It is not surprising that most of the commentary on the recent papal encyclical, Laudato Si’, has focused on its urgent call to the international community to address the current ecological crisis. However, running two hundred and forty-six paragraphs in length, the papal statement also addresses other social, political, and moral issues related to the common home we share, not only with each other, but also with the other creatures who inhabit it. In this post, I would like to explore the relationship between science and religion as Pope Francis describes it in this encyclical.
According to the pope, Laudato Si’ is an encyclical where he wishes “to address every person living on this planet.” He desires “to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (§3). Thus, the pope acknowledges that there will be among his audience, “those who firmly reject the idea of a Creator, or consider it irrelevant, and consequently dismiss as irrational the rich contribution which religions can make towards an integral ecology and the full development of humanity” (§62).
Nonetheless, the pope affirms that “science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both” (no. 62). He challenges us to be inclusive in our common desire to solve our ecological crisis: “If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it” (§63).
It is important to note that Pope Francis affirms the importance of science. It is a gift from God, given to scientists so that they can serve their neighbor: “Human creativity cannot be suppressed. If an artist cannot be stopped from using his or her creativity, neither should those who possess particular gifts for the advancement of science and technology be prevented from using their God-given talents for the service of others” (§131).
However, as the pope sees it, science can become a scientism that harms our human ecology: “It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society” (§107).
Troublingly, for the pope, this distorted mindset is too narrow in scope to propose lasting solutions to our most pressing social and ecological problems: “The specialization which belongs to technology makes it difficult to see the larger picture. The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant. This very fact makes it hard to find adequate ways of solving the more complex problems of today’s world, particularly those regarding the environment and the poor” (§110).
As an antidote for this, the pope proposes that we need to acknowledge that science is not enough. We need to acknowledge other sources of wisdom, religion included, to help us to appreciate the ends that make life meaningful: “It cannot be maintained that empirical science provides a complete explanation of life, the interplay of all creatures and the whole of reality. This would be to breach the limits imposed by its own methodology. If we reason only within the confines of the latter, little room would be left for aesthetic sensibility, poetry, or even reason’s ability to grasp the ultimate meaning and purpose of things” (§199).
Strikingly, therefore, Pope Francis recommends the reading of religious classics alongside the doing of science: “I would add that ‘religious classics can prove meaningful in every age; they have an enduring power to open new horizons… Is it reasonable and enlightened to dismiss certain writings simply because they arose in the context of religious belief?’” (§199). If the pope had his way, biology, chemistry, and physics majors would be required to read Augustine’s Confessions and Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
He also commends religions as sources of ethical wisdom: “It would be quite simplistic to think that ethical principles present themselves purely in the abstract, detached from any context. Nor does the fact that they may be couched in religious language detract from their value in public debate. The ethical principles capable of being apprehended by reason can always reappear in different guise and find expression in a variety of languages, including religious language” (§199).
Finally, according to the pope, science alone cannot provide a comprehensive problem to our common social and ecological problems because it will be unable to move people to undertake the self-denial that will be required of us to live in harmony with creation: “Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well” (§201). Science may find a solution to our current social and ecological ills, but religion will be needed to actually make that solution happen.