Friday, June 30, 2006

If you've completed one Copernican Revolution before breakfast, why not round it off with Breakfast at Milliways?

While we’re at it (as they say over at First Things)…

I have always had my doubts about the Jesuits at the Vatican Observatory. Not their science, mind you, which I am not qualified to judge, but their theology (which, IMHO, I am so qualified—so are most of you, dear Readers, for that matter). They are always trucked out by the media whenever there is some point to score against the silly old folks who believe Intelligent Design (the Holy Father included?) And I often find myself wondering afterwards how these priests can turn from their telescopes to their altars and celebrate Holy Mass. That must require the equivalent of a Copernican Revolution at least once a day!

Well, it seems that I am not alone in my misgivings. Stephen Barr, a member of the editorial board of First Things magazine and an interlocutor with the hardened Intelligent Design enthusiast, Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna, has come out with this:

“On the one hand, Coyne [Fr George Coyne, SJ, director of the Vatican Observatory] says that science is “completely neutral with respect to philosophical or theological implications that may be drawn from its conclusions.” On the other hand, he says, “If we take the results of modern science seriously, then what science tells us of God must be very different from God as seen by the medieval philosophers and theologians.” One cannot have it both ways. What Coyne means by “medieval” conceptions are the doctrines of God’s omniscience and what theology calls God’s “immediate providence” over all events in the universe. These are clearly de fide teachings of the Catholic Church, and someone who has the word Vatican in his job title, even if he has no magisterial authority, should be more careful.”

Ah yes, well that’s just the point, isn’t it? What claim to fame would these priests without a pastorate have if it were not for the fact that they had “Vatican” in their title? Would the media be so interested in Fr Coyne’s ideas if he were director of the plain old “Jesuit Observatory in Texas”?

3 Comments:

At Friday, June 30, 2006 11:34:00 am , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

The point, surely, is that the Vatican Observatory would have no credibility as a scientific institution, and no value as a religious instituition if it, or its staff, were expected to ignore or supress scientific understandings which might embarrass philosophers or theologians.

What is the point of having a Vatican Observatory, if it is not because of a conviction that scientific observation or deduction can informs and improve our grasp and understanding of revelation? So, if we have a scientific observation that challenges current understanding of revealed truth, we have to face that issue, not ignore it.

”On the one hand, Coyne [Fr George Coyne, SJ, director of the Vatican Observatory] says that science is “completely neutral with respect to philosophical or theological implications that may be drawn from its conclusions.” On the other hand, he says, “If we take the results of modern science seriously, then what science tells us of God must be very different from God as seen by the medieval philosophers and theologians.” One cannot have it both ways.”

I don’t think Coyne is trying to have it both ways. Scientists may be neutral with respect to the philosophical or theological implications of their observations and deductions but philosphers and theologians are not. To take a cliched example, scientists who observe that the earth irrefutably revolves around the sun are “neutral” with respect to the implications this has for scriptural passages which appear to suggest the reverse, but Christians must engage with those implications.

Of all scientific institutions, a Vatican institution should be willing to acknowledge, and draw attention to, philosophical and theological implications. Those implications are, surely, the whole reason for maintaining the institution?

 
At Saturday, July 01, 2006 9:55:00 am , Blogger Schütz said...

Have you ever listened to these guys in an interview, Peregrinus?

The interviewer is never interviewing them for their scientific discoveries (I don't know what scientific breakthroughs have come from the Vatican Observatory), but for their theological and philosophical conclusions on the basis of those discoveries. Ie. the media is fascinated that these guys are priests AND scientists.

Fair enough. Jesuits do not require (eg. like Franciscans) that you give up your secular calling when you enter the order. You can remain a doctor, or scientist or whatever (I'm not sure about garbage collector or global entrepeneur).

But while the good fathers a the VO may be excellent scientists, the theology they spout is simply not within the ball park of the Church's sacred tradition.

It seemeth to me (IMHO, as they say) that the really hard work these priests need to do is as theologians and not as scientists. They must ponder and demonstrate the congruity between the Chrisitian tradition about the Creator and the knowledge of the creation to which they have such intimate access.

Then they need to learn how to express their insights in a humble and speculative manner rather than in an "We're-more-clever-than-the-dusty-old-Church-and-so-we-have-a-more-sophisticated-idea-of-God" way.

Reader: You're being a bit unfair aren't you?
Schütz: Probably.
Reader: I just thought I'd say it before Peregrinus does.
Schütz: Thanks.

 
At Monday, July 03, 2006 12:56:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

Actually, I think your only being a teeny bit unfair. And most of the unfairness may be in the implication that it is reasonable to sum these guys up by how the media treats them, or presents them. (And, for the record, I haven’t seen them being interviewed. My exposure to them is largely limited to reading Guy Consalmo’s pieces in the Tablet, which seem to me to be theologicallly inoffensive, except perhaps to those who insist on a literal interpretation of Genesis.)

Your point is well made. I agree that both science and theology are necessary. But the man – or woman – who is both a brilliant scientist and a brilliant theologian is rare indeed. The Vatican Observatory is, first and foremost, a scientific institution; if we have to choose betweeen scientists and theologians to run it, we should choose scientists because, without scientific credibility, it has no credibility. I think the scientists need enough theology to recognise when scientific data or a scientific argument or perspective is theologically interesting, or challenging, or otherwise of particular relevance. They they put the data/argument/whatever out there, calling attention to the issue, for the theological community – including themselves, to the extent that their theological credibility warrants it - to make of it what they will. This process will in due course feed into magisterial teaching.

The problem lies in treating the views of the VO staff on theological matters as the last word, not the first, if that is in fact what happens. And, for this problem, my suspicion is that we can largely blame the media.

 

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