Participants look at a screen showing a world map with climate anomalies during the World Climate Change Conference at Le Bourge, France in 2015. The church and science likely will cooperate in the coming decades on protecting the planet.  (Stephane Mahe/Catholic News Service)
Participants look at a screen showing a world map with climate anomalies during the World Climate Change Conference at Le Bourge, France in 2015. The church and science likely will cooperate in the coming decades on protecting the planet. (Stephane Mahe/Catholic News Service)
To conclude a yearlong series on faith and science, we asked some of our favorite thinkers to ponder the future.

The consensus is that in the centuries-old encounter between faith and science, the next few decades will be marked by cooperation on climate change and preparation for meeting life elsewhere in the universe.

Our experts said that as science advances, faith will be needed to guide it so that it benefits humanity. The partnership will benefit Christianity, one predicted.

Accepting truth

Scientists of all kinds had a positive reaction to ‘Laudato Si,’’ the 2015 encyclical from Pope Francis that called for stewardship of the planet and highlighted the poor who are likely to suffer most from climate change. The pope called on biblical traditions of stewardship and care for the poor.

The encyclical set up a new model of cooperation between faith and science that is affecting both practice and thought.

In his new book, “The Image of the Unseen God: Catholicity, Science, and Our Evolving Understanding of God,” Holy Cross Father Thomas Hosinski of the University of Portland argues for a refreshed metaphysics in Christianity, one that takes modern science into account.

In one chapter, Father Hosinski shows that the Gospels offer clues to Jesus’ view of creation. The saying in Matthew 26 — “Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow or reap or gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them” — makes a significant point: Jesus knew that the Father does not pour streams of grain or insects down from the sky; birds work hard to stay fed. Instead, what Jesus was doing was recognizing that the creator works continuously through natural processes.

Also important for Father Hosinski and others is the notion expressed by St. Thomas Aquinas that God works through human agents to benefit the world.

“In the next decade or two, I hope we will create significantly fewer greenhouse gases to stop, and even reverse, the effects of global warming,” said Father Pat Donoghue, the pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Portland who studied physics before being ordained.

Father Donoghue regrets the growing attack on conclusions reached by scientific method. When people deny well-done science in order to suit their purposes, that is an attack on truth, the same truth faith seeks, the priest said.

“To paraphrase Albert Einstein, ‘Everything has changed except our way of thinking,’” said Father Donoghue. “What I would hope to see in faith and science in the next few decades is this change in our way of thinking. This means that we all commit ourselves to seek the truth. We seek the truth wherever it leads us and not where we want to take it.”

Father Donoghue imagines astronauts circling the earth viewing a beautiful yet fragile planet without discernible borders. “I suggest that this is closer to God’s way of thinking. If this is so, then how do we all get along in this world and make the best use of the limited resources on this finite planet?”

Adjusting to extraterrestrials

“What will happen when we discover that we are not alone? Will science and faith collide or merge?”

Those are questions from Maureen Nadin, a Canadian Catholic blogger who focuses on faith and science. She believes humans will encounter beings elsewhere in the universe during her lifespan. She may have a point.

Astronomers frequently discover planets orbiting other stars and some appear to be in sweet zones like the one Earth occupies, where it’s warm enough to melt ice but cool enough not to burn up. The Milky Way Galaxy alone has at least 100 billion planets. And there are 100 million other galaxies in the known universe.

The James Webb Space Telescope being launched next year is twice the size of the Hubble and will allow scientists to see places we have never been before.

“The question of whether we are alone in the universe and how we define ‘life’ is going to dominate the conversation in the upcoming years,” Nadin predicts. “Religious dogma and those responsible for interpreting it going to require a reset when it comes to this question.”

“Are we truly rare and unique in this universe from a scientific standpoint?” asks Benedictine Brother Louis de Montfort Nguyen, a physician-monk at Mount Angel Abbey who teaches seminary courses on faith and science. “Direct observations of celestial objects will provide a clearer answer.”

Scripture says Jesus is king of the universe. That’s a point not lost on Father Bill Holtzinger, pastor of St. Anne Parish in Grants Pass and a student of science. Father Holtzinger told the Sentinel earlier this year that if we’re alone in the universe, we are pretty impressive; if we are part of a bustling cosmos, we have been cherished by the creator despite our smallness.  

“I come up with the same conclusion,” Father Holtzinger said. “God loves his people.” 

Jesuit Father Christopher Corbally, president of the National Committee for Astronomy at the Vatican and a member of the International Astronomical Union, goes back 700 years to express an idea that likely will rise in the future. Father Corbally said that St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure paved the way in the 13th century for an expansive understanding of creation. 

“They put more emphasis on the incarnation being cosmic,” said Father Corbally. “The idea is to complete the cosmos in Christ. The incarnation is not an Earth-based event; it is a cosmic event.” 

Growing closer

“I think, and indeed I hope, that the faith-science relationship is already changing from one of challenge to one of cooperation,” said Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory. “I experience it daily in the reaction I get from my fellow scientists, who are much more open now than in previous generations to both religion and science. It’s no accident that most of the so-called ‘new atheists’ are elderly white males.”

Brother Guy, a prominent astronomer, said that faith and science in the years ahead will help each other grow through a “very positive kind of challenge.” There is increasing awareness, he explained, that both faith and science are human endeavors, subject to human failings, but both dedicated to transcendent truth.

“If science and religion are rivals, it’s a sibling rivalry,” he said. “Science got its start in the medieval universities, founded and run by the church. Our religion, with its faith in a rational universe free of nature gods, and indeed a universe so sacred that it is worthy of our study, gave science room to grow and develop. When I was a child, I quarreled all the time with my siblings; but as we all grew up we learned how much in fact we love each other and depend on each other. I think that science and religion both will be growing up a lot in this way during the coming decades.”

A helpful union

Brother Louis at Mount Angel believes that in the years ahead, faith and science will develop a relationship beneficial to both. Science may even join philosophy as a “handmaid” of theology, leading to a new golden age of faith.

“Faith is abundantly enriched by scientific discoveries pertaining to the universe and life, grounding our faith to the physical world,” Brother Louis said. “It deepens our love for the creator through his marvelous creation; it enlivens our prayers and worship; it gives depth to our understanding of the sacredness, goodness, and sacramentality of creation — to practice science properly is to worship God magnificently. At the same time, science needs faith to guide it on the right path of justice, progress and respect for nature and the dignity of creation and especially of the human person.”