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Pope's Views on Science Invoke Spirited Debate

Anne Minard
for National Geographic News
April 18, 2008
 
As the pope celebrated his 81st birthday this week amid a warm welcome in Washington, D.C., there was no doubt that believers have embraced his religious conviction. (Watch video of the pope's D.C. mass.)

But his scientific positions have both believers and non-believers scratching their heads.

Even before Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, he came under fire for what some say are his anti-science views.

He has been criticized for comments about the 17th-century astronomer Galileo, stem cell research, and evolution.

Most recently, the pontiff made headlines when he decided to relocate the Vatican Observatory currently housed at the papal summer residence near Rome. Some media outlets painted the move as an eviction of sorts, and therefore a sign of Pope Benedict's dismissive approach to science.

But scientists who are also Catholics say the pope is not knocking scientific progress—instead he's trying to push a dialog between science and faith that was also important to his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

In a speech written earlier this year, the pope put his views about science into an analogy: "The tree of knowledge is fed through spiritual roots," he wrote, "and without those it will wither and die."

Observatory on the Move

That's not to say faith should stand without the pursuit of knowledge, said Father Christopher Corbally, vice director at the Vatican Observatory.

"He's an excellent theologian," Corbally said of Pope Benedict. "What theologians need to do is pay attention to the best science of the time."

The Catholic Church has pursued scientific research as far back as the 1500s, when it used astronomy to reconcile the calendar created by Julius Caesar after it became out of step with the seasons.

(Read "Leap Year: How the World Makes Up for Lost Time" [February 28, 2008].)

And like several adventurous countries at the time, the Vatican looked to the heavens for navigational clues.

The church's observatory was officially founded in 1789 within the walls of the Vatican, spending more than four decades on a hill near St. Peter's Basilica.

Bright lights from the growing Vatican City eventually made fainter stars harder to study, so the observatory was modernized and rebuilt in the 1930s at the pope's summer palace in Castel Gandolfo, a lake town outside of Rome.

Despite the most recent decision to move the facility farther from the palace, the church's historic telescopes will stay inside their existing domes and be accessible for roles in minor astronomy projects.

As for the researchers and their current tools, "we're moving to rather more accommodating quarters, still on the papal property," Corbally said. "We're not getting evicted. The research is very much getting encouraged."

Corbally, who splits his time between Italy and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope in Arizona, noted that even before becoming pope, Cardinal Ratzinger conducted numerous staff outings to Castel Gandolfo.

"One obviously got the very distinct impression that the cardinal really did have a regard for science," he said.

In fact, the observatory today remains in operation because the Catholic Church values science, Corbally said.

"It's at the whim of the pope that we exist," he said. "The Vatican can just stop having the observatory at a moment. As long as it has the observatory, then it supports science."

Was Galileo Wrong?

But the observatory move is not the first time Pope Benedict has come under scrutiny for his perceived negative attitude toward science.

In January the pope called off a visit to Sapienza University of Rome after professors and students there signed a petition in protest of what they said was his support of the Inquisition's condemnation of famed Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei.

The church had been outraged when Galileo suggested that Earth was not the center of the known universe, but orbited the sun. Galileo recanted and so was not killed, but he spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

As pope, Benedict has not formally addressed the subject of Galileo. But when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, he gave a series of speeches in the 1990s that have been debated ever since.

In one of them, he quoted now-deceased science philosopher Paul Feyerabend, a former professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

"The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo's doctrine," Ratzinger quoted Feyerabend as saying.

"Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism."

Catholics have long defended the 1990s Ratzinger speeches. They say he was quoting modern philosophers to show that science itself was in crisis, and that scientists—not Ratzinger—were re-evaluating Galileo's case.

Ugo Aglietti, a physicist at La Sapienza, said he was not among those who signed the petition. But he said the protest was about a bigger issue than the content of the 1990s speech.

The protesters were worried about the pope's perceived idea "that you can be a scientist and you can be a Christian and there is not any contradiction, that faith in Christ can help you understand more," he said.

"Some people didn't like this idea. They were worried that the pope would interfere with science, which they think is … completely independent of any faith."

Stem Cells vs. Human Dignity

Critics also note that as pope, Benedict has cautioned Catholics about certain biomedical advances.

In a January speech to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the pope suggested that techniques used in artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and embryonic stem cell research have violated "the barrier that served to protect human dignity."

He proposed that using human beings as "mere biological material" at their most defenseless stage calls into question the very concept of humanity.

"Of course, the Church appreciates and encourages the progress of the biomedical sciences," he added, citing the use of stem cells derived from living adults instead of embryos, fertility treatments, and genetic therapy.

But he called for "only authentic progress, namely, that scientific progress truly respect every human being, whose personal dignity must be recognized since he is created in the image of God."

Keith Campbell of the U.K.'s University of Nottingham, who in 1996 famously cloned Dolly the sheep with colleague Ian Wilmut, disagrees.

"In my opinion the use of assisted reproduction techniques helps … reduce potential side effects of multiple births, and can potentially—through the use of embryonic stem cells—cure or alleviate many diseases," he said.

"The use of cells from early embryos does not breach the barrier of human dignity, but may in effect increase dignity by providing therapeutic help to numerous other human beings."

Room for Faith

The pope has stopped short of endorsing intelligent design, the recently popularized belief that some aspects of life can't be explained by evolution and are only attributable to God.

In fact, in a July 2007 speech in Italy, Benedict called the debate between evolution and creationism "an absurdity." He noted that "there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution" but that the theory still had room for God to play a role.

(Related: "Evolution and Religion Can Coexist, Scientists Say" [October 18, 2004].)

Phillip Sloan, a history of science professor at Indiana's Notre Dame University, a Catholic institution, pointed out that the Vatican will be the main sponsor of an international conference on evolution to be held in Rome in March 2009.

The conference is being organized to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th year of the publication of his seminal work The Origin of Species.

Sloan says he does not advocate mixing "scientific methodology with religious beliefs in some direct way, as sought by such things as 'creation science.'"

There is need for contemplation about how religion informs science and science informs a philosophy of life, he said.

"But a science classroom is not the place to try to resolve these issues."

In the speech Pope Benedict was supposed to give at La Sapienza in January, he pointed out the risk of science that is uninformed by faith.

"Yet if reason … becomes deaf to the great message that comes to it from Christian faith and wisdom, then it withers like a tree whose roots can no longer reach the waters that give it life," he wrote.

But at least one scientist who believes in God thinks it's the church, not science, that's at risk of cutting itself off. Joel Primack, a Jewish physicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, had a suggestion for the Catholic Church.

"I think the church should heed the warning of St. Augustine, who said: 'In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision … we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that—if further progress in the search for truth undermines this position—we too fall with it.'"
 

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