We must be wary of mixing religion and science. On the one hand, the seventeenth century conflict between Pope Paul V/Pope Urban VIII and Galilei Galileo over whether ours was a sun-centered or earth-centered universe exemplified the danger. As Galileo put it, “Holy Writ was intended to teach men how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”
On the other hand, it is possible that students of religion and students of science can learn from one another.
Philosopher of science Thomas S. Kuhns explained in his 1962 work The Structure of Scientific Revolution that scientific progress is “a series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolution.”
He meant that there were eras when scientific theories gain acceptance and become the rule, but now and then there are times when new information challenges a strongly held theory and leads to a change in thinking. The paradigm shifts.
Commenting on Kuhns’ observation, science writer Simon Singh wrote in his book Big Bang that the shift in paradigms is often contentious, unfolding in several stages from one paradigm to another:
1) the shift requires that the new paradigm must be “properly fleshed out” in order to discredit the old paradigm; 2) the speed in the shift depends on “the weight of the evidence in favor of the new paradigm and the extent to which the old guard resists change”; 3) the “older scientists, having invested so much time and effort in the old paradigm, are generally the last to accept the change, whereas younger scientists are generally more adventurous and open-minded" (p. 368).
Singh concluded, “The old paradigm might have prevailed for centuries, so a transition period that lasts a couple decades is still comparatively short.”
Perhaps that analysis of paradigm shift in the world of science is applicable to the world of religion, especially to the changes and potential paradigm shifts in the Catholic Church.
Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council may be considered the start of a major paradigm shift in the Church. Vatican II was the first ecumenical council that was primarily pastoral in style, truly representative of a “world Church” (to use Karl Rahner’s term), and affirmative of the role and dignity of the laity in the modern world.
Although the Council’s meetings took place more than 50 years ago, the outcome, the vision, the direction and the dynamism are still fresh, still inviting reflection and still urging implementation.
Those who have been analyzing the papacy of Pope Francis recognize that a clear-cut shift in paradigm is taking place right now, in our time.
Austen Ivereigh titles his biography of Pope Francis: The Great Reformer. David Willey‘s book is The Promise of Francis, subtitled “The Man, The Pope, and the Challenge of Change.” Massimo Faggioli’s latest is Pope Francis – Tradition in Transition. Richard Gaillardetz has published An Unfinished Council, with the sub-title “Vatican II, Pope Francis, and the Renewal of Catholicism.”
Cardinal Walter Kasper provides theological and pastoral perspectives in Pope Francis’ Revolution of Tenderness and Love. Kasper maintains that “the challenge of this pontificate is far more radical than most suspect. It is a challenge for conservatives, who don’t want to let themselves be surprised any more by God and who resist reforms, just as it is for progressives, who expect feasible, concrete solutions right here and now” (p.92). He describes Pope Francis’ revolution in one word: “It is a revolution of mercy” (p. 93).
Although it is Gaillardetz’s thesis that Vatican II is as yet “an unfinished council,” he acknowledges, “I do not wish to diminish the extent to which Pope Francis’ postconciliar predecessors were ‘popes of the council’…However, no postconciliar pope, in my view, can match Pope Francis’s comprehensive and integrated retrieval of not just one teaching or another but of the council’s deeper reformist impulse” (p. 135).
Faggioli describes Pope Francis’ election as “an unprecedented step toward the fulfillment of what the German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner called “the world Church,” that is, a third macro-period of its history (after the Judeo-Christianity of its origins and the church of Hellenism and of Greek-Latin culture) with the self-realization of the Church as a church in the global dimension through the incarnation of Catholicism in different cultures” (p. 61).
Willey notes, “The Pope’s vivid language is unlike anything heard coming out of the Vatican during recent papacies. It may not please some Catholics, and it is certainly causing a degree of consternation among the Vatican administration accustomed to running things their way” (p. 11).
Ivereigh recalls remarks Pope Francis made to retreatants when he was Cardinal Bergoglio, criticizing the Church for failing to evangelize, saying that the problem is “we have Jesus tied up in the sacristy.” Ivereigh writes, “Citing a verse from the Book of Revelation about Jesus standing at the gate, calling, Bergoglio said he had come to see that it wasn’t about Jesus knocking to be let in, but about Jesus being trapped on the inside, asking to be let out” (p.347-48).
We in these first decades of the 21st century are experiencing a paradigm shift in religion and most especially in the Catholic Church. It is likely that the stages of scientific paradigm shifts as described by Singh will be reproduced in the paradigm shift of religion and Church. Recent history suggests it is so.
It took a long time (and great conflict) to overcome science's earth-centered paradigm replacing it with a sun-centered one. Pope Urban was sure that he was right and that Galileo was wrong, but in the end the truth won out.
Despite the conflicts in the present age of the Church, we have confidence that the true direction and balance for the Church will emerge, perhaps without violent revolution, resulting in a new paradigm not of dogma but of pastoral care, in being less European and more world-inclusive, in employing lay ministry as well as the hierarchical.
It is reported that after re-canting (at the pope’s insistence) his conviction that the earth revolves around the sun, Galileo murmured, “Eppur si muove!” –“and yet it moves!”
Despite the conviction of some that the Church must not, cannot change, there remains the God of surprises, the movement of the Holy Spirit, the direction set by Vatican II, and the evidence that “Eppur si muove!”