationship between the notion of a creation out of nothing and the expanding models of the universe (cf. Lambert, 2002).
There is one aspect regarding the “question of origins” that has received specific attention from the Magisterium of the Church. It refers to the “ontological” relation between God and the human being, in the context of the possible relationship between creation and evolution. This attention is justified by the Magisterium’s purpose to safeguard the explicit contents of biblical Revelation concerning the dignity of the human being as a creature made in the image and likeness of God, called to participate in the divine life. Let us briefly examine the essentials of this issue, referring the reader to the bibliography for a deeper study of the debate between creation and evolution. The reader can also consult the many documents that inters web portal devotes to this topic.
In a well known passage from the Second Vatican Council we read: “From the very circumstance of his origin man is already invited to converse with God. For man would not exist were he not created by Gods love and constantly preserved by it; and he cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and devotes himself to His Creator.” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 19). Although what the Church affirms it concerns a kind of knowledge other than the natural sciences, it remains meaningful to ask whether what the sciences teach about the appearance of the species Homo sapiens and its historical path does involve, at some level, the view transmitted by the Biblical account. The main questions that could arise would concern two aspects: first, what is the theological relevance of the “process” or “threshold” of hominization that led to the appearance of Homo sapiens; second, where would we place, within the history of salvation, the long journey displayed by the homo religiosus. These aspects are obviously intertwined, since there is well-founded evidence that the human being, along his biological and cultural history, has always been at the same time sapiens and religiosus.
When comparing the sciences one may perhaps be surprised by the enormous time here scale involved, as the Homo sapiens species dates back to no less than 120,000-100,000 years. However, it is interesting to note that scientific data seem to show that there were no historical stages in which the religious dimension remained extraneous to our human life. According to Mircea Eliade, the experience of the sacred is intrinsic to human experience and constitutes a fundamental element of the structure of his conscience (cf. M. Eliade, History of Religious Ideas, 3 vols. [Oxford - New York: Oxford University Press, 2011-2014]). From the moment in which the works of pre-historic man reveal him as human, we are led to recognize the traces of some religious experience. Paleoanthropology and the related sciences can investigate and reflect on the “contents” of this religiosity only in a incomplete way: religious experience is more than the relics it leaves behind. For this reason, nothing prevents theologians from reading the early stages of the primitive appearance of man as corresponding to the historical epoch in which God revealed himself to our ancestors. A revelation, we emphasize, which can consist in a word perceived in the human conscience, when they were aware of their self-consciousness, of their mutual relationship, and contemplated the natural reality around themselves. Sacred Scripture should not be asked to explain how and where this revelation took place, that is, to offer a scientific reconstruction of human history; but only to explain what are the ontological and moral relations between the human beings – every human being, along all epochs – and God. It is also in this view that the compatibility between biblical narrations and the debate about a possible initial monotheism should be read. If paleoanthropology will find more indications in this regard, they could be interpreted as a counterpart of the original revelation made to the first human beings by the unique and true God; however, if the first available data will indicate the traces of a clear polytheism, this would be equally compatible with the biblical sketches on the human origin. In this last case, the first relics and the associated scientific reconstruction could refer to the stage of the human race, equally witnessed by the Scriptures, where our progenitors left the knowledge of the unique and true God, and then slowly began to move towards a recovering of monotheism, something that the Bible echoes paradigmatically in the stories of Noah and Abraham.
As expected, of interest are those teachings of the Church’s Magisterium, if any, concerning the question of “hominization,” that is, the “threshold” that would define the passage (or the jump, if you prefer) from anthropomorphic primates to the genus Homo, and then to the various species approaching Homo sapiens.
The first question is whether it was a couple of original progenitors “to cross this threshold” or, instead, this transition happened in different places across the planet, following (partially) independent evolutionary lines. Usually expressed under the labels “monogenism” versus “polygenism,” science doesn’t seem to have solved this question yet. At the moment, both perspectives seem to be tenable; the possibility that the polygenist hypothesis may assume greater probability in the future, and eventually become the one that best fits the data, cannot be excluded a priori. The Magisterium of the Church first addressed the theme of monogenism in Pius XII’s encyclical Humani generis (1950). Monogenism is there presented in connection with the “original sin” of the first couple of progenitors, that is, a moral test which Christian doctrine maintains had historical consequences “normative” for all mankind. Christ’s recapitulation of what was signified in Adam, of which St. Paul offers a theological development (cf. Rom 5:12-21; 1Cor 15;20-22), seems best represented by the thesis of monogenism. To abandon this thesis would prompt theology to re-evaluate its understanding of part of biblical Revelation, motivating the search for new solutions. By the same words of Pius XII in this encyclical: “For the faithful in Christ cannot accept this view, which holds that either after Adam there existed men on this earth, who did not receive their origin by natural generation from him, the first parent of all; or that Adam signifies some kind of multitude of first parents; for it is by no means apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with what the sources of revealed truth and the acts of the magisterium of the Church teaches about original sin, which proceeds from a sin truly committed by one Adam, and which is transmitted to all by generation, and exists in each one as his own.” (Humani Generis, DH 3897)
Only if future scientific data would oblige the choice of polygenism, then theology will be called to suggest a solution to what in the past “was by no means apparent how to reconcile” with the Biblical account, suggesting an accord a with a different interpretation of the Bible. The original sin certainly has meta-historical and existential dimensions, which express the ever-present implications of the rejection of God. These dimension, however, do not deny the historical dimension of an event happened “at the origins.” A first couple of progenitors better expresses the idea of a propagation of the normative consequences of sin by generation; nevertheless, within a polygenist hypothesis other ways of propagation are also possible, for instance emphasizing the relational dimensions of human life, which allow human beings to share the good and the evil.
A second question regards to the modality that led the pre-hominids to reach the species Homo sapiens, whose emergence beyond the other animals (self-consciousness, rationality, culture, and free will) is an unconvertible fact. It should happen through the biological evolution of other animal species with less structured cerebral-nervous system, anthropomorphic monkeys, such as the Australopitheci of the Pliocene era, which disappeared 4-5 million years ago and whose phylogenic development leads up to Homo sapiens. Also in this, the first declarations of the Church’s Magisterium regarding the relationship between the human beings and other animal species are those set forth by the same encyclical of Pius XII: “The magisterium of the Church does not forbid that the teaching of ‘evolution’ be treated in accord with the present status of human disciplines and of theology, by investigations and disputations by learned men in both fields; insofar, of course, as the inquiry is concerned with the origin of the human body arising from already existing and living matter; as to the souls, the Catholic faith demands us to hold that they are immediately created by God.” (ibid., DH 3896) The encyclical thus affirms the direct and non-mediated dependence by God of every human person who comes to life. It means that God is the first cause who creates each human person. Although the appearance of the progenitors, of the first human beings, as well as the generation of every newborn baby, they are the result of “secondary causes” which operate as physical, chemical, and biological causes, all these causes produce the effects proper to their order (physical and biological processes, etc.). There is something more. Each human being is a specific person, that is a singular and unrepeatable “I,” because he or she depends on God without the mediation of other causes. When the Church says that each “soul” has been created immediately by God, it simply affirms that each human being is a personal being because of its non-mediated dependence on God the Creator, that is, without mediation of secondary causes whatsoever (cf. Recentiores Episcoporum Synodi, 17.5.1979, DH 4653).
Sometimes, the idea of an “immediate” creation of the human soul by God is seen with a feeling of suspicion from people coming from the scientific environment, as if it were an “intervention” of God at the level of empirical forces and efficient causality. In reality, the term “immediate” does not refer to the chronological order, but to the ontological one, and it means first of all “not mediated by other causes.” To say that the human soul is immediately created by God means that the soul, that is the act which renders a being human, is an act of God only, that fully depends on Him: there are no other factors or agents that mediate the relationship between God and one’s personal self. These other factors can only mediate, as secondary causes, the formation of one’s morphogenetics, physiology, psychology, etc. Then, the creation of each human person is realized, strictly speaking, only with the creation of his or her spiritual soul, caused by God’s transcendent will by a non-mediated action. The fact that the soul expresses the personal self allows us to understand why it is only the soul what makes the body properly “human.” The human body is not a house into which the soul enters “to dwell” (this would be a Platonic view far from the biblical anthropology), but rather it is the soul itself that actualizes the matter of the human being, as its spiritual and substantial form. Therefore, the creation of the soul is the creation of man, because only the soul gives a human meaning to all that we are and all that we have. According to this theological perspective, the first human being is created by God, not transformed out of something else. In this sense, theological anthropology and the Magisterium of the Church underline that the spiritual soul is not a mere result of matter evolution or something emerged by chance (cf. Humani Generis, DH 3977-3878). Every human being who comes into the world, in the past as in the present, is explicitly and personally created and wished by God.
John Paul II has expressed in many ways that there must be “ways of composition” between scientific data, which point out that the human species belongs to an evolutionary phylum connected to Primates, and the biblical-theological doctrine that presents the human being as a creature in the image and likeness of God, a creature elected, desired and chosen by God Father in His Son. “From the viewpoint of the doctrine of the faith,” he stated during a general audience a in 1986, “there are no difficulties in explaining the origin of man in regard to the body, by means of the theory of evolution. [...] it is possible that the human body, following the order impressed by the Creator on the energies of life, could have been prepared in the forms of antecedent living beings. However, the human soul, on which man’s humanity definitively depends, cannot emerge from matter, since the soul is of a spiritual nature.” (General Audience, 16.4.1986) A few years later, the same Pontiff suggested an analogy between the process of “hominization” and the generation of each new child in the mother's womb: “Evolution does not suffice to explain the origin of the human race, just as the biological causality of the parents alone cannot explain to baby’s birth. Even in the transcendence of his action, God is ever respectful of ‘secondary causes’ and creates the spiritual soul of a new human being by communicating the breath of life to him (cf. Gn 2:7) through his Spirit who is ‘giver of life.’ Thus every child should be seen and accepted as a gift of the Holy Spirit.” (General Audience, 27.5.1998). In a well-known letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, John Paul II authoritatively acknowledged that biological evolution should no longer be considered a mere “hypothesis,” but must be see as a theory, better an ensemble of theories, that well interpret the data, and then deserve the attention of researchers: “The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favour of this theory.” (Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 22.10.19 96, Papal Addresses, 2003, p. 372).
Although no specific solution has been offered for the question of “hominization” as such, the suggestions made by the Church’s Magisterium allow theologians to consider the data of biological evolution into their reflections, and eventually propose a synthesis that makes biblical Revelation more intelligible. From the point of view of the natural sciences, the search for the human “threshold” can be achieved only with indirect observations, for instance by showing from which historical epoch and which places we begin to deal with findings that clearly indicate the presence of self-reflection, symbolic activity, and religious rituals. Science cannot say much about the ultimate reason for the appearance of these phenomena, because they are manifestations of the spiritual dimensions of humans, a dimension that transcends the reconstruction or the description made by the empirical data. From the theological point of view, the space-time coordinates of this threshold are less relevant, but the concern lies in which this threshold implicates: immediate dependence on a Creator. A dependence that, in the first place, can be summarized by saying that the way in which the human being depends on God is not the same way in which all the other creatures depend on Him. According to the words of Gaudium et Spes, only the human being is able to recognize his Creator and to respond to Him in freedom, and by the sincere gift of oneself.
IV. Scientific progress, human progress and the safeguarding of creation
1. Social justice and ecological responsibility. Taking inspiration from the biblical Revelation that speaks of a world that has come out of the hands of God and declared good (cf. Gn 1:25.31), and speaks of a human creature who is called to collaborate with the Creator to lead creation towards its fulfillment by means of his work and rationality (cf. Gn 2:4-6.15), the Magisterium of the Church has on several occasions emphasized the positive value of technological and scientific progress. This progress, exhorts the Magisterium of the Church incessantly, must be oriented to the service of humanity and to the integral growth of the human person. Created in the image and likeness of God, our progenitors were entrusted with the task of “humanizing the earth.” The declarations of the Second Vatican Council are of interest in this regard, especially the constitution Gaudium et Spes (1965) to which we will return in the next section. In the Church teachings of recent decades, both at the level of National Bishop assemblies and at the level of documents promoted or signed by the Roman Pontiff, the subject of technological and scientific progress is often associated with the concern for the protection of the environment (see Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004), no. 461-487).
The Bible uses the same verb “to keep” (Heb. shamar), when speaking of both the safeguarding of the earth and the protection of human life, as well as keeping of God’s law in one’s heart (cf. Gn 4:9, Dt 4:9, Prov 13:3). Then, we deal with a material and a moral protection. The theological doctrine transmitted by these documents also clarifies that, because of the wound inflicted by the original sin – responsible for having altered the original relationships between man and God, man and nature, man and his fellow men – the acknowledgement and development of a “spiritual value” of technology, like that of any other human activity, is possible only in the light of Christ’s redemption from sin. The dangers, or even the aberrations, with which technology seems to threaten mankind and the earth itself, distort the true finality and the right orientation of scientific progress; they are not an intrinsic consequence of progress itself, but the tragic result of sin. The task of humanizing the earth by the development of scientific progress and the right use of technology are part of the original Creator’s blessing to our progenitors, it expresses an explicit command they received.
In his Message for the World Day of Peace in 2010, Benedict XVI spoke about the intrinsic goodness of human work, through which the earth is made more and more suitable to host life. He was in turn citing his Encyclical, Caritas in veritate (2009): “For that matter, as I have stated elsewhere, technology is never merely technology. It reveals man and his aspirations towards development; it expresses the inner tension that impels him gradually to overcome material limitations. Technology in this sense is a response to God’s command to till and keep the land (cf. Gn 2:15) that he has entrusted to humanity, and it must serve to reinforce the covenant between human beings and the environment, a covenant that should mirror God's creative love.” (Benedict XVI, If you want to cultivate Peace, protect Creation, Message on Occasion of the World Day of Peace, 1.1.2010, n. 10) Scientific progress, then, must be understood as a source of objective, morally significant values. Let’s summarize some of them.
Firstly, when properly exercised, technological progress can improve people’s living conditions, optimize the production and distribution of food and energy resources, improve health conditions, etc.; all this becomes a service to the integral development of the human person and, as such, it is part of Creator’s project for mankind. So affirmed Benedict XVI in the aforementioned document: “A sustainable comprehensive management of the environment and the resources of the planet demands that human intelligence be directed to technological and scientific research and its practical applications. The ‘new solidarity’ […] and the ‘global solidarity’ […] are essential attitudes in shaping our efforts to protect creation through a better internationally-coordinated management of the earth’s resources, particularly today, when there is an increasingly clear link between combatting environmental degradation and promoting an integral human development. These two realities are inseparable, since the integral development of individuals necessarily entails a joint effort for the development of humanity as a whole.” (ibidem)
Secondly, the availability of technological means offers a decisive contribution to the development of the network of human relationship. This contribution is particularly important because of the intrinsic relational dimension of human nature. A more efficient network of relationships favors closeness among peoples and the mutual enrichment of different cultures, turning humanity more and more into a unique family. Scientific progress has, in principle, relevant potentialities for promoting education and justice, and for reducing social and cultural disparities. Finally, a greater “humanization of the earth” achieved thanks to the development of technology and energy resources, also favors the necessary dimension of rest, the attitude of thanksgiving and the quiet contemplation of God’s works. All these dimensions are symbolically resumed in the seventh day, which leads the created world to its fulfillment. Paradoxical as it may seem, it is precisely technological progress that could increase free time, improving living conditions, allowing the development of spiritual activities, through a human progressive control over natural or mechanical processes.
As mentioned in Church documents, social justice is intertwined with ecological responsibility. However, the addressee of this responsibility and justice is primarily the human family, and only secondly the environment. In practice, what requires and justifies the good and right human acting is the love for all the human beings, for the love of God, not nature by alone. For this reason, the ecological question is generally framed within the more general concern of the Church’s Magisterium for the development of peoples. The integral development of man has always been one of the priorities of the post-war Church’s Doctrine, as manifested by the encyclicals Pacem in Terris (1963) by John XXIII and Populorum Progressio (1967) by Paul VI. The ecological question begins to be hosted a bit later, in the encyclicals of John Paul II Redemptor hominis (1979), Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987), and Centesimus annus (1991), as well as in several of his discourses: among them it must reminded John Paul II’s speech at the United Nations Center for the Environment in 1985 in Nairobi, as well as his important address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1999, and above all his Message on the occasion of the 1990 World Day of Peace. Because of its programmatic nature, this latter message contains the most effective summary of the main points that must guide a proper approach to ecology.
In 1990 Message for the World Day of Peace, John Paul II highlights the role of human being as “representative” of God and custodian of creation. Man’s governance over creation is not a despotic dominion, but is modeled after the image of the governance of Christ over all things. Christ’s governance is a kingship intimately linked to service. We must avoid – the document warns – two opposing extremes: that of selfish and irresponsible individualism and that of an immanent naturalism where man with his transcendent dignity is no longer the center, but is replaced by nature itself. Respect for life, then, must be the norm of every true progress and the necessary premise of every ecological concern: concern for a safe environment is based on this conviction, and the corresponding legislative measures concerning the environment are enforceable in so far as the environment is a right of the person: “The most profound and serious indication of the moral implications underlying the ecological problem is the lack of respect for life evident in many of the patterns of environmental pollution. [...] Respect for life, and above all for the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial or scientific progress.”, (John Paul II, Message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, 1.1.1990, No. 7)
The ecological problem, affirms John Paul II, is an ethical-moral problem and cannot be solved with only legislative instruments: for an effective solution it is necessary to refer to the principle of solidarity, that is, to the responsibility of the international community in the management (production and distribution) of the planet’s resources. It is necessary to educate to the respect for nature, having an ethical but also a theological attitude: nature contains traces of its Creator and represents a path that leads to Him, manifesting the richness of the divine Being. Finally, in the aesthetic value of creation we must recognize beauty as the participation to a divine transcendental, because a close connection lies between a suitable aesthetic education and the preservation of a healthy environment for the human person.
2. New insights from Pope Francis ‘Laudato si’. The encyclical Laudato si’ (2015) offers an important occasion for dialogue between scientific thought and theology. Pope Francis presents and illustrates the demands of what he calls an “integral ecology.” Three guiding ideas emerge from this document, which highlight the importance of this message.
In the first place, Pope Francis emphasizes in a structured and motivated way the moral and relational value of every human action, as small as it may seem. The Pontiff highlights how we are all invited to reflect on the consequences of our behavior. They are never private or neutral: on a planet like ours, every gesture enters into our relationship with others, builds or destroys, conserves or wastes, enhances or humiliates, takes care of or neglects. “In this Encyclical – Pope Francis affirms – I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (n. 3.) Therefore, the subject of this encyclical is not “nature,” but “the common home”; the subject is mainly the human being as the inhabitant of the house; and if nature is also a subject of the document, it is only because of its close relationship with the human beings and their lives.
Secondly, it should be noted that the first and most important moral appeal of the encyclical, on which all others appeals depend, consists in inviting all human beings to be grateful for the gift of life, to contemplate the creation that surrounds them, to be joyful in recognizing themselves at the center of a network of relationships that precedes them and accompanies them, whose radical origin is nothing but the loving will of a Creator. The reason for this call is clear. Only openness towards the logic of the gift, and therefore towards the recognition of a donor – of a Creator – can generate feelings and attitudes capable of founding a deep and lasting ecological responsibility. Without gratitude for our creatural relationship to God, an attitude of respect for nature and the human beings could not be sustained and encouraged over time, especially when it requires efforts and becomes costing. The words of Pope Francis are, in this regard, explicit: “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, [then] our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.” (Laudato si’, n. 11).
Care for creation follows from the belief that no creature is superfluous. Every creature speaks of God. Interdependence is a consequence of God’s richness; all creatures together, and in their mutual ordering, are a manifestation of their Creator. Nature and the whole universe, therefore, must be observed with a contemplative gaze. Proposing again the metaphor of the Book of Nature – a metaphor which history and hermeneutics are complex without a doubt, but always attractive and meaningful, both for ordinary men and scientists – Pope Francis underlines the relevance of the aesthetic way to ascend from creatures to the Creator. It is a way that can be object of theoretical reflection, but which intuitive, public, and spontaneous dimension, keeps its appeal along all the epochs.
A third idea transmitted by Laudato si’ concerns the formulation of what Pope Francis calls an “integral ecology.” Solidarity between man and nature does not only imply an exhortation to care for our common home and preserve it for the following generations. There also exists a solidarity between the natural environment and the “human environment,” between nature and culture, between care for nature and the dignity of life. All of these “polarities” are signs of a transcendence which links nature and life with their Creator. In this sense, the value we give to human life – even the weakest and smallest –, and the value we give to nature stay or fall together: together they flourish or together they degrade. Laudato si’ points precisely toward that aim. This direction requires a change of attitude, growth in responsibility, greater awareness of the value of relational goods, and an explicit invitation to open up the mind and recognize a Creator. In this, Christianity fully agrees with all other religions on the planet. “Ecological culture can be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational program, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. [...] Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes.” (n. 111; 114)
V. References to the sciences in the documents of the Vatican II Council
After touching upon some current issues, it is important to examine now, in a more systematic way, three sources of the Magisterium of the Church, because of their innovative value and the specificity of the teachings there contained, given the historical and intellectual context in which they were expressed. We refer to the Second Vatican Council, to the Magisterium of John Paul II, and to that of Benedict XVI. Of the Magisterium of Pope Francis, which to date contains fewer references to scientific thought, mention will be made in the concluding section of this article.
1. A short historical account. Although there may have been moments of uncertainty, the relationship between the teachings of the Catholic Church and the teaching of science showed along history a truly positive balance. Since the foundation of medieval universities in the 12th century, the Church and science have had friendly relations. Think, for a moment, to the many scientists in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries who were also ecclesiastics, or had at least a sincere Christian faith. It was starting from the 19th century that the growth of an anti-Catholic component within the European university and in some influential scientific circles, especially in France and England, together with the development of materialism and positive atheism, influenced the way in which the relationship between the Catholic Church and the sciences was perceived by the public opinion. Also in the 19th century the clergy (and therefore the future Bishops, who teach as ecclesial Magisterium) lost their close acquaintance with scientific culture. This was due to several factors: progressive specialization of scientific research and the demand for considerable economic resources to work in science; relevant changes in the curriculum (ratio studiorum) of seminaries, which caused the progressive disappearance of scientific disciplines; and the exclusion of Faculties of Theology from State universities in many European countries. At the beginning of the 20th century, the number of Catholic clergy involved in scientific research at the international level was reduced to a mere few. The situation was very different from that which was encountered between the 16th and the 18th centuries, when the presence of scientists-priests was not an exception but rather the rule. Yet, in recent times, the Catholic Church has carried out important institutional steps to propose its presence in different areas of scientific research, first with the re-foundation of the Vatican Observatory (Leo XIII, 1891), and then with the establishment of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (Pius XI, 1936). Throughout the 20th century, however, the Catholic Church seems to have fostered relationships of “cultural protectorate” (that is, on a mere diplomatic level), paying less attention to philosophical or theological reflections on scientific activity, or to aspects that regard the epistemological dimension of science. In any case, we have to acknowledge that during the pontificates of Pius XI and Pius XII the number of discourses to men and women of science is growing.
Tracing back as far as the First Vatican Council, and also considering the main biblical encyclicals already mentioned, the contents of the Catholic Magisterium seem to underline the idea of a peaceful separation of objects and tasks between the Church and the scientific world. The assertion of the First Vatican Council, according to which faith and reason are two different orders of knowledge in harmony, and among them there can be no contradiction because of the uniqueness of Truth (cf. Dei Filius, ch 4; 3015-3020) mettere link, is repeatedly proposed, but without offering any philosophical development. The Church seems to have a certain attitude of hesitation (at times an attitude of defense) towards the results of the natural sciences, whose provisional and incomplete character is often emphasized. This hesitation probably derives from the legacy of anti-modernist Roman documents, of which a passage of the Providentissimus Deus is an early expression: “There can never, indeed, be any real discrepancy between the theologian and the physicist, as long as each confines himself within his own lines, and both are careful, as St. Augustine warns us, ‘not to make rash assertions, or to assert what is not known as known.’” (Providentissimus Deus, n. 18) If we consider, for example, the debate that followed Darwin’s works on the origin of man – a subject upon which Vatican I opportunely decided not to express any formal judgments – at the end of the 19th century the Roman Curia showed a lot of caution, perhaps some uncertainty, when formulating judgments on Catholic authors who supported the evolutionary view of life on the earth (cf. Artigas et al., 2006).
The convening of a new ecumenical Council was then a good opportunity to develop the perspective of official Catholic teachings towards the sciences. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) began to work a few years after the end of the Second World War (1945). The intellectual and social atmosphere of the time encompassed an ambiguous image of science. Indeed, besides the great promise for the improvement of the quality of human life on earth, science also made possible the atomic bomb; in the Nazi camps, even human experimentation was performed, as they said, for the sake of the development of scientific knowledge. But there were also signs of encouragement, evident in the progressive affirmations of technology in the fields of communication and transportation, in the steps forward of bio-medical research, and considering the vast dimensions opened by the applications of semiconductors and electronics. The better understanding of nature achieved by theoretical knowledge in the first half of the 20th century, especially in physics and chemistry, had caused a public fallout in the ordinary life of people al over the world. Just one year before the Council was opened, on April 12, 1961, a first human being orbited around the earth, thus giving rise to the “space race” that would see man just eight years after, on July 21, 1969, set foot on the moon.
2. How the Council sees the sciences and their role for society and the Church. Among the messages that the Council issued on the occasion of the closing ceremony, was a note addressed to scientists, to men and women of culture. Paul VI gave the message to Jacques Maritain on December 8, 1965, as a sign that the questions and the values of scientific culture had been present in the work of the Council Fathers. Although short, the message highlights the central aspect of the relationship between faith and science, underlining the convergence between the search for truth and the search for God. Scientists are there defined as “seekers after truth.” The Council also reminded scientists of their responsibility for the common good of the human family, for “if thinking is something great, it is first a duty” (Paul VI, Vatican City Council's address to Men of Thought and Science, 8.12.1965).
An examination of the documents of the Second Vatican Council reveals a number of references, sober but sufficiently eloquent, on the role of scientific culture in society and in the Church. One of the most famous passages is the opening analysis offered by the pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes: “Today’s spiritual agitation and the changing conditions of life are part of a broader and deeper revolution. As a result of the latter, intellectual formation is ever increasingly based on the mathematical and natural sciences and on those dealing with man himself, while in the practical order the technology which stems from these sciences takes on mounting importance. This scientific spirit has a new kind of impact on the cultural sphere and on modes of thought. […] Advances in biology, psychology, and the social sciences not only bring men hope of improved self-knowledge; in conjunction with technical methods, they are helping men exert direct influence on the life of social groups. […] Thus, the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one. In consequence there has arisen a new series of problems, a series as numerous as can be, calling for efforts of analysis and synthesis.” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 5) The Council perceives that thanks to science the vision of the world has changed, and that a scientific mentality influences the way everyone thinks, even ordinary people. The new cultural context brought about by science must be taken into account, then, to announce the Gospel in a credible manner. The Church’s attention to men and women in the contemporary world prompts her to know better the historical, cultural, and scientific context in which they live and work. The search for achieving a renewed synthesis between faith and culture compels not only Church’s Pastors, but also all Christian faithful: “May the faithful, therefore, live in very close union with the other men of their time and may they strive to understand perfectly their way of thinking and judging, as expressed in their culture. Let them blend new science and theories and the understanding of the most recent discoveries with Christian morality and the teaching of Christian doctrine, so that their religious culture and morality may keep pace with scientific knowledge and with the constantly progressing technology. Thus they will be able to interpret and evaluate all things in a truly Christian spirit.” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 62)
The Second Vatican Council is aware of the contribution that scientific progress can give to human progress and the service that scientific research can bring to the good of the Church and of society. The spirit of its documents, then, is to manifest an open confidence in scientific knowledge as a search for truth and good. This is how Gaudium et spes explains that at n. 57 of the document: “Furthermore, when man gives himself to the various disciplines of philosophy, history and of mathematical and natural science, and when he cultivates the arts, he can do very much to elevate the human family to a more sublime understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty, and to the formation of considered opinions which have universal value. Thus mankind may be more clearly enlightened by that marvelous Wisdom which was with God from all eternity, composing all things with him, rejoicing in the earth, delighting in the sons of men (cf. Prv 8:30-31).” However, the Council’s Fathers point out that the progress of science and technology could favor a certain phenomenalism and agnosticism when scientific method is raised as the supreme or unique standard for researching global or ultimate truths. When this happens, “those unfortunate results, however, do not necessarily follow from today culture, nor should they lead us into the temptation of not acknowledging its positive values. Among these values are included: scientific study and fidelity toward truth in scientific inquiries, the necessity of working together with others in technical groups, a sense of international solidarity” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 57).
The passage of Vatican II best known for its description of the relation between faith and science is perhaps that delivered by Gaudium et Spes, n. 36, where the legitimate autonomy of the sciences and of earthly endeavors is affirmed. However, it is a relative, not an absolute autonomy, because every human activity is founded on a “principle of creation,” that is, it ultimately depends on God Creator. A footnote of n. 36, approved by the Council Fathers, refers explicitly to the Galileo affair, in which such an autonomy was not entirely acknowledged. Having noticed that, “now many of our contemporaries seem to fear that a closer bond between human activity and religion will work against the independence of men, of societies, or of the sciences,” the Council presents and refines the concept of “autonomy of the sciences,” a one which is worth quoting here in length: “If by the autonomy of earthly affairs we mean that created things and societies themselves enjoy their own laws and values which must be gradually deciphered, put to use, and regulated by men, then it is entirely right to demand that autonomy. Such is not merely required by modern man, but harmonizes also with the will of the Creator. For by the very circumstance of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order. Man must respect these as he isolates them by the appropriate methods of the individual sciences or arts. Therefore if methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith, for earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God. Indeed whoever labors to penetrate the secrets of reality with a humble and steady mind, even though he is unaware of the fact, is nevertheless being led by the hand of God, who holds all things in existence, and gives them their identity. Consequently, we cannot but deplore certain habits of mind, which are sometimes found too among Christians, which do not sufficiently attend to the rightful independence of science and which, from the arguments and controversies they spark, lead many minds to conclude that faith and science are mutually opposed.” Precisely here, the Council inserts a footnote mentioning Galileo Galilei. The footnote contains the reference to the biography of Galileo authored by Pio Paschini, a book that, not without some trouble, had been prepared by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and published at the Vatican during those same months (cf. Paschini, 1964). Gaudium et spes closes its n. 36 explaining the aforementioned difference between autonomy (relative) and ontological independence (absolute autonomy), pointing out that the latter is non-feasible for scientific activity as well as for any other human activity, since they are performed within a created world: “But if the expression, the independence of temporal affairs, is taken to mean that created things do not depend on God, and that man can use them without any reference to their Creator, anyone who acknowledges God will see how false such a meaning is. For without the Creator the creature would disappear.”
The positive evaluation of scientific culture, even after mentioning possible temptations and deviations, calls not only common faithful, but also theologians and Pastors to develop a dialogue between faith and scientific culture. The Council also alludes to some implications for the education of the clergy. Difficulties in announcing the Gospel in a changed cultural context “do not necessarily harm the life of faith, rather they can stimulate the mind to a deeper and more accurate understanding of the faith. The recent studies and findings of science, history and philosophy raise new questions which effect life and which demand new theological investigations.” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 62). Theologians are the addressees of a specific exhortation: “Furthermore, theologians, within the requirements and methods proper to theology, are invited to seek continually for more suitable ways of communicating doctrine to the men of their times; for the deposit of Faith or the truths are one thing and the manner in which they are enunciated, in the same meaning and understanding, is another. In pastoral care, sufficient use must be made not only of theological principles, but also of the findings of the secular sciences, especially of psychology and sociology, so that the faithful may be brought to a more adequate and mature life of faith.” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 62). It is also stated that candidates to the priesthood need to possess a humanistic and scientific education, sufficient for allowing them to attend higher studies. Moreover, in their theological studies “account should be taken of the more recent progress of the sciences. The net result should be that of the students, correctly understanding the characteristics of the contemporary mind, will be duly prepared for dialogue with men of their time.” (Optatam totius, n. 15, cf. n. 13). The Council recommends to the Bishops that in the task of evangelization the many values of contemporary society should be appreciated, including the value of technology. (cf. Christus Dominus, n. 12). Finally Catholic Universities and the Faculties of Theology of ecclesiastical universities are urged to engage in close cooperation with other teaching centers dedicated to scientific research (cf. Gravissimum educationis, nn. 10-12).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997), rightly labeled as the Catechism of Vatican II, includes many Council’s teachings on the relationship between faith and reason, integrating them with subsequent documents, especially those taken from the rich pontificate of John Paul II. Some points of the Catechism concern, for example, the “question of the origins,” how to understand evolution, the problem of evil in the physical world and other matters concerning the relationship between the Christian faith, reason, and scientific knowledge. The Catechism does not mention explicitly the word “evolution,” but speaks of a universe created “in a state of journeying” (Lat. in statu viae) and therefore destined for fulfillment (cf. CCC, n. 302). Regarding the scientific question on “origins,” it is stated that: “It is not only a question of knowing when and how the universe arose physically, or when man appeared, but rather of discovering the meaning of such an origin” (CCC, n. 284). References, even if indirect, to the relation between science and faith are presented by the Catechism of the Catholic Church within the following topics: the ultimate questions and the existence of God inferred from the existence of creatures (cf. nn. 31-34, 39, 159, 2500); the essential catechesis on creation (cf. nn. 282-285); the acknowledgement of the existence of purpose in creation, also with regard to reciprocal ordering among creatures (cf. nn. 295, 296, 302, 306, 310, 338-341); the importance of ethical aspects related to scientific experimentation (cf. nn. 2292-2296, 2417).
VI. The Contribution of John Paul II’s teachings to the dialogue between science and theology
The legacy of the Second Vatican Council is well present in the teachings of John Paul II. They came at a historical-cultural moment that witnessed a rebirth of the dialogue between theology, philosophy, and scientific thought, due to both historical and epistemological factors. Worthy of mention among these, on the side of the sciences they include the crisis of reductionism and the depletion of the neo-positivist illusion of a self-sufficient science based on a formally complete language; on the historical side, there was the progress of studies that re-evaluated the positive role played by Christian theology in the rise of scientific thought in the West; on the theological side, finally, it was slowly but definitively realized that the scientific results should not be considered (only) a source of problems for the theologian’s work, but (also) a good opportunity for the development of dogma. From the very beginning of his long pontificate, John Paul II (1978-2005) showed a sincere interest in the world of the university and the sciences, giving courageous talks in emblematic sites: from Bologna to Louvain, from CERN in Geneva to Hiroshima, from the UNESCO in Paris to the celebration of the Jubilee of Scientists in Rome. To him do we owe the decision to provide a new study on the Galileo affair (1979) and the creation of the Pontifical Council for Culture (1982). He directed messages of great importance to the members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, such as the definitive clarification that biological evolution, no matter how varied are today the scientific theories that try to understand how it works, is fully compatible with the Christian view of a divine creation (1996), as well as numerous discourses on the humanistic value of scientific knowledge (2001-2003). Well known are his letter to the director of the Vatican Observatory (1988), entirely dedicated to the relationship between theology and the natural sciences, and his encyclical Fides et ratio (1998), which makes significant references to the sciences. On both documents we will offer here below some specific comment. It is a widely shared opinion that the ensemble of John Paul II’s teachings led the attitude of the Catholic Church towards the sciences towards a “point of no return.” Let us have a look at some of his key-ideas.
1. Culture, science and the search for truth in the speeches at UNESCO (1980) and Cologne (1980). Two speeches from the beginning of the John Paul II’s pontificate mark his theoretical approach to culture and science: one given on June 2, 1980 in Paris at UNESCO, about the immanent value of culture understood as a manifestation of the spiritual dimension of the human person; the other, addressed to people of science and culture and pronounced in the Cathedral of Cologne on November 15, 1980, the day of memorial of St. Albert the Great, patron saint of scientists.
The speech delivered to the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) revolves around the Aristotelian dictum genus humanum arte et ratione vivit, demonstrating with manifold examples how culture and the desire to know are proofs of the transcendental and spiritual dimension of the human being. Culture is human’s specific way of “existing” and of “being.” It has firstly an immanent value, that is, a value which enriches the dignity of the subject, and makes explicit his and her vocation to research and to know the truth. Convinced that the truth on the human being belongs to the substance of the message of Christ and of the mission of the Church – an idea already developed in his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis (1979) –, John Paul II underlines in this speech the role of the family in the education and in the building of one’s personal culture. He also reaffirms the right of all people to education and integral personal development. Culture and science belong to, and are fed by the world of the spirit: “If the distinction between spiritual culture and material culture is correct with respect to the character and content of the products in which the culture is manifested, it is necessary to note at the same time that, on the one hand, the works of material culture always show a ‘spiritualization of matter,’ a submission of the material element to man's spiritual forces, that is, his intelligence and will—and that, on the other hand the works of spiritual culture manifest, specifically, a ‘materialization’ of the spirit, an incarnation of what is spiritual. In cultural works, this double characteristic seems to be equally of prime importance and equally permanent.” (John Paul II, Address to UNESCO, 2.6.1980, n. 8).
The sciences fully participate in the dynamism and the spiritual dimension of human culture, one which enriches and serves the individual. Scientific knowledge leads to perfection every human being, revealing man’s role in the cosmos and increasing his dignity: therefore, scientific results are a good to be shared and disseminated. Knowledge and culture belong to the perennial heritage of the human being, a heritage through which we not only interpret our past, but we also build our future – including our eternal future. The future of the world, the Pope affirms, depends on culture, solidarity, and love. One cannot ignore the fact that humanity always bears the threat of self-destruction, but this is not due to scientific discoveries; it is due, rather, to the instrumental and ideological use of those discoveries, which humiliates science and enslaves it to the logic of power. “Just as we are edified in scientific work –edified and made deeply happy– by this march of the disinterested knowledge of truth which the scholar serves with the greatest dedication and sometimes at the risk of his health and even his life, we must be equally concerned by everything that is in contradiction with these principles of disinterestedness and objectivity, everything that would make science an instrument to teach aims that have nothing to do with it. Yes, we must be concerned about everything that proposes and presupposes only these non-scientific aims, demanding of men of science that they should put themselves in their service without permitting them to judge and decide, in all independence of mind, the human and ethical honesty of these purposes, or threatening them with bearing the consequences when they refuse to contribute to them.” (John Paul II, Address to UNESCO, 2.6.1980, n. 20).
In his speech at Cologne, John Paul II unequivocally explains that a “weak” reason, in addition to humiliating the human being, does not reinforce neither faith nor theology – and it could not be otherwise. The relationship between the Church and the natural sciences, acknowledges the Pontiff, still suffers from the weight of historical conflicts which arose from the interference of religious claims in the process of developing scientific knowledge, and the Church remembers it with regret; however, these conflicts have been overcome with time, thanks to the persuasive forces of science and to the work of a scientific theology. Natural reason has power and rights of its own, today seemingly forgotten, that the Church must defend courageously. Knowledge must move towards unity, because science, philosophy, and theology are only limited attempts to understanding reality. The complex unity of truth can be grasped only recognizing diversity, within interweaving open and complementary knowledge. In this speech, reversing the roles, the Pope affirms that today it is the Church which takes the defense of reason and vindicate its access to the truth. The only guarantor of freedom of research and of the autonomy of science is a human reason sincerely engaged in the search for truth. “In the past prosecutors of modern science fought against the Church with the slogans: reason, freedom and progress. Today, in view of the crisis with regard to the meaning of science, the multiple threats to its freedom and the doubt about progress, the battle fronts have been inverted. Today it is the Church that takes up the defense: for reason and science, which she recognizes as having the ability to attain truth, which legitimizes it as a human realization; for the freedom of science, through which the latter possesses its dignity as a human and personal good; for progress in the service of a humanity which needs it to safeguard its life and dignity. […] An adequate solution of the pressing questions about the meaning of human existence, norms of action, and the prospects of a more far-reaching hope, is possible only in the renewed connection between scientific thought and the power of faith in man in search of truth.” (John Paul II, Address to Scientists and Students in the Cologne Cathedral, 15.11.1980, n. 5).
The image of science in contemporary society still shows a certain ambivalence, coming from functionalist and instrumentalist currents of thought, which risk to delegitimize science itself. For this reason the Church and believers must favor the view of science understood as a “human” enterprise that seeks the truth, not merely as a kind of conventional knowledge or a mere instrumental activity. “If science is understood essentially as “a technical fact,” then it can be conceived as the pursuit of those processes that lead to technical success. What leads to success, therefore, is considered “knowledge.” The world, at the level of a scientific datum, becomes a mere complex of phenomena that can be manipulated, and the object of science a functional connection, which is examined only with reference to its functionality. Such a science may conceive itself as a mere function. The concept of truth, therefore, becomes superfluous, and sometimes, in fact, it is explicitly renounced. […] In this space that has remained empty, ideologies suddenly break in. They sometimes behave as if they were “scientific” but they owe their power of persuasion to the urgent need for an answer to the question of meanings and to interest in social and political change. Science that is purely functional, without values and alienated from truth, can enter the service of these ideologies.” (John Paul II, Address to Scientists and Students in the Cologne Cathedral, 15.11.1980, n. 3). This is the risk which must be avoided, and this is the cause of science’s ambiguous view that public opinion often perceives.
2. Theology and the sciences in the “Letter to the Direct of the Vatican Observatory” (1988). Commentators unanimously consider this document the most articulate discourse of Karol Wojtyla’s pontificate on the relationship between theology and scientific thought, between the Catholic Church and the academic world. Eager to address these issues, John Paul II wished to take advantage of an international Conference organized by the Vatican Observatory on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the publication of the work of Isaac Newton, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687). He gave a brief speech to the participants, but he soon considered this address limited, and not entirely appropriate for the original purpose he had. Subsequently, he signed a much longer paper and delivered it to the Vatican Observatory’s director, George Coyne, on the 1st of June of the following year, a text that was officially included within the Proceedings of the Conference.
After recalling the social, cultural, and scientific motivations which justify the need for a fruitful and intellectually honest dialogue between scientific thought and theology, John Paul II founds the epistemological suitability of such dialogue on the fact that a better understanding of reality can only come from a fruitful tension towards unity. The sciences (or rather, scientists) are called to recognize the meaningfulness of the philosophical and theological questions that at times arise within their investigations, even if their method is not adequate to give them an answer; theologians, for their part, must take into account scientific data when elaborating their theological speculations. “If the cosmologies of the ancient Near Eastern world could be purified and assimilated into the first chapters of Genesis, might contemporary cosmology have something to offer to our reflections upon creation? Does an evolutionary perspective bring any light to bear upon theological anthropology, the meaning of the human person as the imago Dei, the problem of Christology - and even upon the development of doctrine itself? What, if any, are the eschatological implications of contemporary cosmology, especially in light of the vast future of our universe? Can theological method fruitfully appropriate insights from scientific methodology and the philosophy of science? Questions of this kind can be suggested in abundance. Pursuing them further would require the sort of intense dialogue with contemporary science that has, on the whole, been lacking among those engaged in theological research and teaching.” (John Paul II, Letter to the Reverend George V. Coyne, 1.6.1988) It is not common to receive from a Pontiff such a clear explanation of the task of the theologian regarding the use of knowledge coming from the natural sciences, an advise which follows by near the teachings of Vatican II, as previously outlined (cf. Gaudium et Spes, n. 62, Optatam totius, n. 15).
History, after all, supports the suitability of such dialogue and fruitful interaction. The universities of the Middle Ages, founded ex corde Ecclesiae, favored and institutionalized the encounter between theology and other disciplines. Just think that the works of Aristotle received favorably in the universities, with which scholars like Thomas Aquinas entered into debate, were not only his books of Metaphysics, Ethics, or Politics, but also Aristotle’s books of Physics, Meteorology, Zoology, etc. John Paul II writes: “The matter is urgent. Contemporary developments in science challenge theology far more deeply than did the introduction of Aristotle into Western Europe in the thirteenth century. Yet these developments also offer to theology a potentially important resource. Just as Aristotelian philosophy, through the ministry of such great scholars as St Thomas Aquinas, ultimately came to shape some of the most profound expressions of theological doctrine, so can we not hope that the sciences of today, along with all forms of human knowing, may invigorate and inform those parts of the theological enterprise that bear on the relation of nature, humanity and God?” (Ibidem) The advantage is mutual. Not only theology and the Church take advantage form a more accurate scientific knowledge of nature to prevent the risk of superstition and idolatry, but also: “For science develops best when its concepts and conclusions are integrated into the broader human culture and its concerns for ultimate meaning and value [of the reality]. Scientists cannot, therefore, hold themselves entirely aloof from the sorts of issues dealt with by philosophers and theologians. By devoting to these issues something of the energy and care they give to their research in science, they can help others realize more fully the human potentialities of their discoveries.” (Ibidem)
Finally, there is another reason that pushes theologians and scientists to collaborate more closely. The Church and the sciences are the two institutions that most strongly influence the mentality and conscience of peoples. They must mutually help each other striving for the truth, for the good of all humanity. The search for peace, the progress of peoples and of their sustainable development, are not at all foreign to this dialogue. “For the truth is the Church and the scientific community will inevitably interact; their options do not include isolation. Christians will inevitably assimilate the prevailing ideas about the world, and today they are deeply shaped by science. The only question is whether they will do this critically or unreflectively, with depth and nuance or with a shallowness that debases the Gospel and leaves us ashamed before history.” (Ibidem) It is not superfluous to ask whether John Paul II’s exhortations in the wake of the Vatican II recommendations have already received a response in the studies and mentality that characterize theological formation in the 20th and 21st century. In a time of reform and hope, associated to the Catholic Church’s commitment towards a New Evangelization, this is a question worth thinking about.
3. The Church and the University. John Paul II gave numerous discourses (almost 150) regarding the relationship of science and faith to academic communities around the world. In these, the Pope consistently elaborated his “idea of a university” which is due to attention. Closely connected to his view of culture as outlined in the discourse to UNESCO, the theoretical foundations of this idea were expressed during the early years of the pontificate and can be found in his speeches at Cologne cathedral (1980), and in those at the Universities of Bologna (1982), Padua (1982), Leuven (1985), Turin (1988), and Uppsala (1989).
As noted earlier, John Paul II thinks that culture entails the task of “creating oneself.” First and foremost culture spiritually enriches the subject, and only secondarily it involves the sphere of production. Despite a plurality of manifestations, culture is in some way still “one”: it is what allows each person to live in an authentically human way, conforming to his and her nature and dignity. True culture is distinct from false culture: the former is centered on the primacy of being, the true source of praxis, and is respectful of the truth of the subject; the latter is aimed at the possession and manipulation of the subject by the imposition of preconceived practices to which one must forcefully adapt. True culture recognizes religion as an expression of human self-transcendence and the question of God belongs to it by right: in art, poetry, music, and also in science. False culture separates religion from culture with the consequence that the human being turns against himself. The problem of value of scientific, technological, and cultural progress may be addressed on this basis: progress is measured by the service that it offers to the human being and to its integral truth.
In John Paul II’s university speeches, the relationship between faith and culture is presented as characterized by circularity and reciprocal provocation. A synthesis is required by both of them. Faith must become culture; yet at the same time the Christian message surpasses every culture, because when announcing Christ the Church does not impose any specific culture to any people. The fact that Christian faith does not identify with any culture is, after all, precisely what allows it to “become culture,” to inculturate itself. The Church needs the university so that the faith can “incarnate” and become culture. There exists a convergence between Christianity and culture because there is a convergence between Christianity and humanism. All that is of human “interest” also interests the Church. Man is the way along which God came to meet us, in Christ. In the university the Church finds itself at ease – as John Paul II said at the University of Bologna – not only for historical reasons, but also because the Church and the university share a common “passion” for truth and for the human being, indeed for the truth of the human being.
It is therefore necessary that the university comes again to be a place for answering to “whys,” that is, it should involve again the sphere of ends, without confining itself to functional training. John Paul II affirms this at the University of Turin: “The university institution must serve the education of the person. The presence of even the most prestigious cultural means and instruments would be worthless if they are not accompanied by a clear vision of the essential and ideological objective of a university: the comprehensive formation of the human person, viewed in his constitutive and original dignity and in his true end: Society asks the university not only for specialists who are well prepared in their specific fields of knowledge, culture, science and technology, but most of all, for builders of humanity, servants of the community of their brothers and sisters, promoters of justice because they are oriented towards the truth. To put it briefly, today, as always, we need people of culture and science who are able to place the values of conscience above all else, and cultivate the supremacy of being over the apparent.” (John Paul II, Discourse at the University of Turin, 3.9.1988)
John Paul II clearly spoke of the university also as a place of research of the truth. “The basic mission of a University is a continuous quest for truth through its research, and the preservation and communication of knowledge for the good of society.” (John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae on Catholic Universities, 15.8.1990, n. 30). The tension of every human being, particularly of every scholar and all learned people, towards the truth is not a cold rational process: it involves the whole person, it claims the commitment of the will and the giving of oneself. This is why we can speak of a “passion for truth” and “love of truth.” In continuity with all those who have reflected on the nature and mission of the university, John Paul II recalls that the research freedom and its legitimate autonomy are characteristics that lie at the heart of the university institution. However, like any other freedom and autonomy, they are associated with a responsibility, towards oneself and towards society. It is the responsibility to bind oneself to the search for truth and for the good of man, not to anything else. When science loses its intimate link with the truth, it is conceived as a purely “technical,” and “functional” fact; its cognitive value is linked only to the success of its processes, and its results are legitimated only on the basis of their pragmatic efficacy. When the reference to the truth is lost, the freedom of technical-scientific knowledge is no longer “freedom for the truth,” but erroneously, it becomes freedom to be able to do all that is technically possible. As strongly affirmed in Cologne in 1980, it is to avoid an instrumental or neutral concept of the scientific enterprise, and it is to underline instead the “personalist” dimension of science, which does not stop at the “hows”, but always involves the sphere of “whys.” Science has no ethically neutral research or applications: it is a personal enterprise where the search for the truth is inseparable from the search for the good.
Pursuing for the truth goes hand in hand with pursuing for the whole: the university must be a place of humility, of listening, of inter-disciplinary openness, a place where reductionism is recognized as a mistake and the desire to unify knowledge is recognized as valuable. The effort that the search for unity involves represents one of the university’s tasks: to educate open mind people, who do not confuse specificity with splintering. Actually, specialization is not opposed to the unity of knowledge. Opposition arises only when one makes of specialized methodology the unique key to have access knowledge. In a university open to the unity of knowledge, theology has a proper place. “Now, it is precisely characteristic of the university, which is universitas studiorum as distinct from other centres of study and research, to cultivate a universal knowledge in the sense that in it every branch of knowledge must be cultivated in a spirit of universality, that is, with the awareness that each one, although diverse, is so linked to all the others that it is not possible to teach it outside the context, at least intentional, of all the others. To withdraw into oneself is to condemn oneself, sooner or later, to sterility and to risk exchanging the norm of total truth for a keener method of analyzing and grasping a particular section of reality.” (Ibidem) Working in a discipline “in a context at least intentional, of all the others” does not imply being an expert of all, but rather being in continuity with the idea of a university which educates to cultivated gentlemen, as John Henry Newman would have said.
Finally, John Paul II explained that the unity of knowledge is built around the unity of the person. The most dangerous fragmentation is not disciplinary specialization, but the fracture between the culture of means and the culture of ends. The unity of knowledge is an intellectual habitus. It brings all sources and forms of knowledge into dialogue within the unity of the intellectual experience of the subject, in order to solve the most important questions, the existential questions: what is the world, what is the human being, what is the human being’s place of in the cosmos. Those who reject these questions or judge them non-meaningful will never foster a unity of knowledge, despite the wealth of sources they have access or the richness of data they handle. We need the courage to ask about ultimate and fundamental causes, about the “whys” which really matter.
4. Scientific thought and the researcher’s work in the encyclical Fides et ratio (1998). Although, as well known, the main addressees of this encyclical were theologians and philosophers, not scientists, it is nevertheless possible to highlight some points that also concern the natural sciences. These points regard in the first place the epistemological context, but they also have some resonance on the personalist level.
The basic thesis of the document is that beyond the ongoing current of history, beyond the limitations of language, and beyond the appearance of phenomena, there is one truth that deserves being sought. Human knowledge can rely upon true judgments, which have the capacity to determine one’s existential choices. In particular, beyond the phenomenal there is a meta-empirical knowledge, that is, a metaphysical instance of knowledge expressed simultaneously as the capacity and the task that human reason has to “move from phenomenon to foundation” (Fides et ratio, n. 83). We now ask ourselves whether and how scientific thought could participate in the central thesis of this encyclical. Does the affirmation of Fides et ratio that it is possible a transition from the phenomenon to the foundation leave scientific knowledge totally aside, or does it question it at some level? Does the access to the truth also concern the cognitive activity of the scientist? From what John Paul II said, in continuity with other documents of his Magisterium, these questions must be answered affirmatively.
In the first place, Fides et ratio does not shy from presenting nature as the place of the Revelation of God, employing the metaphor of the Book of Nature. Starting from this premise, the study of the cosmos, proper to the sciences, can be in some way connected to the intelligibility of the word, and therefore to the divine Logos (cf. n. 19). Fides et ratio also highlights that the scientific progress is in itself a sort of proof that human activity can attain true knowledge, a knowledge that increases and develops, a sign of a truth worthy of being sought, the sign that an objective and communicable knowledge exists, which resists the transformations of history (cf. nn. 25, 29, 96). Defining the human being as “one who seeks the truth” (n. 28), John Paul II presents scientific research as an example of human search for truth, a proof of human trust to reach it, a model of perseverance, even if scientific work knows mistakes and failures. Like all other kinds of knowledge, also scientific knowledge needs a basic trust, it needs faith to take advantage from learning and scholarship acquired by others (cf. n. 31). These considerations aim to present scientific knowledge as an “enterprise for truth,” despite the limitations of its method, and the vicissitudes of successes and failures proper to all cognitive process. Having this in mind, interesting consequences can be drawn regarding the relationship between science and theology. The best way for theology and faith to approach science is not endorsing the idea of a conventional and totally revisable scientific knowledge, nor supporting the philosophical view of a “weak reason.” Science, philosophy and theology could meet each other on only one possible path: the path that leads to the truth.
There is, therefore, a profound unity of truth, whether it be grasped by philosophy or the natural sciences, or known through a revealed divine word (cf. n. 34). There is a clear correspondence, then, between the God of Abraham and the God of philosophers and scientists, in that “every truth – if it really is truth – presents itself as universal, even if it is not the whole truth” (n. 27). “[The] truth, which God reveals to us in Jesus Christ, is not opposed to the truths which philosophy perceives. On the contrary, the two modes of knowledge lead to truth in all its fullness. The unity of truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, as the principle of non-contradiction makes clear. Revelation renders this unity certain, showing that the God of creation is also the God of salvation history. It is the one and the same God who establishes and guarantees the intelligibility and reasonableness of the natural order of things upon which scientists confidently depend, and who reveals himself as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (n. 34).
In tune with other documents by John Paul II, also Fides and ratio affirms that the theologian can (and should) make use of the natural sciences in his work, as they contribute to the knowledge of the truth of reality, without forgetting the necessary mediation of philosophy (cf. nn. 69, 66). At the same time, in tune with what the Second Vatican Council had cautiously pointed out, the positive framework within which Fides et ratio presents the work of scientists, does not prevent the document from suggesting some warnings. They basically regard the mentality that could derive from a reductive or even ideological use of scientific method, as if it were the only cognitive approach to the whole of reality. The understanding of human life, for instance, must not be limited or confined to pragmatic criteria based on experimental data: the results and achievements of the sciences should not forget that the human being is directed towards a truth that transcends him (cf. n. 5). In some areas of scientific research there could be a certain positivist mentality (cf. nn. 46, 91); moreover the document clearly defines what constitutes scientism, whose characteristics and implications are widely commented upon, keeping it appropriately distinct from scientific activity as such. Scientism is defined by Fides et ratio as a “philosophical notion which refuses to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences; and it relegates religious, theological, ethical and aesthetic knowledge to the realm of mere fantasy.” (n. 88).
In conclusion, the encyclical teaches that science is not foreign to the perception of the ultimate questions that capture the attention of the human being as naturaliter philosophus. These are precisely the questions that the document wants to bring back to the center of intellectual and wisdom reflection. Like philosophy, science also expresses the human longing for truth, and it indicates the reasonableness of a process that moves from the phenomenon to the foundation. Within a perspective of the relationship between faith and reason that is more attentive to the role of the knowing subject, scientific reason may reveal its humanistic and personalistic dimension. Although Fides et ratio does not specifically develop this latter dimension, nor does it intend to offer a synthesis in that respect, the ideas it offers ensure that a path exists to recognize science as an entirely human activity, and that this path can be followed.
Benedict XVI: recognizing the Logos of creation and widening the boundaries of reason
By supporting the unity of access truth through Revelation, philosophy, and the sciences, the magisterium of John Paul II implicitly asserted the correspondence between the God of Abraham and the God of philosophers and scientists. The Magisterium of Benedict XVI (2005-2013) explicitly reaffirmed this identity, reiterating it on many occasions (cf. Lecture at the University of Bonn, 1959, in Ratzinger, 2007). The Logos, foundation of the rationality and intelligibility of the cosmos, a cosmos object both of philosophy and science, is the same Logos, the Word of the Father, who became flesh in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. The famous speech in the university of Regensburg (2006) exhorted to recognize a creative Logos, source of rationality and meaning. This exhortation was formulated again by Benedict XVI in many speeches, and became one of the recurrent themes of his magisterium, especially when addressing men and women of culture, including non-believers. Upon the same horizon stand his teachings about the acknowledgment of a natural moral law, that is a knowledge accessible to natural reason. Regarding the relationship with the sciences, Ratzinger’s teachings concerning the consonance between creation and evolution in order of importance follow immediately after the discourses on the Logos of creation. Reflections about creation and evolution had been an object of his interest also before his election to the chair of Peter.
On the occasion of the speech given in Paris on 19 September 2008 at the Collège des Bernardins, Benedict XVI reiterated that the universality of God and the universality of reason constitute both the motivation and the duty of the Christian mission, because faith does not belong to cultural custom, according to which the people differ, but to the ambit of truth that equally concerns all people. The universality of truth is also reflected by the rationality of the sciences in which mathematical language offers a clear correspondence to human intelligence. Indeed, as he said during a meeting with the youth gathered in St Peter’s Square in Rome, the mathematical structure of the universe and the cognitive structure of our intellect coincide, and at the basis of this relationship is our being image of God: science supposes the reliable and intelligible structure of matter, a rationality whose ultimate reason is the creative Logos (cf. Benedict XVI, Encounter with the Youth at St. Peter’s Square, 6.4.2006). In the speech Addressed to the Roman Curia (2005), we see an analogous formulation: “there was the invitation not to see the world that surrounds us solely as raw material with which we can do something, but to try to discover in it ‘the Creator's handwriting,’ the creative reason and the love from which the world was born and of which the universe speaks to us, if we pay attention, if our inner senses awaken and acquire perception of the deepest dimensions of reality.” (Benedict XVI, To the Roman Curia offering them his Christmas Greetings, 22.12.2005, n. 5). In the same discourse, Benedict XVI also maintained that the dispute between modern reason and the Christian faith, having begun negatively with the trial of Galileo and later on with the radical condemnation of modern thought during the epoch of Pius IX, found a new and more fruitful climate during the Second Vatican Council. The documents of The Vatican II represent, he pointed out, an imperative direction for the dialogue between reason and faith to follow, which is particularly important today.
The conceptual context in which Benedict XVI proposes the appeal to the Logos occurs is almost always the same: to offer a solution to the crisis of relativism, the crisis of a human society in which rationality is reduced to pure empiricism and the “hypothesis of God” made superfluous. The strategy Benedict XVI indicates, which roots into his intellectual research prior to his election as Roman Pontiff, is that of “widening the boundaries of rationality”, in accord with the great philosophical-cultural tradition that had developed mainly (but not exclusively) in Europe, where the research work in the natural sciences was not seen in antagonism to philosophy or theology. Regarding this aspect, some passages of the speech given in 2006 to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are particularly illustrative: “At times, certain assertions of scientific knowledge have even been opposed to these truths. This may have given rise to a certain confusion among the faithful and may also have made the proclamation and acceptance of the Gospel difficult. Consequently, every study that aims to deepen the knowledge of the truths discovered by reason is vitally important, in the certainty that there is no ‘competition of any kind between reason and faith’ (Fides et Ratio, n. 17). We must have no fears about facing this challenge: Jesus Christ is indeed the Lord of all creation and of all history. The believer knows well that ‘all things were created through him and for him... and in him all things hold together’ (Col 1:16,17). […] Today, in fact, the task of evangelizing is an urgent priority and demands equal commitment. The dialogue between faith and reason, religion and science, does not only make it possible to show people of our time the reasonableness of faith in God as effectively and convincingly as possible, but also to demonstrate that the definitive fulfilment of every authentic human aspiration rests in Jesus Christ. In this regard, a serious evangelizing effort cannot ignore the questions that arise also from today's scientific and philosophical discoveries.” (Benedict XVI, To the Participants of the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 10.2.2006)”
Some passages from a speech held in Verona in 2006 at the General Assembly of the Italian Church also seem quite explicit in this regard. After having observed that the Italian situation “participates in the culture that prevails in the West and seeks to present itself as universal and self-sufficient, generating a new custom of life,” this culture is presented in connection with: “a new wave of illuminism and laicism is derived, by which only what is experiential and calculable would be rationally valid, while on the level of praxis, individual freedom is held as a fundamental value to which all others must be subject.” The first consequence of this cultural climate is that: “God remains excluded from culture and from public life [...] in a world that almost always appears to be of our making, in which, so to speak, God no longer appears directly but seems to have become superfluous, even out of place.” (Benedict XVI, To the Participants at the Fourth National Ecclesial Convention, 19.10.2006). It is very interesting to note that Benedict XVI unexpectedly opposes this state of affairs just invoking the human efforts expressed by scientific research. Many, erroneously, would like to see scientific research as the cause of today’s materialism, but rather, science has proved itself capable of arousing amazement and has shown its founded desire for truth. Indeed, the rational structures of scientific language, when not fettered by reductionism and not taken as the unique criterion of knowledge, unveils the human ability to grasp the existence of Something pointing beyond language, Something grounding it. Such rationality “implies, in fact, that the universe itself is structured in an intelligent manner, such that a profound correspondence exists between our subjective reason and the objective reason in nature. It then becomes inevitable to ask oneself if there might not be a single original intelligence that is the common font of them both. Thus, precisely the reflection on the development of science brings us towards the creator Logos. The tendency to give irrationality, chance and necessity the primacy is overturned, also to lead our intelligence and our freedom back to it. Upon these bases it again becomes possible to enlarge the area of our rationality, to reopen it to the larger questions of the truth and the good, to link theology, philosophy and science between them in full respect for the methods proper to them and of their reciprocal autonomy, but also in the awareness of the intrinsic unity that holds them together” (ibidem).
Among the events in which Benedict XVI featured as protagonist, it should not be forgotten that on May 21, 2011 he was the first Pope to converse live with astronauts orbiting the Earth, answering their questions while they were on board the ISS international space station. And, on October 11, 2012, he delivered to Fabiola Gianotti, a prestigious researcher at CERN, director of the Atlas project, a copy of the Vatican II Message to scientists originally given to Jacques Maritain by Paul VI in 1965. It was a symbolic gesture ideally linking the Council of the dialogue with the modern world with the contemporary Genève temple of particle physics and high energies.
Concluding remarks and contemporary views from Pope Francis’ teachings
We already spoke in the fourth section of this article about the main themes highlighted by Pope Francis in his Encyclical Laudato si’. Among these, we must mention not only the ecological problem, but also the relationship between man and technology, and the need for a holistic and collective culture to oppose the vision of fragmented knowledge. The Pope writes: “The specialization which belongs to technology makes it difficult to see the larger picture. The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant. This very fact makes it hard to find adequate ways of solving the more complex problems of today’s world, particularly those regarding the environment and the poor; these problems cannot be dealt with from a single perspective or from a single set of interests. A science which would offer solutions to the great issues would necessarily have to take into account the data generated by other fields of knowledge, including philosophy and social ethic.” (Laudato si’, n. 110).
There were already references to the sciences, limited yet significant, in the first programmatic document of the papacy of Pope Francis, the exhortation Evangelii gaudium (2013) (cf. Evangelii gaudium, nn. 132-134, 242-243, 257). One of the most interesting passages is probably the following: “Proclaiming the Gospel message to different cultures also involves proclaiming it to professional, scientific and academic circles. This means an encounter between faith, reason and the sciences with a view to developing new approaches and arguments on the issue of credibility, a creative apologetics which would encourage greater openness to the Gospel on the part of all. When certain categories of reason and the sciences are taken up into the proclamation of the message, these categories then become tools of evangelization; water is changed into wine. Whatever is taken up is not just redeemed, but becomes an instrument of the Spirit for enlightening and renewing the world.” (Evangelii gaudium, n. 132). The message of the Gospel therefore, in order to be efficaciously proclaimed in a scientific context, must be “inculturated” within that specific culture of science. In continuity with what the Second Vatican Council affirmed, Pope Francis exhorted theologians to engage in dialogue with the world of culture and science (cf. ibidem, n. 133). “Dialogue between science and faith belongs to the work of evangelization at the service of peace. For this reason, the Church fosters a synthesis between the responsible use of methods proper to the empirical sciences and other areas of knowledge such as philosophy” (cf. ibidem, n. 242).
Faith is not fearful of reason, nor the Church wishes to hold back the marvelous progress of science. On the contrary, faith seeks and trusts reason, since the light of reason and the light of faith both come from God. Also, the Church rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. If, at times, some scientists exceeded the ambits of their scientific competence and made statements or claims against the idea of a transcendent Creator, this intellectual stance is not a conclusion of reason, but rather depends upon the assumption of some particular ideology, which impedes the path towards a productive dialogue open to truth (cf. ibidem, nn. 242-243).
The Magisterium of the Catholic Church is never just a teaching addressed to her own faithful or confined to the Institutions that depend upon the Church. The Church understands herself to be the universal sacrament of salvation; sign and instrument of the intimate union with God and of the unity of the whole human race (cf. Lumen gentium, n. 1). This implies that her teachings are directed to all men and women of good will. Christianity, in fact, is a path directed towards every man and woman, because the Church approaches him or her through the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. Christianity wants to share the questions, aspirations, and concerns of all human beings (cf. Gaudium et spes, n. 1). There is therefore a meaningful continuity between her mission, explicit in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and the Magisterium of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis.
Vatican Council I, DH 3015-3020; Vatican Council II, Message to the scientists, 8.12.1965; Dei Verbum, 10, 12; Lumen gentium, 20-25; Gaudium et spes, 33-36, 43-44, 53-62. John Paul II: Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 10.11.1979; Address to UNESCO, 02.06.1980; Meeting with scientists and students in the Cologne Cathedral, 15.11.1980; The responsibilities of science and technology, Hiroshima, 25.2.1981; Letter to Director of the Vatican Observatory, 1.6.1988. Donum veritatis, 13-24; Catechism of the Catholic Church, Key-points concerning Faith, Reason and Scientific Knowledge, 1997; Fides et ratio, 5, 25, 29, 34, 88, 96, 108; Benedict XVI: Meeting at the University of Regensburg, 12.09.2006; Lecture prepared for the visit to La Sapienza, 17.01.2008; Visit to the Bundestag, 21.09.2011; Francis: Evangelii Gaudium, 132-134, 242-243, 257; Laudato si', 102-114.
Collected Discourses and Documents:
F. ANGELINI (ed.), Pio XII: Discorsi ai medici (Roma: Orizzonte Medico, 1960); Pius XII and Technology, edited by L.J. Haigerty (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1962); The Sixteen Documents of Vatican II and the Instruction on the Liturgy with Commentaries by the Council Fathers (Boston: St. Paul editions, 1965); The Teaching of the Catholic Church as Contained in her Documents, originally prepared by J. Neuner, H. Roos, edited by K. Rahner (Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1967); The Church Teaches. Documents of the Church in English Translation, edited by John F. Clarkson et al. (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1973); The Documents of the Vatican Council II, edited by Austin Flannery (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1982); I Papi e la Scienza. Antologia del magistero della Chiesa sulla questione scientifica da Leone XIII a Giovanni Paolo II, edited by M. Gargantini (Milano: Jaca Book, 1985); Insegnamenti di Paolo VI sulla scienza e sulla tecnica (Roma: Studium, 1986); Chiesa e Bioetica. Giovanni Paolo II ai medici e agli operatori sanitari, edited by D. Tettamanzi (Milano: Studium, 1988); Giovanni Paolo II: Discorsi alle Università (31.1.79 - 19.3.91), edited by E. Benedetti, L. Campetella (Camerino: Centro Interdipartimentale Audiovisivi e Stampa dell'Università degli Studi di Camerino, 1991); Bioethical Questions (includes Evangelium vitae and other documents), edited by J.M. De Torre (Manila: University of Asia and the Pacific, 1999); Papal Addresses to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (1917-2002) and to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (1994-2002), “Pontificiae Academiae Scientiarum Scripta Varia”, n. 100; Fede e cultura. Antologia di testi del Magistero Pontificio da Leone XIII a Giovanni Paolo II, ed. by the Pontifical Council for Culture (Vatican Cty: LEV, 2003); La creazione in dono. Giovanni Paolo II e l'ambiente, edited by A. Giordano, S. Morandini, P. Tarchi, (Bologna: Emi, 2005);
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