The Relationship between Science and Religion According to “Laudato Si’” | The BioLogos Forum

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Note: Last Thursday saw the release of a much-anticipated papal encyclical by Pope Francis on the subject of climate change. Though the main focus of BioLogos is on how God has created the world, it is no less important to reflect on how mankind should steward it—and how Christians in particular should respond to scientific evidence about our failure to adequately care for God's creation. The worldwide media attention on this encyclical is providing a key moment for the whole Church to reflect deeply on how science and faith come together to inform our efforts to steward God's earth. Last Friday, we published a response by Christian climate scientists Katharine Hayhoe and Ed Maurer. Yesterday, Paul Allen suggested that the encyclical could foster greater Christian unity across denominations and traditions. Today we are excited to share the thoughts of Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., on how the encyclical presents a vision for how science and faith enrich each other. Stay tuned tomorrow for final thoughts by BioLogos content manager Jim Stump.

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.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Robert J. Kurland, Ph.D.) #4

There is much to praise in the Encyclical, and your article brings out many general considerations about the relation between the Church and science (notice the uppercase) that are insightful.
However, the Encyclical is spoiled for me by a stain of false science. Like some absent-minded scientists I occasionally put an uncapped pen into my shirt pocket. The resultant stain, even though it is small, ruins the shirt beyond repair. The stain in the Encyclical is the bllind acceptance and assertion of settled science of claims concerning AGW (Anthropic Global Warming)–polar ice caps and glaciers melting, sea levels rising, etc.

These claims of AGW advocates are NOT generally accepted by hard scientists–there is NOT a 97% consensus (I exclude economists, sociologists, weather forecasters, TV personalities from the group to be considered) that man-made CO2 causes a harmful increase in climate temperature. At the very least, Pope Francis should have called in a “Devil’s Advocate” to give the position of skeptics. Instead the Church bureaucracy prohibited one French skeptic from attending the conference on this subject.

There is a general question of when the Church should meddle in science. I’ve discussed this at some length in a post on my blog, “Galileo redux: When should the Church meddle in science?” and will state here that I admire the position by Pope Saint John Paul II, The Church has a duty to take a stand on settled science when it affects moral questions. For example, Pope Saint John Paul II dismissed those theories of evolution (but not evolution itself) that " regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter"(Letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 22 October, 1996). The Church does not take a position on any of the 17 possible interpretations of quantum mechanics. The Church does take a position on gene therapy, encouraging this for healing disease, but barring it for the production of super-babies.

I hope and pray His Holiness will listen to scientists with non-radical views, rather than those advisors on science whom he has consulted.

(Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P.) #5

I am sorry for the delay in replying. I think that you misunderstand the role that the pope is playing in writing this encyclical.

Let me explain: Imagine that you are a father whose daughter is very sick. A majority of doctors think that they have an explanation for her illness and a possible cure for her. The proposed cure will be a difficult regimen of drugs and diet control. But, the doctors warn, if she does not begin taking the drugs now, she will become permanently disabled and may even die. However, there is a complication: Another group of doctors tell you that they disagree with the majority diagnosis. They think that the illness will just pass if you give it enough time. Just wait they say.

I think that everyone would agree that it would be reasonable if the father decided to accept the majority opinion and begin the proposed therapeutic regimen for his daughter. He would be reasonable because the risk is too great for him not to do anything. She could die. Yes, it would be a difficult regimen but if the majority of doctors are correct, then she will be cured.

This is a simplistic analogy but I hope you see the parallels. The pope is concerned about the plight of the poor. As he explains over and over again in the encyclical, they bear the brunt of climate change. And the majority of scientists – not a consensus certainly but still a majority – tell him and us that it could and will get worse. The poor will continue to suffer. In contrast, the minority view says that it will pass as the solar cycle or volcanism or other natural process changes. Do nothing, they advise.

Just as the father in the analogy did, the pope has chosen to move forward with the proposed cure for climate change made by the majority of scientists. It is not his role to mediate the scientific debate in the same way that it would not be the father’s role to mediate the medical debate between the doctors of his child. He has admitted this himself in the encyclical. To put it another way, the cause of the climate change is not what worries the pope but its ongoing effects on the poor. Thus, he calls the world to exercise self-restraint and virtue so that something may be done to help the poor.

(Robert J. Kurland, Ph.D.) #6

Thank you very much Fr. Austriaco for your thoughtful reply. Your analogy is compelling, but I am still troubled by the dubious science on which much of the Encyclical is based. There are some eminent scientists (I don’t include myself) who are very skeptical of the pronouncements of those advocating AGW–Frederick Seitz, former President of the National Academy of Sciences; Richard Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at MIT; Freeman Dyson, Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton), amongst many others. And in any case, truth in science is not determined by majority vote.

What does trouble me very much is that Pope Francis’s proposed intervention to help the poor will not, I believe, be effective. It will depend, if I read the Encyclical correctly, on supra-government agencies and bureaucratic controls. Andrew Montford has written a very compelling article about how efforts to minimize carbon footprints have, in fact, harmed the poor: [The Unintended Consequences of Climate Change Policy][1]. One example of this is the higher food prices caused by diversion of corn from food supplies to ethanol as a fuel additive. Bjorn Lomberg, a Danish economist and statistician, who believes that AGW is real, still would have economic resources used to build up water supplies, health resources, agricultural training and improvements for third world countries, rather than be used up in efforts to minimize CO2 production.

I have read the Encyclical in full three times, and I do find much that is laudatory (pun intended). I’m writing a blog about the whole–what I consider very good and what I consider troubling. But I intend, whatever other’s opinions might be, to follow St. Thomas Aquinas in his injunction about following one’s conscience:

“Every judgement of conscience, be it right or wrong, be it about things evil in themselves or morally indifferent, is obligatory, in such wise that he who acts against his conscience always sins.” St. Thomas Aquinas. III Quodlibet 27."

I realize that one must seek the truth and reflect in order to set one’s conscience; your reply has been very helpful in doing that.

(Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P.) #7

Thank you for your response, Dr. Kurland. Did you realize what you just did? You went from worrying about what causes climate change to considering solutions that would help the poor. I think that this is exactly what the pope wants to happen.

I am aware that there is much debate surrounding the effectiveness of some of the proposed changes to global manufacturing and consumer behavior on actually affecting climate change and alleviating the plight of the poor, but I think that the pope will be successful if he can get people talking about solutions rather than worrying obsessively about causes.

Returning to my analogy, if the minority group of doctors is concerned about the diagnosis and proposed therapeutic intervention then they should propose their own better approach. Otherwise, the father has no other option but to go with the majority view no matter his worries and doubts. He simply has no other choice because no other choice has been presented to him, and simply waiting to see what happens to his daughter to see if she makes it through alive, is not a reasonable option.

The debate over climate change, in my view, has become so bogged down by debates over causes that we have stopped really thinking about innovative solutions. For example, what about climate geoengineering? Would that work? Would that help the poor? The pope wants us to start talking about such things, for the sake of those of us who are unable to talk because of our poverty.

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