JPII Week Continues! Let's talk about that big elephas maximus in the room: the relationship between Faith + Science. Saint John Paul II had a great deal to say on the subject, and his writings always help me when I find myself being questioned by people that have Darwin fish on the bumper of their Priuses (or is the plural Priusi?)
I hope this helps you too!
P.S. If questions make you nervous (particularly about the relationship of faith and science), the best antidote to nerves is knowledge! Need some reading recommendations? Just Ask Aunt Katie.
P.P.S. There will be endnotes if you want links to any of these amazing JPII speeches or letters referenced here.
FACT: Human beings are truly remarkable creatures with the capacity for both religious and scientific contemplation. This fact places humans at a remarkable crossroads. With capacity for knowledge in both areas it is no wonder that man has been conflicted for millennia about the relationship between faith and science. Rather than a happy “marriage” between the two, for many, the relationship status may seem more like “it’s complicated” or “totally divorced.” Do we have to choose? Is it either/or? Or can we choose all? Can we have FAITH and love SCIENCE?
SPOILER ALERT: The Magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church has consistently considered an adversarial view of faith and science to be shortsighted and misleading. Gaudium et Spes explicitly states (emphasis added):
Methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God (GS, 36).
But, Aunt Katie, if faith + science do not conflict as the prevailing worldviews would have us believe (i.e. the media, most college professors, Hollywood, facebook trolls, and basically the entire internet), then what is the nature of their relationship?
Saint John Paul II stated the mutually beneficial relationship simply: “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes (JPII 6/1/88).”
This means that not only are the two not adversarial but complementary. Christians therefore should not fear science because its ability to provide valuable truths about the order of the universe, helping man to better understand himself and his world. Meanwhile, science needs faith, because without faith, science stops short of answering the philosophical questions. While science can provide hows of the universe, it will never be able to produce whys. JPII continues on to say, “Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.... We need each other to be what we must be, what we are called to be.” Let’s take a look now at each realm separately, beginning with science (grab your glasses if necessary).
Thanks, Bono. Image: Google
The Role of Science
Pure science has never been considered anything by the Church other than a good. In and of itself, science is a search for knowledge, facts, actualities, evidence, answers—it is a search for truth! In his 1979 address to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, Saint John Paul II defines science as “knowledge of the truth present in the mystery of the universe (JPII, 11/10/1979).” This “mission of truth” he speaks of is “answerable only to itself and to the supreme Truth, God, the creator of man and of all things.” Science offers man solutions to earthly problems: disease, hunger, natural disasters, etc. Through research and study science can help humanity to develop materially in ways faith cannot. However advancement requires conscience and humility.
While science is here to serve man’s curiosity about his universe it also serves man’s temporal needs. However, the Church warns scientists that these services must be “inspired by love, regulated by wisdom, and accompanied by the courage that defends it against the undue interference of all tyrannical powers. Applied science must be united with conscience, so that...the cause of man’s real good is served (JPII, 11/10/79).” Without conscience science becomes dangerous, dehumanizing, self-serving.
The creativity that was a gift from the Creator to the scientist can easily become warped without attention to the priority of the dignity of man. In order to preserve the transcendence of God over man, and man over the world, the Creator has given man the task of maintaining “the priority of ethics over technology, in the primacy of the person over things, and in the superiority of spirit over matter (JPII, Redemptoris Hominis, 16.)”
Authentic human development, aided by science, can only occur when human dignity is given pride of place. Further, science “must remain detached from every form of financial or ideological conditioning, so that it can be devoted solely to the dispassionate search for truth and the disinterested service of humanity (JPII, 11/8/2004).”
In addition to the requirement of conscience to scientific inquiry, the Church also notes the need for humility. The pride of scientists is not a new invention of our current times. St. Augustine records his own thoughts on the subject in Book V. of the Confessions:
They have found out much. Many years beforehand they have predicted eclipses of sun and moon, foretelling the day, the hour, and whether total or partial. And their calculation has not been wrong. It has turned out just as they predicted. They have put the rules which they discovered into books which are read to this day. On this basis prediction can be made of the year, the month of the year, the day of the month, the hour of the day, and what proportion of light will be eclipsed in the case of either sun or moon; and it happens exactly as predicted. People who have no understanding of these things are amazed and stupefied. Those who know are exultant and are admired. Their irreligious pride makes them withdraw from you and eclipse your great light from reaching themselves. They can foresee a future eclipsed of the sun, but do not perceive their own eclipse in the present. For they do not in a religious spirit investigate when they research into these matters. Moreover, when they do discover that you are their Maker, they do not give themselves to you so that you may preserve what you have made.
The Church reminds us that science is limited in its scope in that it can never solve the question of the universe’s beginning without knowledge of metaphysics and Divine Revelation (JPII, 10/3/1981). Because scientists are seeking truth, the search will always ultimately lead to God, who is Truth itself (cf. Fides et Ratio, 16, 28), whether or not they acknowledge it. In the words of Plotinus, “God is outside of none, is present unperceived to all; men flee to get away from him, but really flee from themselves (As footnoted in Augustine’s Confessions).” The prayer from the faithful must be for those involved in scientific inquiry to have the humility to accept the Truth when they find Him.
The Role of Faith
While Saint John Paul II willingly recognizes that the Church has benefited from science, he notes that she considers herself as “helping science to keep its purity on the versant of basic research, and to carry out its service of man on the versant of practical applications (JPII, 11/10/1979).” The Church has demonstrated her encouragement of scientific exploration for centuries through the establishment of universities and writings of her great intellects, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Two of her more recent visible statements of support were the foundation of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences by Pius XI, and the creation of the Pius XI medal by John XXIII. The tradition of being a champion of scientific inquiry has been continued in the writings of Saint John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis.
It may be the Church’s role to keep science honest, that is, within the confines of morality and virtue, and above the influence of tyrannical powers, however, it is outside of her jurisdiction to judge scientific doctrine for accuracy. Nor should the Church pretend to be an expert in science. This type of intellectual hypocrisy causes people to lose faith. St. Augustine records his experiences with Mani’s false teachings in science in Book V of the Confessions. The theologian is charged with the responsibility to reflect upon the “harmony existing between scientific truth and revealed truth (JPII, 11/10/1979).”
Faith + Science #relationshipgoals
Scientific inquiry can only add credibility to Christian beliefs, thus the Church must be affirming of the scientific method, which in and of itself is a good. The mind and heart which contemplates the beauty of the Scriptures can only be enriched by the vastness and complexity of God’s creation as discovered through science. With an increased relationship with science, faith can only get bigger, as awe for creation and the Creator grows. Interaction and communication between the two must become a priority. In June of 1988, Saint John Paul II, speaking with a sense of great urgency stated (emphasis added),
For a simple neutrality is no longer acceptable. If they are to grow and mature, peoples cannot continue to live in separate compartments, pursuing totally divergent interests from which they evaluate and judge their world. A divided community fosters a fragmented vision of the world; a community of interchange encourages its members to expand their partial perspectives and form a new unified vision.
Yet the unity that we seek, as we have already stressed, is not identity. The Church does not propose that science should become religion or religion science. On the contrary, unity always presupposes the diversity and the integrity of its elements. Each of these members should become not less itself but more itself in a dynamic interchange, for a unity in which one of the elements is reduced to the other is destructive, false in the promises of harmony, and ruinous of the integrity of its components. We are asked to become one. We are not asked to become each other.
In his last sentence here, we can draw an analogy to the two natures of Christ: though both subsist in the same Person, the Human nature and Divine nature remain distinct. So to, science, the realm of human knowledge gathered through observation of the natural world, and faith, the realm of human contemplation enlightened by divine revelation, remain distinct, but both subsist in the Truth of God’s creation, together illuminating the mind for the furtherance of humanity and the good of the Kingdom of God.
By becoming “one... and not each other,” each must come to an understanding of the other. The autonomy of each must be expressed in their procedures, principles, interpretations, methods, conclusions, etc. Theology must challenge science to respect the dictates of morality, while integrating scientific findings into a greater expansion of man’s concept of himself, his world, and his Creator. This does not provide science with a blank check for discovery and experimentation. The faithful are by no means required to blindly assent to scientific teachings, as they may some great mysteries of the faith. Science must still work to prove each new theory. Scientists must also “not hold themselves entirely aloof from the sorts of issues dealt with by philosophers and theologians.... They can also come to appreciate for themselves that these discoveries cannot be a genuine substitute for knowledge of the truly ultimate (JPII, 6/1/1988).”
But Aunt Katie, I'm not a scientist and I'm not theologian; I'm just a Catholic (somewhere between just practicing and striving for holiness)--why should I even care about this?
John Paul II answered this question with the words of Monsignor LeMaitre, “Does the Church need science? Certainly not, the cross and the gospel are sufficient of her. But nothing human is alien to the Christian. How could the Church have failed to take an interest in the most noble of the strictly human occupations, the search for truth (JPII 11/10/1979)?”
We the faithful must pray, in particular for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for it was through her flesh that the Son of God walked among the natural world, experienced gravity, the movement of the earth, and the passing of time. We must pray for an increase in informed catechesis for the faithful, in open minds for the fundamentalists who exhaust themselves with literalistic and shallow interpretations of Scripture, and in open hearts for the atheists who live in a random and purposeless world. In the words of St. Augustine: The closed heart does not shut out your eye, and your hand is not kept away by the hardness of humanity, but you melt that when you wish, either in mercy or in punishment, and there is ‘none who can hide from your heat.’
Want more from JP2 and other popes on the relationship between Faith and Science? Check out the following links:
Letter of His Holiness John Paul II to Father George Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory
PDF of Papal Addresses to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences 1917-2002 and to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences 1994-2002
Pontifical Academy of the Sciences Website