Sigh, once again into the breach. I was first aroused by Pope Francis’s wrong statements about global warming in his encyclical Laudatio Si. Now I read about Catholic bishops warning about the disastrous effect of climate change. (Which change has always been with us and probably will continue to be, despite fear-mongers’ efforts, as witnessed by the Medieval Warm Period, among others.)
The Church has no business pronouncing what science is good and what science is bad. The Church can certainly tell us what are morally acceptable ways to use science, as in its pronouncements on genetic modification of humans (see here and here). But it should not repeat the mistake made with Galileo, of judging the “truth” of scientific propositions (corrected by Pope St. John Paul II),
Here are my thoughts on this, taken from ESSAY 8 of my web-book, “Does science tell us how to live?”
THE GALILEO AFFAIR
In 1633 the Catholic Church made a big mistake: it convicted Galileo of heresy for advocating the Copernican theory, that the earth revolved around the sun. That is a bald statement of a much more complicated situation, as I’ve said in ESSAY 1: The Catholic Church, Midwife and Nursemaid to Science, Section 4.1. Galileo was convicted not so much for advocating the Copernican hypothesis, but for saying that Bible erred in its picture of the world. The Galileo affair has been used as a cudgel against the Catholic Church, as an argument that the Church opposes science. But, as George Sim Johnston puts it:
“The Galileo affair is the one stock argument used to show that science and Catholic dogma are antagonistic. While Galileo’s eventual condemnation was certainly unjust, a close look at the facts puts to rout almost every aspect of the reigning Galileo legend.”
–George Sim Johnston, “The Galileo Affair“
Summarizing Johnston’s arguments, one can say that both Galileo and some Church officials were at fault, that it was a different time with different concerns–high officials in the Church, initially sympathetic to Galileo, were defending orthodoxy against the onslaught of the Reformation.
Galileo was condemned not for his advocacy of the Copernican theory per se, but for his advocacy that Scripture was to be interpreted loosely (even though St. Augustine had also argued for a non-literal interpretation of Genesis). And Galileo’s science was not entirely correct: he proposed circular orbits for the planets and an incorrect theory of tides. All this is dealt with at greater length in the article linked above. Nevertheless, this one piece of history has been the cannon used in the war of materialists against the Church to support their perceived conflict between the Church and Science.
In 1979 Pope St. John Paul II asked the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to make an in-depth study of the affair. Commenting on their report in 1992, he said, as an apology, explaining what had happened:
“Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system. The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture….”
–Pope St. John Paul II, “Address to Pontifical Academy of Sciences”, as quoted in L’Osservatore Romano N. 44 (1264) – November 4, 1992
CARDINAL SCHONBRUN AND INTELLIGENT DESIGN
Clearly the Church should not judge scientific matters when the science itself is not settled, Church dignitaries should carefully consider whether they should publically support one of several contending interpretations. Cardinal Schonbrun caused much controversy by publishing an essay in the New York Times, “Finding Design in Nature”, that seemed to support the theory of Intelligent Design as opposed to the neo-Darwinian mechanism of evolution. The essay was criticized by a number of Catholic scientists, including the then director of the Vatican Observatory and by the physicist, Stephen Barr, in an article in First Things. Cardinal Schonbrun enlarged on his position in a later article in First Things and explained that he was not necessarily supporting Intelligent Design theory, but that God guided all events, including evolution, and that our universe is not the product of chance. I certainly agree with that opinion.
POPE FRANCIS AND ANTHROPIC GLOBAL WARMING (AGW)
Pope Francis and many of the Catholic heirarchy have repeated the mistake made by Cardinal Schonbrun, by taking an official Church position on the truth and perils of Anthropic Global Warming. In his Encyclical Laudato Si and in statements from the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Science there are judgments and statements that are contentious, that are not held by all scientists. For example, it is not the case that polar ice and Himalayan snow are decreasing (they continually melt, but the net amount is not decreasing due to global warming–see evidence from satellite images.)
- First, it is not true that a “97% consensus” of scientists support the AGW / Climate Change proposition. See, for example the 97% myth. And in any case, scientific theories and propositions are not judged by majority vote, but by empirical confirmation. Before the Michelson-Morley experiment a majority of scientists believed in the ether as the medium for propagation of electromagnetic waves; afterwards, not many.
- Second, the extent of data massaging (“fudging”) revealed in the Climategate excerpts and of fiddled temperature data from Paraguayan weather stations should cause one to regard reported temperature increases with more than usual skepticism.
LEMAITRE & POPE PIUS XII: THE BIG BANG AS THEOLOGY; WHY THE CHURCH SHOULDN’T JUDGE SCIENCE
Pope Pius XII wanted to use the Big Bang theory of Abbe LeMaitre as evidence in a proof for God, supported by the Church. (See here.) Abbe LeMaitre dissuaded him from doing so by arguing that scientific theories are tentative, subject to change, and that certainly isn’t a property one should expect of a religious truth. After his conversation with Abbe LeMaitre, Pope Pius XII evidently agreed. He made no further proposals about the Big Bang as part of Catholic theology.
The Dogma and Doctrine of the Church are handed down from God as eternal truths, whereas theories and fundamental principles of science can change, supplanted by new theories and new empirical evidence. Accordingly, for Church officials to make a judgment about scientific matters—settled or unsettled—is to presume knowledge and authority for which they are not qualified. And such judgments oppose the notion of Dogma and Doctrine justified by Revelation and Tradition, rather than by empirical validation.