On Pope Benedict, science, faith, and his legacy | Bruce Ledewitz

The most conservative of popes showed a surprising openness to dialogue

January 10, 2023 6:30 am

back of wooden pews ~ shot with canon eos rp

Every Roman Catholic pope writes a “Spiritual Testament” to be shared with the world upon his death. Pope Benedict XVI, who died on the last day of 2022, wrote his testament in 2006, a little over a year into his pontificate. It was published immediately after his death.

Benedict’s testament is short, only a few pages long, and mostly contains what one would expect—prayers of gratitude to God, family, friends and the church.

But the testament also contains an openness to dialogue that media stories about Benedict depicting him as a leader of Church conservatives failed to acknowledge.

At the end of the testament, really the last word that Benedict knew the world would hear from him, he addressed the apparent division between science and faith that has driven many to leave organized religion, including the Roman Catholic faith, and has led many secular critics to regard religion as little more than superstition.

The topic of reason and faith had always been important to Benedict and he had never been dogmatic on the topic.  A year before he became pope, Benedict engaged in a conversation—not a formal debate though of course there were disagreements—with the noted German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, which was published in book form with the title The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion.  

This book helped spur a new openness in continental philosophy to religious thought.

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And one of Benedict’s first, and most controversial, acts as Pope—his remarks about the Islamic view of God as insufficiently rational—was grounded in his view that religion must always be subject to the critique of reason. In that sense, Benedict was an Enlightenment figure.

Naturally, the first thing Benedict writes in his testament about science is that Catholics should “Stand firm in the faith.” But he then acknowledges that science—and he specifically includes both the “natural sciences” and “historical research,” by which he means writing about the historical Jesus and the historical claims of other parts of the Bible—does seem to come to conclusions at odds with Christian faith.

But what is crucial is what comes next. We could imagine a conservative religious figure imploring the faithful to ignore the conclusions of science—or claiming to refute them. Think of the Creation Museum in Kentucky with its dinosaurs alongside Adam and Eve.  

This is emphatically not Benedict’s approach. He takes the findings of science with utmost seriousness. He concludes that it is not scientific findings themselves that are said to challenge faith, but what Benedict calls “philosophical interpretations only apparently pertaining to science.”

To translate these terse works into understandable language, Benedict is referring to the statements by some scientists that findings in evolutionary biology, for example, demonstrate that there is no God; or that science demonstrates that the universe is a cold, uncaring collection of forces incompatible with any human search for meaning.

In Benedict’s view, the actual scientific findings that are said to ground these worldviews are themselves to be accepted. But their interpretation is not actually a matter of scientific investigation and is not to be automatically accepted. 

Evolution yes, Godlessness, no.

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And it is the same with historical research into the Bible. The actual results of such research are to be accepted. But such investigations do not prove that Jesus was “only” an itinerant preacher or neo-Marxist critic of the status quo. Conclusions like that are “mere hypotheses” and Benedict writes that he has seen many of them come and go, no more lasting than academic fads.

Jesus remains the Son of God.

Then Benedict does something his critics should find even more startling, coming from this religious “conservative.” He points out that it is “in dialogue” with science “that faith, too, has learned to understand better the limit of the scope of its claims.”

In other words, religion has no right to try to limit the investigations of science or to refute its findings. Scientific inquiry has its own method and its own practice. And Benedict finds scientific conclusions to be at least presumptively correct.

Religion has no business estimating the age of the Earth or putting humans and dinosaurs into direct contact.

For people who understand the actual Roman Catholic stance on science, none of this is surprising. For years, there has been a respected Vatican Chief Astronomer.

But for those secularists who equate religion with superstition and their own views with reason, Benedict’s testament should at least give pause.

And that they come from a figure widely regarded as a guardian of dogmas of the faith, should give them even more cause for reconsideration.

For Benedict meant precisely what he wrote. He was a man of such intense faith in God as the creator of the universe that it was literally inconceivable to him that science might discover something that would refute the claims of faith that he regarded as absolutely true. Since God is faithful, science and faith must always be consistent.

Of course, Benedict did not expect science to prove all the articles of faith. I am sure he thought that the resurrection of Christ was not something scientific devices could record. There is a difference between faith and science, after all.

But in a broader sense, Benedict probably did regard science as an ally of faith. He took seriously Psalm 19 that proclaims “the heavens are telling the glory of God.” A rational universe that is subject to investigation would be to Benedict an indication of its divine source.

In any event, Benedict’s testament should help remove some of the stigma that stains religion in America today. Maybe this dogmatic bulldog, whom some regarded as little better than a new agent of the Inquisition, will usher in a new era of secular-religious understanding at the end of his life. 

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Bruce Ledewitz
Bruce Ledewitz

Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne Kline Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. He hosts the “Bends Toward Justice” podcast. His latest book, “The Universe Is On Our Side: Restoring Faith in American Public Life,” is out now. His opinions do not represent the position of Kline Duquesne Law School.