Expecting to hear a further defense of his faith, I ask Coyne what effect science has had on religion and, in particular, on the Bible.
“There is no science in the Bible. Zero, none,” Coyne says. “The Bible was written in different times by different people. Some of the books are poetry, some of them are history, some are stories.”
“Are you saying that the Bible should not be held up to scientific scrutiny?” I ask.
“That is correct,” Coyne says. “Absolutely.”
Impacting the World
The Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ position amid changing cultural attitudes also makes it the target of special-interest groups—and often mires it in controversy.
In 2004 the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See held a joint conference with the academy called “Feeding a Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology.” The title of the conference alone caused an uproar among farmers and agriculturalists around the world; it implied that genetically modified (GM) food was a solution to world hunger. Critics, however, contend that GM food gives agricultural corporations an unfair economic advantage over small producers and that GM foods have a negative impact on biodiversity.
As early as 2000, an academy study document stated, “Genetically modified plants can play an important role in alleviating world food problems.” But in the Church this was a far from unanimous opinion.
“As to world hunger, the official policy by the Vatican has always been that the issue is not one of production but of distribution,” says Brother David Andrews, a former executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.
I ask Andrews if he feels the Pontifical Academy is susceptible to influence from the U.S. embassy and agricultural big business. “Yes, of course,” he says. “Peter Raven is a member of the academy, and he is also responsible for the Missouri Botanical Garden, which had funding from Monsanto.” A multinational agricultural corporation with more than 16,000 employees, Monsanto is the leading producer of genetically engineered seeds.
While the conference’s program was heavily weighted toward proponents of biotechnology, Andrews tells me that ultimately the U.S. embassy, agribusiness, and the academy itself did not succeed in positioning GM foods as a “moral imperative” in the Vatican’s eyes. Instead, they acknowledged the concerns of critics. The Vatican remains cautious and silent on the issue.
“I think [the debate over GM food] was an embarrassing episode for the academy,” Andrews says.
Despite such difficult episodes, the Vatican readily admits the increasingly dominant role that science and technology play in society and how, for the most part, their advances are positive. It’s the nagging persistence of a mechanistic view of humanity that troubles Church officials. For that and other cultural concerns, the Vatican turns to the Pontifical Council for Culture, which is something of an intermediary between the Vatican and the rest of the world.
“The human being is often considered an assembly of parts and elements that can be cut and pasted, rather than a biological organism and a person of spiritual worth,” explains a council publication. “Addressing this issue is deemed urgent.”
The Pontifical Council for Culture has been charged with explaining much of this unfolding Church doctrine to the public in a way that builds a philosophical bridge between science and theology. Located off the regal Via della Conciliazione, which leads to the Piazza San Pietro, the council acts as the Vatican’s multicultural outreach center. The hallways and rooms it occupies are decorated with photos of Pope Benedict XVI, crucifixes, and modest floral arrangements. There’s a measured order to the place; nothing seems out of line.
“There is a myth that surrounds science,” Monsignor de Toca says. “Science with a capital S is seen by many people as a religion itself. There are also the myths of science itself: the Galileo affair, Darwin, creationism—they are not strictly scientific issues; they belong to culture. We are interested in those trends, those phenomena—for example, the struggle between creationists and evolutionists.
“I think religion and science are both part of human existence,” de Toca continues. “You don’t have to choose one or the other—you can choose both…. Science can purge religion of superstition…. And religion can help science to remain inside its borders.”
Historically, theologians sometimes respond to scientific knowledge by changing their interpretation of Holy Scripture, moving from a literal perspective to a spiritual one. St. Augustine, for example, struggled in his acceptance of the idea of the earth as a sphere but eventually conceded to science. “When there are convincing reasons, we must interpret the Bible in a different way,” de Toca explains. When science posits a truth that seems to contradict Scripture (lack of evidence of a global flood, for example), the Bible’s inherent elasticity simply envelops the new finding, and any apparent contradiction is relegated to the realm of parable (where Noah’s ark resides, in the view of many Catholics).
Is it possible, then, for Catholics to find solid answers to contemporary problems in such flexible interpretations of the Bible? I ask de Toca to elaborate on the most pressing issues that face cultures today.
“Ethical issues are very pressing because they immediately affect the human being,” de Toca answers. “For example, cloning, euthanasia, contraception—they are not scientific questions but ethical ones.”
The questions are indeed ethical, but ethical issues can prove significant in the realm of science. Early this year Benedict XVI stated that with in vitro fertilization, “the barrier that served to protect human dignity has been violated.” Others are not so sure that the Church’s positions do indeed protect human dignity.
Despite disagreements with Church doctrine, Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer sides with the Vatican on one issue: the right of Catholic pharmacists to refuse to dispense birth control.
“I would respect pharmacists who say they don’t wish to supply a particular prescription that can only be used for a purpose that they see as morally wrong,” Singer says. “I think they have an obligation to make it exactly clear that that’s what they’re doing.”
In the United States, most states do not offer a pharmacist’s conscience clause, which legally permits a pharmacist to refuse to dispense contraception on moral grounds. (At least eight states do, including Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Dakota.) As a result, The Washington Post reports, pharmacists for companies such as Kmart have been fired for their refusal as conscientious objectors to dispense such drugs.
Bioethical issues are amplified in Italy. While the Italian government has legalized abortion, almost 70 percent of physicians there have refused to perform the procedure, according to a United Nations report. In May 2008 about 1,000 people rallied in northern Italy, protesting the Vatican’s interference in the public debate after a speech in which the pope lashed out at abortion.
Vatican involvement in Italian politics is more than just an accusation; one look at its stake in the country reveals its reach. In Italy the Church owns 100,000 properties, according to The Times of London, and in Rome it owns 250 schools, 65 rest homes, and 18 hospitals. Italy provides the Catholic Church with about $6.2 billion a year in direct contributions and tax exemptions, according to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. In turn, Italy benefits from the Vatican’s humanitarian programs throughout the country. Critics argue that this arrangement gives the Vatican too much latitude to impose its Catholic positions on the Italian public.