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Pope Francis

The Catholic Church and science find common ground in climate change

The Catholic Church and scientists are joining hands to justify the fight against global warming

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 May, 2015, 6:55am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 November, 2015, 2:53pm

From Galileo to genetics, the Catholic Church has danced with science, sometimes in a high-tension tango but more often in a supportive waltz. Pope Francis is about to introduce a new twist: global warming.

The field of genetics was started by Catholic cleric Gregor Mendel. Entire aspects of astronomy, including the genesis of the Big Bang theory, began with members of the Catholic clergy. While some religions reject evolution, Catholicism has said it fits with the story of creation.

But when laypeople think of the church and science, one thing usually comes to mind: The prosecution of Galileo Galilei for heresy because he insisted the earth circled the sun and not the other way around.

The Catholic Church has "an uneven and not always congenial relationship with science", said science historian John Heilbron, who wrote a biography of Galileo.

But after ticking off some of the advances in science that the church sponsored, Heilbron added: "Probably on balance, the Catholic Church's exchange with science is pretty good."

The church teaches that science and faith are not contradictory and even work well together.

After lukewarm opposition to the theory of evolution in the late 19th century, the church has embraced that field of science that other faiths do not.

"The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it," Pope Francis said last October. "The evolution of nature does not contrast with the notion of creation, as evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve."

Pope Francis, once a chemist, will soon issue an authoritative church document laying out the moral justification for fighting global warming.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography climate scientist, said scientists felt they were failing in getting the world to understand the moral hazard that man-made warming presents.

Now, he said, scientists who don't often turn to religion are looking forward to the pope's statement.

"Science and religion don't mix, but environment is an exception where science and religion say the same thing," Ramanathan said. "I think we have found a common ground."

Now those who reject mainstream climate science compare themselves to Galileo as scientists scorn them. In fact, Galileo was persecuted for espousing science, not denying it, said Harvard University science historian Naomi Oreskes.

For centuries before and after Galileo, the Catholic Church was the main supporter of astronomy, often using church rooftops to study the heavens.

The pioneer of solar astronomy, Angelo Secchi, was an Italian priest who observed the planets from a telescope on a church roof, said Brother Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer and president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation in Arizona. The man who came up with the idea of the Big Bang theory, Georges Lemaitre, was a Belgian priest.

The Vatican even has a science academy.

"Our job in principle is to follow scientific developments closely and then inform the Vatican about new development," said the academy's president, Nobel Prize-winning microbiologist Werner Arber. He is a Protestant and academy members include non-Catholics, like Ramanathan, and even atheist Stephen Hawking.

For Consolmagno, who is both an astronomer and a cleric, that's no big deal: "If you believe in truth, you are worshipping the same God as I am."