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Friday, May 2, 2014

Feeding the multitudes: Vatican conference focuses on science

Jesus said, "Have the people recline." Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples, "Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted."  John 6:10-12

Given Pope Francis’s repeated criticism of a widespread “culture of waste”—a term he often uses to connect critiques of ecological and social ills—today’s Gospel sets the stage perfectly for a big event kicking off at the Vatican: the long-awaited conference on the intersection of human desires and nature’s limits.

The conference, Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility, is the joint work of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Science. What makes this event so special is not that the Holy See’s intellectual engines are examining the subject of sustainability. This is not news. The Church has a strong track record in the eco-sustainability department.

What makes the gathering special is the cooperation it is fostering between two academic fields (the natural sciences and social sciences) that speak to each other less than they should. The hope is that in bringing together leaders in these respective fields, the subsequent dialogue will encourage new and bold insights about how we all might live in sustainable, healthy, and environmentally friendly ways.

According to the event’s advance publicity, the pontifical academies seek to offer this inter-disciplinary dialogue in large part because of the ineffectiveness of recent attempts at finding solutions to growing ecological crises. Conference organizers note in particular the United Nation’s Rio+20 Summit on biodiversity preservation.

The Rio+20 conference failed in many respects because it fostered “no collective endeavour among natural and social scientists,” the Vatican announcement notes. “That is why we are proposing a joint PAS-PASS workshop on Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature.”

The Vatican’s goal in doing so, then, is simple: 
Our idea is not to catalogue environmental problems. We propose instead to view Humanity's interchanges with Nature through a triplet of fundamental, but inter-related Human needs – Food, Health, and Energy – and ask our respective Academies to work together to invite experts from the natural and the social sciences to speak of the various pathways that both serve those needs and reveal constraints on Nature's ability to meet them.
In other words, the pontifical academies are offering the world's academicians a platform to gather, share, and listen to each other—and thus to better understand how their individual efforts can, when brought together, create a symphony of the sciences that can shore up human dignity and the common good (two aims mentioned by Pope Francis is a recent Tweet).

This focus on the sciences explains why some observers have expressed concern that there seems to be little place for faith within the conference agenda. (A word search of the event program for “faith” shows no results. The same goes for "grace" and there is only one notation of "Christ," in the biography of a participant.)

But fear not. This focus on human reason makes perfect sense. Conference participants will be from a variety of faiths or have no faith at all. The event should thus not be about how scientific questions intersect with the Christian Creed or sacramental grace—although given the location, that will be hard to ignore.

Those who know me may be surprised at my acceptance that this focus on science is the proper path to take for this gathering. While I continually stress grace and holiness as the preeminent solutions to our ecological woes, one should not invite guests to dine and discourse and then demand that they speak of a particular topic, especially when that topic is the host's confession of faith. This is a gathering for some of the world’s top scientists, so we should let science be science (and scientists be scientists) while trusting that the Spirit will move the conversations where they ought to go—whether they be external dialogues or the more important internal ones.

As conference organizer Veerabhadran Ramanathan noted in an interview with me in February, “[at a 2011 Vatican conference on climate change] I realized our political leaders need help from religious leaders to exercise moral authority to ask people to protect the air and the water. […] The world urgently needs religious leaders with moral authority like Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama.”

And so let us pray fervently as this most important and special gathering begins today. May the conference organizers, participants, and guests be inspired to share and listen, so that what unfolds over the next four days may be blessed, distributed, and shared widely to feed a great multitude across the globe.

Stay tuned for much more as news comes in from Rome.


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