The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life hosted a panel discussion about the relationship between the natural sciences and theology on Tuesday. This event was largely in response to “Male and Female He Created Them,” a controversial Vatican document that instructs Catholic schools on how to deal with issues surrounding gender identity.
The panelists critiqued the teaching for enforcing too strict of a view, and several argued that society should reexamine views of human nature over time.
The panel included Julie Hanlon Rubio, professor of social ethics at Santa Clara University; Welkin Johnson, professor of biology and chairperson of Boston College’s biology department; Rev. Andrea Vicini, S.J., professor of bioethics and moral theology at BC; and Rev. Mark Massa, S.J., professor of theology at BC and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life.
The discussion began with an introduction from the event’s moderator, Richard Gaillardetz, professor of Catholic systematic theology and chair of the BC theology department. In his introduction he discussed how, as theologians became more involved with the natural sciences, the idea of nature has disconnected from religion, causing complications.
“What was meant by a miracle in the Biblical world?” Gaillardetz asked. “Would they have understood a miracle as a suspension of the so-called Laws of Nature, which is the way many define ‘miracle’ today?”
Gaillardetz then posed the first question, in which he asked each panelist how they understand nature, and the natural, in terms of their fields of research interest.
Rubio responded by discussing the complexity of human nature and Christian ethics when the two are fused together.
“Today, traditional claims about the possibility of developing norms from what it means to be human is getting more complicated because we realize that the Catholic tradition has been wrong about [claims to norms] in the past,” Rubio said.
She also mentioned the benefits applying feminist thought to theological claims. Today’s view of women is much different than the view of women in the past, according to Rubio.
“Given what the Christian tradition has said about women’s nature, historically, [women were] misbegotten, not good at reasoning, not really suited for leadership, [and] were debased by work outside of the home,” Rubio said. “We now celebrate because we think about women differently.”
Johnson approached the question by giving what the term nature means specifically to the scientific community. It is a definition that may differ from what a theologian may consider nature.
He went on to explain how science has its own limitations and cannot answer all questions, especially questions of the supernatural.
“Science, I feel, could never actually prove the existence, or the nonexistence, of a God or creator,” Johnson said. “And so in science, we have to distinguish between what we believe and what we know.”
Vicini used the word “complexity” to describe theology’s relationship with human nature. He added that human nature must be interpreted and reflected upon when we think about what this interpretation brings to our understanding of human nature.
“We cannot avoid interpreting human nature,” Vicini said. “An interpretation is limited and situated, as we should ask ourselves, ‘What are we projecting on our understanding of human nature?’”
Massa referenced the book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, who wrote that the concept of nature is a “human construct,” used by humans to explain the world.
Massa added his own opinion on human nature. Human nature is something that evolves, just as other parts of humanity have also evolved, according to Massa.
In the second half of the discussion, Gaillardetz asked the panel to weigh in on the consequences of when there are disagreements among appeals to nature and the natural and how these disputes have an effect on church and society.
Rubio answered this question by addressing “Male and Female He Created Them.” She appreciated the dialogue between the Church and gender theory, but she said that the attempt to acknowledge both gender theorists, who recognize transgender people, and some conservative Catholics, who do not recognize transgender people, did not work well.
“The document provocatively asserts that though gender theory has a few areas they can agree with, they were wrong about gender identity and asserts that Catholic teaching is superior because, actually, it is rooted in the body,” Rubio said.
In explaining why there may be disagreement among certain people and the Vatican on this issue, Rubio asserted that there is a major problem in the Vatican’s reasoning.
“There’s a lot of oversimplification in the document, and the Vatican ignores the reality of intersex persons and seems to think that sex is simply something easily identifiable, even despite all of the conversations that have gone on about sex in recent years,” Rubio said.
Johnson answered this question by considering the sources of disputes when it comes to controversial appeals to nature. He came up with three sources of these disputes.
“The first one [is when] people don’t trust science because our own anecdotal experiences don’t match what science says,” Johnson said. “The second one … is when we award too much importance to the average or the mean of a population or a group. The third one … is controversies that arise due to, what I would call, an illegitimate application of the scientific premise.”
Vicini approached the second question by discussing four sides to this problem: diversity, variations, healing, and culture. He mentioned how people respond to differences among us and the unjust way we create norms.
“We react to [variations] by deciding what is normal, what is natural, and what is abnormal, or unnatural,” said Vicini. “We address this complexity by defining arbitrarily who is in and who is out, who is normal and who is not.”
Vicini also discussed how human nature may be different among different cultures. Therefore, human nature must be looked at within the context of the humans being examined.
“The diversity of cultural dimensions is a blessing,” Vicini said. “However, we need to discern this diversity. So to focus on the importance of culture reminds us that our understanding of human nature is always situated in a specific cultural, social, and religious context.”
Massa decided to answer the question by pointing out his disagreement with those who believe only scripture can tell us about God. While some believe that human reasoning cannot tell us anything about God, he did not agree.
“The Catholic tradition, and I am part of that Catholic tradition, said that’s not true,” Massa said. “In fact, we can use our reason, we can use human reason, and look at human experience, and look at the real world and actually come up with reliable information about the ends and purposes of life.”
He closed the discussion by giving his opinion of what was wrong with “Male and Female He Created Them.” He referred back to his understanding of what nature is and used that to show a flaw in the Vatican’s reasoning.
“The problem I had with that document was it presumed that human nature was something set and given and … sort of objective in third person kind of way,” Massa said. “In other words, it was using that older understanding of nature as something out there quite apart from us, distinct from us that we can discover and look at sort of write down its laws.”
Featured Image by Celine Lim / Heights Editor