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Editorial: Stephen Hawking is Wrong. Church is a Defender of Life, Science and the Person

By Deacon Keith Fournier
June 10th, 2010
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Hawkings view of the insignificance of the human person is sad. His error concerning how the Church views the relationship between faith, science and reason is just plain wrong. It is one more example of the continual drumbeat against the Catholic Church in an increasingly hostile culture. What is needed are well formed Catholics who can learn how to defend the truth.

NEW YORK, NY (Catholic Online) - World renowned physicist Stephen Hawking was in New York this past week to be honored by the World Science Festival. He gave an interview to Dianne Sawyer of ABC News. He posited his personal opinions that human life is "insignificant in the universe" and that there is an adversarial relationship between science and religion.  He told Sawyer "There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works."

First out of the gate to defend the Church was New York's "pugilist with words", the President of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue. He responded: "How any rational person could belittle the pivotal role that human life plays in the universe is a wonder, but it is just as silly to say that all religions are marked by the absence of reason. While there are some religions which are devoid of reason, there are others, such as Roman Catholicism, which have long assigned it a special place.

"It was the Catholic Church that created the first universities, and it was the Catholic Church that played a central role in the Scientific Revolution; these two historical contributions made possible Mr. Hawking's career.

"Reason, in pursuit of truth, has been reiterated by the Church fathers for nearly two millennia. That is why Hawking posits a false conflict: in the annals of the Catholic Church, there is no inherent conflict between science and religion. Quite the contrary: science and religion, in Catholic thought, are complementary properties. Ergo, nothing is gained by alleging a "victory" of science over religion.

"Religion without reason, Pope Benedict XVI instructed us in his Regensburg address in 2006, leads to fanaticism. That much Hawking seems to understand. What he doesn't get is its contra: science without faith also leads to disaster-the genocidal regimes in Germany, the Soviet Union, China and Cambodia being Exhibits A, B, C and D."

A Letter of the Venerable John Paul II set forth the proper relationship between Faith and Reason, "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth-in a word, to know himself-so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves." (Fides et Ratio, Faith and Reason)

Hawkings view of the insignificance of the human person is sad. His error concerning how the Church views the relationship between faith, science and reason is just plain wrong. It is one more example of the continual drumbeat against the Catholic Church in an increasingly hostile culture, based on misinformation. One example of this kind of misinformation is the often repeated claim that the Catholic Church opposes "Stem Cell Research." The Church opposes deadly stem cell research such as research done on human embryos which always results in taking the life of the embryonic human person. It is immoral to take innocent human life even if one can then use parts of the human person who has been killed to develop a potential cure for another. The end can never justify the means.

The Church enthusiastically supports research on Adult Stem Cells and cells derived from fetal cord blood. Neither type of stem cell research takes innocent human life. They also show tremendous scientific promise. A spokesman for the Vatican recently made known their strong support for the research being conducted at the University Of Maryland School Of Medicine using adult stem cells.

The Catholic Church insists that the human person is indeed significant in the universe.  In 2008 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith in the Catholic Church issued an instruction on the "Dignity of the Human Person." It began with these words "The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death. This fundamental principle expresses a great "yes" to human life and must be at the center of ethical reflection on biomedical research, which has an ever greater importance in today's world".

The instruction offered "a word of support and encouragement for the perspective on culture which considers science an invaluable service to the integral good of the life and dignity of every human being. The Church therefore views scientific research with hope and desires that many Christians will dedicate themselves to the progress of biomedicine and will bear witness to their faith in this field. She hopes moreover that the results of such research may also be made available in areas of the world that are poor and afflicted by disease, so that those who are most in need will receive humanitarian assistance".

Following the release of the instruction the Press was filled with reports concerning its content. A few accurately described it and affirmed its significance. Others passed on the caricatures of the Catholic Church such as what Hawkings said to Sawyer in this ABC interview. When I read professor Hawkings comments I felt compelled to again  encourage all Catholics  to read this teaching document. It is a "doctrinal" statement of the ordinary magisterium (teaching office) and must be given the full assent of our intellect and will. However, it was addressed not only to Catholics, other Christians or even just people of faith, it is addressed to "all who seek the truth". It presents the truth by drawing upon the "light both of reason and faith and seeks to set forth an integral vision of man and his vocation".

The Church does not discourage progress in biomedicine, it encourages it. However, the human person is never an "it" - but an "I" - some-one who must never be treated as an object.  "The body of a human being, from the very first stages of its existence, can never be reduced merely to a group of cells. The embryonic human body develops progressively according to a well defined program with its proper finality, as is apparent in the birth of every baby."

The insistence upon this framework for evaluating biomedicine is revealed in the Natural Law; the fundamental human right to life and the dignity of human persons. This right is knowable by and binding upon all men and women and is not simply a "religious" construct. Footnote 7 within the document cites Pope Benedict XVI's presentation to the United Nations in April of 2008 which summarizes this point well:

"Human rights.in particular the right to life of every human being "are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations. Removing human rights from this context would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception, according to which the meaning and interpretation of rights could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social and even religious outlooks. This great variety of viewpoints must not be allowed to obscure the fact that not only rights are universal, but so too is the human person, the subject of those rights"

I am deeply grateful for the Catholic Church, Defender of Life and Promoter of Science at the Service of the Person. What is needed are well formed Catholics who can learn how to defend the truth presented by the Church to an age which has lost its common sense, reason and moral compass. We need to read what our Church teaches and be ready to contend for the culture.

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