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Wise words from the Vatican

Popes are not noted for enlightened views on science and technology. But the latest papal statements are encouraging, says Philip Ball.

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, Christians and non-Christians alike feared that the Catholic church was set on a course of hard-line conservatism. But in two recent addresses, Benedict XVI shows intriguing signs that he is keen to engage with the technological age, and that he has a surprisingly thoughtful position on the interplay between faith and reason.

In his latest encyclical letter, released on 30 November, the pope tackles the question of how Christian thought should respond to technological change. And in a message for World Peace Day on 1 January 2008, he considers the immense challenges posed by climate change.

Let?s take the latter first, since it is in some ways more straightforward. Benedict XVI?s comments on the environment have already been interpreted in some quarters as ?a surprise attack on climate-change prophets of doom? who are motivated by ?dubious ideology?. According to the British tabloid the Daily Mail, the pope ?suggested that fears over man-made emissions melting the ice caps and causing a wave of unprecedented disasters were nothing more than scare-mongering.?

Now, non-British readers may not be aware that the Daily Mailis itself a stalwart bastion of ?dubious ideology?, but this claim plumbs new depths even by the tabloid?s impressive standards of distortion. Here?s what the pope actually said: ?Humanity today is rightly concerned about the ecological balance of tomorrow. It is important for assessments in this regard to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions, and above all with the aim of reaching agreement on a model of sustainable development capable of ensuring the well-being of all while respecting environmental balances.?

Hands up those who disagree with this proposition. I thought not.

Don't be hasty

The idea that human activities might one day affect climate has been around for over a century, and the possibility that climate change might now actually be occurring has received serious study for more than two decades. So is it likely that it is scientists, with their current consensus statement on mankind's role in climate change, that are in the pope?s sights when he talks of ?hasty conclusions?? Mightn't the charge instead be levelled at those who pounce on every new suggestion that there are other factors at play, such as solar fluctuations, as evidence of a global scientific conspiracy to pin the blame on humanity? I leave you to judge.

The pope?s statement is simply the one that any reasonable person would make. He calls for investment in alternative energy and energy efficiency, for technologically advanced countries to ?reassess the high levels of consumption due to the present model of development?, and for humankind not to ?selfishly consider nature to be at the complete disposal of our own interests?. Doesn?t that just sound a little like the environmentalists whom the pope is said by some to be lambasting?

Admittedly, one might ask whether the Judaeo-Christian notion of human stewardship of the Earth has contributed to our current sense of entitlement over its resources; but that?s another debate.

So far, then, good on Benedict XVI. And there?s more: ?One must acknowledge with regret the growing number of states engaged in the arms race: even some developing nations allot a significant proportion of their scant domestic product to the purchase of weapons. The responsibility for this baneful commerce is not limited: the countries of the industrially developed world profit immensely from the sale of arms." And he adds, "It is truly necessary for all persons of good will to come together to reach concrete agreements aimed at an effective demilitarization, especially in the area of nuclear arms.? Goodness me, it?s almost enough to make me consider going to Christmas Mass.

Golden compass

The encyclical letter, meanwhile (entitled ?On Christian Hope?), bites into some more meaty and difficult pies. On one level, its message might sound rather prosaic, however valid: science cannot provide society with a moral compass. The pope is particularly critical of Francis Bacon?s vision of a technological utopia: he and his followers ?were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science.? Even committed technophiles ought to find that unobjectionable.

Without doubt, Benedict XVI says, progress (for which we might here read science) ?offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil.? He cites social philosopher Theodor Adorno?s remark that one view of ?progress? leads us from the sling to the atom bomb.

More interesting is the accompanying remark that ?in the field of ethical awareness and moral decision-making . . . decisions can never simply be made for us in advance by others . . . in fundamental decisions, every person and every generation is a new beginning.? Now, like most spiritual statements this one is open to interpretation, but surely one way of reading it is to conclude that, when technologies such as stem-cell science throw up new ethical questions, we won?t find the answers already written down in any book. The papacy has not been noted for its enlightened attitude to that particular issue, but we might draw a small bit of encouragement from the suggestion that such developments require fresh thinking rather than a knee-jerk response based on outmoded dogma.

Heaven on Earth

Most surprising of all (though I don?t claim to have my finger on the pulse of theological fashion) is the pope?s apparent assertion that the ?eternal life? promised in the bible is not to be taken literally. He seems concerned, and with good reason, that many people now regard this as a threat rather than a promise: ?do we really want this ? to live eternally?? he asks. In this regard, Benedict XVI seems to have rather more wisdom than the rich people who look forward to resurrection of their frozen heads. ?Eternal life?, he says, is merely a metaphor for an authentic and happy life lived on Earth.

True, this then makes no acknowledgement of how badly generations of earlier churchmen have misled their flock. And it seems strange that a pope who believes this interpretation can at the same time feel so evidently fondly towards St Paul and St Augustine, who between them made Earthly life a deservedly miserable existence endured by sinners, and towards the Cistercian leader Bernard of Clairvaux, who in consequence pronounced that ?We are wounded as soon as we come into this world, while we live in it, and when we leave it; from the soles of our feet to the top of our heads, nothing is healthy in us.?

Perhaps this is one of the many subtle points of theology I don?t understand. All the same, the suggestion that we?d better look for our happiness on an Earth managed responsibly, rather than deferring it to some heavenly eternity, gives me a little hope that faith and reason are not set on inevitably divergent paths.

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Pope?s Second Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi

Pope?s World Peace Day message

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Ball, P. Wise words from the Vatican. Nature (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2007.394

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