Vatican is often seen in a popular belief as being anti-science, in a typical dichotomy of faith and science. Yet faith is not necessarily against science, and science itself requires faith (in people, scientists, scientific process, etc.). While some Christians are indeed against science, and there are religions that are extremely hostile to science, neither Christianity as such nor Vatican were inherently against science. Vatican in particular always had an attitude of “God can do anything, so anything is possible”. And this, as crazy as it sounds, includes alien life. In fact, the idea that God had created an orderly world gave rise to science (even in polytheistic religions, so that is not exclusive to monotheistic religions). If God had created the world, He made laws, and humans are duty-bound to understand those laws so they could fully live as the God commands. If the world is not intelligible and orderly, there is no point in trying to understand the laws because there are no laws. Romans and Greeks did not develop modern science because the world was at whims of a bunch of rabid gods, so studying natural laws made no sense; Islam today presents the same problem, except with one god instead of many. Church infallibility only ever applied to official teachings of faith and morals; it never applied to “wordly” matters such as science.
Even in the Middle Ages, monks and other Church members were responsible for the scientific studies (mostly because the Church was the only institution rich enough to afford education for some of its members after the supply of papyrus was cut off by the Muslim invasions). Some study was done for purely religious reasons. Study of the stars, Moon and Sun as well as the development of mathematics happened as an answer to need to determine the date of Easter. Isidor of Seville wrote a comprehensive encyclopedia of natural knowledge, Alcuin of York advised Charlemagne on scientific matters. Abbo of Fleury wrote astronomical discussions of timekeeping and of the celestial spheres for his students. In the Later Middle Ages, it was Catholic Cathedral Schools which developed into centres of education, eventually becoming first universities. To medieval people, geometry, mathematics and architecture were a divine activity (and a question may be asked whether continuing disregard for social sciences draws its root from this belief). Georgius Agricola is the founder of geology and mineralogy. Catholic Church was the major sponsor of astronomy due to aforementioned concerns, beginning with the 16th century when the pope Gregory XIII initiated correction of the Julian calendar, which had fallen out of the sync with the sky; the resulting calendar is known as the Gregorian calendar and is used in the West even today. In fact, the Church was the largest single patron of science in history. Christian practice of caring for others gave rise to systematic nursing and hospitals, and in Renaissance Italy, the Popes were often patrons of study of anatomy. In 16th and 17th centurues, the same time as the Galileo affair, the Jesuits had a greatly respected group of astronomers and scientists in Rome. In the 1930s the Vatican observatory opened a laboratory to measure the spectral lines of metals, and the data it produced are used to interpret stellar spectra to this day. The observatory also has one of the largest collections of meteorites.
When Copernicus’ friend Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter lectured about the early findings implying a heliocentric solar system, Pope Clement VII and several cardinals all attended, and were fascinated. One of the cardinals – Nicholas von Schonberg, archbishop of Capua – even wrote a letter to Copernicus encouraging him to publish his findings. Copernicus did delay publication in fear of criticism, but it is unclear whether he was concerned with scientific criticism, religious criticism, or even both. The only serious religious opposition came from Protestant theologians – Martin Luther seemed to have condemned the new theory – and it was only on the insistence of Clement VII that Copernicus expanded his Commentariolus (where he first proposed heliocentric system) into De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestum, published in 1543. It was only in 1616. with the Galileo affair underway, that a handful of clerics managed to place the book on Index Librorum Prohibitorum, due to fewer than ten sentences characterizing heliocentric model as a fact rather than hypothesis; in 1758. book was removed from the Index. It should be noted that the heliocentric model was indeed not a scientific fact at the time, as it could not be proven, and the Index never contained a general prohibition of works teaching heliocentric theory. In fact, Galileo himself failed to prove the greatest argument against the heliocentric system, the lack of observable parallax shift of the stars. Today we know that the parallax shift exists, and it has been measured, but such measurement was impossible with astronomic instruments of the time. Galileo himself got into trouble not for the heliocentric solar system theory, but for accidentally insulting his friend, the Pope, who himself leaned towards heliocentrism (geocentric system of the time also was not flatteringly anthropocentric: the medievals saw Earth as the lowest and least glorious location in the universe, farthest from Heaven, and with the Hell at its very centre). Another and maybe even larger problem was Galileo’s insistence on moving the scientific debate onto theological grounds. Still, in 1608., Galileo rose to prominence after publishing Sidereus Nuncius. His work Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was widely considered to mock the Pope, a onetime friend and sponsor. Before the book was written, Pope advised Galileo to simply present the arguments for and against the heliocentric system (which was then typically done in form of a dialogue, in imitation of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle). Galileo used the arguments Pope had offered, but placed them in the mouth of a character Simplicio, thus making fun of, and insulting, the Pope. Court politics later did the rest, but even so he never faced anything worse than a house arrest (he even had a servant appointed to him). Even had there been an intention to torture him, it could not have happened due to regulations laid out in The Directory for Inquisitors in 1595. The fact remains that, in 1633., the heliocentric system was not yet scientifically demonstrated, so even if the common mythology about the affair is taken as a fact, Church’s position hardly constitutes rejection of science. Even Galileo’s call for reinterpretation of the Scripture was merely politely denied on the ground that his heliocentric theory was a theory, and not yet a proven and established scientific fact. Still, mythology was built up around Galileo and is often used to “prove” the Church’s “anti-scientific nature” – nevermind that the basic facts used to construct that story are wrong (for example, the Pope never even tried to make infallible ruling regarding Galileo’s views as such rulings are only made in the matters of religious doctrine, yet the case is often used as an argument against Papal infaillibility; Church tribunals such as the one that judged Galileo were never considered infallible). In fact, the main opposition to Galileo came not from the Church but from the secular scientific establishment of the day, which followed the Ptolemaic geocentric model. Giordano Bruno, the only scientifically minded historic figure that I can recall was actually executed by the Catholic authorities, is also incorrectly believed to have been sent to Inquisition for his heliocentric beliefs – which included theory about Sun being a star as well as existence of exoplanets and alien life. In reality he ended up persecuted and killed for denying several core Catholic doctrines such as eternal damnation, the Trinity, divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary and transubstantiation; his pantheism (a belief incidentally also followed by the writer of this article) may or may not have played into the decision. Giordano Bruno taught that there was an infinity of co-existing worlds, that God is his creation and that diseases were demons which could be ousted by the king’s touch or by the spittle of the seventh son; again, he presented his beliefs as facts. Bruno was tried by the Inquisition for his attempt to build a new, bizzare theology, and not for his heliocentric worldview. Overall, while indeed inhumane and wrong, his execution was not an expression of Church stance on science yet is often held as such. Blaise Pascal likewise never faced excommunication despite his possibly heretical leanings. Other scientists that were tried by the Inquisition were never tried for their scientific work, but rather for their dabbling into occult or for “heretical” religious beliefs (which often did grow out of their scientific work). Michael Servetus wrote against the Trinity and stated that Christ would soon return to Earth to lead the final battle, and that Servetus himself will be a general in that battle, serving under Archangel Michael.
In fact, with the exception of some bureaucrats vying for power and using scripture to push an agenda, the Catholic hierarchy has been either silent or supportive about just about every scientific theory. The Vatican even has a planned amendment to its doctrine if intelligent alien life is discovered. During the time of Galileo, as well as for the long time before and after that, the Catholic Church was an immensely important patron of science, outweighing financial contribution of any other single patron by a significant margin. As such, the scientific revolution is indebted to the Church. The Catholic theology itself had a crucial role in development of basic scientific principles. Its theological framework provided by a belief in a rational Creator also meant that the universe is a rational system governed by laws comprehensible to the reason of men created in His image. Thus it is not surprising that many if not most early scientists were priests and religious. Church also provided direct monetary and social support to science, particularly astronomy.
Neither did personal beliefs prevent Christians from undertaking scientific research. Many Catholics are responsible for significant scientific advancements. Rene Descartes discovered analytic geometry and laws of refraction. Blaise Pascal invented the adding machine, hydraulic press and the mathematical theory of probabilities. Augustinian priest Gregor Mendel founded modern genetics. Louis Pasteur founded microbiology and created the first vaccine for rabies and anthrax. Nicolas Copernicus, a cleric, first scientifically developed the heliocentric theory. Jesuit priests in particular have a long history of scientific achievement. They contributed to the development of pendulum clocks, pantographs, barometers, reflecting telescopes and microscopes, and to scientific fields as various as magnetism, astronomy, optics and electricity. They also observed the coloured bands on Jupiter’s surface, Saturn’s rings, and theorized about the circulation of blood, possibility of flight, Moon’s effect on tides and the nature of light. Symbolic logic, star maps of the southern hemisphere and the flood-control measures on the Po and Adige rivers were also Jesuit achievements.
The historical science in the meaning of fact-checking and studying old texts started out as an effort to discover and get rid of mistakes in the Bible. Christians were long aware that the Bible is imperfect, and that many mistakes might have crept into it, New Testament in particular, during the time when it was transferred by a word of mouth. Thus a conscious effort was made to prune it, remove any mistakes and get as close as humanly possible to the original text. In fact, scientific methods used today by historiography originate precisely from the effort of Christian theologists to remove these mistakes from the Bible; before then, there were no methods for fact-checking historical documents.
The Bible itself is merely a compilation of mythology, propaganda and actual history, and is highly symbolic. Careful study also reveals that many things are significantly different from how they are generally understood today. For example, the myth of creation in seven days is entirely symbolic. The Hebrew word for “seven” is the same as the word used for “making a covenant”. Thus a claim that word was created in seven days may well mean that the world was created in the covenantal relation with divine (unless, of course, the relationship is inverted; but generally language gives symbolism to the myths instead of drawing from them). The fact remains that the order of creation is completely wrong, but that falls into the realm of science, and ancient people who had created the myth could hardly have been expected to know how the universe was created. Same goes for the myth of Adam and Eve (and it should be noted that Adam was told he would die on the same “day” he ate apple from the tree, yet lived to be 930 years old; this fits with the statement “that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”). In fact, the Catholic Church never insisted on literal interpretation of the Scripture (at least as a doctrine, individual officials sometimes did). As a result, even theologians differed in their opinions: Saint Ambrose believed that the world was indeed created in seven days, as described by the Scripture; Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Blessed John Henry Newman and others did not, with Saint Augustine pointing to the statement cited above which shows that God’s day is not the same as the day of the Earth. Witch hunts were caused by the mixing of religion and politics and religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants; religiously homogeneous areas experienced little witch hunts (as usual, multiculturalism caused problems, especially when combined with particularly dogmatic and hateful nature of ideologically as opposed to nationalistically justified war as well as literalist nature of Protestantism; more here).
Today, the theory of evolution is only disputed by few rabid Christians; Church as such has done its best to fit the theory of evolution within the framework of Christianity. In fact, the Church has changed its teachings to conform to scientific facts and theories. Even recently, important scientific advances were made within the framework of the Catholic Church; Georges Lemaitre, who proposed the Big Bang theory and hung out with Einstein, was a Catholic priest, and he was the first person to bring together Einstein’s theory of relativity and Hubble’s cosmological observations. Cardinal Ratzinger – later Pope Benedict XVI – has stated that the Scripture teaches about “who” man is, not “how” he came to be; John Paul II has likewise accepted the theory of evolution as being “more than hypothesis”. But while evolution is a recent theory, the myth of Biblical creation in seven days was rejected by Christian thinkers as early as 4th century, with St. Augustine arguing that everything was created in the same instant (probably because seven-day creation would mean that God is not omnipotent). Other times, Christians are said to oppose science when they actually oppose what they see (and what often truly are) immoral scientific practices. Richard Dawkins wrote that the Pope Benedict “is an enemy of science, obstructing vital stem cell research, on grounds not of morality but of pre-scientific superstition”. His argument ignores that the stem cell research often involves flat-out murder of human embryos, in its basis no different than Dr. Josef Mengele’s research on human patients which also brought significant scientific results. In fact, it is modern science which brought the Church to oppose embryonic research, as it demonstrated that human life starts with conception. In ancient Greece, Aristotle taught that the human person arose only 40 to 90 days after the union of the man and the woman in sexual intercourse. Aristotle thought, and this view was a common one until the nineteenth century, that the menses of the woman was “worked on” by the fluid ejaculated by the man to form a human being, some 40 days after the sexual union in the case of a male and 90 days in the case of a female. But the modern biology shows that the sperm and egg are the gametes of sexual reproduction. When egg and sperm unite, they immediately create a new living being with a DNA unlike that of either father or the mother; and no matter how undeveloped, ending the life of another human being is murder. Embryo is not part of mother’s body, so the argument that “women have the right to do with their body what they like” is both intellectually dishonest and factually incorrect. But the stem cell research which does not involve murder of another human being is not only permitted, but even funded by the Catholic Church. This research which uses adult stem cells or stem cells from umbilical cords has already been developed into treatment which saved lives. On the contrary, embryonic stem cell research has not led to any cure or useful scientific advancement despite all the money and murders which went into it.
One particular extant friction point is the Christian belief in miracles. Miracles are found in the Bible and claimed by Christians, but are generally held to be incompatible with science. But science and the scientific method, which are ways of objectively (as much as possible) understanding the physical world, have to be distinguished from the philosophical naturalism, which is a philosophic theory which holds that there are only natural causes. While many scientists believe in the philosophic naturalism, it is not a requirement for a scientist as long as they follow the scientific method. Philosophic naturalism itself cannot be proven or disproven any more than God can, as God is held to be a spiritual being, and science is limited to (what is) empirically verifiable. But problem appears with scientism, which is the belief that human life can be defined through science. Scientism rejects philosophy, religion and ethics, believing that scientific truths are the only truths there are, and that science alone can create a perfect society. But in reality, science is a tool, and just like any tool it can be used for both good and evil – and the latter is extremely likely in the absence of guidelines such as provided by ethics, humanism etc.
And in the end, fact remains that atheists, agnostics etc. can be just as irrational as religious people, and science does not preclude irrationality. An example of that was displayed a science professor in Minnesota desecrated what he claimed to be a consecrated host. This avowed atheist stuck a nail through the host, threw it in a wastepaper basket, then dumped a banana peel and coffee grounds on it. Afterwards, he posted a picture on his blog and proceeded to lecture the world that the Eucharist is a “horrible little cracker” and that we should believe only that which is scientifically verifiable. Overall, the case clearly shows that atheists can be as fundamentalist and irrational as members of any religion. After all, stupidity is something inherent to all humans, no exception; religious, politico-social and economic ideologies merely help it to manifest. In that regard at least, there is no difference between liberalism / scientism, Christianity, Nazism and Islam. In fact, it was the scientism of the 19th century which ushered in the virulent racism, Communism and Nazism, with Darwinist “survival of the fittest” theory in particular justifying Nazi expansionism and genocide. Today, natural, medical and historical sciences rapidly advance while philosophical sciences fall behind. But this is a problem, since science without guidance can be extremely dangerous. Despite its proclamations, when faced with the choice between freedom and truth, science often chooses freedom at the expense of truth. Science can never provide ethical guidelines for life, and always has inbuilt pressupositions – with scientific fields oftentimes taking them from other fields, both within and without science itself. Because of this, science can be dangerous if not restrained by ethical guidelines; and if one has to choose between ethics and science, ethics should always win out. As Cicero has said: “Man judges much more frequently influenced by hatred or love or cupidity…or some mental agitation, than by the truth, or a command, or the law”.
A joke connected to the note about God’s days:
“A man came to God and asked him: “How long is one minute for you?” God: “A billion minutes.”. Man: “How much is one Kuna for you?”, God: “A billion Kunas.”. Man: “Can you please give me one Kuna?”. God: “Sure, wait – one minute.”.