During this pandemic the Catholic Church has a choice between working together with the scientific community for the common good, or ignoring that community and confirming the charge that it is anti-science.
It is a popular misconception that the Catholic Church is anti-science. This largely results from two factors. First, the Galileo affair – in which the Roman Inquisition placed the scientist under house arrest for advocating Copernicus’s theory of heliocentrism – has had a long shadow. In 1992, Pope John Paul II apologized for this historical injustice. Second, opposition to evolution by fundamentalist Christians is commonly misattributed to Catholicism. Admittedly, about 30% of Catholics do reject evolution, according to the Pew Research Center, despite the fact that Pope Pius XII accepted the legitimacy of evolution in his 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis. In 1996, John Paul II went further and called evolution “more than a hypothesis.”
John Paul II was a major force in promoting the Catholic Church’s positive relationship with science and the scientific community. Of note was his 1988 letter to the director of the Vatican Observatory, Fr. George Coyne, SJ (who went to his eternal reward two months ago). In it, the pope called for a new synthesis of theology and science, comparable to what St. Thomas Aquinas and the other Schoolmen did in the late Middle Ages with the newly-rediscovered Aristotle. He wrote:
Theologians might well ask, with respect to contemporary science, philosophy and the other areas of human knowing, if they have accomplished this extraordinarily difficult process as well as did these medieval masters.
Although many theologians have taken up this call, its effects have not yet resonated in the broader Church.
Recently we have seen another example of a good relationship between Catholicism and science. All around the world, Catholic bishops have heeded the advice of medical professionals, who said that physical distancing was the only way, without a vaccine, to prevent the novel coronavirus from killing millions of people worldwide. By March 19, every diocese in this country had suspended all public Masses.
According to these same medical experts, six weeks later it is still too soon for people to congregate. The main coronavirus model, from UW’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, predicts that the first state that can safely begin to relax (not eliminate) physical-distancing is West Virginia on May 10. Unfortunately, many states probably won’t be ready until June or even July. My own state of Maryland is predicted for May 29, still four weeks away.
Despite this, some bishops – namely the bishops of Great Falls-Billings, MT; Helena, MT; Lubbock, TX; and Las Cruces, NM – already want to bring back public Masses (source). Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces has written a letter laying out procedures for priests to follow. Since New Mexico is still under a stay-at-home directive, Masses can have no more than five (!) people in attendance, unless celebrated outdoors.
The first country in the West to go into lockdown was Italy, and its bishops have grown restless. The Italian bishops conference recently claimed that the continued ban on public Masses “compromises” freedom of worship. They are wrong. Lockdown and stay-at-home orders are generally-applicable safety measures in the public interest that do not target Catholicism or religion at all. They are demonstrably in accord with the common good, which politicians have the right and duty to protect. They prohibit public gatherings of any nature, whether secular or religious. People are still free to practice their religion, but no one may gather in public for any reason until it is safe. Overplaying the religious freedom card is foolish, given the very real threats to religious freedom that exist in our world. This is not one of them.
This drive to re-open the churches has been spearheaded in this country by the editor of First Things, R. R. Reno. He has published no less than five articles calling for this, most recently “Coronavirus Reality Check,” in which he makes a show of being scientific, as though science itself suggested that physical distancing is unnecessary. Let’s set aside for the moment his apparent disregard of the lives of the elderly, who are not an integral part of society in his eyes (this was already exposed by Daniel Amiri after his first article). To make this claim, Reno relies on an article published by Dr. John Ioannidis of Stanford University on March 17. At that time, there had been only 121 confirmed deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19 (you can check the numbers at Worldometers.info). Today there are over 60,000. At that time, Ioannidis estimated that the fatality rate of the virus might be as low as 0.05%, about half that of influenza.
As a scientist, Ioannidis should publish his data and opinions. But then they have to be evaluated by the broader scientific community. He has no special status or privileged insight. That is how the scientific method works; results and data must be repeatable and verified by other scientists before they can be accepted. The general opinion of scientists is that the fatality rate is much higher than 0.05%. Since it’s impossible to know exactly how many cases of coronavirus go unreported, estimating the fatality rate is very difficult. Since early on estimates have ranged around to 1% to 2%. A recent study estimated a fatality rate no lower than 0.56% or even 0.84%. In other words, an estimate somewhere near 1% – about ten times more deadly than the flu – seems to remain the general scientific consensus for now. Given that COVID-19 is also much more infectious than the flu – in large part because we have no herd immunity and no vaccine – if left unchecked, it could kill many millions of people. This is why nearly the entire world has gone into lockdown. The only nation in the West that has not locked down is Sweden, which Reno praises. But the latest news out of Sweden is that their death rate is – surprise, surprise! – far higher than other countries, as President Trump pointed out on Twitter.
Despite reports to the contrary, Sweden is paying heavily for its decision not to lockdown. As of today, 2462 people have died there, a much higher number than the neighboring countries of Norway (207), Finland (206) or Denmark (443). The United States made the correct decision!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 30, 2020
By cherry-picking a single study because it agreed with what he already believed, Reno is being unscientific. This is the same strategy climate-change deniers use. If 99% of scientists agree that climate change is human-caused and will have devastating effects if left unchecked, that means there must be a few scientists out there who think otherwise. This allows deniers to cherry-pick to their hearts’ content, all the while claiming they are being “scientific.” That is not how science works. Indeed, given how much ambiguity there is in science in general, the overwhelming consensus on climate change only gives the consensus judgment additional weight. And when it comes to public policy regarding issues that threaten the lives of millions of people – whether it be COVID-19 or climate change – it would be the epitome of imprudence to ignore the data and “take your chances” because there may be a tiny sliver of doubt.
Any bishops who reinstate public Masses before experts agree it is safe to do so – in addition to risking many lives – will harm the Catholic Church’s relationship with the scientific community. If this were to be done on a widespread scale, with bishops around the world ignoring the advice of experts, it would gravely wound that relationship, at least in the eyes of the scientific community.
Thanks be to God, Pope Francis is providing leadership once again! On Tuesday, in response to the Italian bishops’ murmurings about freedom of worship, the Bishop of Rome called on people to give “obedience” to governmental restrictions. As John Allen put it: “All up and down Italy, that crumbling sound you heard was a score of Italian bishops preparing to issue statements criticizing the government who, after the pope finished, threw their drafts into trash cans.” I hope all Catholic bishops – as well as the leaders of all churches and religious communities – will take this time to listen to health experts and scientists in establishing when and how churches can slowly and safely re-open. This should not just be done by reading the news, but by talking directly with local experts in their own dioceses, some of whom are undoubtedly Catholics themselves, members of their own flock.
If handled correctly, this moment could go down in history as an example of the Catholic Church working hand in hand with scientists for the common good. So far, that has been true! If – God forbid – bishops grow restless and decide to ignore scientists (perhaps with some cherry-picking to give a veneer of plausibility), and thereby expose the public to grave danger, it could go down in history as another tragic case of the Church falsely claiming to understand science better than scientists do. The Church cannot afford another Galileo affair!
Image: Pope Saint Paul VI observes the moon through a telescope at the Vatican Observatory on July 21, 1969. Vatican Media.
Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).