Making Dogma Out of Unsettled Science

In the Broadway redaction of Pygmalion, Professor Higgins regretted how proper English is considered freakish, and “in America, they haven’t used it for years.” The problem glares in the speech of television commentators, for whom coiffures are more important than diction: while grammar is banished from the social media, our urban landscape has become a jungle of incomplete sentences and dangling participles. By the time one reaches California, the subjunctive has completely disappeared. To have been reared speaking English is a blessing, for it is a language hard to learn by adoption and even native speakers can find its subtleties daunting. Consider, for instance, the differences between affect and effect, whether and if, since and because, which and that, nauseous and nauseated, farther and further, continual and continuous, disinterested and uninterested; and that is just for starters. Many English speakers think that the Greek derivative parameter means perimeter; and that leads to all sorts of problems.

A perimeter is a border, and a parameter—besides its technical mathematical meaning—is a physical property that determines the character of something. It is a measurable factor in the sense of a criterion or framework, a part of a whole. I mention this only because I want to speak of a matter of religion and science, and their parameters complement and serve each other, but are not to be confused. This was well expressed by Galileo’s friend Cardinal Baronio, or at least we may infer that Baronio was the one Galileo was quoting when he said: “The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”

Pope Benedict XVI spoke of “not a few scientists who—following in the footsteps of Galileo—renounce neither reason nor faith. On the contrary, in the end they find value in both, in their reciprocal inventiveness. Christian thought compares the cosmos to a ‘book’—Galileo also said the same—and considers it to be the work of an Author who is expressing himself by means of the ‘symphony’ of creation.” Contrary to received histories, Giorgio de Santillana, no propagandist for Christianity by any means, said in his The Crime of Galileo, which has remained with me since I first read it when I was sixteen: “We must, if anything, admire the cautiousness and legal scruples of the Roman authorities.” Most of the big ecclesiastical players knew their parameters: “…like Galileo, Copernicus had foreseen resistance not at all from the Church authorities but from vested academic interests.”

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In 1576, Gregory XIII licensed a chair of “Controversies” in the Roman College. The Religious orders and societies tended to line up according to their preferred philosophical systems, the Dominicans being Aristotelian and more disposed to geocentricism. The Jesuits and the Oratorians (of whom Baronio was one) leaned more toward the Augustinian tradition. Saint Augustine warned against resolving difficult questions such as those posited in astronomy by appeal to divine revelation: “We do not read in the Gospel that the Lord said, ‘I will send the Paraclete to teach you the course of the sun and the moon’; in fact, he wanted to create Christians, not mathematicians.”

The first French pope, Sylvester II, who reigned during the turn of the second millennium (and upbraided the superstitious Romans who read dire portents in the number 1000) saw harmony and not fracture in his life as Supreme Pastor and his avocation as scientist. (He invented the hydraulic pipe organ; introduced Hindu and Arabic numerals and the decimal system to Europe along with an improved abacus and an astrolabe; and transformed cartography by his use of the armillary sphere.) Copernicus had the same balance: it is important to remember that he was first of all a priest, and dedicated his prime text “On the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs” to Pope Paul III.

Here the Church nursed science when the Protestant leaders were condemning anything that did not accord with their reading of Scripture. Martin Luther had called Copernicus “that madman [who] wants to throw the art of astronomy into confusion” by denying that Joshua told the sun, and not the earth, to stand still. The Spanish theologians Diego De Zúñiga and Melchior Cano invoked against Protestant literalists the Augustinian exegetical principle that excluded the human language of Scripture from scientific proof texts. Though a pious Lutheran, the heliocentrist Johannes Kepler, shunned by his co-religionists, found friends among the Jesuits and had the honor of being plagiarized by the Catholic Galileo. Pope Urban VIII, somewhat offended when he sensed that his protégé Galileo had satirized him as “Simplicio” in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, patiently urged Galileo to stay on the right track of speculation, and not to declare theory a fact.

It may reasonably be said that Galileo was right and wrong, and so were some of his opponents, among whom St. Robert Bellarmine did not distinguish himself. Right in asserting the motion of the earth, which opponents denied, Galileo was wrong about the “solar stasis,” or immobility of the sun, which his opponents accepted. Both succumbed to error when they paraded theory as fact and scorned opponents as “deniers.” That alchemy of pride turns science into a false cult of scientism, which is unscientific science, while clerics abusing their authority descend to a false cult of clericalism, which is irreligious religion. A salutary example of how to order things rightly by humility was Christopher Clavius, the German Jesuit astronomer and mathematician, one of the commissioners for the Gregorian calendar, revered throughout Europe, who was a firm geocentrist. Telescopic observations with Galileo changed his mind, albeit with reservations, and he remained aloof from polemics.

There is a caution here relevant to the current debates, or refusal to debate, about global warming—previously global cooling, and now preached as climate change. Its details are proper to physical science, but its moral imperative is rooted in revelation, just as is the very fact of creation in contradistinction to infinity. The human race was given authority to name all living creatures. Stewardship of creation is evidence of human dignity. “Ecology” is the understanding of all things animate and inanimate as part of God’s “household” just as economics is the ordering of that domain. Theories about climate change impose serious moral responsibilities, and require that the parameters of religion and science be identified, lest saving souls be overshadowed by saving the planet, which is an ambiguous concept, anyway.

This point is lost on those who acknowledge no Creator of creation and consequently make ecology a new theology. In that case, creation is perceived as its own creator with a system of dogmas and heresies, propaganda and censures, and its own secular liturgy, as when a crowd recently prostrated themselves on the floor of a chapel in Paris, chanting and praying for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to save Planet Earth. That salvation was called the most important challenge facing the human race, as though the terrorists who had murdered over a hundred Parisians just days before were regrettable irritants.

Jesus loved the lilies of the field, more beautiful than Solomon in all his glory, but he beautified this world incomparably by passing through it with a reminder of its natural impermanence: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35). The Church has dogmas and properly so, but they do not include making a dogma of unsettled science, just as in religion “private revelations” are not binding on the faithful. Science, by its nature, is unsettled, and today’s certitudes may be disproved tomorrow; the anthropogenic theories held by even a majority of climatologists may fade like the geocentric theories of astronomers in the days of Clavius.

There are legitimate ways to consider the significance of carbon emissions in relation to variations in solar activity, changes in the terrestrial orbit and axis, fluctuations in gamma ray activity, and tectonic shifts, and the solid fact that Earth has been warmer than it is now in 7,000 of the last 10,000 years, but hypotheses should not be pronounced as conclusions. And if the Church’s “voice crying in the desert” is to be prophetic, it should not cry wolf. Nor should the Church allow herself to be appropriated by political elites, business interests, and what Santillana in the instance of the Renaissance called “vested academic interests,” whose tendency is to exploit benevolent, if emotive, environmentalists.

So it was perplexing that on the recent Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the feast itself was upstaged by an unprecedented light show cast on the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica, sponsored by the World Bank Group, an environmental foundation called Okeanos, and Vulcan, Inc., a Seattle-based private company dedicated to exposing “sins against the climate.” Sins? These interests may have good intentions, but the parameters of banking, business and academe do not include imputing sin. There may be offenses and even crimes against the balance of the ecosystem, but not sins, unless science really has become a religion. The irony is that many who impute sins to those who disrupt the balance of nature, also defend and promote unnatural acts among humans. Although the Immaculate Conception was neglected by the New Age light show with its flying birds and leaping porpoises, it is consoling to remember that the Virgin Mary was completely free of sins against the climate, and departed this world without leaving any carbon footprint.

In the saga of environmentalism, the eleventh century Anglo-Scandinavian King Canute is often mistakenly evoked as a symbol of arrogance for setting his throne up on an English beach, possibly at Westminster or West Sussex or Southampton, and ordering the tides to roll back. The details are vague,  but the real point of the story is that Canute deliberately choreographed that drama to instruct his flattering courtiers in the limits of earthly power against the seas and skies. They had preened that their king could slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. The tides did not withdraw, the king and his court got wet and Canute declared: “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.”  It was a warning for scientists flattered by clerics, and clerics flattered by scientists. King Canute’s performance was better than any flamboyant light show. Better still, King Canute then placed his crown on the great crucifix in Winchester Cathedral and never wore it again.  In matters of speculative science, it would be edifying to see the members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the directors of the World Bank Group, corporate executives, and academics, do the same.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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