Theology needs to come to grips with scientific findings, including those of modern neuroscience, says a French astrophysicist who is a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

Theology needs to come to grips with scientific findings, including those of modern neuroscience, says a French astrophysicist who is a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

November 19, 2012

Dialogue and cooperation between faith and science are urgently needed for building a culture that respects people and the planet, Pope Benedict told his own science academy.

Without faith and science informing each other, "the great questions of humanity leave the domain of reason and truth," he told members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Nov. 8.

That leaves those questions "abandoned to the irrational, to myth, or to indifference, with great damage to humanity itself, to world peace and to our ultimate destiny," the pope said.

Pope Benedict said he is convinced of "the urgent need" for dialogue and cooperation between the worlds of science and faith.

Such cooperation can help to build "a culture of respect for man, for human dignity and freedom, for the future of our human family and for the long-term sustainable development of our planet," he said.

An academy member told Catholic News Service that as science becomes ever more complex and highly specialized, educational institutions and the Church must help scientists broaden their concerns to include the ethical and social consequences of their work.

"We make scientists today who are excellent specialists and remarkable technicians, but they have little culture in terms of the history of science," philosophy and ethics, said Pierre Lena.

Lena is a French Catholic astrophysicist who is working to revamp the way science is taught in schools and universities.

"These technically well-trained people make fantastic discoveries, but they miss the connection with the human person" he said. As well, they often fail to take into account the impact of their discoveries on people and the environment.

The other problem, Lena said, is that the general public often glosses over the importance of science because it is not explained in a way that shows clearly how new knowledge impacts their lives or future.

Scientists usually present their findings by sticking to objective facts, he said. They fail to realize that the general public tends to base many of its decisions on more subjective reasons like culture, tradition, feelings and religious beliefs.

Also, people may feel they can't trust what scientists say because their findings are in constant flux and development, he said.

Lena said scientists need to show that their sense of truth "is not the truth with a capital 'T,'" but is something that evolves and has limits.

Pope Benedict

Pope Benedict

Yet, at the same time, a scientific discovery or hypothesis "is not a purely relative opinion" either, but reflects real experimental findings or is based on highly probably statistical calculations, he said.


In his Nov. 8 speech to scientists, the pope said, "The universe is not chaos or the result of chaos." Instead, it is an ordered complexity.

While science still has not been able to completely understand the "unifying structure and ultimate unity" of reality, scientific disciplines are getting closer to "the very foundations" underlying the physical world, he said.

Lena said that while the Vatican has done much in terms of reaching out to the world of science through its many conferences and initiatives, more needs to be done.

In particular, the Church on the ground, especially in Catholic schools, needs to play a greater role in teaching the nature of scientific truth, he said.

"Except for the Jesuits, Catholic education was and I think still is cautious about science that might destroy the faith."


Questions such as natural selection and evolution, the possibility of life on other planets and the neurological basis for the psyche tend to be among those that give rise to this wariness, he said.

In general, Catholic education stresses the humanities "because they speak about man, and the good and the bad."

However, Catholic education tends to avoid the more complex or poorly understood modern discoveries and theories of science, he said.

Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the academy's chancellor, said the unfamiliar or quickly evolving terrain of science is one reason why the pope has a science academy - to monitor the latest advancements in different fields.

Sanchez told CNS that it's critical for the New Evangelization to take into account current scientific opinions and positions.

It's important to help secularized universities, students or professional fields understand "that the truth of faith is not in contrast to these other truths, rather in many cases it strengthens them and gives them new drive, new incentive," the bishop said.

Lena said theologians need to be engaged in hammering out the Christian response to the many questions that arise in science today, from complex end of life issues to the possibility of life on other planets.

The problem, he said, is that much of theology is based on teachings from third- and fourth-century Church fathers or 12th-century St. Thomas Aquinas, who didn't face the same social or global challenges as today.


"Science is constantly changing our representation of the world. You cannot picture who man is after the discoveries of evolution or neuroscience," he said.

Theology has to step in and provide some responses, he said. Otherwise, Catholics may be tempted to think "science is too dangerous and keep it as far as possible from faith because it threatens" eternal Christian principles.

He said if theology could keep pace in providing the Catholic insight and interpretation to modern challenges and discoveries, "then the gap between the beliefs of people and the scientific world" could close.