Science and faith in the search for truth


John Paul II to teachers and university students in Cologne Cathedral, Saturday, November 15, 1980.
Venerable confreres in the Episcopate! Beloved brothers and sisters! Ladies and gentlemen!

1. I greet you with joy and gratitude, men and women scientists of the Federal Republic of Germany, students of the German universities, which have exercised such a lasting influence on the history of science in Europe. You are gathered here also as representatives of the many researchers, teachers, collaborators and students in the universities, academies and other research institutes. You also represent the numerous collaborators who, engaged in research in the public and private sectors, exercise a considerable influence on the development of science and technology, and consequently have a particular responsibility with regard to men.

Sign of readiness for dialogue

2. Today's meeting must be understood as a sign of readiness for dialogue between science and the Church. The day itself, as well as the place, give this meeting special importance. Seven hundred years ago today, there died in a Dominican convent not far from this cathedral, at whose foundation he was probably present, Albert "the German," as his contemporaries called him, and on whom, alone among the Doctors of the Church, posterity conferred the title "the Great."

Albert carried out a multiple activity in his time as a religious and a preacher, as religious superior, as bishop and mediator of peace in his own city, Cologne. But his claim to fame in world history is as a researcher and scholar who mastered the knowledge of his time and made it his lifework to reorganize it. His contemporaries already recognized in him the auctor, the initiator and promoter of science. Posterity defined him as doctor universalis. The Church, which counts him among her saints, refers to him as one of her "doctors" and honors him in the liturgy under this title.

Our memory of Albert the Great, however, must not be just an act of due piety. It is more important to actualize again the essential meaning of his lifework, to which we must attribute a fundamental and abiding importance. Let us cast a brief glance at the historico-cultural situation of Albert's time. It is marked by the growing rediscovery of Aristotelian literature and of Arabic science. Up to then the Christian West had kept alive and scientifically developed the tradition of Christian antiquity.

Now it is met by a comprehensive non-Christian view of the world, based only on a profane rationality. Many Christian thinkers, including some very important ones, saw above all a danger in this claim. They thought they had to defend the historical identity of Christian tradition against it; for there were also radical individuals and groups who saw an unsolvable conflict between scientific rationality and the truth of faith, and made their choice in favor of this "scientific precedence."

Between these two extremes Albert takes the middle way: The claim to truth of a science based on rationality is recognized; in fact, it is accepted in its contents, completed, corrected and developed in its independent rationality. And precisely in this way it becomes the property of the Christian world. In this way the latter sees its own understanding of the world enormously enriched without having to give up any essential element of its tradition, far less the foundation of its faith. For there can be no fundamental conflict between a reason which, in conformity with its own nature which comes from God, is geared to truth and is qualified to know truth, and a faith, which refers to the same divine source of all truth. Faith confirms, in fact, the specific rights of natural reason. It presupposes them. In fact, its acceptance presupposes that freedom which is characteristic only of a rational being. This shows at the same time that faith and science belong to different orders of knowledge, which cannot be transferred from one to the other. It is seen, furthermore, that reason cannot do everything alone; it is finite. It must proceed through a multiplicity of separate branches of knowledge; it is composed of a plurality of individual sciences. It can grasp the unity which binds the world and truth with their origin only within partial ways of knowledge. Also philosophy and theology are, as sciences, limited attempts which can represent the complex unity of truth only in diversity, that is, within an open system of complementary items of knowledge.

Let us repeat: Albert recognizes the articulation of rational science in a system of different branches of knowledge in which it finds confirmation of its own peculiarity, and at the same time remains geared to the goals of faith. In this way Albert realizes the statute of a Christian intellectuality, whose fundamental principles are still to be considered valid today. We do not diminish the importance of this achievement if we affirm at the same time: Albert's work is from the point of view of content bound to his own time and, therefore, belongs to history. The "synthesis" he made retains an exemplary character, and we would do well to call to mind its fundamental principles when we turn to the present-day questions about science, faith, and the Church.

In favor of freedom of research

3. Many people see the core of these questions in the relationship between the Church and modern natural sciences, and they still feel the weight of those notorious conflicts which arose from the interference of religious authorities in the process of the development of scientific knowledge. The Church remembers this with regret, for today we realize the errors and shortcomings of these ways of proceeding. We can say today that they have been overcome: thanks to the power of persuasion of science, and thanks above all to the work of a scientific theology, which has deepened understanding of faith and freed it from the conditionings of time. The ecclesiastical Magisterium has, since the First Vatican Council, recalled those principles several times, most recently and explicitly in the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et spes, no. 36), principles which are already recognizable in the work of Albert the Great. It has explicitly affirmed the distinction of orders of knowledge between faith and reason; it has recognized the autonomy and independence of science, and has taken up a position in favor of freedom of research. We do not fear, in fact we deny, that a science which is based on rational motives and proceeds with methodological seriousness, can arrive at knowledge which is in conflict with the truth of faith. This can happen only when the distinction of the orders of knowledge is neglected or denied. This view, which should be ratified by scientists, could help to overcome the historical weight of the relationship between Church and science and facilitate a dialogue on an equal footing, as already often happens in practice. It is not just a question of overcoming the past, but of new problems, which derive from the role of sciences in universal culture today.

Radical transformation in technology

Scientific knowledge has led to a radical transformation of human technology. Consequently, the conditions of human life on this earth have changed enormously and have also considerably improved. The progress of scientific knowledge has become the driving power of general cultural progress. The transformation of the world at the technical level seemed to many people to be the meaning and purpose of science. In the meantime, it has been seen that the progress of civilization does not always improve living conditions. There are involuntary and unexpected consequences, which may become dangerous and harmful. I will recall only the ecological problem, which arose as a result of the progress of technico-scientific industrialization. In this way serious doubts arise as to whether progress, on the whole, serves man. These doubts have repercussions on science, understood in the technical sense. Its meaning, its aim, its human significance are questioned.

This question takes on particular weight with regard to the use of scientific thought regarding man. The so-called human sciences have supplied extremely important information concerning human activity and behavior. They run the risk, however, in a culture determined by technology, to be misused in order to manipulate man, for purposes of economic and political domination.

If science is understood essentially as "a technical fact," then it can be conceived as the pursuit of those processes that lead to technical success. What leads to success, therefore, is considered "knowledge." The world, at the level of a scientific datum, becomes a mere complex of phenomena that can be manipulated, and the object of science a functional connection, which is examined only with reference to its functionality. Such a science may conceive itself as a mere function. The concept of truth, therefore, becomes superfluous,.and sometimes, in fact, it is explicitly renounced. Reason itself seems, when all is said and done, a mere function or an instrument of a being who finds the meaning of his existence in life outside knowledge and science.

Facing its own limits

Our culture, in all its areas, is imbued with a science which proceeds in a way that is largely functionalistic. This applies also to the area of values and norms, of spiritual orientation in general. Precisely here science comes up against its own limits: There is talk of a crisis of legitimation of science, nay more, of a crisis of orientation of our whole scientific culture. What is its essence? Science alone is not able to give a complete answer to the question of meanings, which is raised in the crisis. Scientific affirmations are always particular. They are justified only in consideration of a given starting point, they are set in a process of development, and they can be corrected and left behind in this process. But above all: how could something constitute the result of a scientific starting point when it first justifies this starting point and, therefore, must already be presupposed by it?

Science alone is not capable of answering the question of meanings, in fact it cannot even set it in the framework of its starting point. And yet this question of meanings cannot tolerate indefinite postponement of its answer. If widespread confidence in science is disappointed, then the state of mind easily changes into hostility to science. In this space that has remained empty, ideologies suddenly break in. They sometimes behave as if they were "scientific" but they owe their power of persuasion to the urgent need for an answer to the question of meanings and to interest in social and political change. Science that is purely functional, without values and alienated from truth, can enter the service of these ideologies; a reason that is only instrumental runs the risk of losing its freedom. Finally there are new manifestations of superstition, sectarianism, and the so- called "new religions," whose appearance is closely connected with the crisis of orientation of culture.

These wrong ways can be detected and avoided by faith. But the common crisis concerns also the believing scientist. He will have to ask himself in what spirit, in what direction, he is pursuing his studies. He must assume the task, directly or indirectly, of examining, in a constantly renewed form, the procedure and aim of science from the standpoint of the question of meanings. We are jointly responsible for this culture and we are called upon to cooperate in overcoming the crisis.

4. In this situation the Church does not advocate prudence and restraint, but courage and decision.

There is no reason not to take up a position in favor of truth or to be afraid of it. The truth and everything that is true represents a great good to which we must turn with love and joy. Science too is a way to truth; for God's gift of reason, which according to its nature is destined not for error, but for the truth of knowledge, is developed in it.

This must apply also to science, orientated in a technico- functional direction. It is reductive to understand knowledge only as a "method for success," while on the contrary it is legitimate to judge as a proof of knowledge the outcome it obtains. We cannot consider the technical world, the work of man, as a kingdom completely estranged from truth. Then, too, this world is anything but meaningless: it is true that it has decisively improved living conditions, and the difficulties caused by the harmful effects of the development of technical civilization do not justify forgetting the goods that this same progress has brought.

There is no reason to consider technico-scientific culture as opposed to the world of God's creation. It is clear beyond all doubt that technical knowledge can be used for good as well as for evil. Anyone who studies the effects of poisons can use this knowledge to cure as well as to kill. But there can be no doubt in what direction we must look to distinguish good from evil.

Technical science, aimed at the transformation of the world, is justified on the basis of the service it renders man and humanity.

It cannot be said that progress has gone too far as long as many people, in fact whole peoples, still live in distressing conditions, unworthy of man, which could be improved with the help of technico-scientific knowledge. Enormous tasks still lie before us, which we cannot shirk. To carry them out represents a brotherly service for our neighbor, to whom we owe this commitment, just as we owe the man in need the work of charity, which helps his necessity.

We render our neighbor a brotherly service because we recognize in him that dignity characteristic of a moral being; we are speaking of personal dignity. Faith teaches us that man's fundamental prerogative consists in being the image of God. Christian tradition adds that man is of value for his own sake, and is not a means for any other end. Therefore man's personal dignity represents the criterion by which all cultural application of technico-scientific knowledge must be judged.

Repercussions in private and public life

This is of particular importance at a time when man is becoming more and more the object of research and of human technologies. It is not yet a question of an unlawful way of proceeding, because man is also "nature." Certainly, dangers and problems arise here, which, due to the worldwide effects of technical civilization, raise completely new tasks for most peoples today. These dangers and problems have been for a long time the subject of discussion at the international level. It is a proof of the high sense of responsibility of modern science that it takes charge of these fundamental problems, and endeavors to solve them with scientific means.

The human and social sciences, but also the sciences of culture, not least of all philosophy and theology, have stimulated in multiple ways the reflection of modern man about himself and his existence in a world dominated by science and technology. The spirit of modern consciousness, which accelerates the development of the modern natural sciences, has also set for itself as its purpose the scientific analysis of man and of the world in which he lives, at the social and cultural level. An absolutely incalculable mass of knowledge has thereby come to light, which has repercussions on both public and private life. The social system of modern states, the health and educational system, economic processes and cultural activities are all marked in many ways by the influence of these sciences. But it is important that science should not keep man under its thumb. Also in the culture of technology, man, in conformity with his dignity, must remain free; in fact, it must be the meaning of this culture to give him greater freedom.

It is not only faith that offers the perception of man's personal dignity and of its decisive importance. Natural reason, too, can have access to it, since it is able to distinguish truth from falsehood, good from evil, and recognizes freedom as the fundamental condition of human existence. It is an encouraging sign, which is spreading all over the world. The concept of human rights does not mean anything else, and not even those who, in actual fact, oppose it with their actions, can escape it. There is hope, and we want to encourage this hope.

More and more voices are raised that refuse to be content with the immanent limitation of sciences and ask about a complete truth in which human life is fulfilled. It is as if knowledge and scientific research stretched out towards the infinite, only to snap back to their origins: the old problem of the connection between science and faith has not become outdated with the development of modern sciences; on the contrary, in a world more and more imbued with science, it manifests its full vital importance.

Knowledge of truth has its meaning

5. We have spoken so far mainly of the science that is in the service of culture and consequently of man. It would be too little, however, to limit ourselves to this aspect. Precisely with regard to the crisis, we must remember that science is not only service for other purposes. Knowledge of truth has its meaning in itself. It is an accomplishment of human and personal character, an outstanding human good. Pure "theory" is itself a kind of human "praxis," and the believer is waiting for a supreme "praxis," which will unite him forever with God: that "praxis" which is vision, and therefore also "theory."

We have spoken of the "crisis of the legitimation of science." Certainly, science has a meaning of its own and a justification when it is recognized as being capable of knowing truth, and when truth is recognized as a human good. Then also the demand for the freedom of science is justified; in what way, in fact, could a human good be realized if not through freedom? Science must be free also in the sense that its implementation must not be determined by direct purposes of social utility or economic interest. That does not mean, however, that on principle it must be separated from "praxis." But to be able to influence praxis, it must first be determined by truth; and therefore be free for truth.

A free science, bound only to truth, does not let itself be reduced to the model of functionalism or any other, which limits understanding of scientific rationality. Science must be open, in fact it must also be multiform, and we need not fear the loss of a unified approach. This is given by the trinomial of personal reason, freedom and truth, in which the multiplicity of concrete realizations is founded and confirmed.

I do not hesitate at all to see also the science of faith on the horizon of rationality understood in this way. The Church wants independent theological research, which is not identified with the ecclesiastical Magisterium, but which knows it is committed with regard to it in common service of the truth of faith and the People of God. It cannot be ignored that tensions and even conflicts may arise. But this cannot be ignored either as regards the relationship between Church and science. The reason is to be sought in the finiteness of our reason, limited in its extension and, therefore, exposed to error. Nevertheless we can always hope for a solution of reconciliation, if we take our stand on the ability of this same reason to attain truth.

Church must take up defense

In the past, precursors of modern science fought against the Church with the slogans: reason, freedom and progress. Today, in view of the crisis with regard to the meaning of science, the multiple threats to its freedom and the doubt about progress, the battle fronts have been inverted. Today it is the Church that takes up the defense: - for reason and science, which she recognizes as having the ability to attain truth, which legitimizes it as a human realization; - for the freedom of science, through which the latter possesses its dignity as a human and personal good; - for progress in the service of a humanity which needs it to safeguard its life and its dignity.

With this task, the Church and all Christians are at the center of the debate of these times of ours. An adequate solution of the pressing questions about the meaning of human existence, norms of action, and the prospects of a more far-reaching hope, is possible only in the renewed connection between scientific thought and the power of faith in man in search of truth. The pursuit of a new humanism, on which the future of the third millennium can be based, will be successful only on condition that scientific knowledge again enters upon a living relationship with the truth revealed to man as God's gift. Man's reason is a grand instrument for knowledge and structuring of the world. It needs, however, in order to realize the whole wealth of human possibilities, to open to the Word of eternal Truth, which became man in Christ.

Objectively and perseveringly

I said at the beginning that our meeting today was to be a sign of the readiness for dialogue between science and the Church. Has it not emerged clearly from these reflections how urgent this dialogue is? Both parties must continue it objectively, listening to each other, and perseveringly. We need each other.

In this cathedral there have been kept and venerated for centuries the bones of the Wise Men, who at the beginning of the new age which dawned with the Incarnation of God, set out to pay homage to the true Lord of the world. These men, in whom the knowledge of their time was summed up, become therefore the model of every man in search of truth. The knowledge which reason attains finds its completion in the adoration of divine truth. The man who sets out towards this truth does not suffer any loss of his freedom: on the contrary, in trusting dedication to the Spirit whom we have been promised through Jesus Christ's redeeming work, he is led to complete freedom and to the fullness of a truly human existence.

I appeal to the scientists, students, and all of you gathered here today, and ask you always to keep before your eyes, in your striving for scientific knowledge, the ultimate aim of your work and of your whole life. For this purpose I recommend to you particularly the virtues of courage, which defends science in a world marked by doubt, alienated from truth, and in need of meaning; and humility, through which we recognize the finiteness of reason before Truth which transcends it. These are the virtues of Albert the Great.


English translation by L'Osservatore Romano. Web publishing, with permission, by the Newman Center at California Institute of Technology

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