When Should The Church Meddle In Science? Guest Post by Bob Kurland

A longer version of this essay can be found at Kurland’s site.

Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish. —St. John Paul II, Letter to Rev. George Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory.


The ideal of Church/Science interaction is illustrated by St. John Paul II’s message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on evolution:

…some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis….What is the significance of a theory such as this one? To open this question is to enter into the field of epistemology. A theory is a meta-scientific elaboration, which is distinct from, but in harmony with, the results of observation. With the help of such a theory a group of data and independent facts can be related to one another and interpreted in one comprehensive explanation. The theory proves its validity by the measure to which it can be verified. It is constantly being tested against the facts; when it can no longer explain these facts, it shows its limits and its lack of usefulness, and it must be revised

…And to tell the truth, rather than speaking about the theory of evolution, it is more accurate to speak of the theories of evolution. The use of the plural is required here—in part because of the diversity of explanations regarding the mechanism of evolution, and in part because of the diversity of philosophies involved. There are materialist and reductionist theories, as well as spiritualist theories. Here the final judgment is within the competence of philosophy and, beyond that, of theology.

The magisterium of the Church takes a direct interest in the question of evolution, because it touches on the conception of man, whom Revelation tells us is created in the image and likeness of God…In other words, the human person cannot be subordinated as a means to an end, or as an instrument of either the species or the society; he has a value of his own. He is a person. By this intelligence and his will, he is capable of entering into relationship, of communion, of solidarity, of the gift of himself to others like himself…if the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God (“animas enim a Deo immediate creari catholica fides non retimere iubet“). (Humani Generis)

As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.

What a fine example! St. John Paul II shows that he knows what science is about, that it requires empirical confirmation of hypotheses. Unlike many scientists, he distinguishes the scientific fact of evolution, the descent of species, from theories/mechanisms used to explain evolution (e.g. the neo-Darwinian model). And most important, he shows why and how the Church should be concerned with theories that impinge on its teachings. We cannot accept theories which “regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter”.

When the church should not pronounce on science

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 Stephen Barr. Cardinal Schonbrun enlarged on his position to explain 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. And we all certainly agree with that opinion.

I’m very much afraid that Pope Francis is about to repeat the mistake made by Cardinal Schonbrun by taking an official Church position for the truth and perils of Anthropic Global Warming. I don’t know what will be in the Pope’s proposed Encyclical, but if it is based on statements in his interviews and from the article from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, there will be 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, as that article says. (For a harsh critique, see the PowerLine post by John Hinderaker; for a more charitable and hopeful view of the upcoming encyclical see the post by Matt Briggs.)

As far as AGW goes, it is essential that two points be made:

Accordingly, unlike evolution, global warming caused by human production of CO2 is by no means a settled scientific issue.

I’ll not discuss at length the unintended consequences for the poor of measures taken by governments to combat the threat of AGW, but only mention a few:

  • rising food costs for third world populations due to diversion to biofuels;
  • replacement of rain forest by palm tree groves for biofuels;
  • the loss of jobs by coal miners and utility plant workers;
  • the risk of pollution by elements used in wind turbines and hybrid automobile batteries (there is a greater carbon footprint from mining lithium and shipping batteries than in the corresponding use of gas fuels);
  • the despoilation of landscapes and loss in property values due to wind turbines;
  • the decimation of migrant bird and bat populations by wind turbines;

For a fuller account see Andrew Montford’s “The Unintended Consequences of Climate Change Policy“. The Danish statistician/economist, Bjorn Lomberg, believes in AGW but also believes that resources used to deal with it would be better expended for the Third World poor by improving water supplies, agricultural resources and dealing with disease.

How the church should deal with science

The ideal is illustrated by St. John Paul II’s efforts and the Church’s stance on questions dealing with bioethics. In bioethical issues, it is the Church’s position on the sanctity of life and the uniqueness of the human person created in the image of God that determines Her position on abortion, euthanasia and the use of human embryos for stem cell research. The biomedical science is settled; the point is whether the technology arising from the science should be used. An area in which confusion might arise is that of genetic modification of humans: the position of the Church is that genetic modification for therapy–to cure a genetically induced disease–is permissible but not for enhancement, not to create the “supermensch”; see “Human or Superhuman?

How the Church deals with bioethical questions is a different thing from whether the Church should pronounce a scientific theory true. The Church has not said that one of the 17 or more interpretations of quantum mechanics is correct. She has not said that the Big Bang hypothesis is correct, even though it was suggested by LeMaitre, a Belgian Abbe, and is consistent with the Church’s teaching of Creatio ex Nihilo.

If it is indeed necessary that the Church, in the person of the Holy Father or other ecclesiastical authority, gives an edict on the truth or falsity of a scientific theory, it should employ the same standards of rigor as it does in the canonization process, when it employs a Devil’s advocate to decide whether miracles due to the intervention of a saint have occurred.


  1. Thank you, Matt, for printing this. I should add that I will not be responding to comments on this post until after April 4th.

  2. Jim Fedako


    The descent of species is “fact”? Really?!? Despite your assertion, that statement is neither fact nor truth. It is nothing less than a theory used to explain observations. Your bias is showing.

  3. Gary

    Meddle in science? Well, never, but you really mean make pronouncements about the discoveries and applications of science.
    Headline writers never seem to read the pieces they title…

  4. Ben

    Bob, Like so much else the Devil’s Advocate as abolished in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.

  5. John B()


    20 years later and an entirely different Pope?

    I’m not sure the elimination of the office can be considered an “aftermath” of Vatican II in the sense that it was an “outcome” of the Council’s work. Just something that happened afterwards.

    I believe the use of “Post-Watergate” to describe congressional actions was dropped by the 80’s so I wouldn’t ascribe that to Vatican II unless they had mentioned it for future consideration.

    The Devil’s Advocate ONLY had four centuries of tradition which isn’t very long.

  6. As Cardinal Turkson said, “For the Christian, to care for God’s ongoing work of creation is a duty, irrespective of the causes of climate change.”

    For whatever reason, you’ve shown to be unable or unwilling to address that point. I get the feeling you’re one of those New World neo-conservative Catholics who has forgotten his historic roots, hence the conservatism. You a fan of Mel Gibson? 😉


  7. “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

    The Bible appears fairly clear on this point. The planet is there to serve man, man is not there to serve the planet.

  8. Will, that is one creepy way of seeing things.

    The point is simple -just what the hell are you guys supporting here? Why is it so important to you that we consume certain kinds of fuel? People like me want to see less pollution, less dependence on single resources per sector, and so forth. What is your argument? Profits for some coal company? Exxon? Haliburton? What?


  9. Noblesse Oblige

    The comments here show us once again the Yin/Yang nature of the Internet. Yin — Everyone has the ability to access information and draw their own conclusions. Yang — Everyone has the ability to gain outlets to express the most absurd ignorant ideas and spout complete nonsense.

  10. Christians don’t generally creep me out. (I’m agnostic in case anyone cares.) I do find a lot of ‘modern’ socialist thought far more creepy. (Although it’s not actually modern–it’s a re invigoration of early 19th century Romanticism.) There are really different competing ideologies here. One has a proven track (Christian) which didn’t turn out too bad, although obviously it has its faults. The second ideological world view, the ‘Gaian’ or ‘Green’ view, I tend to be more contemptuous of. It has all the hall marks of a proto-religion yet has the conceit that it is irreligious. It uses scientism in various forms to promote a kind of apocalyptic world view (borrowed from judeo-christian beliefs, end of the world caused by man’s sin’s against nature in this case), and masquerades behind positive sounding concepts such as ‘renewability’.

    Obviously you will find the Christian ideology ‘creepy’ in the same way they find your beliefs ‘creepy’, as they are in some respects diametrically opposed.

  11. John B()


    — As Cardinal Turkson said, “For the Christian, to care for God’s ongoing work of creation is a duty, irrespective of the causes of climate change.” —

    All due spiritual respect to the Cardinal.
    That’s a fairly empty scientific statement.
    Let’s care for God’s ongoing work of creation.
    Let’s ignore the cause of climate change.

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