The Vatican's Turn to Recant

Scientists censured in the past are being posthumously redeemed

Continued from page 1

Today, partly inspired by John Paul II's pro-science attitude -- the current Pope is as liberal on this point as he is conservative on many issues of doctrine -- the Vatican has been seeking out favorable relations with many aspects of the science world. One example is the Vatican Observatory, a serious astronomy program run in conjunction with the University of Arizona. In the Middle Ages, the church studied the stars and sun hoping to correct the calendar and fix the correct annual date for Easter; today its Observatory scans for supernovae and neutron stars. The

Vatican Observatory's website

even has a FAQ section in which it assures the curious that Catholic astronomers are not scanning the heavens looking for any physical sign of the empyrean, merely trying to advance the state of astronomy.

Evolving Attitudes Towards Evolution

As long ago as the fifth century, Augustine, the church's most revered ancient theologian, had cautioned not to take the Genesis creation accounts too literally. Thus the Vatican never directly denounced Darwin or his theories, though church officials did not exactly leap for joy over natural selection. Most prominently, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist, was during much of his lifetime banned by his order from speaking in public because he believed the fossil record showed that human life evolved gradually, rather than arose in a single divine act. Within a short time after Teilhard's 1955 death, the church felt sufficiently disconcerted by its treatment of him and by the general assumption that believers could not be scientists, that Pope John XXIII went out of his way to issue an encyclical letter asserting that it was fine for a Catholic to be a working scientist, if only to influence science from "within." The Pope wrote, "Since our present age is one of outstanding scientific and technical progress and excellence, one will not be able to enter these organizations and work effectively from within unless he is scientifically competent, technically capable, and skilled in the practice of his own profession."

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It's important to remember that when

On the Origin of Species

was published in 1859, Darwin's thinking became a source of formal science-versus-religion conflict mainly in England, where an anti-clerical movement was attempting to wrestle down the Anglican denomination's position as Britian's "established" church and to win academic freedom for Oxford and Cambridge universities, where hiring decisions still had to be submitted to Anglican bishops for approval. In the United States, Darwinism initially caused no such splash, being seen as an indication of the mechanism of divine creation.

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