Newly elected Pope Francis' views on matters of theology are already being dissected by pundits, journalists, and churchgoers alike. But what of the Catholic leader's views on science?
Back when Pope Francis was still going by the handle of Jorge Bergoglio, he earned a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Buenos Aires, according to the Catholic Herald. Not much more is yet known about his scientific work.
The pope's career path isn't all that unusual. His Jesuit order has a history of producing men with one foot in the spiritual world and another in the scientific realm, as noted by Wikipedia. Czech astronomer and Jesuit Christian Meyer did pioneering work studying binary star systems in the 18th century. Bavarian-born Jesuit Franz Xaver Kugler did triple duty as a chemist, priest, and researcher of cuneiform tablets. Modern-day science writer and Jesuit Guy Consolmagno studies asteroids and meteorites at the Vatican Observatory.
“Doing science is like playing a game with God, playing a puzzle with God,” Consolmagno once told the Canadian Broadcasting Center. “God sets the puzzles, and after I can solve one, I can hear him cheering, 'Great, that was wonderful, now here’s the next one.' It’s the way I can interact with the Creator.”
Catholic contributions to science aren't limited to the Jesuit order, though. The Augustinian friar Gregor Johann Mendel bred pea plants in the garden of his monastery and discovered the principles of genetics. In 1927, Belgian priest Georges Lemaitre discovered the “redshift” phenomenon that describes how the farther away a galaxy is from Earth, the more of its light is shifted toward the red end of the visible spectrum.
Lemaitre's finding, leading to theories about the expansion of the universe and the Big Bang, is often misattributed to famous American astronomer Edwin Hubble. Hubble published his own paper on redshift in 1929, two years after Lemaitre's paper came out in French. A 1931 English translation of Lemaitre's paper appears to have been selectively edited to remove some of the findings that might challenge Hubble's primacy. It is unclear who made the changes, but some claim that Hubble or someone sympathetic to him was involved, according to the journal Nature.
Overall, the Roman Catholic Church's relationship to science has never been a simple matter. Even while it was putting Galileo Galilei on trial for heresy, the church was establishing universities and sponsoring medical research. Some Catholic priests have erroneously claimed that condoms are permeable by HIV, but the Vatican leadership's objections to condoms have always been largely of a moral and theological nature -- although, of course, still roundly criticized by many scientists and humanitarians.
Unlike many conservative Protestant branches of Christianity, Catholic dogma accepts much of evolution as a fact. In 2007, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called the supposed conflict between evolution and faith “absurd.” The dominant message from the Vatican has been that science and faith are complementary.
"Religion needs science to keep it away from superstition and keep it close to reality, to protect it from creationism, which at the end of the day is a kind of paganism -- it's turning God into a nature god," Scotsman.com quoted Consolmagno as saying in 2006.
It remains to be seen exactly how the new pontiff's scientific background will influence his messages to the faithful. The coming years will bring developments in a host of scientific issues such as climate change, cloning, and the particle physics experiments that probe the earliest moments of the universe, all of which may have thorny implications for believers.
“The new pope is a Jesuit and a chemist, but he is also a human being who has to conform to the opinions of more than a billion of his followers around the world,” researcher Ashutosh Jogalekar blogged in a post for Scientific American.