"Yesterday, Stuart at the eChurch blog published a post in which he highlighted how some people still labour under the misapprehension that the Catholic Church is somehow "anti-science" or "anti-reason". He was specifically referring to a newspaper report that seemed to infer that Catholics were continuing to oppose Galileo's heliocentric ideas. As I pointed out in a comment on the eChurch blog, heliocentrism has actually been effectively disproved anyway [the sun is not the centre of the universe]. But, laying that matter to one side, Stuart's post did get me thinking about the fact that the world seems obsessed with the supposed conflict that is meant to exist between (irrational) Church-goers and (rational) scientists...
"The reality of the Church's relationship with science is far from that portrayed by Catholicism's lazy-minded, secularist detractors. In fact, it could be argued that the Catholic Church is the one that has constantly been reason and science's best advocate - as Pope Benedict XVI recently said, quoting a medieval Byzantine Emperor, "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos is contrary to the nature of God." It is also true to say that some of the world's greatest scientists, including Galileo himself, have often been active members of the Church."
A few things struck me about this post. First, it seemed to me to be a case of unnecessary, reductionistic polarization. It certainly is a lazy thesis to simply state that the Church is anti-science. The Church even today is a source of inspiration and resources to a number of scientific endeavors, and there is an undoubted historical tie between the Church's history and the foundation of what is known as modern science. But this is no reason to fly to the opposite position, a thesis I believe equally lazy: the Church is the best defender of science. It doesn't take much more than a cursory glance at the history between the Church and scientists - even Catholic scientists - to recognize that there have been at least tensions, if not all out conflict, between the two.
Let us take Galileo. In the Inquisition's judgment into Galileo's teachings, it was written:
"By the grace of God, Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, and especially commissioned by the Holy Apostolic See as Inquisitors-General against heretical depravity in all of Christendom.
"Whereas you, Galileo, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei, Florentine, aged seventy years, were denounced to this Holy Office in 1615 for holding as true the false doctrine taught by some that the sun is the center of the world and motionless and the earth moves even with diurnal motion; for having disciples to whom you taught the same doctrine; for being in correspondence with some German mathematicians about it; for having published some letters entitiled On Sunspots, in which you explained the same doctrine as true; for interpreting Holy Scripture according to your own meaning in response to objections based on Scripture which were sometimes made to you; and whereas later we received a copy of an essay in the form of a letter, which was said to have been written by you to a former disciple of yours and which in accordance with Copernicus's position contains various propositions against the authority and true meaning of Holy Scripture;
"And whereas this Holy Tribunal wanted remedy the disorder and the harm which derived from it and which was growing to the detriment of the Holy Faith, by order of His Holiness and the Most Eminent and Most Reverend Lord Cardinals of this Supreme and Univesal Inquisition, the Assessor Theologians assessed the two propositions of the sun's stability and the earth's motions as follows:
"That the sun is the center of the world and motionless is a proposition which is philosophically absurd and false, and formally heretical, for being explicitly contrary to Holy Scripture;
"That the earth is neither the center of the world nor motionless but moves even with diurnal motion is philosophically equally absurd and false, and theologically at least erroneous in the Faith."
In light of these judgments, it does us little good to comfort ourselves with the thought that Copernican heliocentrism was false. After all, the reasoning behind the Inquisition's judgment was not the recognition that no known place has the special and objective quality of being the unmoving center of the Universe's motion, but rather a judgment made on the basis of the contemporary understanding of the content of faith. That is, the hypotheses are condemned on the grounds of "being explicitly contrary to Holy Scripture" and being "theologically at least erroneous in the faith." The Church was being profoundly unscientific, condemning hypotheses not on the basis of experimentation or observation but strictly on the grounds that the faith a priori supposedly discounted these propositions. And this is where the disjunction of faith and science really does have grounds in reality.
Every time the faith is used to put forward theories that could be subject to empirical verification or falsification, there is the high probability of conflict between faith and science. The Galileo incident is only the most popular of these incidents, although there have been several more. More recently, the Church has had a long and uneasy time dealing with the modern theory of evolution, which although now is more or less accepted was once challenged by the Papacy on a number of occasions. The encyclical Humani Generis takes a similar approach to the Inquisition against Galileo, as Pope Pius XII in that document condemns the hypothesis that there were not a lone, solitary pair of humans that began the human race, a hypothesis that has quite a bit of scientific evidence. By now, it is quite likely that we Catholics simply disregard this encyclical. But it does underscore one thing: the Church cannot be called the "Defender of Science" any more than She can be called "Enemy of Science." Her relationship with science has been much more complex; and it is important for thinking Catholics to recognize the difficulties in attempting to harmonize our understanding of the faith with the findings of reason.