Did Pope Francis Just End the Religion and Science Conflict?

It’s unclear what kind of political impact Laudato si, the first encyclical of Francis’ papacy will have, but from a scholarly perspective it’s already doing something significant: scrambling one of the dominant paradigms for thinking about relationships between science and religion—what academics call the “Conflict Thesis.”

The Anti-Catholic History of the Conflict Thesis

The Conflict Thesis, a misnomer from the moment it took shape in the writings of NYU Professor John William Draper, and A.D. White, the co-founder of Cornell University, was created to do political work in the 19th century by attacking Catholicism. Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, published in 1873, argued that there is an intractable battle between science and certain forms of religion. The qualifier—certain forms—is crucial, because in spite of the sweeping title, Draper’s attacks were almost exclusively focused on the Catholic Church. Draper took issue, for example, with the trial of Galileo and the Church’s location of interpretative authority in priests rather than individuals.

For Draper, the issue was never about a basic irreconcilability between religion and science, but what he saw as specific problems with the Roman Catholic Church, the most expansive and politically powerful Christian denomination. In fact, he explicitly endorsed Protestantism as an appropriate partner for scientific discovery and modernization.

Contemporary historians of science and religion have abandoned the Conflict Thesis. It focuses too selectively on a handful of occurrences (primarily the Galileo affair and contemporary reactions against Darwinism), forfeiting attention to a broad range of relationships between religious and scientific thought and institutions. But its popular appeal endures, in large part fueled by the 20th-century US Creationism debates and, more recently, in the work of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

A New Alliance between Religion and Science?

This is where Francis’s encyclical, which names the interrelated issues of global climate change and global poverty as moral catastrophes, is significant. In using the highly authoritative encyclical format to come out in favor of an ambitious, activist agenda against anthropogenic climate change, Francis wades into an ongoing debate among the world’s most powerful countries about the interpretation of climate data. Specifically, Francis sides with the preponderance of scientists and against conservative politicians and business leaders in affirming that anthropogenic climate change is both real and urgent. He thus adds moral weight to the scientific consensus.

Francis then takes it a step further by calling on Catholics to see science as a necessary tool for methodically tracking the health of the Earth and its inhabitants—a global stethoscope—and to see their own role in taking moral responsibility for following through on those diagnoses. In this vision, science and religion combine forces to defend domains of truth-telling that demand the right to be left untouched by the profit motive: science in terms of natural description, religion in terms of moral vision. Science and religion are not at odds; they’re both obstructed by rampaging capitalism.

ConservativesCatholic and otherwise—have been lining up for some time to criticize the Pope’s move. Before Jeb Bush’s highly scrutinized comments this week, fellow Catholic Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum told a Philadelphia radio station that “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focus on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.” Ironically, like the anti-Catholic Draper, Santorum, Bush and other Catholic Republicans are deploying a version of the Conflict Thesis to achieve political ends.

Overcoming the popular appeal of the Conflict Thesis would also mean abandoning its deployment by secularists. Political theorist William Connolly has suggested that in order to defeat the coalition of right-wing Christian and capitalist interests that still controls much of the US political landscape, activists for progressive causes need a movement “organized across religious, class, gender, ethnic, and generational lines without trying to pretend that citizens can leave their faiths entirely behind them when they enter public life.”

In other words, rather than demand total theological compatibility as a precondition for cooperation, potential political allies should focus on their common problems. Winning theological fights may not be the best use of time and resources when the health of the planet is on the line.

This shift may never happen. The shadow of the ongoing debates about Darwinism—especially among American Protestants—may be too long and too dark to challenge popular acceptance of the Conflict Thesis anytime soon. It would also require an enhanced commitment on the part of the Catholic Church itself to honor science—by acknowledging, for instance, the consensus among scientists that emergency contraceptive pills do not function as abortifacients, or the correlation between environmental and economic deterioration and limited access to birth control.

But if Pope Francis is best understood as a religious leader who is reconfiguring the Church not by modifying doctrine, but by moving its moral and intellectual center of gravity, Laudato Si could be the beginning of a paradigm shift, paving the way for a new coalition of religion and science against entrenched corporate and political interests that place the right to maximize profit above all else.