knowledge of God and Nature:
Physics, Philosophy and Theology
Letter of Pope John Paul II
To the Reverend George V.
of the Vatican Observatory
"Grace to you and peace from God
our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph. 1:2).
As you prepare to publish the
papers presented at the study week held at Castelgandolfo Sept. 21-26, 1987, I
take the occasion to express my gratitude to you and through you to all who
contributed to that important initiative. I am confident that the publication of
these papers will ensure that the fruits of that endeavour will be further
The 300th anniversary of the
publication of Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica
provided an appropriate occasion for the Holy See to sponsor a study week that
investigated the multiple relationships among theology, philosophy and the
natural sciences. The man so honored, Sir Isaac Newton, had himself devoted much
of his life to these same issues, and his reflections upon them can be found
throughout his major works, his unfinished manuscripts and his vast
correspondence. The publication of your own papers from this study week, taking
up again some of the same questions which this great genius explored, affords me
the opportunity to thank you for the efforts you devoted to a subject of such
paramount importance. The theme of your conference, "Our Knowledge of God and
Nature: Physics, Philosophy and Theology," is assuredly a crucial one for the
contemporary world. Because of its importance, I should like to address some
issues which the interactions among natural science, philosophy and theology
present to the Church and to human society in general.
The Church and the academy
engage one another as two very different but major institutions within human
civilization and world culture. We bear before God enormous responsibilities for
the human condition because historically we have had and continue to have a
major influence on the development of ideas and values and on the course of
human action. We both have histories stretching back over thousands of years:
the learned, academic community dating back to the origins of culture, to the
city and the library and the school, and the Church with her historical roots in
ancient Israel. We have come into contact often during these centuries,
sometimes in mutual support, at other times in those needless conflicts which
have marred both our histories. In your conference we met again, and it was
altogether fitting that as we approach the close of this millennium we initiated
a series of reflections together upon the world as we touch it and as it shapes
and challenges our actions.
So much of our world seems to be
in fragments, in disjointed pieces. So much of human life is passed in isolation
or in hostility. The division between rich nations and poor nations continues to
grow; the contrast between northern and southern regions of our planet becomes
ever more marked and intolerable. The antagonism between races and religions
splits countries into warring camps; historical animosities show no signs of
abating. Even within the academic community, the separation between truth and
values persists, and the isolation of their several cultures - scientific,
humanistic and religious- makes common discourse difficult if not at times
But at the same time we see in
large sectors of the human community a growing critical openness toward people
of different cultures and backgrounds, different competencies and viewpoints.
More and more frequently, people are seeking intellectual coherence and
collaboration, and are discovering values and experiences they have in common
even within their diversities. This openness, this dynamic interchange, is a
notable feature of the international scientific communities themselves and is
based on common interests, common goals and a common enterprise, along with a
deep awareness that the insight and attainments of one are often important for
the progress of the other. In a similar but more subtle way this has occurred
and is continuing to occur among more diverse groups - among the communities
that make up the Church and even between the scientific community and the Church
herself. This drive is essentially a movement toward the kind of unity which
resists homogenization and relishes diversity. Such community is determined by a
common meaning and by a shared understanding that evokes a sense of mutual
involvement. Two groups which may seem initially to have nothing in common can
begin to enter into community with one another by discovering a common goal, and
this in turn can lead to broader areas of shared understanding and concern.
As never before in her history,
the Church has entered into the movement for the union of all Christians,
fostering common study, prayer and discussions that "all may be one" (Jn.
17:20). She has attempted to rid herself of every vestige of anti-Semitism and
to emphasize her origins in and her religious debt to Judaism. In reflection and
prayer, she has reached out to the great world religions, recognizing the values
we all hold in common and our universal and utter dependence upon God.
Within the Church herself, there
is a growing sense of "world Church" so much in evidence at the last ecumenical
council, in which bishops native to every continent -no longer predominantly of
European or even Western origin- assumed for the first time their common
responsibility for the entire Church. The documents from that council and of the
magisterium have reflected this new world consciousness both in their content
and in their attempt to address all people of good will. During this century, we
have witnessed a dynamic tendency to reconciliation and unity that has taken
many forms within the Church.
Nor should such a development be
surprising. The Christian community in moving so emphatically in this direction
is realizing in greater intensity the activity of Christ within her: "For God
was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19). We ourselves are
called to be a continuation of this reconciliation of human beings, one with
another and all with God. Our very nature as Church entails this commitment to
Turning to the relationship
between religion and science, there has been a definite, though still fragile
and provisional, movement toward a new and more nuanced interchange. We have
begun to talk to one another on deeper levels than before and with greater
openness toward one another's perspectives. We have begun to search together for
a more thorough understanding of one another's disciplines, with their
competencies and their limitations, and especially for areas of common ground.
In doing so we have uncovered important questions which concern both of us and
which are vital to the larger human community we both serve. It is crucial that
this common search based on critical openness and interchange should not only
continue, but also grow and deepen in its quality and scope.
For the impact each has and will
continue to have on the course of civilization and on the world itself cannot be
overestimated, and there is so much that each can offer the other. There is, of
course, the vision of the unity of all things and all peoples in Christ, who is
active and present with us in our daily lives --in our struggles, our
sufferings, our joys and in our searchings-- and who is the focus of the
Church's life and witness. This vision carries with it into the larger community
a deep reverence for all that is, a hope and assurance that the fragile goodness
beauty and life we see in the universe is moving toward a completion and
fulfillment which will not be overwhelmed by the forces of dissolution and
death. This vision also provides a strong support for the values which are
emerging both from our knowledge and appreciation of creation and of ourselves
as the products, knowers and stewards of creation.
The scientific disciplines too,
as is obvious, are endowing us with an understanding and appreciation of our
universe as a whole and of the incredibly rich variety of intricately related
processes and structures which constitute its animate and inanimate components.
This knowledge has given us a more thorough understanding of ourselves and of
our humble yet unique role within creation. Through technology it also has given
us the capacity to travel, to communicate, to build, to cure and to probe in
ways which would have been almost unimaginable to our ancestors. Such knowledge
and power, as we have discovered, can be used greatly to enhance and improve our
lives or they can be exploited to diminish and destroy human life and the
environment even on a global scale.
The unity we perceive in
creation on the basis of our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord of the universe, and
the correlative unity for which we strive in our human communities, seems to be
reflected and even reinforced in what contemporary science is revealing to us.
As we behold the incredible development of scientific research, we detect an
underlying movement toward the discovery of levels of law and process which
unify created reality and which at the same time have given rise to the vast
diversity of structures and organisms which constitute the physical and
biological, and even the psychological and sociological worlds.
Contemporary physics furnishes a
striking example. The quest for the unification of all four fundamental physical
forces - gravitation, electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear
interactionsQhas met with increasing success. This unification may well combine
discoveries from the subatomic and the cosmological domains and shed light both
on the origin of the universe and eventually on the origin of the laws and
constants which govern its evolution. Physicists possess a detailed, though
incomplete and provisional, knowledge of elementary particles and of the
fundamental forces through which they interact at low and intermediate energies.
They now have an acceptable theory unifying the electromagnetic and weak nuclear
forces, along with much less adequate but still promising grand unified field
theories which attempt to incorporate the strong nuclear interaction as well.
Further in the line of this same development, there are already several detailed
suggestions for the final stage, superunification, that is, the unification of
all four fundamental forces, including gravity. Is it not important for us to
note that in a world of such detailed specialization as contemporary physics
there exists this drive toward convergence?
In the life sciences too
something similar has happened. Molecular biologists have probed the structure
of living material, its functions and its processes of replication. They have
discovered that the same underlying constituents serve in the makeup of all
living organisms on earth and constitute both the genes and the proteins which
these genes code. This is another impressive manifestation of the unity of
By encouraging openness between
the Church and the scientific communities, we are not envisioning a disciplinary
unity between theology and science like that which exists within a given
scientific field or within theology proper. As dialogue and common searching
continue, there will be growth toward mutual understanding and a gradual
uncovering of common concerns which will provide the basis for further research
and discussion. Exactly what form that will take must be left to the future.
What is important, as we have already stressed, is that the dialogue should
continue and grow in depth and scope. In the process we must overcome every
regressive tendency to a unilateral reductionism, to fear and to self-imposed
isolation. What is critically important is that each discipline should continue
to enrich, nourish and challenge the other to be more fully what it can be and
to contribute to our vision of who we are and who we are becoming .
We might ask whether or not we
are ready for this crucial endeavor. Is the community of world religions,
including the Church, ready to enter into a more thoroughgoing dialogue with the
scientific community, a dialogue in which the integrity of both religion and
science is supported and the advance of each is fostered? Is the scientific
community now prepared to open itself to Christianity and indeed to all the
great world religions, working with us all to build a culture that is more
humane and in that way more divine? Do we dare to risk the honesty and the
courage that this task demands? We must ask ourselves whether both science and
religion will contribute to the integration of human culture or to its
fragmentation. It is a single choice, and it confronts us all.
For a simple neutrality is no
longer acceptable. If they are to grow and mature, peoples cannot continue to
live in separate compartments, pursuing totally divergent interests from which
they evaluate and judge their world. A divided community fosters a fragmented
vision of the world; a community of interchange encourages its members to expand
their partial perspectives and form a new unified vision.
Yet the unity that we seek, as
we have already stressed, is not identity. The Church does not propose that
science should become religion or religion, science. On the contrary, unity
always presupposes the diversity and the integrity of its elements. Each of
these members should become not less itself but more itself in a dynamic
interchange, for a unity in which one of the elements is reduced to the other is
destructive, false in its promises of harmony and ruinous of the integrity of
its components. We are asked to become one. We are not asked to become each
To be more specific, both
religion and science must preserve their autonomy and their distinctiveness.
Religion is not founded on science nor is science an extension of religion. Each
should possess its own principles, its pattern of procedures, its diversities of
interpretation and its own conclusions. Christianity possesses the source of its
justification within itself and does not expect science to constitute its
primary apologetic. Science must bear witness to its own worth. While each can
and should support the other as distinct dimensions of a common human culture,
neither ought to assume that it forms a necessary premise for the other. The
unprecedented opportunity we have today is for a common interactive relationship
in which each discipline retains its integrity and yet is radically open to the
discoveries and insights of the other.
But why is critical openness and
mutual interchange a value for both of us? Unity involves the drive of the human
mind toward understanding and the desire of the human spirit for love. When
human beings seek to understand the multiplicities that surround them, when they
seek to make sense of experience, they do so by bringing many factors into a
common vision. Understanding is achieved when many data are unified by a common
structure. The one illuminates the many; it makes sense of the whole. Simple
multiplicity is chaos; an insight, a single model, can give that chaos structure
and draw it into intelligibility. We move toward unity as we move toward meaning
in our lives. Unity is also the consequence of love. If love is genuine, it
moves not toward the assimilation of the other, but toward union with the other.
Human community begins in desire when that union has not been achieved, and it
is completed in joy when those who have been apart are now united.
In the Church's earliest
documents the realization of community, in the radical sense of that word, was
seen as the promise and goal of the Gospel: "That which we have seen and heard
we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our
fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing
this that our joy may be complete" (I Jn. 1:3-3). Later the Church reached out
to the sciences and to the arts, founding great universities and building
monuments of surpassing beauty so that all things might be recapitulated in
Christ (cf. Eph. 1:10).
What, then, does the Church
encourage in this relational unity between science and religion? First and
foremost that they should come to understand one another. For too long a time
they have been at arm's length. Theology has been defined as an effort of faith
to achieve understanding, as fides quaerens intellectum. As such, it must
be in vital interchange today with science just as it always has been with
philosophy and other forms of learning. Theology will have to call on the
findings of science to one degree or another as it pursues its primary concern
for the human person, the reaches of freedom, the possibilities of Christian
community, the nature of belief and the intelligibility of nature and history.
The vitality and significance of theology for humanity will in a profound way be
reflected in its ability to incorporate these findings.
Now this is a point of delicate
importance, and it has to be carefully qualified. Theology is not to incorporate
indifferently each new philosophical or scientific theory. As these findings
become part of the intellectual culture of the time, however, theologians must
understand them and test their value in bringing out from Christian belief some
of the possibilities which have not yet been realized. The hylomorphism of
Aristotelian natural philosophy, for example, was adopted by the medieval
theologians to help them explore the nature of the sacraments and the hypostatic
union. This did not mean that the Church adjudicated the truth or falsity of the
Aristotelian insight, since that is not her concern. It did mean that this was
one of the rich insights offered by Greek culture, that it needed to be
understood and taken seriously and tested for its value in illuminating various
areas of theology. Theologians might well ask, with respect to contemporary
science, philosophy and the other areas of human knowing, if they have
accomplished this extraordinarily difficult process as well as did these
If the cosmologies of the
ancient Near Eastern world could be purified and assimilated into the first
chapters of Genesis, might contemporary cosmology have something to offer to our
reflections upon creation? Does an evolutionary perspective bring any light to
bear upon theological anthropology, the meaning of the human person as the
imago Dei, the problem of Christology -- and even upon the development of
doctrine itself? What if any, are the eschatological implications of
contemporary cosmology, especially in light of the vast future of our universe?
Can theological method fruitfully appropriate insights from scientific
methodology and the philosophy of science?
Questions of this kind can be
suggested in abundance. Pursuing them further would require the sort of intense
dialogue with contemporary science that has, on the whole, been lacking among
those engaged in theological research and teaching. It would entail that some
theologians, at least, should be sufficiently well versed in the sciences to
make authentic and creative use of the resources that the best-established
theories may offer them. Such an expertise would prevent them from making
uncritical and overhasty use for apologetic purposes of such recent theories as
that of the "big bang" in cosmology. Yet it would equally keep them from
discounting altogether the potential relevance of such theories to the deepening
of understanding in traditional areas of theological inquiry.
In this process of mutual
learning, those members of the Church who are themselves either active
scientists or, in some special cases, both scientists and theologians could
serve as a key resource. They can also provide a much-needed ministry to others
struggling to integrate the worlds of science and religion in their own
intellectual and spiritual lives as well as to those who face difficult moral
decisions in matters of technological research and application. Such bridging
ministries must be nurtured and encouraged. The Church long ago recognized the
importance of such links by establishing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in
which some of the world's leading scientists meet together regularly to discuss
their research and to convey to the larger community where the directions of
discovery are tending. But much more is needed.
The matter is urgent.
Contemporary developments in science challenge theology far more deeply than did
the introduction of Aristotle into Western Europe in the 13th century. Yet these
developments also offer to theology a potentially important resource. Just as
Aristotelian philosophy, through the ministry of such great scholars as St.
Thomas Aquinas, ultimately came to shape some of the most profound expressions
of theological doctrine, so can we not hope that the sciences of today, along
with all forms of human knowing, may invigorate and inform those parts of the
theological enterprise that bear on the relation of nature, humanity and God?
Can science also benefit from
this interchange? It would seem that it should. For science develops best when
its concepts and conclusions are integrated into the broader human culture and
its concerns for ultimate meaning and value. Scientists cannot, therefore, hold
themselves entirely aloof from the sorts of issues dealt with by philosophers
and theologians. By devoting to these issues something of the energy and care
they give to their research in science, they can help others realize more fully
the human potentialities of their discoveries. They can also come to appreciate
for themselves that these discoveries cannot be a genuine substitute for
knowledge of the truly ultimate. Science can purify religion from error and
superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.
Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.
For the truth of the matter is
that the Church and the scientific community will inevitably interact; their
options do not include isolation. Christians will inevitably assimilate the
prevailing ideas about the world, and today these are deeply shaped by science.
The only question is whether they will do this critically or unreflectively,
with depth and nuance or with a shallowness that debases the Gospel and leaves
us ashamed before history. Scientists, like all human beings, will make
decisions upon what ultimately gives meaning and value to their lives and to
their work. This they will do well or poorly, with the reflective depth that
theological wisdom can help them attain or with an unconsidered absolutizing of
their results beyond their reasonable and proper limits.
Both the Church and the
scientific community are faced with such inescapable alternatives. We shall make
our choices much better if we live in a collaborative interaction in which we
are called continually to be more. Only a dynamic relationship between theology
and science can reveal those limits which support the integrity of either
discipline, so that theology does not profess a pseudoscience and science does
not become an unconscious theology. Our knowledge of each other can lead us to
be more authentically ourselves. No one can read the history of the past century
and not realize that crisis is upon us both. The uses of science have on more
than one occasion proven massively destructive, and the reflections on religion
have too often been sterile. We need each other to be what we must be, what we
are called to be.
And so on this occasion of the
Newton tricentennial, the Church speaking through my ministry calls upon herself
and the scientific community to intensify their constructive relations of
interchange through unity. You are called to learn from one another, to renew
the context in which science is done and to nourish the inculturation which
vital theology demands. Each of you has everything to gain from such an
interaction, and the human community which we both serve has a right to demand
it from us.
Upon all who participated in the
study week sponsored by the Holy See and upon all who will read and study the
papers herein published I invoke wisdom and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ and
cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing.
From the Vatican, June 1, 1988.
Text in L'Osservatore Romano
(Weekly edition in English), xxi, n.46 (1064), November 14, 1988