The Vatican, Birth Control, and Galileo's Ghost

This year, the year in which the world observes the 450th anniversary of Galileo's birth, the age-old conflict between faith and science is being played out on a dramatic new stage.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences this week is hosting a four-day conference at the Vatican that has brought together distinguished scientists, theologians, economists and environmentalists. The workshop, which is titled "Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Planet, Our Responsibility," is addressing some big questions. As posed by three of the participants in the Vatican's workshop, those questions are:

Are Humanity's dealings with Nature sustainable? What is the status of the Human Person in a world where science predominates? How should we perceive Nature and what is a good relationship between Humanity and Nature? Should one expect the global economic growth that has been experienced over the past six decades to continue for the foreseeable future? Should we be confident that knowledge and skills will increase in such ways as to lessen Humanity's reliance on Nature despite our increasing economic activity and growing numbers? Is the growing gap between the world's rich and world's poor in their reliance on natural resources a consequence of those growths?

The Pontifical Academy of Science does not speak for the Vatican; it is purely an advisory body, but the idea that the Vatican is actively soliciting answers to these questions from the scientific community and other members of the laity will come as a bit of a shock to many. The modern Catholic Church has not turned a blind eye to climate change or other environmental threats, but neither has it been a leading voice in questioning whether humanity, in some form, is overwhelming the planet and its resources.

If, as the topic of this workshop suggests, humanity is in danger of exceeding planetary limits, it begs the question of what the church is prepared to do, if anything, about birth control. Indeed, according to one participant, New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin, the subject of birth control came up just 99 minutes into the discussions. Hsin-Chi Kuan, a political science professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, reportedly asked the president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Werner Arber, whether he approved of birth control. Arber, a Nobel laureate in Medicine, said he did.

Arber, of course, was speaking only for himself, not the Vatican. Still, the idea that the Vatican in some forum, even an advisory one, is pondering the question of planetary limits is, to put it mildly, encouraging. If the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Pope Francis, takes the view that we are stewards of God's earth and that we have a responsibility to maintain this planet for future generations, it is not a big leap to conclude that couples should consider having smaller families. And from there it is not a huge leap to conclude that women should have access to modern methods of birth control in planning their families.

No one, of course, should leap to the conclusion that the Vatican is about to reverse its position on birth control. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is not that influential.

All of this makes me wonder what Galileo, who is sometimes called the Father of Modern Science, would say about this week's Vatican workshop. He would, no doubt, be pleased, but would he be so sanguine as to believe that the Vatican would heed the scientific warnings and consider the possibility of modifying its position on birth control? Probably not. Galileo learned the hard way that faith is often slow to embrace science and its conclusions. In 1992, Pope John Paul II did express regret about how Galileo was treated by church authorities, but the Church has always maintained a somewhat skeptical distance from science when its conclusions have differed from traditional church teachings.

Still, no one should casually dismiss what is happening at the Vatican's workshop this week. It may yet prove to be of historical significance. Let's hope.