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May 22, 2013
The Catholic Church advances science: part five
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

“The Church is opposed to science; look at the Galileo debacle.” Haven’t most of us heard this criticism of the Church? In fact, one of the best-kept secrets about modern science is the Church’s role in its development. As with the arts, the Church gladly supports scientific pursuits that defer to the moral order.

The Church and Cloning

On May 16 came the news from scientists in Oregon that they could clone human embryos in order to treat human diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and spinal cord injuries. This therapeutic cloning creates life, uses it for therapeutic purposes, and then destroys it. 

“Scientists,” writes Archbishop Samuel Aquila, “have discovered how to create perfect human copies, to be used for the sole purpose of growing tissue in the effort to combat disease; then these copies will be destroyed”  (National Review Online).

This embryo is a human being, albeit in the very earliest stages of human life. Every person reading this essay was once an embryo that grew into a fetus, and then to an infant baby, and so on along the spectrum of human life. This discovery brings with it the possibility, and indeed the probability, to clone babies. It recalls the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996. Now we have the possibility of cloning human beings.

Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, a professor of medicine and bioethicist at the University of Chicago has observed: “This is a case in which one is deliberately setting out to create a human being for the sole purpose of destroying that human being. I am of the school that thinks that that’s morally wrong no matter how much good could come of it.” The timeless principle holds: The end does not justify the means.

Like Archbishop Aquila, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston has stated the Church’s view that cloning is immoral, even if used for therapeutic purposes because it “treats human beings as products, manufactured to order, to suit other people’s wishes” (NY Times, May 16, 2013, A17).  The event is fraught with controversy and will be argued on both sides of the argument.

One principle to be kept in mind is this: Whatever can be done is not always moral; whatever is legal is not necessarily moral. The1973 Roe vs Wade decision is one application of this principle.

Behind the process of any scientific thought and pursuit is the concern for the integrity of man and woman as created in the image and likeness of God and for their inviolable dignity from the embryonic stage to natural death.

Flashing back to earlier times when the Church was engaged with scientific pursuits . . .

The Church, Science in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
In 1582, the Jesuit polymath Cristoforo Clavius (d 1610) headed the commission that put into effect the Gregorian calendar thus negating the Julian calendar? To synchronize the calendar with the solar year, Clavius calculated ninety-seven leap days every four hundred years. His contemporaries were astounded.

In the sixteenth century and against universally-accepted theory, Copernicus had theorized that the sun, rather than Earth, was at the center of the solar system. Galileo advanced this theory, and his work was praised by Clavius. On Galileo’s visit to Rome, Pius V honored him and his discoveries. 

However, the theory jointly held by Copernicus and Galileo stood as hypotheses and not as yet objectively proved. Galileo insisted that the Copernican theory was literally true.  Because Protestants had faulted the Church with insufficient attention given to the literal meaning of Scripture, which appeared to contradict the two astronomers, Galileo was asked not to publish the theory until it could be objectively proven. He refused but was eventually proved correct. The Church’s naming him a heretic can be explained but not defended. (Thomas Woods, How the Church Built Western Civilization, 70ff; New Catholic Encyclopedia 6: 250ff). In 1979, John Paul II conceded that the Church had erred in the Galileo incident, and in 1984, all the Vatican documents about the case were made public.

The Church and Modern Science

The name George Lemaître (d 1966) is not a household name as is those of Edwin Hubble and Albert Einstein. Yet, in 1927, this Belgian-born theoretical physicist and priest, applying Einstein’s theory of general relativity, proposed that the expanding universe originated with a primeval atom or, as he called it, “the exploding egg.” Sir Fred Hoyle coined the term, the Big Bang, a jocular and perhaps derisive way of speaking about the anthropic principle or “the primeval atom.” The name, “The Big Bang” eventually held sway. This theory was pertinent to the question of God’s creation of the universe, and some have regarded Lemaître’s discovery as the “creation event,” that is, the universe created itself. How could an effect cause itself to be? Every effect has its cause, immediate or remote.

Prior to Lemaître’s presentation, Einstein (d 1955) was skeptical of the findings but was eventually won over.  Standing and applauding at a seminar about Lemaître’s discovery, he said: “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened” (“Space/Astronomy”).

One visual depiction of the origin of the universe takes the contemporary mind back to a thirteenth-century French Bible (Codex 2553), where a picture of God the Father is illustrated measuring the world with a compass at the time of Creation.

The distinguished Hungarian Benedictine monk and physicist, Stanley Jaki, (d 2009) taught on issues pertaining to the philosophy of science and theology. He believed that science and theology were compatible and mutually reinforced the quest to understand God. “The regular return of seasons, the unfailing course of stars, the music of the spheres, the movement of the force of nature according to fixed ordinances, are all the results of the One who alone can be trusted unconditionally,” he wrote (Woods, 76).

During his life, Jaki was lauded numerous times as a writer and educator.

The Jesuits and Science

No other religious order has dedicated itself more to studies in science than has the Society of Jesus. There are approximately seventy Jesuit from the seventeenth century to the present who have engaged in scientific research. This list includes such Jesuit-scientists as: Matteo Ricci, (d 1610) who brought scientific innovations to China and who is deeply revered among the Chinese intelligentsia, Francesco Grimaldi (d 1643) and his diffraction of light,  Nicholas Zucchi (d 1670), the telescope maker, Giovanni Battista Zupi (d 1650), an astronomer who discovered that Mercury had orbital phases, Ignace Pardies (d 1673) and his influence on Sir Isaac Newton, Francis Line (d 1675 ) the clockmaker hunted down by the English monarchy, Angelo Sacchi (d 1878) the Father of Astrophysics, Roger Boscovich (d 1787) and his atomic theory, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (d 1955) who was involved in the discovery of the so-called Peking Man, and George Coyne astronomer who has researched polarimetrics and Seyfert galaxies. Last but not least is Guy Consolmagno, who believes that “religious needs science to keep it away from superstition and keep it close to reality, to protect it from creationism, which at the end of the day is a kind of paganism.”

The Church and Science

The Church continues to support scientific pursuits so long as they uphold the inviolable dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God as well as the family, the Domestic Church. There is no contradiction or no opposition between science and the doctrine of the faith about man and woman and their vocation.

The Bible is not a book of science. But in 1996, John Paul II addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, reminding the conveners that “the Gospel truth can shed a higher light on the horizon of your research into the origins and unfolding of living matter. The Bible in fact bears an extraordinary message of life. It gives as a wise vision of life inasmuch as it describes the loftiest forms of existence.”

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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