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from issue no. 03 - 2009

Autonomous, under the protection of the Pope

by Roberto Rotondo

Pius XI during the inauguration of the second academic year of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1938 <BR>[© Osservatore Romano]

Pius XI during the inauguration of the second academic year of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1938
[© Osservatore Romano]

“The existence of this Pontifical Academy of Sciences, of the forerunner of which Galileo was a member, and to which today belong eminent scientists, without any form of ethnic or religious discrimination, is a visible sign, lifted up among the peoples, of the profound harmony that can exist between the truths of science and the truths of faith”. So on 10 November 1979 John Paul II stressed the role and functions of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the centenary of Einstein’s birth, calling on that occasion for the Church to review its judgment on Galileo Galilei.
The Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, an extraordinary forum for dialogue between science and faith, has its origin in the Accademia dei Lincei, founded in Rome in 1603 under the patronage of Clement VIII. During those years Galileo Galilei was also a leading figure in the Academy. Later dissolved, it was restored by Pope Pius IX in 1847 under the name of the Pontifical Academy of the New Lincei. Pope Pius XI refounded it in 1936, with its current name, giving it a statute that was to be updated in 1976 by Pope Paul VI and in 1986 by Pope John Paul II. Since 1936, the Pontifical Academy has engaged itself both with research into specific scientific issues within single disciplines, and with the encouragement of interdisciplinary co-operation, progressively increasing the number and the international character of its membership. Legally, the Academy is an independent body within the Holy See and enjoys freedom of research. Despite having been given a new term of life at the initiative of a pope and lying under the direct protection of the Pope, it carries out its activities independently in accordance with the goals summarized in its statute: “The goal of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is to promote advances in the mathematical, physical and natural sciences and the study of related epistemological problems”.
Its members are co-opted by the body of academicians, chosen from among men and women of every race and religion on the basis of the high scientific value of their work and their moral profile, they are then officially appointed by the Pontiff. The Academy is governed by a president (for the last twelve years Professor Nicola Cabibbo) – appointed from among its members by the pope – assisted by a scholarly council and a chancellor, since 1998 Monsignor Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo. The forum consists of eighty scientists appointed for life, among whom there are currently about twenty Nobel prize winners: a tradition of the Academy, which during its several decades of activity has had among its members an impressive number of Nobel prize winners, many of whom were appointed as academicians before receiving the prestigious international award: from Marconi to Lemaître, from Planck to Fleming, the majority of those who make up the history of science in the 20th century have been here.
The life members are flanked by a limited number of “honorary” academicians chosen on their merits, and other “perdurante munere” because of the posts they hold: among them, the Chancellor, the Director of the Specola Vaticana, the Prefect of the Vatican Library and the Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives. Among the honorary members there also now theologians such as Cardinals Cottier and Martini, and in the past Joseph Ratzinger was also an honorary member of the Academy.

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