Saturday, February 11, 2006

Regarding ‘Benedict Takes The Pepsi Challenge’, Roman Catholicism and Science


I’d like to address the first issue – the compatibility of Roman Catholicism and scientific thought.

Firstly, Peter, the easy position is that if the Pontiff claims that Roman Catholicism and science are compatible then they are, due to pontifical infallibility (the Pontiff is infallible on theological matters; within limits now-days). It is an easy position, but can be set aside for the purposes of this discussion.

Secondly, the more complex theological position (as I understand it, and considerably oversimplified). Drawing from the non-literal interpretation of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures that is current in Roman Catholic theology, science has been assumed into the Roman Catholic worldview. (You have to remember that this is the Church that hosted and canonised Aquinas, Anselm, and Abelard, and that gives the Jesuits the capacity to build large radio telescopes. It is also the Church whose spiritual leader was well aware that Galileo was right about planetary motion at the time of excommunicating him.) To clarify, in a series of pontifical encyclicals, the Church has adapted doctrine to accord and accept scientific development/discovery. For example, a theologically acceptable version of Darwinian evolution is now taken as part of Church teaching, with the opening of ‘Genesis’ being viewed as a creation myth used to explain the process of how the world and its populations came to be. Further, there are no points of difference between Church teaching and current physics. In this theological system, God is relegated to the purely metaphysical – a figure outside the scope of possible scientific knowledge. It is within this framework that the Church position on miracles – an issue debated here last year – holds that a miracle is something that cannot be explained by rational and sceptical science.

The basic point is that the Roman Catholic Church is prepared to accept any position that is considered scientifically acceptable. The point of difference is that Roman Catholic dogma postulates the existence of God, and insists that this deity exists outside the realm of the scientifically knowable.

[I probably should have stated up-front that it has been a good few years since I dealt with any of the relevant material, so I’m far from infallible on these points. Further, should anyone feel like really engaging on this topic – you know to whom I refer – you might want to spend some time reading the various encyclicals and doctrinal documents prepared on the relationship between science and Roman Catholicism before you comment, but I – personally – think that none of the regular contributors to this blog are in any position to treat this particular issue at the moment. I am even prepared, having dealt with the topic to this extent, to say that to go further is beyond me – and I, of us all, should know the material having been educated in Catholic schools.]

Post Script; His Holiness is actually trying to extricate himself from involvement in the Intelligent Design debate. He made comments last year that were viewed – by some commentators – as being out of sync with the position articulated by his predecessors and which were criticised accordingly. Essentially, he made a comment that, translated into English, could have been taken as a support of ID, which was seen as challenging the acceptance of evolution. Further, the Pontiff is in no position to relieve the pressure in the states; ID is a Christian issue, NOT a Catholic one. As I’ve pointed to, Catholics are pro-evolution.


Rowan Blyth said...

And yet they still will not let you use contraceptive devices, a decision made by the pope who I would think is the least qualified to make such decisions, and as such I deride your claims to quilification and say I am better qualified and that you are wrong. With that I say good day to you sir.

michael said...

Hoorah for Rowan!

Martin, can you read Italian?

What does "chistian" mean Martin? Does it not mean 'one who believes in Christ'? And if it does, is not Catholicism then a christian sect?

Which Genisis creation myth? the seven day creation story has been taken as "a creation myth used to explain the process of how the world and its populations came to be" since Augustine. Do mean that one or the creation in one day story?

So if "the Roman Catholic Church is prepared to accept any position that is considered scientifically acceptable" then they wuld be prepared to accept that God doesn't exist, for this postion is certainly considered scientifically acceptable. Further, there are many conflicting scientifically acceptable positions. Does the Catholic church accept them all? if not, which ones does it accept? And why those and not the others?

I think the self proclaimed relevant authority needs to explain himself.

Samuel Douglas said...

then they wuld be prepared to accept that God doesn't exist, for this postion is certainly considered scientifically acceptable

Oh please give me a break!

Scientifically acceptable and scientifically provable are not even remotely equivalent. All that the Catholic position need accept to be consistent, is that it is scientifically acceptable that science cannot prove the existence of God either way.

MH said...


Firstly, Rowan the prohibition on contraception is a moral one. While I agree that the prohibition is wrong, you have to understand that morally the Roman Catholic views sex as an act of procreation and that whether or not intercourse results in a child is a divine prerogative. To use contraception, in this account, is to usurp God’s role in the continued creation of life, which is to play God, and playing God is morally wrong. This is a position that was developed not simply by a single Pontiff, but by the Pontiff in consultation with numerous respected clerics and theologians.

Look, I don’t agree with the position and it is one of the many problems I have with the Roman Catholic Church.

Secondly, whilst on the Roman Catholic Church, Michael I fear you fail to grasp the sectarian nature of Christianity from the Roman Catholic perspective. You’re ordinary Roman Catholic draws a distinction between being Catholic and being a Christian; a Christian may follow Jesus but the Catholic is a true follower. It may seem an invalid distinction – especially given the phrasing I’ve used – but it is one that allows the Catholic to look down on other Christians as being misguided. It is in this sense that I’ve, from age’d bias, applied the distinction.

Further, Michael, you will note that I referred to the opening of ‘Genesis’ by which I include both of the creation myths. If I wanted to refer to a specific version of creation, I would have referred to a specific version. (And ‘wow – you’ve read St Augustine!’; your broad reading didn’t add or detract from my point. Two can play this game …)

Finally, I think that Samuel is correct in his reply to Michael. If Michael had read the post more carefully, he would have noticed that I stated “The point of difference [between Roman Catholicism and science] is that Roman Catholic dogma postulates the existence of God, and insists that this deity exists outside the realm of the scientifically knowable”. I should, though, have been clearer on what I meant by ‘scientifically acceptable’. By acceptable I took any scientific premise that has been established to the point where it is a scientifically orthodox view. I am sure that philosophers of science could rip this apart, but it appears to me to exclude any premise or theory that is in the sort of contention you propose. In such cases, I assume, the Church would support the scientifically orthodox view or the view that more closely resembles the Church’s traditional view. The decision, of course, lies in the hands of the relevant Church authorities, and the Pontiff.

I’d like to repeat my disclaimer regarding the above; I’m far from an authority on this material and feel that I have probably done most of it a disservice in my brevity and lack of understanding (the result of a lack of scholastic interest during my schooling). I would also like to point out that I have spent the past four years studying philosophy and not in a seminary; if you really want answers to your questions there is a considerable literature out there for you to study. If you’re just trying to rip my feeble answers apart in self-glorification then you’re wasting my time.

michael said...

Martin, you insulting twerp, If you had read Augustine, you would know that there being two creation myths is rather important for him. You used the singular when referring to the creation stories at the beginning of genesis, so watch your grammar if you don't want to deal with such confusions. If you are going to deride me so for bringing this up perhaps you would care to explain precisely the added meaning given by interpreting both creation myths as allegorical rather than the one literal and the other allegorical, for this is not within the theology I have read.

But I'm sorry; you have no knowledge of this stuff, so I'm wasting your time.

Sam, what Martin said meant that all scientifically acceptable positions were accepted, not that those most in vogue were. As such it was a statement that said precisely nothing about the church's view on scientific thought. And don't tell me that consistency is an imperative factor of the teachings of the church.

Pete said...


Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!

Rowan Blyth said...

My comment was intentionally flippant, I just wanted to defy your 'don't bother replying to this' proclamation. That said, sadly you were to my knowledge mostly right about the Catholic church's official stance and history of interaction with science - that it is not as antagonistic as often characterised, or as the the potestant tradition has been. That said, individual christians are often science hostile as are many of the institutions policies and practices, despite official lines. I would now like to refer to my statements about the interaction between science and religion in an earlier discussion, infact fuck it, I might just repost them as they may be more topical in this post:

"Clearly this is a form of pragmatic truth, and might be viewed as the equivalent of the science of the time and place. This is the problem, when people cling to an outdated science, rather than the more contemporary (or appropriate) one. The debate therefore is not so much about whether science or religion is better, rather can they be reconciled. As the the religious texts are works on ethics, I would say the two should be as most historical precendent and scientific knowledge of religious texts are that appropriate to the time of writing and should not obscure the ethical doctrines which constitute the deeper reading.

Thus when a Christian says they are living by the word of the Bible, you should generally be afraid cause they will uphold custom 2000-4000 years dated designed to respond to very different historical problems."

I appreciate the contraceptive issue being a moral one rather than a meta-physical one. I don't make much in the way of claims about knowing the current Catholic position but I very possibly know more about the interactions between science and the Catholic church, particularly in relation to the Tycho's and Galileo's - what generally happens is process of conservative adoption new science, and often an appearance of hostility towards science which is generally a mis-placed aggression stemming from anxiety about other issues i.e. the rise of protestantism and the Catholic church's flailing to drag itself into modernity (it is very hard for cumbersome established institutions to move with the times, but some, like the Catholic church have managed to do so, but after a long and often troubled process). The actual proceedings against Galileo were accusations of protestantism and finally defamation of the pope - who had been mostly co-operative with a very un-coperative Galileo up until that point.

The problem is that most Christians of any denomination are not aware of the moral/meta-physical distinctions to be drawn, and when moral dictates are pinned upon meta-physics the fit really hits the shan. Likewise the inability to seperate cutomary law from moral Law (read up on history and try to find any non-historically charged and therefore non-contingent moral dictates in the Christian traditions that can be seen as universal and God given). Here is the issue - the lag between the rate of adoption and legacy of 1600 years of baggage compiling building upon itself. The Cathlic church, for all its relative liberalness is still an anachronistic conservative institution, and this can not be dressed up easily to appear anything but.