Theology, Science, and Pope Pius XII

When it comes to the issues arising from the apparent conflict between science and theology, I sometimes feel like Michael Corleone in Godfather III: “Just when I thought I was out. . .they pull me back in.” On this page two weeks ago, I questioned the wisdom of Eric Metaxas’ use of science to make “the case for God” in an article he published on Christmas Day in the Wall Street Journal. I have since learned, from Metaxas himself, that his essay has received more “likes” on Facebook than any essay in that newspaper’s history.

Others, of course, have chimed in, including the eminent Arizona State physicist Lawrence Krauss, who offered a reply to Metaxas that the Wall Street Journal chose not to publish. But to our good fortune, Richard Dawkins has posted it on his website. Unsurprisingly, Krauss, relying on his own expertise, counters Metaxas’ claims, arguing that Metaxas is mistaken about the nature and veracity of the scientific findings he invokes in his case for God.

You would think that would be enough for a scientist committed to the primacy of reason. But no. Krauss ventures outside of his expertise, where he has earned well-deserved praise, and issues a secular fatwa, suggesting that Metaxas’ essay should be sequestered from the realm of respectable opinion because the author is “a religious writer with an agenda.”

As opposed to what? A science writer with an agenda? Perhaps one like Dawkins, about whom the renowned Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga once said, “You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores.”

In an odd reply to my essay, Vincent Torley pits me against Pope Pius XII. He might as welhave put me in the boxing ring with Rocky Marciano in his prime. Fortunately for me, Torley’s assessment is anachronistic. (Not of Marciano, but of Pius, though they were both Italians).

Torley’s citations from Pius come from a November 22, 1951 talk he gave to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the topic of whether the traditional Thomistic proofs for God’s existence – the five ways – have been displaced by the findings of modern science. The late pontiff focuses on the first and fifth ways – arguments from motion (or mutability) and final causality – and shows how the deliverances of modern science confirm the premises of these arguments.

As Pius puts it: “The question, then, is not one of revising the philosophical proofs, but rather of inquiring into the physical foundations from which they flow. . .”   However, “there is no reason to be fearful of surprises,” for “[n]ot even science itself aims to go outside that world which today, as yesterday, presents itself through these `five modes of being’ whence the philosophical demonstration of the existence of God proceeds and draws its force.”

Pope Pius XII
Pope Pius XII

The scientific data, in other words, illuminates what we have already known philosophically from our common sense observation of the world: “if the primitive experience of the ancients could provide human reason with sufficient arguments to demonstrate the existence of God, then with the expanding and deepening of the field of human experiments, the vestiges of the Eternal One are discernible in the visible world in ever more striking and clearer light.”

To put it another way, Copernicus and Einstein may displace Ptolemy and Newton, but the nature of being – mutable, contingent, and intelligible – remains the same, though our knowledge of its physical structures in its variety of forms and manifestations may become more informed and more precise through the progress of science.

Pius, after all, is addressing a conference of scientists, not philosophers or theologians. If, for example, he were lecturing a group of 21st-century American college football aficionados, he would have surely used Baylor’s 2015 Cotton Bowl performance as confirmation of the universe’s radical contingency. This, of course, would not mean that “football increasingly makes the case for God,” no matter how much Big Ten fans think the events of the past couple of weeks seem to establish this point.

For some reason, Torley reads Pius’ talk as a brief in favor of Metaxas’ approach and against mine, when in fact, it seems just the opposite. Torley’s error, however, is understandable, since it is easy to mistakenly read back into older literature categories and concepts that dominate our contemporary discourse. I have done this myself on occasion. This is why, for example, you should not conclude that tennis is mentioned in the Bible simply because it says that Joseph served in Pharaoh’s court.

Nevertheless, blogger David Klinghoffer says that Torley’s post is worth reading, “especially the extended quote[s] from Pope Pius XII who offered evidence from science in support of theism in a remarkably similar style to that of Eric Metaxas.” The quotes may seem similar for someone unacquainted with the entirety of Pius’ talk, the metaphysical proofs he assumed as demonstrative, and the nature of the audience he addressed. When one takes those into consideration, the quotes enlisted by Torley take on a different meaning than the one with which he and Klinghoffer want to infuse them.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with theists shoring up the intellectual credentials for their faith and making it accessible to the wider world. The concern I have raised is a simple one, which was voiced decades ago by C. S. Lewis: “Sentences beginning ‘Science has now proved’ should be avoided. If we try to base our apologetic on some recent development in science, we shall usually find that just as we have put the finishing touches to our argument science has changed its mind and quietly withdrawn the theory we have been using as our foundation stone”

According to Torley, following this advice makes us “nervous nellies.” I disagree. Being wise stewards of our intellectual heritage makes us faithful.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).