Monday, February 20, 2006

The Papacy and Science

A note: the following is another excerpt from my letter of 2/22/2002 to Pope John Paul II: On the Nature of the Papacy: Exploring Some Secular Parallels responding to his request in Ut unum sint, 95.
-- Dr. Thursday

II. The Science of the Papacy
Heart of Jesus, in whom are all the treasures
of wisdom and knowledge...

"That their hearts may be comforted, being instructed in charity and unto all riches of fulness of understanding, unto the knowledge of the mystery of God the Father and of Christ Jesus: in Whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col 2:2-3).

Just as you, dear Holy Father, have found people who struggle with the nature of the Papacy, I know some who struggle with the nature of science – especially when it touches matters of faith or religion. I grew up with both Catholicism and science, and both have meant very much to me personally as well as intellectually.
Since you have studied St. Thomas Aquinas, you will appreciate Chesterton's explanation: "It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all."[7] In another place, he insists that "The rebuilding of this bridge between science and human nature is one of the greatest needs of mankind."[8]
But at this time, I want to look at science as it now exists – not in the sloppy or greedy or even malevolent activities it undertakes far too often in these days, but in the thing itself: the discipline, the discovery, the slow and tedious progress to learn more about the world, and the continual weaving of new results together with those already known.
For science has found it necessary to erect, with great difficulty and against great opposition, organizations which act in certain ways very much like the Papacy. They serve the international community; they bind and loose; they specify rules of action and methods of communication, and, like the Papacy, they have paradoxically given rise to a greater freedom by a more rigid binding to a form of law. Chesterton observed this strange similarity:
There are only two things that really progress; and they both accept accumulations of authority. They may be progressing uphill or down; they may be growing steadily better or steadily worse; but they have steadily increased in certain definable matters; they have steadily advanced in a certain definable direction; they are the only two things, it seems, that ever can progress. The first is strictly physical science. The second is the Catholic Church.[9]

1. The ISO – the International Organization for Standardization

There are a number of international organizations which deal with scientific or technical standards in one sense or another. Although the ISO, founded in 1947, was not the first such organization, I mention it first since to me it appears to have the least restricted purpose:
The mission of the ISO is to promote the development of standardization and related activities in the world with a view to facilitating the international exchange of goods and services, and to developing cooperation in the spheres of intellectual, scientific, technological and economic activity.
ISO's work results in international agreements which are published as International Standards.[10]
This organization, then, carries out the philosophical idea I quoted previously that "any work of art is more perfect as it is more perfectly one" – it assists in making the work of science more perfect by making it more perfectly one.
If someone measures a length, or an interval of time, or a weight, or a temperature, and then wants to do something with that measure – something simple, like merely telling someone about that fact – it is necessary for the two parties to have those dimensions in common. But getting this common truth about reality took a long time. The ancient pagans thought that no one could ever know very much about the natural world since it was "alive" or "divine," or it repeated in cycles. Science, therefore, was impossible until Christianity finally penetrated the European intellectual culture in the Middle Ages. Fr. Stanley Jaki, following Pierre Duhem, indicated that a decree dated March 7, 1277 from Étienne Tempier, the bishop of Paris, was "the starting point of a new era in scientific thinking,"[11] as it condemned the pagan world-view: "...the medieval faith in the scrutability of nature had its logical justification in the medieval theology about Creator and creation.... the faith in the possibility of science is a most conscious derivative from the tenets of medieval theology on the 'Maker of Heaven and Earth'."[12] Fr. Jaki noted that one biblical verse in particular "served as inspiration and assurance for those who in late antiquity assumed the role of champions of the rationality of the universe.... ...the expression was gladly seized upon by those who daringly started out on the road to unfold the marvels of God's handiwork along the lines of quantitative inquiry."[13] God, the creator of the universe, had "ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight" (Wis 11:21).
In a similar way, the ISO has ordered the expression of all things by their measure, number, weight and every other form of dimension. In doing so, this common language and discipline benefits researchers in all nations; it assists with trade and many other facets of human activity: "Without these standards, shopping and trade would be haphazard and technological development would be handicapped."[14]
The ISO builds upon the foundation of the seven "SI base units."[15] (The international abbreviation SI stands for International System of Units.) These seven units are:

Symbol Unit Dimension
m meter length
kg kilogram mass
s second time
A ampere electric current
K Kelvin thermodynamic temperature
mol mole amount of substance
cd candela luminous intensity
I resorted to my old (1981) CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics and read about the definitions of these seven terms and contemplated the various scientific possibilities they govern. The sevenfold nature of these physical dimensions is a profundity which suggests the various mystical Sevens in the Church, particularly the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.
All these units are merely human expressions of natural things. But these units are not "natural" in themselves; indeed they are human inventions. They are stamped with the action of human selection, and enriched by human enumeration – for God has indeed ordered – or arranged – all things by their measure and number.
If I want to talk about some plant or star or rock to someone from a distant country, whether it be a matter of scientific interest, or a matter of trade, I need to have something more fundamental than translation: some kind of common reference. This common reference has been provided by the International Organization for Standardization.
The ISO does other things as well, and their web page provides an impressive introduction. I hope that the Vatican could take an active interest in it.

2. IUPAC – The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry
This important organization for the study of chemistry was founded in 1919, building upon work dating to as early as 1860.
The IUPAC serves to advance the worldwide aspects of the chemical sciences and to contribute to the application of chemistry in the service of Mankind. As a scientific, international, non-governmental and objective body, IUPAC can address many global issues involving the chemical sciences.
The standardization of weights, measures, names and symbols is essential to the well being and continued success of the scientific enterprise and to the smooth development and growth of international trade and commerce.[16]
The work of the IUPAC is organized into seven divisions:
Physical and Biophysical Chemistry
Inorganic Chemistry
Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry
Macromolecular Chemistry
Analytical Chemistry
Chemistry and the Environment
Chemistry and Human Health
Underlying all these departments again we find the philosophical foundation that chemistry "be made more perfect as it is made more perfectly one." Measures and various technical practices of chemistry are obviously important – and it is clear that the IUPAC must somehow rely upon the work of the ISO. But chemistry faces a very interesting challenge of its own. As there are over one hundred chemical elements, and thousands upon thousands of chemical compounds, the names which are assigned to these things are critical to the advance of the discipline.
Here as in other fields, we learn that there is an essential and often critical importance to every single letter and number: an amide is not an imide and pentane is not pentene. Chesterton puts it this way:
The old joke that the Greek sects only differed about a single letter is about the lamest and most illogical joke in the world. An atheist and a theist only differ by a single letter; yet theologians are so subtle as to distinguish definitely between the two.[17]
Even so, some provision has been made for variation. As I flipped through the pages of rules governing the nomenclature of inorganic compounds, I was struck by notes mentioning the permission to continue the use of certain "traditional" names, and other "usages" which are widespread in the industry of certain countries.

3. Biology
"For as the body is one and hath many members; and all the members of the body, whereas they are many, yet are one body: So also is Christ"
(1 Cor 12:12).
The International Union for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has a charter similar to others I have already mentioned, and is designed and motivated by similar reasons. From this organization one may obtain a chart of the "metabolic processes." The diagram shows, in a complex but tidy form, many of the hundreds of chemical reactions which accomplish the work of the living cell, including both the production of energy and the main molecular building blocks of the cell. All the chemicals in this immense array are built out of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen (and sometimes a few other elements).
This chart represents a staggering amount of work accomplished by researchers all over the world. And perhaps the most amazing thing about the chart is that it shows only the major metabolic processes – just the steps which keep life (in itself) going. All the other aspects of living things: muscles or leaves, hair or flowers, branches and bones, nerves and vines and blood and roots – are not on the chart. Moreover, the means by which all the reactions are controlled – the rules for growth – are not even hinted at.
It may be merely a mystical point of departure for me to mention this here, but the science of biology is perhaps the science which comes closest to us as Catholics. The branch called histology, the study of the types of living cells,[18] has revealed – even more than anatomy – the truth of St. Paul's "Analogy of the Body" (See 1 Cor 12:12 et seq.). And this branch, together with anatomy and physiology, can offer a new richness and insight to our understanding of the Church.
For example: when human red blood cells are formed, they lose their DNA and thus do not reproduce. All their cellular energy is spent on delivering oxygen to the rest of the body. (How, then, could anyone regard celibacy as unnatural?)
Though I might offer other analogies from biology, one of them in particular speaks to me on the nature of the Papacy: the idea of growth, which is fundamental to all life. I wish to treat it in two ways.

Growth: the DNA message
The new branch of science called molecular biology provides the scientific counterpart to the lesson I mentioned under the topic of "The Publisher" – that is, the need to preserve in all fidelity the message as it was given. In the living cell, this message is stored as DNA. In the human being, there are around 3,000,000,000 DNA "bases" (which are written with four letters A, C, G, T). When the cell is to divide, this message must be copied, in order that after the new cells separate, each will have its own copy. The DNA message contains precise instructions on how to make all the various "machines" of the cell. (Note: among those machines are all those hundreds of steps I mentioned as appearing on the metabolic chart.) These instructions also include the controlling machinery which govern when division of the cell may occur – and cell division is the elementary process of growth of the organism. There are various schemes which the cell uses to protect the copying and keep it as accurate as possible. It is important to note that the chief threat to this copying is from interference by intrusion from outside into the machinery of the cell. Copying errors result in failure of correct growth, most notably categorized as cancer. Even so, the cell has machinery to attempt to protect against this as well. The complexity which has been revealed by molecular biology demonstrates a superlative design, which belongs, in a significant sense, to computer science even more than it belongs to biology.
In a similar fashion, the Papacy is given to us as a safeguard to preserve a certain message with fidelity. It is that fidelity-in-transmitting-the-message indicated by St. Paul's explanation of the Blessed Sacrament to the Corinthians: "For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread..." (1 Cor 11:23).
And the message-which-is-handed-on is important because it is about life – and life is about growth – and growth is about order, and the proper ways and times of doing things. Again this is strictly in keeping with Aquinas who writes: "According to the Philosopher, it belongs to a wise man to set things in order; because the ordering of things cannot be done except by the knowledge of the things ordered as to both their relation and proportion both to one another and to something higher which is their end."[19]

Growth: the Heart
As I have indicated, St. Paul is stressing the precision of handing on the message he had received – that paramount message of Christianity which is the Eucharist. This leads directly to the second aspect of growth/biology/Papacy which derives from two other fascinating branches of biology: embryology and developmental anatomy.
I have indicated that DNA – and its faithful copying – is the fundamental rule of growth at the "small" level. At the "larger" level, there is another rule which governs. It might be called the rule of the heart. For the heart (and indeed the entire circulatory system) is required for any being to grow bigger than microscopic size:
As a mammalian embryo advances through the stages characterized by cleavage, morula, blastocyst and germ layers, it satisfies all its metabolic needs by simple, diffusive interchanges with the fluid medium in which it is immersed. But as the embryo continues to gain size and begins to take form, a functioning circulatory system becomes necessary in order to make use of the required food and oxygen obtainable from the mother's blood. Hence it is that the heart and blood vessels are the first organ system to reach a functional state.[20]
Somewhat more striking is this statement from another text: "The mammalian embryo, having practically no yolk available as food, is dependent for its survival and growth on the prompt establishment of relations with the circulation of its mother."[21]
Because food can be distributed by osmosis only for a relatively tiny region of space, the very first system of the growing human body which comes to a functional completeness is the circulatory system – the heart as the pump, the various delivery vessels, and the blood itself. Note the remarkable conjunction in St. Paul between the faithful message and the Eucharist! This system, centered on the heart, must continue to operate, thereby enabling the growth of the organism to its mature size, and maintaining its life.
It is interesting to note that the English word "courage" (which has its root in the Latin cor = heart) is sometimes used as a synonym for the gift of Fortitude – which is simply "strength." To have "heart" is to have "strength." Again there is a distinct papal indication, for as Jesus told Peter, "But I have prayed for thee [Simon], that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren" (Lk 22:32).
This direct prayer of our Lord has moved me to meditate upon these biological aspects of the office of the Papacy:
• Like DNA, the Pope preserves the faithful transmission of the message. (This point will also appear when I consider subsidiarity.)
• As the red blood cells, the Pope spends himself in delivery of the means of life to the body.
• As the heart, the Pope enables growth of the Mystical Body. He likewise strengthens his brothers and is the exemplar of Fortitude. Also, as the central "pump" of the "circulatory system," he imparts motion to the "red blood cells," which might mystically signify his celibate and sacrificing priestly sons.

[7] Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. CW1:236.
[8] Chesterton, G. K. The Defendant. J. M. Dent & Co., London. (1907) 75.
[9] Chesterton, G. K. The Ball and the Cross. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY (195) 64.
[10] From the ISO web page,
[11] Jaki, Stanley L. Science and Creation. Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh (1986) 230, referencing Pierre Duhem's Le système du monde, vol VI, 66.
[12] Jaki, Stanley L. Science and Creation. 231 (emphasis in original).
[13] Jaki, Stanley L. Science and Creation. 154.
[14] From the ISO web page,
[15] Weast, Robert C., ed. CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. CRC Press, Inc., Boca Raton, FL (1981) F-273.
[16] From the IUPAC web page,
[17] Chesterton, G. K. The New Jerusalem. CW20:276.
[18] See, for example, Di Fiore, Mariano S. H. Atlas of Human Histology. Lea & Febiger, Philadelpha, PA (1973).
[19] St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles II:24 quoting 1 Metaphysics.
[20] Arey, Leslie Brainerd. Developmental Anatomy. W. B. Saunders Co., Philadelphia, PA (1965) 375.
[21] Patten, Bradley M. Foundations of Embryology. McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, NY (1964) 289.


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