Sunday, 22 September 2013

Science grows Church’s understanding

350px God the Geometer0

As was immediately clear from a first reading, “the” interview given by Pope Francis last Thursday to Jesuit magazines is a text rich both in spiritual and intellectual treasures and will be a prominent trigger of reflection for a long time to come.

Today I’d like to take a closer look at a passage from it that has immediately caught my eye, but that received little attention so far. It addresses the relationship between science and religion in a, to my mind, very positive way:
“[H]uman self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.”
While the opposition between science and religion certainly does not apply to the Catholic Church - with Blessed Pope John Paul II’s landmark encyclical Fides et Ratio being a categorical statement of the mutual benefits of faith and reason and with Pope Benedict XVI having spoken of the necessity of dialogue between science and faith 1 - Francis’ positioning of science as “helping the church in its growth in understanding” is a significant move. Like with many of Francis’ statements, it could be argued that they contain nothing new (Fides et Ratio already saying that “science can purify religion from error and superstition”) or that they are only new in style - and in some sense that is true, since he is firmly rooted in the Church, but it would, I believe, also miss an important nuance.

While I have always read Fides et Ratio as positioning faith and reason as separate, but mutually “strengthening” entities,2 here I see Francis presenting theology and science as two activities whose results both help the Church, the former leading to mature judgment while the latter resulting in increased understanding. This is a picture that does not place theology in a privileged, internal position with regard to the Church, and science as an external, while admittedly positive, activity, but positions both as engines of progress that deepen our humanity.3

While the above is clearly my reading and attempted unpacking of Francis’ condensed thought, I believe it is compatible with another of the important points he makes in “the” interview, namely that the Church is the “faithful people of God,”4 and that “‘thinking with the church’ [does not mean] only thinking with the hierarchy of the church,” that it “does not concern theologians only.” Seen in this way, “[t]he church is the totality of God’s people” and is therefore formed as much by theology as by science. Science becomes an internal concern of the Church - the People of God - and its advances and insights form her teaching from within.5 In many ways this also reminds me of Francis’ address to Brazil’s “leaders of society” during his visit in July, where he emphasizes that Christianity “combines transcendence and incarnation” and “faith and reason unite, the religious dimension and the various aspects of human culture – art, science, labour, literature…”

The above sketch, which I don’t believe I am bolting on to Francis’ thought, strikes me as a natural evolution of the solid foundations that John Paul II laid down, and I am curious to see whether it will find support in his future teaching.

0 I don’t mean to distract, but note the fractal in this 13th century illuminated illustration!
1 “In the great human enterprise of striving to unlock the mysteries of man and the universe, I am convinced of the urgent need for continued dialogue and cooperation between the worlds of science and of faith in the building of a culture of respect for man, for human dignity and freedom, for the future of our human family and for the long-term sustainable development of our planet. Without this necessary interplay, the great questions of humanity leave the domain of reason and truth, and are abandoned to the irrational, to myth, or to indifference, with great damage to humanity itself, to world peace and to our ultimate destiny.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Address To The Pontifical Academy Of Sciences, 8 November 2012)
2 As Lumen Fidei puts it in §32.
3 Echoing the affirmation in Fides et Ratio that “Men and women have at their disposal an array of resources for generating greater knowledge of truth so that their lives may be ever more human.”
4 The definition presented in Lumen Gentium, as Francis points out.
5 This is not a conflation of the two - theology and science - but a recognition of their equal import for the Church’s progress.