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Pope urges scientists ‘never to fear truth’

The Rev. Emmanuel Carreira operates the telescope at the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, on June 23, 2005. The Vatican Observatory, one of the world's oldest astronomical institutes, selects young, promising scholars for courses at the papal summer palace. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Tony Gentile

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis told a group of astronomers that scientific questions about the universe and its origins sometimes clash with theology and spiritual beliefs, but he encouraged them to continue their quest for knowledge and “never to fear truth.”

The pope sent a personal greeting on Friday (May 12) to astronomers, cosmologists and other researchers discussing black holes, gravitational waves and assorted scientific questions at the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome. 

Francis said issues such as the beginning of the universe and its development, as well as the “profound structure” of space and time “concern us deeply.” 

The Vatican Observatory near Rome in 2014. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Victor R. Ruiz

“It is clear that these questions have a particular relevance for science, philosophy, theology and for spiritual life,” the pope said. 

“They represent an arena in which these different disciplines meet and sometimes clash.”

The 35 conference participants included Gerald ‘t Hooft, the 1999 Nobel laureate in physics from the Netherlands, British mathematician Sir Roger Penrose, who won the 1988 Wolf Prize in Physics and Renata Kallosh, a theoretical physicist and professor  at Stanford University.

“I encourage you to persevere in your search for truth,” the pope said. “For we ought never to fear truth, nor become trapped in our own preconceived ideas, but welcome new scientific discoveries with an attitude of humility.”

Brother Guy Consolmagno, the MIT-educated, Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory, said on Monday that faith and science are not opposed to each other.

“God is not a scientific explanation,” Consolmagno told RNS. “If you are using God instead of science to explain what happens in the world you are talking about the gods of the Romans and Greeks.

“We believe in a God that creates outside space and time and shows us everything he did. We experience God as a person, as a god of love.”

The Vatican Observatory was established by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 to show that the church supported science. The weeklong conference was held in honor of the Belgian Catholic priest and cosmologist,  Monsignor Georges Lemaitre, who is credited with the big-bang theory about the creation of the universe.

A DNA strand next to the title of the series.These stories are part of a series on science and religion, brought to you with support from the John Templeton Foundation. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation. (RNS logo, John Templeton Foundation logo}

About the author

Josephine McKenna

Josephine McKenna has more than 30 years' experience in print, broadcast and interactive media. Based in Rome since 2007, she covered the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis and canonizations of their predecessors. Now she covers all things Vatican for RNS.

13 Comments

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  • An important message from Pope Francis.

    Now it is time for Pope Francis to recognize the contributions of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and to open the door for Catholic theologians to also explore where there is a clash of new discoveries in science with established theology and spiritual beliefs, and “to continue their quest for knowledge and never fear” that the Catholic Church will shut them up.

    There are some hard subjects to be addressed and it will upset many. But delaying that search into a new understanding only harms the Church, causing more people to lose faith and trust.

  • “God is not a scientific explanation,” Consolmagno told RNS. “If you are using God instead of science to explain what happens in the world you are talking about the gods of the Romans and Greeks.

    Amen. Those who take Genesis literally have been proven wrong.

  • Okay, I’ll take the bait.

    Tell me where Genesis, which Jesus Himself quoted from, “has been proven wrong.”

  • Young Earth, the creation, Adam & Eve, Noah’s flood. In other words the science is wrong – as expected of authors living 3,000 years ago. Leaving Genesis – the sun stopping in the sky for Joshua (the sun does not move across the sky). I could go on.

    Of course this makes no difference to you because your views are based on faith.

  • “Truth is perhaps the most important name of God” – was said by Mahatma Gandhi. And Pope Francis to the community of scientists: “I encourage you to persevere in your search for truth. For we ought never to fear truth, nor become trapped in our own preconceived ideas, but welcome new scientific discoveries with an attitude of humility.”

  • Kudos for your very clear & concise reply, Jim. Let’s do your last sentence first. Yes, the Pope would agree with you, but that’s why they need a new Pope.

    The Christian faith is based on actual historical events, starting with the Genesis Creation, Fall, and Flood. Adam and Eve too. Those events, those people, are foundational to everything you read in the Gospels and New Testament.

    If they are falsified as actual history, then Christianity is refuted, and Jesus Himself is refuted. Why? because Jesus clearly appealed to those same Genesis events as actual history (e.g. Matt 19:4-5, Adam and Eve.).

    Remember Rom. 5:12-17? No Adam, No Atonement. Falsified Genesis account? Then falsified Gospel account too. The soul-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ is directly undercut and falsified with no way out, if what you said is true.

  • Once again, it makes a HUGE difference for every Christian, if what you said is true. It can’t be escaped.

    “If there is no original ancestor who transmitted hereditary sin to the whole species, then there is no Fall, no need for redemption, and Jesus’ death as a sacrifice efficacious for the salvation of humanity is pointless. The whole raison d’etre for the Christian plan of salvation disappears.”

    — former pastor (and former Christian) Mike Aus, quoted by evolutionist Dr. Jerry Coyne (2013).

    You get three guesses as to what exactly caused Pastor Aus to lose his Christian faith and become an atheist. (First letter is “E”, by the way.)

  • Unfortunately you Christians (and all other religions) have, allow me to paraphrase the Bible, not built your house on a solid foundation. Pull out a few cornerstones and it collapses.

    Evolution is an honorable way to lose your religion but usually isn’t enough as many Christians can deal with it. Not literalists or fundamentalists, though.

  • Next time you run into a Christian –ANY Christian of any flavor — who claims that he or she can “deal with it”, give them Mike Aus’ brief paragraph there, word for word, and ask them exactly HOW they rationally resolve the fatal problem that he raised. Ask for specifics.

    They won’t be able to do it, Jim.
    Even though they are sincere in their beliefs, they will start sliding, evading, verbally ducking their own Bible (especially the more direct and supernatural creation claims). And they’ll be trying to switch to a more comfortable, sanitized topic.

    No joke. Try it out.

  • Okay, you also claimed that the “Young Earth, the creation, Adam & Eve, Noah’s flood,” have been “disproved” by science. How do we refute your claim without writing a book?

    Here is one way. Consider: In the Bible, each specific item was initiated supernaturally, via God, instead of via natural laws and processes.

    Why is that important? Because NO natural science is able to disprove that something was created supernaturally. Can science disprove that Jesus, the Creator of the Universe (Col. 1:16), supernaturally did a massive, literal “Instant Creation From Nothing” miracle regarding the publicly witnessed feeding of the 5,000? (99% of the fish and bread would have to have originated from nothing.)

    So if Jesus can do a literal, massive “Instant Supernatural Creation From Nothing” miracle on Earth, exactly what can stop Him from supernaturally creating an entire literal universe in one literal week? Hmm?

    “But geology says…” Hey, geology is based on unproven religious (philosophical) pre-assumptions just like other sciences. Geologists have their weakspots and blankspots, but they PRE-ASSUME “deep time” no matter what, because their only alternative is the Bible’s timeline. Now suppose there was some kind of worldwide Flood (which most cultures & religions actually agree on!!), that killed off the dinosaurs and altered most of the Earth. Then the **present** geological record does NOT prove “deep time”, and certainly NOT disprove the Bible’s supernatural 6000-year timeline. In fact, some current geological items (Mt. St. Helens, the Coconino Sandstone, etc) would tend to point to the Flood’s effects, which they do.

    The debate continues, but now you have professional PhD creationist geologists who have made actual peer presentations to, (for example), the Geological Society of America. WE biblical creationists and intelligent design supporters, are now part of the mainstream professional PhD scientist scene, and THAT is no joke. Meanwhile, science has NOT disproved the four items you mentioned. I could say more but let’s stop here for now.

  • Floyd,
    You obviously have not read anything by Christian evolutionary biologists. (See for example, Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist
    by Joan Roughgarden. She uses Scripture to support her position that the two are possible) Science has always been a problem for reconciling scripture and new scientific knowledge. Copernicus and Galileo would be historic examples.

    As pointed out by others, Christians have 3 options.
    1. Abandon faith in order to accept the results of science
    2. Deny the scientific evidence to maintain our interpretations of Scripture
    3. Reconsider Scripture in light of the evidence from God’s creation.

    What about the science behind lightening and thunder or of rainbows with Scripture?

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