Find­ing bal­ance

Pope Fran­cis may have just suc­ceeded in cre­at­ing a kind of mid­dle ground, al­beit a slip­pery one

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS - RAKESH KALSHIAN

Pope Fran­cis' en­cycli­cal on cli­mate change tries to find a mid­dle path be­tween science and re­li­gion

WMario Ber­goglio, a lit­tle-known HEN JORGE Ar­gen­tine Car­di­nal, was elected as the Pope of the Catholic Church in 2013, he, as is cus­tom­ary for all Popes, chose Fran­cis as his pa­pal name, af­ter St Fran­cis of As­sisi, the 13th cen­tury friar who, apart from be­ing a pro­fes­sor of poverty, was a lover of na­ture and an­i­mals.

So it didn’t come as a sur­prise when last month Pope Fran­cis is­sued an im­pas­sioned maiden en­cycli­cal—a for­mal doc­u­ment elu­ci­dat­ing the Pope’s views—on the en­vi­ron­ment. In the epis­tle ti­tled “Laudato Si” (Praise be to you—On Care for Our Com­mon Home), he con­tem­plates ex­pan­sively on en­vi­ron­men­tal crises such as species ex­tinc­tion and chem­i­cal pol­lu­tion, but is most elo­quent on the sub­ject of cli­mate change.He be­lieves the so­lu­tion to our eco­log­i­cal malaise lies in what he calls the so­cial ap­proach, which “must in­te­grate ques­tions of jus­tice in de­bates on the en­vi­ron­ment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”.

The Pope’s moral ex­hor­ta­tion to save our “global com­mons” ahead of the Paris Cli­mate Sum­mit later this year has boosted the morale of cli­mate change cam­paign­ers. At the same time, it has an­gered a lot of cli­mate scep­tics many of whom be­long to the catholic flock. Its po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions aside, Pope Fran­cis’ let­ter is ar­guably the most sci­en­tific doc­u­ment ever to come out of the Vat­i­can.

How­ever, given the check­ered history of the Catholic Church’s re­la­tion­ship with science, some sci­en­tists feel un­com­fort­able with this mar­riage of con­ve­nience. Writ­ing for the Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can, cos­mol­o­gist Lawrence M Krauss points out that even as the Pope waxes san­guinely about the science of cli­mate change, he dis­misses con­tra­cep­tion and pop­u­la­tion con­trol as in­ap­pro­pri­ate strate­gies for sav­ing the planet. “Here,” Krauss ar­gues, “ide­ol­ogy sub­sumes em­piri­cism, and the in­evitable con­flict be­tween science and re­li­gion comes to the fore.”

So are the Catholic Church and science in­com­pat­i­ble? Most peo­ple would think so, for sto­ries about science mar­tyrs such as Galileo who was per­se­cuted for teach­ing that the earth goes around the sun are deeply en­trenched in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion.

How­ever, the truth is far more com­plex and nu­anced. As his­to­rian of science, Ron Num­bers, writes in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Re­li­gion: “De­spite a de­vel­op­ing con­sen­sus among scholars that science and Chris­tian­ity have not been at war, the no­tion of con­flict has re­fused to die.” If any­thing, the Catholic Church has been a lead­ing spon­sor of science. Many il­lus­tri­ous sci­en­tists, such as Ve­sal­ius, Coper­ni­cus, Ke­pler, Lavoisier, Descartes, La­marck, Men­del, Chardin, and Ge­orges Le­maitre were ei­ther mem­bers of the clergy or prac­tic­ing catholics.

Evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist Stephen Jay Gould tried to re­solve the sci­encere­li­gion con­tra­dic­tion through the con­cept of Non Over­lap­ping Mag­is­te­ria, where a mag­is­terium is de­fined as “a do­main where one form of teach­ing holds the ap­pro­pri­ate tools for mean­ing­ful dis­course and res­o­lu­tion”. He claimed that “science and re­li­gion oc­cupy two sep­a­rate realms of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. De­mand­ing that they be com­bined de­tracts from the glory of each”.

How­ever, Bri­tish ge­neti­cist and athe­ist Richard Dawkins be­lieves it is wish­ful think­ing to ex­pect re­li­gion to “re­strict it­self to mo­rals and val­ues”. He be­lieves all re­li­gions tres­pass on science’s turf by stak­ing claims on ma­te­rial re­al­ity such as in mir­a­cles and prayers.

Dawkins might be right. Nonethe­less, Pope Fran­cis may have just suc­ceeded in cre­at­ing a kind of mid­dle ground, al­beit a slip­pery one, be­tween the two realms. As he writes: “The Church does not pre­sume to set­tle sci­en­tific ques­tions or to re­place pol­i­tics. But I am con­cerned to en­cour­age an hon­est and open de­bate so that par­tic­u­lar in­ter­ests or ide­olo­gies will not prej­u­dice the com­mon good.” Amen!

TARIQUE AZIZ / CSE

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