Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Physics World: May 2009

Edwin Cartlidge, a regular writer for Physics World, has a two page spread about the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the May issue. An idea of the work of the Pontifical Academy can be gained by visiting this page at the Vatican website.

The Physics World article is useful in that it communicates in some way that the Catholic Church does engage with scientific thought. One paragraph tells the story of how work undertaken by the Pontifical Academy on the dangers of nuclear weaponry was subsequently presented to the United Nations in the name of Pope John Paul II. But it is unhelpful in making some rather silly statements.
It is unlikely, though, that the academy is entirely independent of the Pope as it is ultimately there to serve him.
The Academy certainly exists to be of assistance to the Holy See and to the Church as a whole, but to characterise this by the word "serve" is rather strange.
The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is therefore the only institution within the Church not made up exclusively of Catholics.
I expect that there are other Ponitical Academies that have non-Catholic members; and certainly one of the features of many of the new movements (I think of Focolare and Mothers Prayers as I write this) is their ecumenical engagement.
.. as scientists celebrate the 400th anniversary of Galileo's use of the telescope to do astronomy, the mere existence of the academy shows just how much the Catholic Church's attitude towards science has changed over the centuries.
The Physics World article, only two paragraphs further on, describes the origins of the Pontifical Academy in the Accademia dei Lincei, of which one Galileo was a member. Arthur Koestler's book The Sleepwalkers contains an account of the engagement of the Jesuits at the Roman College in the scientific work arising from the telescope, and Cardinal Robert Bellarmine's familiarity with and understanding of that work. Rather than the Church having an oppositional attitude to the new discoveries of Galileo, she was instead in the thick of the debates and research surrounding them. The Pope received Galileo in audience, and the Roman College gave him an enthusiastic welcome, during a visit to Rome in 1610.

The Physics World article is unfortunate in presenting the work of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences within a hermeneutic of "the Church was anti-scientific and is now struggling to accept science", a hermeneutic that is not supported by historical scholarship.


Francis said...

Interesting account of Galileo vs The Church to be read here:

It certainly tells a side of the story not commonly heard.

Yes, the word 'serve' is loaded:it suggests (to my ears, at least)that they would not tell him something they knew he would not want to hear.

I wonder whether this view is based on some evidence or is an opinion dressed up as a fact.

Anonymous said...

zero says
Did you know about the new info website called It answers your questions not just direct you to relevent sites-There seemed to be alot of mention of physics.
Also, there is a music site called spotify and I would advise anyone looking for a piece of music (all types) to check it out. There seemed to be more Tantum ergos then you've had hot dinners!