Laudato Si, the papal encyclical on the environment, was released today. For me this is one of the great moments in Church history, and I am thankful that I was alive to see it happen.
I am a scientist (though I don't do research, I certainly apply the scientific method every day in my hospital rounds), and it deeply troubles me me that my church is always on the wrong side of science. Taking 400 years to acknowledge Copernicus and Galileo, coming in a century late on evolution -- these things are hard to defend.
Even the Church sex scandals of the last decades to some degree represent an unwillingness to come to terms with what we now know about the science of human sexuality, and about the trauma that child abuse causes. (They of course represent much else, but a careless dismissal of many years of psychological research in favor of the protection of the vocation of the priesthood was a significant contributing factor.)
It is not enough to say God trumps science. That was medieval thinking. If God created the universe, and created it in his own image as the Church has always contended, then understanding the natural world is integral to understanding God. Science is not simply one way among many. And not simply a tool, part of a larger picture. Creation is a reflection of God, and it is one of the clearest stamps of himself that God has given us. Even Pope Benedict, a great defender of religious conservatism, once argued that the universe is shot through with evidence of order and intelligence, and that the order and intelligence in nature is evidence for the existence of God.
Thus it stands to reason: Science is integral, indispensable, to our understanding of God. Any yet the Church, in its indifference to science tacitly dismisses its own pope's point.
But today, for the first time in centuries -- maybe for the first time ever -- the Catholic Church has weighed in on science at a time when it is still relevant to do so, and in doing this, establishes that there is a role for faith in the scientific understanding of creation. I have faith, but it has suffered during my career, in no small part because of the woeful inability of my own Church to face modern science on its own terms, and rather than blindly oppose it, incorporate it into a larger sacred cause.
This is a significant moment, and I don't think even us ardent Pope Francis fans realize how monumental it could be.