For a fruitful concord

Published : Oct 21, 2005 00:00 IST

Pope John Paul II. - VINCENZO PINTO/REUTERS

Pope John Paul II. - VINCENZO PINTO/REUTERS

THE theological premise of Christoph Cardinal Schnborn's article is simple - Christianity cannot accept the concept of a universe without an active, personal and creator God. But in his effort to underscore this theological truth, Schnborn strayed into unfamiliar territory and ended up resurrecting the centuries-old stereotype of a science-religion conflict. The primary fallacy in the article is the presupposition that "evolution", or for that matter any scientific truth, can be used to work out arguments against or in favour of theism. Jesuit Fr. George V. Coyne, distinguished astronomer and Director of the Vatican Observatory, notes: "There appears to exist a nagging fear in the Church that a universe, which science has established as evolving for 13.7 x 1 billion years since the Big Bang and in which life, beginning in its most primitive forms at about 12 x 1 billion years from the Big Bang, evolved through a process of random genetic mutations and natural selection, escapes God's dominion. That fear is groundless. Science is completely neutral with respect to the philosophical or theological implications that may be drawn from its conclusions" ("God's chance creation", The Tablet, August 6).

One of the few fundamental and, hopefully, lasting contributions of Pope John Paul II was to try to dispel the "nagging fear". In fact, as early as November 1979, little more than a year into his pontificate, he referred to the "Galileo case" and the Church's failure to grasp the truth of the Copernican revolution. Addressing a session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (PAS) called to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Albert Einstein, he spoke about Galileo's sufferings "at the hands of men and organisms of the Church" and hoped "that theologians, scholars and historians... will study the Galileo case more deeply... " The result was the constitution of the "Galileo Commission" in 1981.

In another address to the PAS on its 50th anniversary in 1986, John Paul II returned to the theme and stressed a study done "... in loyal recognition of wrongs from whatever side they come will dispel the mistrust that still opposes ... the fruitful concord between science and faith... ". Although the conclusions of the commission's study, submitted to the Pope in 1992, were not free of controversy and fell short of John Paul II's expectations, the very move to confront the issue won plaudits worldwide (vide "The Church's Most Recent Attempt to Dispel the Galileo Myth" by George V. Coyne, S.J.; The Church and Galileo edited by Ernan McMullin; Notre Dame University Press, 2005).

John Paul II's path-breaking reference to the theory of evolution as "more than just a hypothesis" in his 1996 PAS address actually took the form of follow-up comments to remarks found in Pius XII's 1950 encyclical Humani Generis. The encyclical, perhaps for the first time in the Church's history since the theory of evolution was proposed, deemed it worthy of "research and discussions", but cautioned that it was just a hypothesis since it "has not been fully proved even in the domain of natural sciences". It was this notion that John Paul II corrected. Significantly, as Fr. Coyne observed in a brilliant article, the Pope's speech was delivered at a plenary session of the PAS summoned to discuss the theme "The Origin and Evolution of Life" (vide "The Church in Dialogue with Science: The Wojtyla Years"; The New Catholic Encyclopaedia, Jubilee Volume: The Wojtyla Years, 2001).

As Fr. Coyne said in his article in The New Catholic Encyclopaedia, "[t]he newness in what John Paul II has said about the relationship between science and religion consists in his having taken a position compellingly different than the one he had inherited". And his message to Fr. Coyne on the tercentennial of the publication of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica in 1988 is the best rebuttal of the primary fallacy of Schnborn's article. The Pope says: "... Christianity possesses the source of its justification within itself and does not expect science to constitute its primary apologetic. Science must bear witness to its own worth. While each can and should support the other as distinct dimensions of a common human culture, neither ought to assume that it forms a necessary premise for the other. The unprecedented opportunity we have today is for a common interactive relationship in which each discipline retains its integrity and yet is radically open to the discoveries and insights of the other."

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