For the past couple of years, the Pontifical Council for Culture, in combination with Lateran University and the Templeton Foundation, has been promoting a rather quixotically titled project: "Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest."
The idea, as explained by French Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the council, is to illustrate the deep harmony between science and religion, based on principles outlined by Pope John Paul II in such documents as Fides et Ratio and Veritatis Splendor.
Next week, the STOQ project is sponsoring an international conference in Rome, at the Lateran University, under the title, "Infinity in Science, Philosophy and Theology." The line-up of speakers features an intriguing mix of clerics and scientists, who will explore to what extent concepts of infinity in Christianity theology, mathematics and astrophysics may share points of reference.
Further information on the conference may be found here: www.stoqnet.org.
At a Nov. 3 Vatican news conference to present the conference, both Poupard and Msgr. Gianfranco Basti, the director of the STOQ project, took pains to emphasize that for a dialogue between faith and science to be fruitful, each must respect the limits of its own competence. Poupard, for example, warned that science decoupled from ultimate values can become destructive, pointing to atomic bombs and human cloning; religion divorced from reason, Poupard warned, runs the risk of ending in "fundamentalism."
Illustrating the point, Basti made a sharp distinction between "evolution," as a scientific theory to explain a set of facts about the origin and development of organic life, and "evolutionism," meaning an ideological system that sees pure chance as the only force in the universe.
Basti cited Pope John Paul II's famous 1996 affirmation that evolution is "more than a hypothesis."
I asked him about Cardinal Christoph Schönborn's July 7 opinion piece in The New York Times, in which Schönborn described the 1996 statement from John Paul as "rather vague and unimportant." That description, I said, naturally generated doubts among many readers about how authoritative the pope's statement had been.
"It's authoritative, obviously, because it came from the pope," Basti replied.
"Perhaps it's an expression that's not very clear from a definitional point of view, because it's hard to know exactly what 'more than a hypothesis' means," he said. "But it's absolutely suggestive. A hypothesis has to be either true or false. To say something is 'more than a hypothesis' means that it has an ever greater claim to truth, and there are ever increasing empirical proofs."
Later in the discussion, Professor Gennaro Auletta of the Gregorian University, who directs the STOQ project at that institution, made the point that it's important to distinguish the theory of evolution, meaning that complex organisms evolved from simpler ones, from natural selection, which is the mechanism that Darwin believed drives evolution.
In fact, Auletta said, there are examples of evolutionary changes that can't be explained by natural selection. He pointed to the fact that Europeans have an enzyme for the digestion of milk that Asians lack, which he attributed to historical differences in European and Asian methods of agriculture and diets -- an example, he said, of culture rather than natural selection directing the evolutionary process.
"None of this means that God is not involved," Auletta said.
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