Sunday, November 2, 2008

Faith & Science

Once in a while in the fall, the Holy See convenes a scientific meeting at the Vatican. Reuters filed a report on this year's event on Oct. 31. The current theme is "Scientific Insights into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life." The Holy See seeks to showcase eminent scientists and Nobel Prize-laureates who pursue research deemed of particular importance to the Church. Last Friday, Oct. 31, the physicist Stephen Hawking, author of "A Brief History of Time From The Big Bang To Black Holes", spoke about his insights into the evolution of the universe. Though, the head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican presides over these conventions, the Holy Father himself usually addresses the assembled and gives his blessing. No doubt, the Catholic Church takes science seriously.

I attended this meeting twenty years ago. I am not Catholic. I went regardless. The theme was "Longevity and Quality of Life." Advances in the understanding of nerve cell repair after brain injury were presented. I am interested in brain plasticity. John Paul II was pope. A pharmaceutical firm named Fidia from Abano Terme, a beautiful spa in Italy, co-sponsored the convention. Fidia-supported research had provided evidence that gangliosides were involved in nerve cell repair after spinal cord injury and the company would apply for a U.S. patent for gangliosides as therapeutics in coming years. The hope at the Vatican meeting was that research on the role of gangliosides might eventually yield potential remedies for neuro-degenerative diseases. Sadly, not much has come of this hope. Fidia's fortune evaporated in a political scandal involving the bribery of high-ranking Italian government officials.

Little did we know how important this type of research would become to John Paul II personally. He passed away three years ago after a long struggle with Parkinson's Disease. Perhaps he knew at the time. Close up, this pope was strikingly warm and personable. He seemed to care about people. I was deeply moved by the reverence he was paid. I saw him with mixed emotions. I shared a number of his passions, not the least his love of skiing and hiking in the alps, particularly in the Mont Blanc massif near Courmayeur high up at the source of the Aosta. There you may visit the Val Veny, the Punta Bronner, the Val de la Fenetre, the Mont Dolon. The views are spectacular. He traveled there on one of his last trips, sat on the deck of his favorite spot, and watched these magnificent mountains for hours on end. When I saw the pictures of him reposing in a chair, studying the panorama in solemnity and silence, I immediately understood. He had a passion for life. However, many consequences he drew from this passion I could not agree with.

Before I left for this trip, a colleague and friend told me that a pendant of the Virgin Mary worn during the papal blessing would protect you from harm for the rest of your life. I bought a pendant in one of the numerous religious nick-knack shops on the ascend to St. Peter Square and took it to the blessing. Two days later I returned home, carrying with me a blessed pendant for my friend and the insight that the Holy See strives for and cares deeply about an understanding of science as a method of enlightenment.


  • As Philip Pullella reports in his post on Reuters dated Jul. 2, 2009, the Holy See embraces scientific discovery, only on its own pace (07/02/09).
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