Mixing Up the Sciences of Heaven and Earth
By Fr. George W. Rutler
A museum curator here in New York recently showed me some extraordinary documents and I touched them with awe, albeit with cotton gloves. There was Benjamin Franklin’s annotated copy of the Constitution, and a long letter by Washington refusing to run for a second presidential term, because all he had to commend himself was his character, which was no longer of interest to an ungrateful populace that already had reduced politics to material interests. In pencil on a small piece of paper, Lee proposed a meeting with Grant at Appomattox to present his sword.
More riveting, at least to me as a cleric, was a mint copy of the papal bull Inter Caeteraby which Pope Alexander VI in 1493 divided the world between Castile and Portugal with a specified meridian. While it was not without effect, its neglect of specific degrees, and obliviousness to the immensity of the globe, led John II of Portugal to shelve it and, in France, Francis mocked it: “Show me Adam’s will.” The pope was Aragonese and, while suspected of prejudice by the Portuguese, was trying his best to establish some order in a world as novel as outer space. Prescinding from the complexities of his personal household, this was the one notorious miscalculation in a pontificate of remarkably successful undertakings in matters religious and not political. In his letter to the Duke of Norfolk, John Henry Newman lists other popes who were mistaken in certain policies: St. Victor, Liberius, Gregory XIII, Paul IV, Sixtus V, and St Peter himself when St. Paul “withstood” him.
Pope Gregory XIII and his advisers, in the misunderstood (and sometime deliberately misrepresented) Galileo case, inadequately distinguished the duties of prophecy and politics, and of theological and physical science. St. John Paul II said that “this led them unduly to transpose into the realm of the doctrine of the faith, a question which in fact pertained to scientific investigation.” Father Stanley Jaki, a physicist, once cautioned me against using the “Big Bang” as theological evidence for creation. On a loftier level, the physicist Father Georges Lemaître likewise restrained Pope Pius XII from conflating the parallel and complimentary accounts of the universe.
Father Lemaître pioneered the “First Atomic Moment”—contradicting the prevailing thesis of a cosmological constant, or “static infinite” universe. Sir Fred Hoyle mocked it as the “Big Bang” but the term now has lost its condescension. Lemaître told the pope: “As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question…. It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.” He also advised friends such as Einstein: “The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses…. As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.” It was like the counsel of Cardinal Baronius later quoted by Galileo: the Scriptures teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.
Pope Francis’ encyclical on the ecology of the earth is adventurously laden with promise and peril. It can raise consciousness of humans as stewards of creation. However, there is a double danger in using it as an economic text or scientific thesis.
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