Thursday, August 31, 2006


Non- overlapping magisteria (NOMA) is a term that Stephen Jay Gould proposed to define what the relation of science and religion should be. In his book “Rock of Ages” Gould defends the idea that science and religion are pre-eminent in their own spheres of inquiry. The Church (read Catholic) has supreme authority to teach faith, while Science (read Natural) has supreme authority to teach about how the natural world works. While Gould does a masterful exposition of the idea together with some theologizing (for which he was criticized since he was overstepping NOMA!), he is a bit late. The Catholic Church even before John Paul II was elected; was burned in the Galileo affair and had long accepted that idea. Catholic theologians did not term it as NOMA but as principle of limitation (PP). Philosophers have also called it the Independence Principle.

It was Galileo that put this line of argument on paper. In his theological treatise “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” Galileo argued that natural science can serve as an appropriate aid to the correct interpretation of scripture. However, this does not imply that the reverse is true that is scripture cannot be an appropriate aide to the correct interpretation of science. Another consequence of this is that all natural phenomena as stated in scripture have no salvation value. Science and religion are not in conflict. I cannot elaborate on the theological consequences here but the idea puts science and religion in “comfy” quarters. (But of course, some theologians challenge this principle)

The Church has accepted this NOMA principle beginning with Leo XIII in 1893 and most clearly stated by John Paul II in 1980 and 1996. John Paul II calls for dialogue between science and religion. This is a position still taken by his successor Benedict XVI. The question is where does one draw the line? The Church with reference to biological evolution drew the line about the possible evolution of the “soul”. For which Gould, says there wasn’t a problem since science can’t even define what a soul is. John Paul II accepted the idea that evolution was “more than a hypothesis” and stopped there. For the Pope, a matter regarding science is best left to the scientists to resolve.

And so we have it, science and religion in comfy coexistence. It seems that the possibility of another Galileo affair was averted. But is it really so? Is science and religion really in comfy coexistence? Or do we have to worry about a mini-Galileo affair in the Philippines?

It seems that there might be a problem. For instance the President has appointed bishops to chair commissions to look into some environmental problems. One Catholic bishop declined stating Canon Law respects the separation between church and state. However the President appointed another bishop who consented. In a press conference, the good bishop used philosophy, history and a bit of theologizing to make a recommendation while ignoring environmental science studies on the problem. The environmental science studies support a contrary position than that taken by the bishop.

One op-ed columnist put the whole affair as a “Church-State” separation problem. I believe that he missed the point. It is not a Church-State separation problem but a NOMA problem.

Clerics if appropriately qualified as scientists may give informed statements on scientific problems (After all there are Catholic priests with science PhDs and many of them are Jesuits). But if a cleric is not a scientist, I think he must decline from making recommendations on a matter that is best left to scientists to determine.

In the Philippines society has not come to a stage of development where scientists are recognized for their important role. Thus it does not surprise us that the Presidential palace would seek the advice of clerics on matters that science can deal with. What’s the solution? It would be best to teach science well.

The op-ed columnist suggests that bishops should “pray for more discernment”. The President should probably read Gould.

PS: The Vatican’s chief astronomer Father George Coyne SJ was replaced. News has it that the priest gave statements supporting evolutionary theory in response to a Cardinal who questioned the validity of Darwin’s theory. This Cardinal is a close confidant of the present Pope. The Vatican denies the rumours.

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