Castel Gandolfo is the summer residence of the popes, and the villa sits on the lip of a dormant volcano overlooking the crater and a near fathomless, blue volcanic lake. It is a place of breathtaking beauty, and even before Rome was built, these Alban hills were populated with the people of the Latin tribe. High above the smog and summer haze, this lofty perch, just twelve miles from Rome, has long been a place for Romans (ancient and modern) to escape the city’s heat of August.
But within the villa gardens and walls of Castel Gandolfo is the Vatican observatory. As one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world, its library contains more than 22,000 volumes, including antique works by Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Kepler, and others. Known in Italian as the “Specola Vaticana,” their wonderful website (www.vaticanobservatory.org) includes, among other things, a series of documents or reports wherein the Church went back, in modern times, to reevaluate the Church’s response to, and reaction toward, Galileo. We would encourage those interested in this subject to read these for themselves, but after closing the investigations and reviewing their findings, Pope Saint John Paul II said that, “…from the Galileo case we can draw a lesson which is applicable today…It often happens that, beyond two partial points of view which are in contrast, there exists a wider view of things which embraces and integrates both.”
Too often our detractors wrongly charge the Church with standing in opposition to scientific endeavor, but a well-educated person without prejudice would never think or say such a thing. The Church has always supported and funded scientific research within her many universities and teaching hospitals around the world. But we should understand that there are Catholics and then there is the official Magisterium. Catholic scientists should be fully engaged in their fields, but the Magisterial voice of the Church should stand more aloof.
Given the antiquity of the Church, the world community has, from time to time, asked popes to help it navigate through scientific turning points. With respect, it is important for us to remember that popes are not infallible in matters of science. Perhaps the lesson that John Paul the Great was attempting to convey is that when there are great debates within scientific circles, the perspective of history indicates that the Church should not try to officially referee between two points, because the scientific community itself, through observation and debate, will often alter or even replace its own theories as more is learned over the generations.
Certainly in some cases, the Church needs to challenge scientific theories for moral reasons. Nazis employed lots of “scientists,” for example, and their theories on “eugenics” had terrible consequences (theories which had been borrowed from American “scientists”). But succinctly put, science is not normally and technically the purview of the popes and our Magisterial Church, and some centuries hence, papal opinions on prevailing scientific debates of the day might seem quaint, if not embarrassing, to future generations.
Perhaps it would be better if popes proposed bigger questions, so that scientists don’t become too myopic in their pursuits, or overly utilitarian and materialistic. It may be true that spiritual matters are more the purview of the Church than science, but at the same time, scientists should consider morality and truth in their pursuit of understanding. Scientific theory has a moral component and this is where the Church needs to engage the scientific world in the universities and great research facilities of our day. For example, the science of human genetics, cloning, and fertility can bring up alarming concerns in the hearts of popes, who will continue to stress the intrinsic value of human life from conception to natural death. Animal husbandry may be fine, but the minute we begin discarding fertilized human embryos or justifying abortion, then we need the voice of the Church to prick our consciences and remind us of the sacred nature of human life. When science loses respect for human life, it risks becoming monstrous.
And science doesn’t always remember its mistakes. Scientists move past discarded theories and move on to the next best theory, which is as it should be. However, those dismissed theories sometimes leave dire consequences in their wake. Just do a Google search on Malthusianism, and you will see how the alarming “scientific” idea of an imminent overpopulation with its exaggerated claims of starvation and calamity have set our world on a path towards a demographic winter where birthrates are so low that our economies and the very future of our national institutions are threatened. As the birthrates fail to replace the citizens who are dying, and as our populations are getting older and older without young people to sustain our retirements, some will wish we had listened to the Church’s prophetic voice. But it will be too late.
Essentially, that prophetic voice is what we need to hear from the Church today most of all.