Wise words from the Vatican?
[I’m no fan of the pope. And what I don’t say below (because it would simply be cut out as irrelevant) is that his message for World Peace Day includes some typically hateful homophobic stuff in regard to families. AIDS-related contraception and stem-cell research are just two of the areas in which the papacy has put twisted dogma before human well-being. But I feel we should always be ready to give credit where it is due. And so here, in my latest Muse article for Nature News, I try to do so.]
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, many both inside and outside the Christian world feared that the Catholic church was set on a course of hardline conservatism. But in two recent addresses, Benedict XVI shows intriguing signs that he is keen to engage with the technological age, and that he has in some ways a surprisingly thoughtful position on the dialogue between faith and reason.
In his second Encyclical Letter, released on 30 November, the pope tackles the question of how Christian thought should respond to technological change. And in a message for World Peace Day on 1 January 2008, he considers the immense challenges posed by climate change.
Let’s take the latter first, since it is in some ways more straightforward. Benedict XVI’s comments on the environment have already been interpreted in some quarters as “a surprise attack on climate change prophets of doom” who are motivated by “dubious ideology.” According to the British newspaper the Daily Mail, the pope “suggested that fears over man-made emissions melting the ice caps and causing a wave of unprecedented disasters were nothing more than scare-mongering.”
Now, non-British readers may not be aware that the Daily Mail is itself a stalwart bastion of “dubious ideology”, but this claim plumbs new depths even by the newspaper’s impressive standards of distortion and fabrication. Here’s what the pope actually said: “Humanity today is rightly concerned about the ecological balance of tomorrow. It is important for assessments in this regard to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions, and above all with the aim of reaching agreement on a model of sustainable development capable of ensuring the well-being of all while respecting environmental balances.”
Hands up those who disagree with this proposition. I thought not. When you consider that the idea that human activities might affect climate has been around for over a century, and the possibility that this might now be occurring has received serious study for more than two decades – during which time the climate science community has resolutely resisted pressing any alarm buttons until they could draw as informed a conclusion as possible – you might just begin to doubt it is they, and their current consensus that human-induced climate change seems real, who are in the pope’s sights when he talks of “hasty conclusions”. Might the charge be levelled, on the contrary, at those who pounce on every new suggestion that there are other factors in climate, such as solar fluctuations, as evidence of a global scientific conspiracy to pin the blame on humanity? I leave you to judge.
The pope’s statement is simply the one that any reasonable person would make. He calls for investment in “sufficient resources in the search for alternative sources of energy and for greater energy efficiency”, for technologically advanced countries to “reassess the high levels of consumption due to the present model of development”, and for humankind not to “selfishly consider nature to be at the complete disposal of our own interests.” Doesn’t that just sound a little like the environmentalists whom the pope is said by some to be lambasting? Admittedly, one might ask whether the Judaeo-Christian notion of human stewardship of the earth has contributed to our current sense of entitlement over its resources; but that’s another debate.
So far, then, good on Benedict XVI. And there’s more: “One must acknowledge with regret the growing number of states engaged in the arms race: even some developing nations allot a significant proportion of their scant domestic product to the purchase of weapons. The responsibility for this baneful commerce is not limited: the countries of the industrially developed world profit immensely from the sale of arms… it is truly necessary for all persons of good will to come together to reach concrete agreements aimed at an effective demilitarization, especially in the area of nuclear arms.” Goodness me, it’s almost enough to make me consider going to Christmas Mass.
The Encyclical Letter, meanwhile (entitled “On Christian Hope”), bites into some more meaty and difficult pies. On one level, its message might sound rather prosaic, however valid: science cannot provide society with a moral compass. The pope is particularly critical of Francis Bacon’s vision of a technological utopia: he and his followers “were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science.” Even committed technophiles ought to find that unobjectionable.
Without doubt, Benedict XVI says, progress (for which we might here read science) “offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil.” He cites social philosopher Theodor Adorno’s remark that one view of ‘progress’ leads us from the sling to the atom bomb.
More generally, the pope argues that there can be no ready-made prescription for utopia: “Anyone who promises the better world that is guaranteed to last for ever is making a false promise.” Of course, one can see what is coming next: “it is not science that redeems man: man is redeemed by love” – which the pope believes may come only through faith in God. Only with that last step, however, does he enter into his own closed system of reference, in which our own moral lack can be filled only from a divine source.
More interesting is the accompanying remark that “in the field of ethical awareness and moral decision-making… decisions can never simply be made for us in advance by others… in fundamental decisions, every person and every generation is a new beginning.” Now, like most spiritual statements this one is open to interpretation, but surely one way of reading it is to conclude that, when technologies such as stem cell science throw up new ethical questions, we won’t find the answers already written down in any book. The papacy has not been noted for its enlightened attitude to that particular issue, but we might draw a small bit of encouragement from the suggestion that such developments require fresh thinking rather than a knee-jerk response based on outmoded dogma.
Most surprising of all (though I don’t claim to have my finger on the pulse of theological fashion) is the pope’s apparent assertion that the ‘eternal life’ promised biblically is not to be taken literally. He seems concerned, and with good reason, that many people now regard this as a threat rather than a promise: “do we really want this – to live eternally?” he asks. In this regard, Benedict XVI seems to possess rather more wisdom than the rich people who look forward to resurrection of their frozen heads. ‘Eternal life’, he says, is merely a metaphor for an authentic and happy life lived on earth.
True, this then makes no acknowledgement of how badly generations of earlier churchmen have misled their flock. And it seems strange that a pope who believes this interpretation can at the same time feel so evidently fondly towards St Paul and St Augustine, who between them made earthly life a deservedly miserable existence endured by sinners, and towards the Cistercian leader Bernard of Clairvaux, who in consequence pronounced that “We are wounded as soon as we come into this world, while we live in it, and when we leave it; from the soles of our feet to the top of our heads, nothing is healthy in us.”
Perhaps this is one of the many subtle points of theology I don’t understand. All the same, the suggestion that we’d better look for our happiness on an earth managed responsibly, rather than deferring it to some heavenly eternity, gives me a little hope that faith and reason are not set on inevitably divergent paths.