The complicated and ancient drama of selecting a new pope will soon begin with the departure of Pope Benedict, our planet's most important spiritual leader. His successor will embrace a tumultuous set of challenges at a critical time in the history of Christianity.
An underappreciated achievement of Pope Benedict has been his consistent support for science. At time when the gulf between science and Christianity is widening in the United States -- polls show support for young earth creationism is on the rise -- Benedict was a quiet and powerful voice calling for Christians to embrace science.
Just over a year ago Benedict even founded a new organization -- The Science and Faith Foundation -- at the Vatican to continue and enlarge the task of building bridges between science and theology, and to ease concerns of Christians that their faith demands the rejection of science. The executive director Father Tomasz Trafny describes the mission as the search for a "coherent vision of society, culture and the human being," arguably the most important quest we confront today.
The new Foundation launched by Benedict continues the work of the Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest project (STOQ), created by Pope John Paul II. The STOQ project promoted high-level dialog between leading scientists -- without regard to their faith commitments -- and Catholic leaders. The project informed Catholic leadership on everything from stem cells to the Big Bang to anti-evolutionism in the United States. The organization played a lead role in the Vatican's decision to form a commercial partnership to explore ethical stem cell research with Neostem, an American pharmaceutical company.
The Foundation represents an expansion and consolidation of more diffuse explorations of science and religion, but is best understood as part of the ongoing commitment of the Church to engage with science on its own terms. In dramatic contrast to much of conservative Protestantism in the United States, the Catholic church has a long history of meaningful interaction with science on many levels. Many of the first serious efforts to integrate evolution into the Christian doctrine of Creation were Catholic efforts, with Teilhard des Chardin being the most significant. The Big Bang Theory was first proposed by a physicist named Georges LeMaitre, who was also a Catholic priest. And Benedict, like his predecessors, consistently endorsed the Big Bang Theory and never called on Christians to reject it or the 14 billion year old universe that comes with it.
The Vatican also houses the The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the world's first exclusively scientific academy. A forerunner to the academy appeared in 1603, a few years before Galileo, the most famous Catholic scientist, pointed his telescope at the heavens. Galileo, a loyal Catholic until his death in 1642, was also one of its first presidents. Today the organization consists of some 80 members, all leading scientists from every race and religion, including the agnostic Stephen Hawking.
Addressing the Pontifical Academy last year Benedict spoke of the "greatness of contemporary science" and its "repercussions for human beings." He called for man to "constantly expand his knowledge of truth and order it wisely for his good and that of his environment." The Academy will explore evolution later this year. And far from insisting that Christians reject it, it will ask the tough questions and wrestle with the implications for Christian faith.
In April 2006 I was privileged to be invited to the Vatican to participate in one its many conversations on science and religion. One of the few Americans on the program, my task was to explain "American hostility to evolution." I was humbled to realize I was a part of a long conversation that had once included the controversial idea that the earth moved about the sun -- a conversation the Church would like to forget. I was also dismayed to realize just how many evangelicals, America's largest religious group, had simply abandoned this conversation, diverting their energies to opposing science and convincing Christians to reject it, with projects like Ken Ham's Creation Museum.
The Vatican conference was in April and most of us attended Easter Mass at St. Peter's where Benedict spoke to thousands of faithful Christians. As special guests we sat on the platform from where we could observe an ocean of worshipers in the world's most famous square. Benedict read from the book of Mark, switching smoothly from one language to the next as he spoke directly to the many tribes gathered in Rome to worship on Christianity's most important day. Each responded with a cheer, as they heard their leader speak to them in their language.
Benedict's message is much broader than science, of course. But it is encouraging to realize that the man who would learn to read the Bible in the many languages of his fellow Catholics, would also make the effort to speak the language of science with its many dialects.
In addressing the Pontifical Academy Benedict offered the following vision for the important conversation between science and religion. It's a vision we must hope and anticipate his successor will share, and one that must become much larger within Christianity.
"In the great human enterprise of striving to unlock the mysteries of man and the universe, I am convinced of the urgent need for continued dialogue and cooperation between the worlds of science and of faith in the building of a culture of respect for man, for human dignity and freedom, for the future of our human family and for the long-term sustainable development of our planet. Without this necessary interplay, the great questions of humanity leave the domain of reason and truth, and are abandoned to the irrational, to myth, or to indifference, with great damage to humanity itself, to world peace and to our ultimate destiny."