Science and the Vatican

WE’VE written a few times before about the Catholic Church’s current attitude toward science. They’re generally not antagonistic — especially compared to the attitude of some other denominations, and also compared their own behavior in the past, typified by the Galileo affair.

This is a sampling of our earlier posts on this subject: Pope Benedict’s 2007 Statement on Evolution, and then Vatican Congress on Evolution to Exclude Creationism, and then Vatican Approves Galileo, Darwin, Wilde, & Marx, and then Beyond Darwin: Vatican Conference on Aliens. Also, although not a contemporary source, we’d be negligent if we omitted St. Augustine on Creationism.

Today we have more news regarding the Church’s current attitude toward science. At the website of New Scientist magazine we read Pope’s astronomer: ‘Science helps me be a priest’. It’s an interview with José G. Funes, the current director of the Vatican Observatory. The article is written as a series of questions and answers. Here are some excerpts, with bolded questions as in the original:

Why does the Vatican need an observatory?

The Catholic church has long had an interest in astronomy. We can trace the beginning of this to 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII wanted to reform the calendar to settle the date of Easter.

Uh … hold on there. Something seems to be missing. Oh, here it comes:

What role did Galileo play in the history of the observatory?

Put briefly, I’m here thanks to Galileo. Because Galileo suffered, there was a need to do something to show that the church is not against science. It was in large part to change the image of the church – to show the world that it is not against science but encourages and promotes it – that Pope Leo XIII refounded the observatory in 1891.

There was, of course, a slight delay of 258 years after Galileo’s heresy trial in 1633, but that’s okay — it’s not easy for a big old institution to change its ways. We continue:

What would be the religious implications of the discovery of extraterrestrial life?

I don’t see any serious difficulty for Catholic theology if – “IF” with capital letters – we find life elsewhere in the universe.

It’s not as if they’ll have much choice. Here’s one more excerpt, and this is about The Controversy:

Is the conflict between intelligent design and evolution an example of an “apparent” conflict between science and religion?

No, that is a real conflict. The problem is when religion enters the world of science, the scientific method; that could be the problem with intelligent design. On the other side there is a danger when scientists use science outside of the scientific method, to make philosophical and religious statements – using science for a goal that science is not meant for. So, for example, you cannot use science to deny the existence of God. You can believe whatever you want but you cannot use science to prove that God does not exist.

Make of that what you will, dear reader. The way we see it, science is continuing on its path. That’s our future. If the Vatican wants to come along, they’re more than welcome. But we hope they remember who’s running this show.

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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14 responses to “Science and the Vatican

  1. As an old professor once said “You can’t put God into a test tube.” The point is, as the Vatican astronomer alluded, science does not have the tools to test the existence of any non-physical, mystical, or Supreme Being. By definition science deals with the physical world and uses natural laws and mechanisms to explain its workings. I just wish the fundamentalists could just learn that simple fact. This all works for the Catholic Church since they don’t take Genesis literally. I also wish the Catholics would battle the fundamentalists more, but they probably don’t want to alienate them more than they already do (I am of the opinion that many or most fundamentalists hate the Catholic Church anyway).

  2. We are told repeatedly the science cannot investigate the realm of god – assuming of course that religion can actually do a better job – and that the two ‘methods’ are somehow unable to overlap. But then these same folk turn right around and assure us that there is nothing incompatible between the two methods.


    It seems to me that when religions themselves have no way for their fundamental truth claims supposedly using the same ‘method’ to be compatible with each other, asking us to believe that science is somehow compatible with them all is incomprehensible gibberish.

    I doubt even the finest telescopes will shed light any more light on this incoherence. But it does give the appearance of looking for some enlightenment.

  3. Funes sez: I don’t see any serious difficulty for Catholic theology …

    Of course not! All theology is opinion, nothing more.

    Does this alien make my butt look big?

    No, your holiness!

  4. This was an interview? This sounds like one of those 2 minute segments you see on TV news programs and seemed geared for 12-year-olds. No follow-up questions?

    “Does your work as a scientist affect your religious beliefs?

    I would say that my work as a scientist helps me to be a religious person, a priest.”
    Oh? How?

  5. @tildeb:
    Well, the incompatibility of different religions shouldn’t make a difference in their relation to science. Science is about asking “what”, “when”, and “how”, while religion asks “why” (and often “who”). So while the various religions come up with wildly different answers, they can still be compatible with science as long as they accept the scientific answers. It’s when religion tries to make up its own “what”, “when”, and “how” that we get foolishness like creationism.

    In the realm of science, two competing hypotheses can be fundamentally incompatible, but both still ought to be compatible with the established knowledge of that field. Of course, the difference with science is that we have the tools and methods to perform tests and eventually determine which is correct and which is not.

  6. Sorry, Colin; the ‘answers different questions’ is a load of codswallop.

    Religion answers none of them any better than any other kind of inquiry and often quite a bit worse. And religion, according to most adherents, does indeed insert its kind of ‘answers’ all the time directly after the what, when, and where questions no matter what the subject… dress, diet, behaviour, thought, etc.. That’s why our peerless leader the SC keeps stellar track of one insertion in particular: creationism. Theological creationism does indeed attempt to ‘answer’ the what, when, and where questions with the usual breezy assumptions and assertions exactly like the kind used to answer with special status the why question you seem willing to grant to it. Why you would allow theology a place at the table of answering any question whatsoever is another great mystery of the cosmos.

    Just because I decide to agree with the theory of gravity while believing garden gnomes really are intergalactic spies does not mean I have added further compatibility to my garden gnome delusion with science. The compatibility issue is about opposing methods, not agreement about conclusions.

  7. I completely agree: religion often DOES butt into the realm that belongs to science, and that is a problem. But I don’t think that this is necessary to religion by its definition. There’s nothing stopping a religious group from stating “Here’s what science says happened, and here’s why we think that happened, and why we’re here.” Whether or not you think those additions are worth anything, they can certainly have personal value to their adherents.

    I see your point about the difference between the methods – the statement above is speculation, not grounded in real evidence. But I would say that as long as a person recognizes that no one else should be compelled to follow their irrational beliefs, and that reason should take precedence wherever it can, then there isn’t a conflict. Of course, that’s probably wishful thinking, so I suppose I’m just defending religion on paper.

    And I assure you that the peerlessness of our Curmudgeon was never in question.

  8. Colin says:

    And I assure you that the peerlessness of our Curmudgeon was never in question.

    I guess that means I’m all alone, which is probably true. As for the “compatibility” of religion and science, that’s quite possible. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re “complementary,” as they do entirely different things and use different methods. “Compatibility” is okay, if it means something like “detente” or maybe “peaceful coexistence.” It’s the overlapping areas where there are conflicts, and where that exists, it’s because one or the other has over-reached.

  9. Why aren’t we discussing the compatibility of Art and Science, huh?

  10. Just to be a stick-in-the-mud, I don’t see how science as a method of inquiry into phenomena can over-reach.

  11. tildeb says:

    … I don’t see how science as a method of inquiry into phenomena can over-reach.

    That’s true. But it’s not unknown for some scientists, when speaking about science, to conclude by saying: “Therefore religious claim X is wrong.” That’s what offends some religious people.

  12. I’m not concerned so much about causing offense; my priority is to be much more concerned about respecting what’s true. How we can come to know what’s probably true is very important because it determines what we can know. That’s where our respect properly belongs: with the method of inquiry that has a sound epistemology that yields practical and reliable knowledge that works.

    For those who find what’s true offensive, all I can suggest is that one take the time and make the effort to understand why it’s a personal issue that can be rectified. If one is offended with what is true, then it most likely is caused by poor interpretations, faulty understandings, and skewed perspectives. These are fixable. But when one assumes it is a problem that exists somewhere out there under the label of ‘science’ or ‘evolution’ or what have you, then we have unnecessary conflict with real world implications. And one needs to look no further than how those who honestly believe in creationism attack everything but the source of the issue: an unjustified, epistemologically weak belief whose supporters flat out deny what is true and attempt to subvert what is true by every means available: the courts, politics, education, entertainment, and so on. Offending people who empower such poor epistemology really should be the least of our concerns.

  13. tildeb says:

    Offending people who empower such poor epistemology really should be the least of our concerns.

    Everything offends them, so why worry about it?