Shortly after Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI passed from this world to his heavenly reward, the Vatican issued his Spiritual Testament, a statement each pope writes for release upon his death. The testament included personal reflections on Benedict's upbringing, but it also highlighted a key issue the late pontiff addressed throughout his priesthood, professorship, and pontificate: the relationship between faith and science. Near the end of his testament, he states:
I have witnessed from times long past the changes in natural science and have seen how apparent certainties against the faith vanished, proving themselves not to be science but philosophical interpretations only apparently belonging to science—just as, moreover, it is in dialogue with the natural sciences that faith has learned to understand the limits of the scope of its affirmations and thus its own specificity.
Here, Pope Benedict is cautioning against the false dichotomy often set up between advances in the natural sciences and the Catholic faith. As he points out, these apparent contradictions between science and faith actually turn out to be contradictions between materialistic philosophies and faith.
For example, in his inaugural homily, Benedict pointed out the conflict between materialistic philosophies that undergird some interpretations of evolution. He stated: “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God.” Benedict is not putting the science of evolution in conflict with the faith—rather, he is correctly identifying the source of the conflict: a kind of materialism or scientism, the belief that evolution can explain the totality of man. He is affirming that we are more than just the physical product of an evolutionary process—we are a unity of body and spirit, made in the image and likeness of God. Those that believe the science of evolution can explain the totality of man are bound to both develop an impoverished understanding of man and to set up an inherent conflict between a materialistic understanding of man and a Catholic understanding of man.
For Benedict, this does not mean that one should abandon science. Rather, he argues that we should place science in the proper context. The knowledge we gather from the natural sciences should complement our Catholic faith. For example, evolution can help explain the physical developments leading to the emergence of man, and this knowledge can complement what we learn through Catholic theology regarding the purpose and nature of man. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made this clear in a series of homilies he gave in the 1980s:
We cannot say: creation or evolution, inasmuch as these things correspond to two different realities. [The Genesis creation account] does not in fact explain how human persons come to be but rather what they are… And, vice versa, the theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments. To that extent we are faced here with two complementary—rather than mutually exclusive—realities.
Grounded in the Catholic understanding that truth cannot contradict truth, because God is the ultimate source of all truth, Benedict maintains that we should not be afraid to engage modern science. The beauty and grandeur of the universe that science uncovers—from the microscopic world of the cell to the macroscopic world of stars and exoplanets—while interesting in their own right, point toward something deeper. The sublime discoveries of modern science do not by necessity lead one away from God. Rather, they gradually reveal a world that ultimately finds its true meaning in the creator. As Benedict points out, “To believe in creation means to understand, in faith, the world of becoming revealed by science as a meaningful world that comes from a creative mind.”
This emphasis on God as the creative reason, the source of not only the order of the universe but also of our own human reason, is a theme that recurs throughout Benedict’s work. Certainly modern science, with all of its advanced methods and techniques, can investigate and describe this order—but it cannot explain why, at its foundation, the universe is highly ordered.
This order is a gift to us that not only makes our existence in the universe possible but also makes the very act of scientific discovery possible. The fact that the universe is rational and reasonable is precisely what makes it amenable to modern science. Every scientific discovery is premised on the existence of this order and our unique ability to encounter this order.
The science of evolution is just one example of this. The processes of evolution that scientists describe are entirely dependent upon this order to operate at all. Without the order inherent at the foundational level, there would be no periodic table of the elements, no complex molecules, and certainly no life forms that could develop over time according to natural processes. This underlying order was not created by evolution. Rather, it is a gift that allows evolution to operate.
But the universe did not have to be structured in such a fashion. Is this order merely due to happenstance, a freak accident, or is it the result of God's creative reason? Pope Benedict sums up the alternatives:
Here we are faced with the ultimate alternative that is at stake in the dispute between faith and unbelief: are irrationality, lack of freedom and pure chance the origin of everything, or are reason, freedom and love at the origin of being? Does the primacy belong to unreason or to reason? This is what everything hinges on in the final analysis.
This is the ultimate question, and it is why Benedict stands strong in his conviction that the faith is not irrational or unreasonable. He recognizes correctly that to reject faith and pursue scientism—the belief that science can answer all our questions—leaves irrationality and unreason as the “explanation” for everything. Such a move leaves us with no reasonable foundation upon which to build our science, let alone our societies. For Benedict, it is precisely because the creative reason stands at the origin of everything—“in the beginning was the Word”—that we can trust our human reason to point us toward true knowledge and understanding, not only in the realm of science, but in the realms of philosophy and theology as well.
As Benedict encourages us in his Spiritual Testament, “Stand firm in the faith! Do not be confused!”
Dan Kuebler is project co-lead of The Purposeful Universe and a professor of biology at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
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Image by Lucas Pezeta licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.