Poker-faced Pope plays high stakes against science
You have to hand it to the Pope. He’s got ticker. This week he asserted science had provided proof of a key plank of the story of the Catholic Church - a test on bones from a Roman tomb “seems to confirm” they belonged to St Paul the Apostle.
Calling on scientific evidence to prove Church teaching is grounded in historical fact is a staggeringly high-stakes game for the Pope to play. As technology advances, archaeologists will only build an ever-clearer picture of the past. As in the case of St Paul - who along with St Peter was instrumental in founding the modern Church - there may be evidence along the way that suggests certain people lived and died precisely as the Church says.
But what happens when the science calls it into question? What happens if scientists produce convincing evidence that certain things didn’t happen, or someone didn’t exist?
What if that someone was, say, Jesus?
(In the interests of disclosure I should point out I’m a Catholic, but my relationship to the Church is, I suppose, what Fitness First is to a lot of people. When people ask I say I’m a member. I hand over money regularly. And while I never really use it, I can’t quite bring myself to walk away.)
It helps that Pope Benedict XVI has the foolproof backup of infallibility to resort to if there is a question over what Catholics should believe. But you have to admire his gumption in engaging with science, even inviting scrutiny of the Church’s teaching, despite being the force that presents the greatest threat to Church power.
The Pope has form on this, too. When the Da Vinci Code sparked a now all-but-forgotten hysteria around the theory that Jesus didn’t die on the cross but married Mary Magdalene instead, his response was to publish a book, Jesus of Nazareth, that had been four years in the making. It was a reflection on the historical figure of Jesus and how he aligned with the figure in the Gospels. In a telegraphed punch aimed at Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown, the pontiff lamented “the worst books, which destroy the figure of Jesus and dismantle faith, filled with the supposed results” of studying scripture.
London’s Sunday Times reported:
Despite the papal doctrine of infallibility he makes a distinction between his personal beliefs and public persona, stating that “everyone is free . . . to contradict me”.
Can anyone direct me to a religion which more openly invites such rigorous scrutiny of its beliefs?
Yesterday was the feast of St Peter and St Paul, but it’s possible there’s more to the timing of the announcement about the carbon dating of the Apostle’s bones. Angels and Demons, the Dan Brown story currently showing in cinemas around the world, features the battle between religion and science as its central theme. In contrast to the Da Vinci Code, the Church comes out of Angels and Demons quite well. The senior clergy are portrayed as strong, wise characters who spectacularly but reassuringly triumph over a crazed science devotee.
Perhaps pre-empting another spirited debate about religion and science inspired by pop culture - and I think that’s a healthy thing, by the way - Benedict XVI is telling science to bring it.
A story about his predecessor sheds light on the profound questions the Pope is daring scientists to ask. In his enduring but impenetrable (at least, to me) classic A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking tells how, during an audience with Pope John Paul II in 1981, he was told it was fine for scientists to look into everything since the Big Bang, “but we should not inquire into the Big Bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God”.
By invoking science to support the truth of Church teaching, Benedict is endorsing scientific inquiry into Catholicism’s own big bang: the events surrounding the beginning of the Church - and even the death of Jesus.
Where does it go from here? Over to you…
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