Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Church and Science Fact

I'm a big science fiction fan, but I'm not a fan of the fiction surrounding the relationship of science and faith. I swear, if I hear one more person snidely allude to Galileo or Columbus as if they are some indisputable proof of the silliness of religion and its attempt to restrict "free inquiry," I'll just barf. Or maybe I'll throw something. So beware!

Thus, I'm always glad when things like this conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, in collaboration with the University of Notre Dame, and sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture. Every little bit that goes toward dispelling the myths about the Church, religion, faith, and science is good as far as I'm concerned.

Never mind that the actual treatment of Galileo in the popular mythos bears little semblance to the reality (as is the case with most treatments involving the Inquisition). Never mind that pretty much everyone in Columbus' time and before knew the earth was spherical (and that Columbus was actually the one in scientific error). While we're at it, never mind that the Church has never condemned the theory of evolution as such. Never mind that the Church was the cradle of modern science and protector of Western civilization with its invention and cultivation of monasteries and universities and hospitals. Never mind, in short, that what the popular imagination presents as the relationship between Church and scientists, faith and reason, is pretty much totally fictitious and fabricated by enemies of the Church.

Never mind all that. Let's allow that certain Catholic Church leaders in history may have been overzealous in their prosecution of scientists, pioneers, and even heretics. Even allowing that, I have to ask, is that so bad? I mean, stick with me here, the motivations (namely, paternal and pastoral care and concern for the good of souls and humanity as a whole) behind prohibiting certain kinds of inquiry or publication of certain works are more weighty and noble than whatever incremental advances in science that people theorize about.

In the case of Galileo, what is the great advance for mankind that we've seen from his work? A trip to the moon? And in any case, were not his works eventually lifted from censure by the same "oppressive" authority? Is not Galileo praised today even by that same authority? Are we so worse off that the Church approached the issue with caution due to its concern for the fullness of human life? We can only speculate that we'd be any better or worse off.

On the other hand, consider when the Church's voice and role in society is oppressed. In those cases you get things like fascism, Nazism, communism. You get things like reigns of terror, the Holocaust, death marches, gulags, unnatural famines, killing fields, and world wars. You get Dr. Mengeles, Hitlers, Stalins, and Maos. You get Rwandas, Czechnyas, Darfurs, Madagascars, and the like. You get the slaughter of millions upon millions of unborn. In short, you get destruction and disregard of human life and dignity on unimaginable levels.

That brings us to today. Today the Church is the leading voice defending human dignity and life on all levels and on a global scale. The Church is a leading provider of health care worldwide. The Church is a leading provider of charitable aide worldwide. And the Church takes an integral understanding of humanity to include the spiritual and is the leading provider of spiritual care across the globe. From its humble beginnings 2000 years ago, the Church has spread to become this leading light for all of humanity, ever with the holistic care of humans as its motivating force--ever learning, ever improving, ever guiding humanity towards its ultimate end.

It is from this core of love that the Church speaks, even when it speaks to restrain. It is with this ancient dedication to the fullness of human life--in which we see the image of God--that the Church speaks to end abortion, to prevent euthanasia, to stop embryonic stem cell research, to reinforce procreative marriage, to encourage the restraint of the passions that denigrate our human dignity, and to promote a life of charity, of love of neighbor and of God.

The Church is no enemy of science or progress. On the contrary, the Church has long been the foremost champion of authentic human progress. The Church is no enemy of reason. On the contrary, we see the heights of reason attained in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas and the many, many other Christian theologians and philosophers to come after and before. The Church has dogmatically declared:

Not only can faith and reason never be at odds with one another but they mutually support each other, for on the one hand right reason established the foundations of the faith and, illuminated by its light, develops the science of divine things; on the other hand, faith delivers reason from errors and protects it and furnishes it with knowledge of many kinds. (1st Vatican Council)

Even if (and as far as I'm concerned that's an almost insurmountable if given our refined understanding of things today) the Church were wrong in speaking out against certain areas of scientific inquiry or practice, it is not an oppressive restraint opposed to progress, as the enemies of faith and the Church would have people believe. Rather, the Church simply seeks progress that does not come at the expense of the fullness of human life or dignity. The Church wants us to proceed not just based on what we can do but on what we should do both for the good of the individual and the good of all, which leaves me asking:

So what if it takes us a little longer to get there because we're trying to do the right thing? Just imagine what kind of real progress we could make if all people were so devoted to such laudable ideals.