How to Teach Science to the Pope

The Vatican keeps close tabs on the latest science—and integrates new research into its modern theology.

By Michael Mason
Aug 18, 2008 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:55 AM
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Brother Guy Consolmagno occupies a small space of heaven. A Jesuit brother and astronomer for the Vatican Observatory, he works at the observatory’s headquarters at the pope’s summer palace in Castel Gandolfo, a 45-minute train ride from Rome.

Castel Gandolfo sits on the high ground of Italy’s Lazio region, perched above the exotic, sapphire-blue volcanic Lake Albano. The view you get is magical. “This is a good place for things like an occultation, like the transit of Venus in 2004,” Consol­magno says. “We observed the comet hitting Jupiter because the first events were visible only from this part of the world.”

Below the observatory’s domed chamber are the offices that make up the rest of the Vatican Observatory. One study has bookshelves filled with hardbound journals all the way to the high ceiling. Consolmagno pulls one off a shelf and reads aloud: “Account of a new telescope by Mr. Isaac Newton.” He shows me, then smiles. “I think he has a future,” he says.

The building also houses small labs and research areas where decades-long projects—like cataloging meteorites—are occurring. While this is the official home of the Vatican Observatory, a related facility, the Vatican Observatory Research Group, is set up in the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona. There, with greater access to high-tech equipment, the Vatican is conducting detailed research on dark matter, quasars, and the universe’s expansion.

“The idea that the universe is worth studying just because it’s worth studying is a religious idea,” Consolmagno says. “If you think the universe is fundamentally good and that it’s an expression of a good God, then studying how the universe works is a way of becoming intimate with the Creator. It’s a kind of worship. And that’s been a big motivation for doing any kind of science.”

As a scientist who is also a Jesuit brother, Consolmagno suggests that science poses philosophical questions that in turn spark religious inquiries.

“A hundred years ago we didn’t understand the Big Bang,” he says. “Now that we have the understanding of a universe that is big and expanding and changing, we can ask philosophical questions we would not have known to ask, like ‘What does it mean to have multiverses?’ These are wonderful questions. Science isn’t going to answer them, but science, by telling us what is there, causes us to ask these questions. It makes us go back to the seven days of creation—which is poetry, beautiful poetry, with a lesson underneath it—and say, ‘Oh, the seventh day is God resting as a way of reminding us that God doesn’t do everything.’ God built this universe but gave you and me the freedom to make choices within the universe.”

The lessons learned from the trial and condemnation of Galileo in the 1600s have guided an era of scientific caution and hesi­tancy within the Vatican. Today the Vatican’s approach to science is a complex undertaking involving nearly every facet of Church life. The Roman Curia—the Church’s governing body—includes a network of 5 pontifical academies and 11 pontifical councils, each of them charged with tasks ranging from the promotion of Christian unity to the cataloging of martyrs. To varying degrees, each of the 16 offices—and, of course, the independent Vatican Observatory—intersects with scientific issues, and they tend to rely on the efforts of one academy to provide clarity and consultation: the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Housed in a building several centuries old deep inside Vatican City, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is a surprisingly nonreligious institution as well as one of the Vatican’s least understood.

Inside the Academy of SciencesThough it is virtually unknown among laypeople, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is an independent and remarkably influential body within the Holy See. Over the years its membership roster has read like a who’s who of 20th-century scientists (including Max Planck, Niels Bohr, and Erwin Schrödinger, to name a few), and it currently boasts more than 80 international academicians, many of them Nobel laureates and not all of them Catholic—including the playfully irreligious physicist Stephen Hawking.

Academy members are elected by the current membership. There are no religious, racial, or gender criteria. Candidates are chosen on the basis of their scientific achievements and their high moral standards. When a nomination for membership is made, the Vatican Secretariat of State is consulted in order to prevent the appointment of someone with a questionable history.

“We’re a group of people from all over the world—many religions and attitudes,” says physicist Charles Hard Townes, a Nobel laureate and an inventor of the laser. “It is essential for scientists to participate in this and try to help the Catholic Church, advise them on their policies. Many civilizations in the world are not directly affected by science and technology decision making, but they are affected by mandates and decisions of the Catholic Church.”

Brother Guy Caonsolmagno, an astronomer, inside the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo. | Image courtesy of Michael Mason

Maxine Singer, a leader in the field of human genetics, had praise for the academy’s work even before she became a member. “I went to a study week on genetics [in the early 1980s] and listened to a discussion about new reproductive techniques that were just beginning,” she says. “It was fascinating to be at the Vatican talking about such things when the newspapers and media would have you believe that the Vatican wouldn’t discuss them.”

The Academy of Sciences’ roots reach nearly to the Renaissance. In 1603 Prince Federico Cesi, a botanist, founded the Accademia dei Lincei, or the Academy of Lynxes, named because its members—renowned Italian scholars like Galileo and Fabio Colonna—needed eyes as sharp as lynxes’ in order to pursue scientific discovery.

The Accademia slowly dissolved, only to reconstitute again in 1745, then vanish and reappear once more in 1795 under the guidance of Padre Feliciano Scarpellini, who brought together a diverse collection of scientists from the Papal States (a large Church-ruled territory in central Italy). After more organizational hiccups caused by political unrest, in 1870—following Italy’s unification—the group morphed into two separate bodies: the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei and what would become the Vatican Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which took its current form in 1936.

Today the academy’s mandate involves promoting the progress of mathematical, physical, and natural sciences and participating in the study of related epistemological questions and issues. The academy convenes plenary sessions in which its members offer presentations addressing a certain theme. Held every two years, the meetings highlight the most recent advances in the sciences. The next session is slated for October.

Although the academy’s mission seems as benign as that of any other scientific body, its presence within the Vatican invites controversy. During the early 1990s, at a time of alarm about population problems, the academy issued a report saying that there was an “unavoidable need to contain births globally,” a position that supposedly infuriated Pope John Paul II.

A pope, more than anyone else, knows the exact reason for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In 1992 John Paul II told the members that “the purpose of your academy is precisely to discern and to make known, in the present state of science and within its proper limits, what can be regarded as an acquired truth or at least as enjoying such a degree of probability that it would be imprudent and unreasonable to reject it.” In the pope’s eyes, the academy is an instrument that teases scientific fact from fiction.

The current relationship between the pope and the academy suggests that scientific issues have achieved an unprecedented level of importance within the Church. The Vatican has recently taken a firm stand on a range of science-related issues. In 2007 Vatican officials weighed in on end-of-life concerns, stating that there was a moral obligation to sustain the life of a person in a vegetative state, even if there was no hope for recovery. The position opposes the wishes of those whose advance directives request termination of hydration and nutrition if they enter such a state. And while the Vatican supports organ transplants, in 2004 the vice president of its Pontifical Academy for Life told Reuters that the cloning of human embryos is “a repeat of what the Nazis did in the concentration camps.”

Catholicism and Controversy Since 1993 Italian physicist Nicola Cabibbo has presided over the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Though not a clergy­man, he has been weathering countless criticisms of the Church’s handling of science issues. Still he remains resolute and disarmingly pragmatic in his views on science and religion.

When asked if he thought the scientific understanding of life’s beginnings demanded a belief in God, Cabibbo turned heads. “I would say no,” he told a journalist at the National Catholic Reporter, adding, however, that “science is incapable of supplying answers to ultimate questions about why things exist and what their purpose is.” Cabibbo’s statements reflect the Church’s ongoing effort to reconcile science and religion, a topic that extends far beyond the walls of the Vatican.

These days it’s practically impossible to strike up a conversation with anyone in the Vatican’s science programs without invoking the work of the outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, a prominent evolutionary theorist, wrote the book The God Delusion, which became an international best seller.

“What you find in his book is a caricature of my religion,” says Monsignor Melchor Sánchez de Toca, undersecretary of the Academy of Sciences’ sister organization, the Pontifical Council for Culture.

“He has an excellent reputation as a scientist, but he isn’t a theologian,” Consolmagno says.

“We call [Dawkins’s stance] sci­entism, and there is reference to it in the encyclical,” says Father Rafael Pascual, dean of philosophy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome.

“Scientism,” Dawkins tells me later, “is the pejorative word sometimes used for the view that science can explain everything and kind of arrogates to itself the privilege of explaining everything. Science cannot tell you what is right and wrong. When it comes to really interesting questions, like ‘Where did the laws of physics come from?’ or ‘How did the universe arrive in the first place?’ I genuinely don’t know whether science will answer those deep and at present mysterious questions; I am confident that if science can’t answer them, nothing else can. But it may be that nothing will ever answer them.”

Dawkins expresses skepticism at the Church’s mission to build a bridge between science and theology with the use of philosophy. “There is nothing to build a bridge to,” he says. “Theology is a complete and utter non­subject.” At one point in my talk with Dawkins, Father George Coyne, the well-respected retired head of the Vatican Observatory (and, as such, a former member of the Academy of Sciences), becomes the subject of conversation.

“I met him a few weeks ago and liked him very much,” Dawkins says. “And he said to me that there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe in God, and so I said, ‘Why do you believe in God?’ and he said: ‘It’s quite simple. I was brought up Catholic.’ When I think about good scientists—and some are devoutly religious and many of them are Catholic, Jesuit brothers and priests, for instance—I can never make out whether they are compartmentalizing their minds. Sometimes if you press them, it turns out that what they believe is something very different from what it says in the Creed. It turns out that all they really believe is that there is some deeply mysterious unknown at the root of the universe.”

Dawkins’s comments stuck with me. In the many interviews I had with priests, each expressed a sophisticated theology that seemed far more abstract than what you might find occupying the mind of an average believer. Is belief in a deeply mysterious unknown root of the universe such a bad thing for science, even if it is perceived through the framework of Christian concepts and imagery?

“I did not tell Richard Dawkins that there was no reason to believe in God,” says Coyne, who counts Dawkins a friend. “I said reasons are not adequate. Faith is not irrational, it is arational; it goes beyond reason. It doesn’t contradict reason. So my take is precisely that faith, to me, is a gift from God. I didn’t reason to it, I didn’t merit it—it was given to me as a gift through my family and my teachers.... My science helps to enrich that gift from God, because I see in his creation what a marvelous and loving god he is. For instance, by making the universe an evolutionary universe—he didn’t make it a ready-made, like a washing machine or a car—he made it a universe that has in it a participation of creativity. Dawkins’s real question to me should be, ‘How come you have the gift of faith and I don’t?’ And that’s an embarrassment for me. The only thing I can say is that either you have it and don’t know it, or God works with each of us differently, and God does not deny that gift to anybody. I firmly believe that.”

Expecting to hear a further defense of his faith, I ask Coyne what effect science has had on religion and, in particular, on the Bible.

“There is no science in the Bible. Zero, none,” Coyne says. “The Bible was written in different times by different people. Some of the books are poetry, some of them are history, some are stories.”

“Are you saying that the Bible should not be held up to scientific scrutiny?” I ask.

“That is correct,” Coyne says. “Absolutely.”

Impacting the World The Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ position amid changing cultural attitudes also makes it the target of special-interest groups—and often mires it in controversy.

In 2004 the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See held a joint conference with the academy called “Feeding a Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology.” The title of the conference alone caused an uproar among farmers and agriculturalists around the world; it implied that genetically modified (GM) food was a solution to world hunger. Critics, however, contend that GM food gives agricultural corporations an unfair economic advantage over small producers and that GM foods have a negative impact on biodiversity.

As early as 2000, an academy study document stated, “Genetically modified plants can play an important role in alleviating world food problems.” But in the Church this was a far from unanimous opinion.

“As to world hunger, the official policy by the Vatican has always been that the issue is not one of production but of distribution,” says Brother David Andrews, a former executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.

I ask Andrews if he feels the Pontifical Academy is susceptible to influence from the U.S. embassy and agricultural big business. “Yes, of course,” he says. “Peter Raven is a member of the academy, and he is also responsible for the Missouri Botanical Garden, which had funding from Monsanto.” A multinational agricultural corporation with more than 16,000 employees, Monsanto is the leading producer of genetically engineered seeds.

While the conference’s program was heavily weighted toward proponents of biotechnology, Andrews tells me that ultimately the U.S. embassy, agribusiness, and the academy itself did not succeed in positioning GM foods as a “moral imperative” in the Vatican’s eyes. Instead, they acknowledged the concerns of critics. The Vatican remains cautious and silent on the issue.

“I think [the debate over GM food] was an embarrassing episode for the academy,” Andrews says.

Despite such difficult episodes, the Vatican readily admits the increasingly dominant role that science and technology play in society and how, for the most part, their advances are positive. It’s the nagging persistence of a mechanistic view of humanity that troubles Church officials. For that and other cultural concerns, the Vatican turns to the Pontifical Council for Culture, which is something of an intermediary between the Vatican and the rest of the world.

“The human being is often considered an assembly of parts and elements that can be cut and pasted, rather than a biological organism and a person of spiritual worth,” explains a council publication. “Addressing this issue is deemed urgent.”

The Pontifical Council for Culture has been charged with explaining much of this unfolding Church doctrine to the public in a way that builds a philosophical bridge between science and theology. Located off the regal Via della Conciliazione, which leads to the Piazza San Pietro, the council acts as the Vatican’s multicultural outreach center. The hallways and rooms it occupies are decorated with photos of Pope Benedict XVI, crucifixes, and modest floral arrangements. There’s a measured order to the place; nothing seems out of line.

“There is a myth that surrounds science,” Monsignor de Toca says. “Science with a capital S is seen by many people as a religion itself. There are also the myths of science itself: the Galileo affair, Darwin, creationism—they are not strictly scientific issues; they belong to culture. We are interested in those trends, those phenomena—for example, the struggle between creationists and evolutionists.

“I think religion and science are both part of human existence,” de Toca continues. “You don’t have to choose one or the other—you can choose both…. Science can purge religion of superstition…. And religion can help science to remain inside its borders.”

Historically, theologians sometimes respond to scientific knowledge by changing their interpretation of Holy Scripture, moving from a literal perspective to a spiritual one. St. Augustine, for example, struggled in his acceptance of the idea of the earth as a sphere but eventually conceded to science. “When there are convincing reasons, we must interpret the Bible in a different way,” de Toca explains. When science posits a truth that seems to contradict Scripture (lack of evidence of a global flood, for example), the Bible’s inherent elasticity simply envelops the new finding, and any apparent contradiction is relegated to the realm of parable (where Noah’s ark resides, in the view of many Catholics).

Is it possible, then, for Catholics to find solid answers to contemporary problems in such flexible interpretations of the Bible? I ask de Toca to elaborate on the most pressing issues that face cultures today.

“Ethical issues are very pressing because they immediately affect the human being,” de Toca answers. “For example, cloning, euthanasia, contraception—they are not scientific questions but ethical ones.”

The questions are indeed ethical, but ethical issues can prove significant in the realm of science. Early this year Benedict XVI stated that with in vitro fertilization, “the barrier that served to protect human dignity has been violated.” Others are not so sure that the Church’s positions do indeed protect human dignity.

Despite disagreements with Church doctrine, Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer sides with the Vatican on one issue: the right of Catholic pharmacists to refuse to dispense birth control.

“I would respect pharmacists who say they don’t wish to supply a particular prescription that can only be used for a purpose that they see as morally wrong,” Singer says. “I think they have an obligation to make it exactly clear that that’s what they’re doing.”

In the United States, most states do not offer a pharmacist’s conscience clause, which legally permits a pharmacist to refuse to dispense contraception on moral grounds. (At least eight states do, including Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Dakota.) As a result, The Washington Post reports, pharmacists for companies such as Kmart have been fired for their refusal as conscientious objectors to dispense such drugs.

Bioethical issues are amplified in Italy. While the Italian government has legalized abortion, almost 70 percent of physicians there have refused to perform the procedure, according to a United Nations report. In May 2008 about 1,000 people rallied in northern Italy, protesting the Vatican’s interference in the public debate after a speech in which the pope lashed out at abortion.

Vatican involvement in Italian politics is more than just an accusation; one look at its stake in the country reveals its reach. In Italy the Church owns 100,000 properties, according to The Times of London, and in Rome it owns 250 schools, 65 rest homes, and 18 hospitals. Italy provides the Catholic Church with about $6.2 billion a year in direct contributions and tax exemptions, according to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. In turn, Italy benefits from the Vatican’s humanitarian programs throughout the country. Critics argue that this arrangement gives the Vatican too much latitude to impose its Catholic positions on the Italian public.

Church, Science, and Academics In 2003 the Pontifical Council for Culture began coordinating a focused program called STOQ, which stands for Science, Theology, and the Ontological Quest. The program traces its roots to John Paul II’s call for a renewed dialogue among scientists, theologians, and philosophers. The STOQ project’s ambition is to promote scientific literacy within the Church—a task that is particularly important in America. Part of the Vatican’s concern is that its clergy might not have a clear understanding of the science involved in evolution. With the help of the six pontifical universities specifically involved in the STOQ project, the Vatican is making some headway.

One of those universities is the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, whose library is located in a narrow alley a stone’s throw from the cobblestone Piazza Campo de Fiori, where Italian farmers display their colorful produce. In the same square four centuries ago, the Holy See burned alive the philosopher Giordano Bruno, mere decades before Galileo’s run-in with the Church. Among his many heresies, Bruno had posited that the universe was infinite and that there were many solar systems. Today his chagrined bronze likeness towers over the bustling marketplace, scowling in the Vatican’s direction. If he were alive today, Bruno might be surprised at the opinions being expressed in pontifical universities, all without threat of recourse.

“We consider that evolution is the scientific theory that we can use now about the evolution of the world, and we don’t feel any necessity to find a different theory,” says Father Rafael Martínez, the STOQ program director at Holy Cross. “We think that intelligent design is not, for this reason, a scientific proposal, and also—from a theological and philosophical point of view—is a wrong answer.”

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, in contrast, wrote an article that appeared in The New York Times in which he suggested that neo-Darwinian thought was incompatible with Catholicism and instead gave implicit support to intelligent design. Father Coyne, an outspoken proponent of the theory of natural selection, roundly criticized Schönborn’s position.

If there are any vestiges of the Roman Inquisition left in the Holy See, it isn’t apparent; Martínez certainly doesn’t show it. His soft voice and priest’s attire simultaneously reflect the Church’s receptivity to science and its dogged adherence to religious tradition.

“We are trying to find and obtain this harmony, this accord between science, religion, and faith,” Martínez tells me.

“Is it really possible?” I ask.

“Of course,” he says. “We are not saying that science has to explain religion. It is impossible from the perspective of transcendent faith. I would say that a scientist feels that science is not giving him everything. Science does not explain many aspects of human life such as love, friendships, and things like that.”

The hard sciences may not have a reliable measure of human emotions, but there are other religious phenomena that do regularly attract rigorous scientific scrutiny: miracles.

“As a believer, I accept miracles, but I don’t consider miracles the main reason of my faith,” Martínez says. “For beatification purposes there must be a medical miracle that must be certified by medical doctors in a real experimental way, and from a scientific view this has been many, many times recorded.”

Martínez explains that while rare, miracles are still plausible. “Our world is a very complex world in which chaos and uncertainty have a big part... but the odds are one in many terabillions,” he says. “That would be not a problem in my point of view because this event would be guided in a way without contradicting natural laws.”

Another pontifical university across the city of Rome approaches the STOQ project’s directive from a different angle. The Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University is, by Roman standards, an ultramodern institution that occupies a spacious plot of land a few miles southwest of Vatican City. There Father Pascual directs a program on science and faith. He tells me that a number of students there are involved in the Geoastrolab program, which involves research in astronomy, astrophysics, and geography.

“I think the Church is not doing science as such,” Pascual says. “The Church is doing its job, whose mission was given by the Lord to preach the Gospel to the people and to present the Gospel to each moment in history. We need to speak with the present people in the present culture, and these people are very embedded in scientific teaching.”

Many of the STOQ project’s initiatives involve engaging cultures in dialogues about science; in some sense its undertakings can be perceived as a shrewd PR move, giving the Holy See an opportunity to inject the issue of religion into scientific discourse. But has the presence of the STOQ project had any impact on the Church itself?

“I am not sure,” Pascual says. “I think it is not so direct and immediate. But widely, because we are forming the future leaders of the Church, it will be a real influence in the Church.”

Following our talk, Pascual takes me through the university’s main building and shows me an exhibit on science and the Shroud of Turin. Recent shroud samplings show a botanical correlation to Israel, confirming the shroud’s origins, he says.

“Maybe we will conduct shroud research here someday,” Pascual tells me, and I can see he’s elated by the prospect.

In the corner is an impressive life-size sculpture of the figure immortalized on the shroud; on the far wall is a rare holographic rendering of the same figure. The figure’s face is striking and mysterious and bold, and you can’t help but wonder if that is indeed the visage of Jesus. It’s a perfect example of the many Church enigmas that science is trying to solve.

Looking to the Heavens A safe distance from the many scientific enigmas and controversies the Church is engaged in, Brother Consolmagno leads me up and down the spiraling staircases of the Papal Palace in Castel Gandolfo, pointing out the door to the pope’s private quarters at one turn, then indicating a meager hallway where Jesuits live, dorm style. He tells me one of the biggest perks of his job is the authentic Italian meals he gets from the Jesuit community’s cook. Then he treats me to a brief tour of his most prized undertaking, the famous Vatican meteorite collection, meticulously categorized samples from all over the world.

Castel Gandolfo feels a solar system away from the austere surroundings of the academy back in Vatican City. Members are currently busy organizing their next plenary session, “Scientific Insights Into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life,” to be held at the end of next month. Schönborn and Hawking are scheduled to speak, as is Maxine Singer. The event is certain to heighten the already feverish debate between creationism and evolution. The observatory in Castel Gandolfo seems immune to the entire affair, and it occurs to me that there’s a reason for the privilege.

I suggest to Consolmagno that the Vatican may be supporting astronomical research above other applied research simply because it’s a pretty safe field. Astronomy doesn’t have to bother with issues involving embryonic stem cells, human cloning, or morning-after pills. The Church has to take positions on all these issues, and each has far-reaching effects, but there aren’t many priests losing sleep over solar flares and supernovas. Consolmagno adds that other types of scientists really must grapple with serious ethical concerns, such as whether they should work in the field of atomic physics, where research can yield advances in weaponry. The answers aren’t easy.

“All of these things have consequences, and some are unintended, like handing out condoms to AIDS patients,” he says. Consolmagno leans back in his chair, suspended for a moment in the soft blue mountain light that fills his office. He turns his focus toward a different space, an inner universe, and remains there for a moment before his eyes return to me.

“I’m glad that I’m an astronomer is all I have to say.”

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