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from issue no. 03 - 2009

The Popes and the realism of scientists

“There’s always been a scientific body within the Holy See, since the days of Galileo. But the Popes of the 20th century nurtured a special interest in the results of experimental science because they were an antidote to the idealism of philosophy”. An interview with Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

Interview with Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo by Roberto Rotondo

“Scientists are usually realistic. And it is that realism that interests the Church and its Popes”. So Monsignor Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, bishop, professor of the History of Philosophy, sums up the reason why for more than four hundred years there has been a Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the Vatican, an institution independent in its research, but under the protection of the reigning pope, with the purpose of promoting the advancement of the mathematical, physical and natural sciences and the study of related epistemological problems. The scientists who belong to the Academy have always been selected without distinction of race or religion, only for their scientific and moral merits. Today the Academy, housed in the Casina Pio IV in the Vatican Gardens, consists of around eighty world-famous scientists, including about twenty Nobel Laureates, under the chairmanship of Professor Nicola Cabibbo. Monsignor Sánchez Sorondo, who is sixty-six years old, has been Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, as well as the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, for ten years. We met on the occasion of two anniversaries that will be celebrated throughout the world: the fourth centenary of the first telescopic observations of Galileo Galilei and the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of species.

The opening of the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Casina Pio IV on 31 October 2008; in the foreground, Monsignor Sánchez Sorondo <BR>[© Romano Siciliani]

The opening of the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Casina Pio IV on 31 October 2008; in the foreground, Monsignor Sánchez Sorondo
[© Romano Siciliani]

Monsignor Sorondo, more than four centuries have passed since 1603, the year in which the Accademia dei Lincei (out of which the Pontifical Academy of Sciences came in 1936) was founded under the patronage of Pope Clement VIII. Since then, the Popes have always wanted an independent and scientifically authoritative body within the Holy See. Why?
MARCELO SÁNCHEZ SORONDO: Let me answer by quoting a compliment paid in The gay science by Nietzsche, certainly not an author suspected of knee-bending to the Church. Nietzsche writes: “The popes have understood that there is also reason to understand man, not only philosophical reason, but also scientific reason”. And Benedict XVI, like his predecessors in the past, has more than once reiterated: nature is the first book written by God for men.
Scientists, however, sometimes see the Church as an obstacle to scientific progress.
SÁNCHEZ SORONDO: The real clash is not between science and the Catholic faith. The real problem of modern times, from Descartes onward, is between an idealistic view, which belongs to philosophy, and the scientific view. For the scientist, the thesis of Kant, for example, in which space and time are a priori of subjectivity, is meaningless. For the scientist, the reality of space and time is a fact. Hence the popes, especially the popes of the beginning of last century, I’m thinking of Pius XI and Pius XII, were extremely interested in the experimental sciences: they understood that science was bringing in a new realism in its investigation of nature, which went against the idealism of subjectivist philosophies. Certainly, the Church has always sought to integrate, to moderate the position of science, which is sometimes tempted to believe that the only truth is scientific truth.
In what way has the Church achieved this moderation of the scientific position?
SÁNCHEZ SORONDO: Basically by pointing out that the results of science are not the whole truth. There is philosophical interpretation and there is also the faith, for those who have received it in gift, which are something different. It’s a matter of harmonizing and not muddling things up. In general, men of science understand this difference in levels. If, for example, we say to a scientist that the first fertilized cell is a potential human being, that is developing, the scientist will say that from his point of view “potential being” is a philosophical concept that says nothing to him experimentally. Yet he knows it means something real. The same is true when one deals with the problem of creation, which is not only the problem of evolution but also the start of being. Scientists are fairly open to these arguments, while acknowledging they are not part of their research. And now Pope Benedict XVI is asking the scientific world only that it not restrict the spaces of reasoning.
But the scientist acknowledges no scientific value to theology and philosophy...
SÁNCHEZ SORONDO: As for that, Aristotle himself doesn’t call philosophy and theology science. But the genius of the Popes was precisely in keeping scientists close to them without subordinating them to a theological or philosophical vision. Nobody in the history of the Academy has ever tried to impose anything on the scientists participating.
In an article in L’Osservatore Romano last November, entitled Thank you, Galileo, Father José Funes, Director of the Specola Vaticana, the Vatican observatory, remarked: “There would have been no Galileo without the Catholic Church, and perhaps there would have been no Specola Vaticana without Galileo”...
SÁNCHEZ SORONDO: It’s obvious. And the fact that many renowned scientists belong to and work with our Academy confirms it: science as such was born here, was born in Italy. It was born with Galileo, in a Christian atmosphere and environment.
Has the Church settled all its accounts with the Galileo case or is there still something that needs apologizing for during this centenary?
SÁNCHEZ SORONDO: Benedict XVI has already several times spoken in praise of Galileo. The last time was during the Epiphany, in a fine speech in which he recalled that the Magi were also astronomers. All the Popes have always considered Galileo a genius: here outside there is a plaque that was set up by Pope Pius XII, which states that Galileo was a leading spirit of the Academy. And, after all, it is known that the Barberini Pope Urban VIII, under whom Galileo’s trial took place, did not sign the scientist’s sentence.
The Casina Pio IV, the quarters of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the Vatican [© Romano Siciliani]

The Casina Pio IV, the quarters of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the Vatican [© Romano Siciliani]

But a trial there was...
SÁNCHEZ SORONDO: I don’t think that there would have been any clash between science and Rome without Luther. Let me explain: the Catholic Church was so worried about the Protestants – who accused it of following reason more than faith, who accused it of materialism, of putting what the Bible says in second place – that it ended up adopting a distrust of science that didn’t belong to it. The consequences of the rupture within the Church were terrible also for the relation between the Church and science. Finally, with all due respect, Bellarmine was not St Thomas Aquinas, or it might well have gone differently.
2009 is also the year of Darwin. Is what is being said of Galileo valid for him too?
SÁNCHEZ SORONDO: If we distinguish what is science from what is ideology, there will be no controversy, no mea culpa. And then also the father of evolutionism believed in God.
What have been the high points in the work of the Academy since Pius XI founded it in 1936?
SÁNCHEZ SORONDO: I think the most fertile period was that when Max Planck, the father of quantum physics, was the leader of the Academy. Pius XII’s pleas against the atomic bomb, for example, were inspired by Max Planck. And during the Cold War, the Academy’s studies and documents on the disastrous consequences of an atomic war were, by Pius XII’s decision, presented to the world powers. This striving for peace is in reality a constant effort of the Academy. But let us go, for a moment, from theoretical physics to medicine: nowadays we are asking ourselves about when we can say that a person is dead and if death coincides with brain death or not. I’d like to recall that during the pontificate of Pius XII this research was going forward very strongly. And in his speeches to doctors, still very relevant, Pius XII reiterated that it is doctors who must research and tell us what the sign of death is.
But how does a Catholic scientist manage to believe in “God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth” and then think that the universe and its evolution are the result of chance, of a quantum calculation?
SÁNCHEZ SORONDO: Throughout his life Planck showed that it is possible to believe in a God creator and investigate nature, because they are different fields. Indeed, contemporary physics is much more open than the physics of Aristotle and Plato or medieval physics. Because for the ancients the world, time, movement, were eternal. Thomas Aquinas says that we know by faith that time had a beginning. That is much more compatible with a theory like the Big Bang, which is a physical beginning, certainly not metaphysical, rather than with the conception of the universe that ancient philosophy had. Agreement on the fact that there was a beginning links us to modern physics.
And evolution?
SÁNCHEZ SORONDO: If creation is the event in which God shares being, becoming is also concentrated in this being. God gives being and by giving being He gives becoming. The only delicate point is the human soul, because there, according to the Church, there is a need of a new intervention by God in every human being. So, it’s welcome if scientists show how the universe evolved. We hold only that the beginning is of God, and that there is a new intervention of God where the human being is concerned. As for chance: the ancients already talked of it and fortuitousness puts the rationalists in crisis, but not us.
Everything seems compatible, but even the president of the Academy, Professor Cabibbo, says that the Church feels embarrassment at every new discovery of science.
SÁNCHEZ SORONDO: I don’t see this embarrassment on the part of the popes nor of the churchmen who work or know how to confront the scientists, because the data of science are part of the truth. The problem is that sometimes scientists don’t realize that some of their statements are not properly scientific, but belong more to ideology, to philosophy. For example, during a recent conference in Venice, the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, an atheist, but who belongs to our Academy, said that one cannot prove the existence of God. So I asked him: “Professor, are you saying that as a scientist or on the basis of your experience of life?” He had to acknowledge that his statement had nothing to do with science because that can’t make a final decision on a reality that is not directly in nature. If one doesn’t make all the distinctions required, then there is generally a fearful attitude towards science. That is why we are also seeking at the Academy to clarify what belongs to the different spheres, to harmonize them. And we tackle and research without embarrassment or censure all the more complicated problems: that of evolution, but also the problems posed by the discoveries made about the human brain over the last fifty years, or the problem of stem cells.
Benedict XVI with the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking at the audience for the participants in the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 31 October 2008 in the Sala Clementina [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Benedict XVI with the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking at the audience for the participants in the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 31 October 2008 in the Sala Clementina [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

What is going to be the topic of the next conference?
SÁNCHEZ SORONDO: The genetic modification of food and it is to be held in the Spring. It will be the fourth time that the Academy has come together to discuss the issue. Our scientists have been arguing for years that there is no contraindication in the use of genetically modified foods but now it’s a matter of making feasible what we have researched.
Are the topics of the conferences decided independently?
SÁNCHEZ SORONDO: They are decided by the governing Council on a proposal by the Assembly. Sometimes, exceptionally, they are suggested by the Pope
Is it a help that Benedict XVI was himself an academician?
SÁNCHEZ SORONDO: It helps a lot. Pope Ratzinger is very solicitous towards the Academy and follows its activities. He is a great theologian and the meeting that was held in October with the scientists during the days of the conference on the evolution of the universe was particularly significant.
You have been Chancellor of the Academy for ten years. How does a philosopher feel working with scientists?
SÁNCHEZ SORONDO: Fine. Generally they want to share the discoveries they make. They’re a much easier group of people to work with than the philosophers of whom I’m one: they’re more open, more communicative, less egocentric than us. Above all they’re more realistic.

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