When President George Bush announced an ambitious new $12 billion space program in mid-January whose lofty goals include putting humans once again on the moon and eventually on Mars, he said "The desire to explore and understand is part of our character."
What Bush did not add, however, is that also part of our character is feeling threatened by exploration and new understanding, a tendency at times especially pronounced in religious communities. From the Galileo case in the 17th century to the Scopes Monkey Trial in the early 20th, conflicts between religious belief and scientific discoveries have caused some of the most cataclysmic cultural earthquakes in Western history.
Yet Catholic experts say that if the "Bush push" into space does yield dramatic new discoveries--including the most sought-after finding of all, life on other planets--this time the church is ready.
"Christians have always understood that the entire cosmos is a creation of God, that any life anywhere is a divine creation," said Dominican Fr. Augustine Di Noia, undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's doctrinal oversight agency
"There would be absolutely no motive for scandal" if scientists were to establish the existence of life elsewhere, Di Noia told NCR Jan. 21.
Jesuit Fr. Gerald O'Collins of the Gregorian University agreed.
"I don't think the discovery of life on other planets would pose a qualitatively different challenge than the discovery of the New World," O'Collins told NCR. "Prior to the 15th century, people had on 5, the vaguest idea about human life on the other side of the Atlantic. Yet we survived that, and in the end it deepened our understanding of Christ as a truly universal savior."
Part of the reason, observers say, that the Catholic church is better positioned today to handle the intellectual strain of new scientific breakthroughs is because Pope John Paul II has tried to settle accounts with the past, most prominently the Galileo case.
Historical debate surrounding Galileo goes on, with some scholars insisting that the church never played the obscurantist role assigned to it in popular mythology Copernicus' 1543 book proposing the theory that the sun was at the center of things was dedicated to Pope Paul III, they point out, and Copernicus himself was considered for nomination as a bishop, a sign that no one regarded his ideas, which Galileo would later popularize, as heretical. The real debate, these historians say, was between scientists committed to the old Ptolemaic model of the universe and the new heliocentric model. Galileo's enemies, they say, dragged the church into this fight by making his stand appear as a challenge to ecclesiastical authority.
Such revisionism aside, John Paul convened a working group in 1981 to study the affair, and on Oct. 31, 1992, he received their work. The pope identified what he sees as the moral of the story.
"From the Galileo case," the pope said, "we can draw a lesson that is applicable today in analogous cases which arise in our times and which may arise in the future.... It often happens that, beyond two partial points of view which are in contrast, there exists a wider view of things which embraces both and integrates them."
In other words, there should be no conflict between religion and science --a perspective some say has deep Catholic roots.
Italian journalist Mario Gargantini, who writes on issues of faith and science, told a Jan. 13 seminar at Rome's Regina Apostolorum, a pontifical university, that medieval Christianity, often reviled as anti-intellectual, actually made the birth of modern science possible with its belief in the rationality and unity of the cosmos.
Aside from the well-worn example of Gregor Mendel, the 19th-century Augustinian monk who invented the science of genetics, Gargantini cited several other …