Never in my life did I think I would read this in The New Yorker:
It’s a shame that there is no provision in the Constitution of the United States that would permit Pope Francis to serve as the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Or, for that matter, that there’s no way for him to lead the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
Was ist das? A foreign despot — and a Catholic one at that — being given a seat at the roundtable of American governance? Did The New Yorker recently hire a contributor from The Orthosphere? No, apparently not. The words quoted above were actually penned by longtime New Yorker writer Michael Specter in his latest piece, “Pope Francis and the G.O.P.’s Bad Science.” In it, Specter praises the Pope for “believ[ing] that science, rational thought, and data all play powerful and positive roles in human life.” Actually, that’s a belief the Catholic Church has always held to, even prior to the advent of modern science. A number of Catholic commentators have already pointed out that Francis’s words on evolutionary theory were no more or less “shocking” than those of Pope Pius XII. The problem today is that no one — even a good many Catholics — remembers who Pius XII was or has any recollection about what “Catholic” and “science” means independent of the Galileo controversy.
Of course, the store of Catholicism and modern science is more complicated than a Pope affirming the scientific pathway. When science decays into an ideology — scientism — all men of good will and sound intellect need to be on guard. The problem is that so few are. It is unfortunate that the primary pushback against the scientistic worldview has come from the conservative branch of American politics. Their “reaction” to scientism lacks rigor, and more often than not it is informed by purely political considerations. Southern Republicans know that speaking forcefully against evolution, evolutionary theory, natural selection, Darwinism, etc. (they are often undeservedly conflated) will appeal to their fundamentalist Christian voting base, just as all conservatives — and even a number of Democrats — know that expressing climate-change skepticism wins campaign donations from emissions-heavy industries. Heaven only knows if these representatives really believe what they are saying. What they know is that it helps win them elections.
The Catholic Church can and ought to be more circumspect. The theory of evolution is powerful, but it is not final. Like any authentic scientific theory, it is subject to falsification; and like many, many scientific theories, it has not remained static since its introduction two centuries ago. As such, it is disturbing when Catholics and non-Catholic alike feel confident in the “Pyramid Model” of science whereby every year we draw closer and close to the pinnacle of all knowledge when the whole of the physical universe will be understood elegantly and without contradiction. Allow me to spoil the future for you: that’s never going to happen. Modern science, and the method it is built upon, are novelties, and they are not self-justifying. The scientific method did not yield the scientific method; it is, rather, built upon pre-scientific assumptions and considerations, some of which have yet to be fully explored in the light of reason. Moreover, even if the present method holds firm for centuries, there is no way to predict at this stage in the game what new empirical revelation may come that throws time-honored theories not only out of alignment, but out of the minds of all serious men.