Over at The Daily Beast, Christopher Dickey interviews Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The piece, called “Vatican science on Christmas and creationism,” is of interest mainly because it shows the muddle that the Church gets itself into by simultaneously embracing Catholicism and modern science. I’m in a rush preparing for my trip, so I’ll comment on just a few bits.
I was surprised to learn that the academy has 80 current members, including some non-Catholics, and over the years has harbored at least four Nobel Laureates.
Dickey sets the stage by claiming that Catholicism was once at war with science, which of course is true, though accommodationist historians have claimed that such disputes were not religious but political. Dickey:
Atheists and fundamentalists, both, will be tempted to say the whole notion of a pontifical academy of science is a contradiction in terms. Back in the fiery heyday of the Inquisition, after all, pontiffs and scientists were in deadly opposition, just as Bible-waving Evangelicals and cold-blooded evolutionists are squared off today in the creationist wars that plague American education.
Well, the Inquisition started well before science was a going concern: the term “scientist” was invented only in 1834, though people were practicing what we’d consider science in the 17th century. But Dickey is generally right: Galileo and Bruno were certainly persecuted, at least in part, because of their scientific views were contrary to Church doctrine. This was of course “political” in the sense that the Church was also the state. But one can say without reservation that the church was implacably opposed to those who used reason and doubt to figure out truths about the universe: what I call “science in the broad sense.”
But I digress; look what Sánchez says about reason:
But over the centuries the views of the Catholic Church have evolved, in fact, and conservatives are going to be shocked once again by the way this papacy broadens its message of reconciliation to include an ever-wider spectrum of humanity, including skeptical scientific researchers and intellectuals.
“If we don’t accept science, we don’t accept reason,” says Sánchez, “and reason was created by God.”
Reason was created by God? Really? Sánchez, like the Church itself, accepts evolution, and it’s clear that many animals can reason. We aren’t the only reasoning species. Primates can reason, some birds can reason (perhaps many, but we haven’t tested them all), and cetaceans can reason. If everything evolved naturally, then reason evolved too. The church claims to deviate from straight naturalistic evolution only by positing that a soul was inserted in the hominin lineage. So what Sánchez is doing here is adding yet another intrusion of God into the evolutionary process, but one that is wrong since, while we can’t prove that animals don’t have souls (or even that we do!), we can show that we’re not the unique reasoning species. Finally, he’s saying this kind of stuff because he wants to argue that science arose from religion.
And of course it’s just fatuous to claim that reason must have been created by God. Reason could naturally arise by natural selection once a brain was big enough to process complex information. Such an argument is also contrary to Sánchez’s claim, later in the piece, that science and religion are non-overlapping areas. The assertion that reason didn’t evolve is certainly a violation of this Gouldian view, expressed as follows:
“The notion of creation is completely different from the notion of evolution,” said Sánchez. “Creation is a philosophical notion that comes from The Bible. It says that God, from nothing, created being.” That is the central concept, he said, and science has no real explanation for how that might happen. But evolution is different. There is a great deal of evidence, he said, that there is evolution in nature and that species evolve.
The great confusion comes, according to Sánchez, when people try to use science to prove or disprove the existence of God. “This is like saying you can prove the existence of the soul,” said Sánchez, and about that he has no doubt.
Over the years the progress of science has caused many in the Catholic Church to rethink what they thought they knew, like the location of Heaven and of Hell. “In the past, we said they are [physical] places,” Sánchez explained, as if they could be pinpointed on a map of the cosmos. But that was back in the Middle Ages when people believed the universe was organized in spheres with Earth at their center, then the sun and the moon and the stars, and beyond them, Heaven. Hell was under the ground in the center of this planet. Now Paradise and the Inferno are understood philosophically as states of being, not places on a chart.
“All these questions of physics and metaphysics have changed because physics have changed,” says Sánchez.
This is so completely muddled that I can’t figure out what the good bishop is trying to say. If he’s saying that God created being from nothing, that is not a philosophical claim but an empirical one: it argues that God produced the first life, and this invalidates the whole field of abiogenesis. And if he’s trying to claim that it’s wrong to use science to prove or disprove the existence of God, then why does the Church demand validated evidence of two miracles before someone is made a saint? Clearly the Church relies on empirical evidence all the time as evidence for God. And it is still part of Church doctrine that Adam and Eve were the literal ancestors of humans. Science disproved that one about a hundred years ago, so why don’t they remove that from their doctrine?
I am always amused by Hell, which of course is referred to as a literal place in the Bible. Here are a few references:
Matthew 13:42: And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Matt 25:41: Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.
Mark 9:43: And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched.
Luke 16:24: And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
So how does Sánchez know that these are all metaphors? It’s not science that casts doubt on hell, but secular morality: people realized that the idea of eternal torment for, say, one unconfessed episode of masturbation, was not seemly for a loving God. I suppose Sanchez follows this flowchart:
Sánchez also agrees with some other stuff that’s scientifically insupportable:
There is still plenty of room for miracles in Sánchez’s universe.
He tends to agree with scientists who think the Star of Bethlehem that guided the three kings of Asia to the infant Jesus was really Halley’s Comet. Other theories hold that it was a supernova or an alignment of two or three planets. “Of course, it might have been a complete miracle,” said Sánchez. “God can suspend natural laws.” But the bishop prefers to associate those sorts of miracles mainly with the story of Jesus. The raising of Lazarus from the dead is particularly important. “To return the soul to the body, this is a very special miracle,” said Sánchez.
“The bishop prefers”. . . I am stupefied.
Finally, according to the bishop, science has told us that all fetuses are human:
At the same time, advances in biology have expanded the definition of life. In the past, says Sánchez, the church considered that an embryo did not have human life until it began to take on something resembling human form, about 40 days into a pregnancy. “Now we say if the first cells [after fertilization and conception] have DNA, the genetic coding for human beings, then they have life.”
No, biology has not expanded the definition of life; it’s religious revelation and dogma that has made the Church decree not only that a fertilized egg is a person, but that every sperm is sacred. Let us not forget that an egg cell and a sperm have DNA as well. Those are living cells, but they’re not people. Sánchez’s problem is that he equates “life” with “person.” A liver cell cannot survive on its own except in the body (or a Petri dish), and a fetus cannot survive on its own until well into pregnancy. So if other cells are parasitic on the organism, and have DNA, and that DNA could potentially produce an entire person, why aren’t all of our cells “persons”? Is it not murder to pluck out a hair?
This is the kind of trouble you get into when trying to embrace medieval, supernatural dogma and modern science at the same time. Sánchez’s lucubrations about science sound superficially sane, but fall apart when you think about them for just a minute.