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Vatican astronomer: ‘Trust the science’ does not convince those who most need to be convinced

Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., pictured on March 3, 2012. / Peter Zelasko/CNA.

Rome, Italy, Jan 14, 2022 / 11:30 am (CNA).

A Vatican astronomer has said that the mantra “trust the science” is failing to “convince those who most need to be convinced” about the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines.

Writing in the Jan. 15 edition of La Civiltà Cattolica, Brother Guy Consolmagno said that the phrase was not only off-putting for “large sectors” of the population but also expressed a misleading idea about the nature of science.

“In the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the scientific evidence in favor of vaccination is overwhelming. Those who are aware of this and see this universal prophylaxis as the only way to end the pandemic often use the mantra ‘trust the science,” he wrote in a 5,000-word essay, entitled “COVID, faith, and the fallibility of science” and published in Italian.

“At first glance, the expression does not lack a certain charm, also because it refers to that trust in science as a path to truth that our society has learned to accept since the Enlightenment.”

“But the evidence of the facts around us suggests that instead this slogan is not so motivating. Large sectors of the population … have continued to reject vaccination.”

La Civiltà Cattolica, founded in 1850 and published twice a month, is produced by the Jesuits in Rome and approved before publication by the Vatican Secretariat of State.

A summary of the article in English on La Civiltà Cattolica’s website said: “The no vax and conspiracy theory proponents uphold a misconception of what science is all about, as well as what it can deliver. When science fails to live up to its supposed infallibility, it only fuels further skepticism.”

“In addition to reconsidering how we argue in favor of science, as in the case of promoting vaccines, it is worth taking a closer look at how we try to use science or faith as bulwarks against our fundamental human fear of uncertainty.”

The article does not explicitly address the recent failure of widespread vaccination programs in halting the rapid transmission of the current omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Nor does Consolmagno speak directly to concerns about the censorship of dissenting scientific views about the safety of the vaccines and treatment protocols for COVID-19, or to the skepticism some unvaccinated Catholics harbor about the scientific rigor underlying the pro-vaccination statements of Pope Francis and other ecclesiastical authorities.

Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory since 2015, said that as a scientist and member of the Catholic Church, he was aware of the distrust of both scientific and ecclesiastical authority.

“Treating scientists as members of a sort of priesthood of truth is a questionable tactic, especially in a society where true priests are viewed with suspicion,” he wrote.

“And while I am entirely pro-vaccination, a motto like ‘trust the science’ leaves me very puzzled. It embodies a popular conception of science that is not only misleading, but makes it vulnerable.”

The 69-year-old Jesuit brother, who was born in Detroit, Michigan, said that the phrase suggested that science was the only reliable guide to truth.

“The expression itself sounds like an answer to an unexpressed question: what or whom should we trust? In some ways, it echoes the phrase addressed by Peter to Jesus in John 6:68: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go?’” he observed.

“And perhaps those scriptural echoes are noticeable to those who, like an evangelical Christian, are familiar with that passage of scripture, but probably not as familiar with science, and therefore perceive those words as implying that ‘trusting the science’ is being proposed as a substitute for trusting the Lord. To such a person, that slogan may unknowingly do more harm than good.”

Consolmagno said that the conviction that science is the sole reliable guide to truth implies that it has infallible authority.

“But anyone with real familiarity with science knows that this is not the case at all,” he wrote.

“Yes, the vaccine prevents disease in the vast majority of the vaccinated and reduces the severity of disease even in cases of so-called ‘breakthrough infections.’ But vaccines are not perfect. Fully vaccinated people can become ill with COVID-19, and indeed this does happen, although rarely with serious effects.”

“To those who oppose vaccines, the fact that such failures happen not only suggests that the vaccine is not perfect, but confirms the fear that blindly trusting science can be dangerous. And as much as we don’t want to admit it, that fear of placing unconditional trust in science contains an element of truth.”

The research astronomer and physicist noted that the history of science was littered with errors. He also highlighted pharmaceutical failures, such as the distribution of the drug thalidomide to pregnant mothers, which resulted in disabilities for their babies.

“The history of vaccines is also not without flaws. As we mentioned, COVID-19 vaccines occasionally allow for ‘breakthrough infection.’ The vaccination process has common side effects, the severity of which can vary from case to case,” he observed.

“Both safety and efficacy are aspects that require a long period of study before a vaccine is approved for general use; and yet errors can and do happen even after that prolonged process. It is not inconceivable that a circumstance will arise in which the worst fears of the antivaccine community may actually come true.”

Consolmagno said that the scientific method depended on doubt and error, analyzing mistakes and learning from them.

“However, science can provide insights into how to see and recognize the truth. And it can tell us what the probability of success is for a given formulation of that truth,” he explained.

“We trust the vaccine not because it is perfect, but because it greatly increases the odds of not getting sick. The real and obvious problem lies in the fact that most of us cannot understand how probabilities work: that is why casinos and lotteries are so successful.”

In conclusion, he wrote: “The phrase ‘trust the science’ does not convince those who most need to be convinced, especially if it reinforces the fear that science is challenging the authority of religious faith.”

“On the other hand, if science is expected to be a sure path to truth, scientific failures can arouse skepticism about it, forgetting how in fact failure itself represents an essential element in the progress of science.”

“And when a desire for certainty, which goes beyond what science can offer, is placed in tension with a culture that promotes suspicion of authority, a Gnostic desire for secret knowledge can be substituted for the just appreciation of those who are authoritative.”

Catholic bishop in India cleared of charges of raping a nun

Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jullundur, who was acquitted of charges of the rape of a nun Jan. 14, 2022. / Linto 11 via Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0)

Kottayam, India, Jan 14, 2022 / 10:22 am (CNA).

A bishop charged with the repeated rape of a nun over the course of two years was acquitted by a court in India’s Kerala state on Friday.

Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jullundur was cleared of the charges against him Jan. 14 in Kottayam.

The judge in the case found that “the prosecution failed to prove all the charges against the accused.”

Lawyers for the nun say they will appeal to the high court.

Bishop Mulakkal, 57, has consistently denied the accusations, and claims he was falsely accused after he questioned alleged financial irregularities at the accuser’s convent.

The bishop was arrested in September 2018 amid protests calling for a police investigation of the allegation. He was subsequently released on bail. The bishop was charged in April 2019 with rape, unnatural sex, wrongful confinement, and criminal intimidation. 

He was temporarily removed from the administration of his diocese shortly before his arrest.

The bishop's charges stemmed from a member of the Missionaries of Jesus who has said he raped her during his May 2014 visit to her convent in Kuravilangad, in Kerala. In a 72-page complaint to police, filed in June 2018, she alleged that the bishop sexually abused her more than a dozen times over two years.

The Missionaries of Jesus is based in the Jullundur diocese, and Bishop Mulakkal is its patron.

The bishop has also claimed the allegations were made in retaliation against him because he has acted against the nun's sexual misconduct. He said the nun was alleged to be having an affair with her cousin's husband.

A witness in the case against the bishop, who is also a member of the Missionaries of Jesus, told investigators Sept. 9, 2018 that from 2015 to 2017 she participated in sexual video chats with the bishop, having been pressured by him, and that he groped and kissed her April 30, 2017, at a convent in Kannur.

This second alleged victim did not wish to press charges, but there have been calls for police in Kerala to bring a suo motu case against Bishop Mulakkal.

The bishop asked in several venues that the charges be dismissed before trial, but in July 2020 the Kerala High Court found there was enough evidence to proceed.

Report: 1 in 5 Irish priests and brothers have died in the past three years

null / materod via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Cork, Ireland, Jan 14, 2022 / 05:15 am (CNA).

An Irish newspaper has reported that 1 in 5 of the country’s priests and religious brothers have died in the past three years.

The Irish Examiner said on Jan. 8 that “more than 21% of Ireland’s entire population of parish priests and brothers — both serving and retired — have died in just three years.”

The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference was unable to confirm the figure as the statistics are recorded locally by Ireland’s 26 dioceses and its religious orders.

The Irish Examiner, a national daily newspaper based in Cork, said that at the end of 2018, there were around 1,800 active priests and 720 retired clergy in Ireland, or approximately 2,520 in total.

Referring to figures in the official Irish Catholic Directory, it noted that 166 priests and brothers died in 2019, 223 in 2020, and 131 up to September 2021. The figures added up to a total of 520 deceased priests and brothers.

The newspaper said that “the figures from the directories are likely to be conservative, because not every religious order or diocese reports the death of its clergy to Veritas,” the publisher of the directories.

Ireland, a country of almost five million people, has seen a decline in the number of citizens identifying as Catholic in recent years.

The 2011 census found that 84.2% of the population identified as Catholic. That figure fell to 78.3% in the 2016 census. The next census will take place in April.

The Irish Examiner reported last month that the number of active priests is likely to plummet when the country emerges from the pandemic.

Clergy postponed their retirements to support colleagues struggling to serve the Catholic community during the crisis, it said.

The newspaper gave the example of the Diocese of Cork and Ross, where nine out of 94 pastors are aged over 75.

But no newly ordained priest has joined the diocese in the last four years and only one is expected to in 2022.

Diocesan secretary Father Michael Keohane said: “Several factors, including the COVID pandemic, meant many of the priests who were due to retire in recent years continue to hold full-time appointments.”

“As a result, the number who have passed retirement age is higher, and it is hoped that many of these priests will be permitted to retire in the coming year.”

Alleged vandal faces hate crime charge after major damage to Denver's Catholic cathedral

Vandalism on a door of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver, Colo., Oct. 10, 2021. / Photo courtesy of Fr. Samuel Morehead.

Denver, Colo., Jan 13, 2022 / 17:31 pm (CNA).

A 26-year-old woman has turned herself in on two charges related to some $10,000 in vandalism damage to Denver’s Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

Madeline Ann Cramer faces one charge of criminal mischief and another of a bias-motivated crime in connection with an Oct. 10 incident, the Denver District Attorney’s Office said Jan. 13. Both the cathedral building itself and nearby statues were “spray painted with numerous specific messages consistent with anti-Christian bias,” said District Attorney Beth McCann. 

Cramer had fled to Oregon but turned herself in to law enforcement Jan. 12. According to social media video posts, she says she was baptized a Catholic but now identifies as a satanist and opposes Catholic stands against abortion. 

News photos of the vandalism showed slogans such as “Satan Lives Here,” “White Supremacists,” and “Child Rapists, LOL”, as well as swastikas, written in bright red spray paint on the outside of the cathedral building, sidewalks, and on the base of a statue of St. John Paul II. The pope had visited the cathedral during 1993 World Youth Day.

The graffiti was cleaned off with the help of parishioners and other volunteers.

Father Sam Morehead, rector of the cathedral, said Oct. 11 that the assailant seemed to have some “deep personal wounds and grievances” against God and the Church.

In an Oct. 2 video, Cramer said she was raised Catholic and baptized at the Littleton, Colo. St. Francis Cabrini Catholic Church. However, for her, “the Catholic Church never felt right.”

She said she had recently visited the St. Frances Cabrini church webpage “and saw that they are actively supporting anti-abortion (sic) throughout the country.” 

Cramer charged that the Church “hate(s) women, you want to control women, you want to silence women.” She closed the video saying: “So stop just be honest you're not filled with love for God, for the baby, for the woman. You're filled with hate and you know it and we know it.”

Deacon Chet Ubowski at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church told CNA that Cramer is the woman who approached the altar during Mass at the church Oct. 10, just hours after she had vandalized the cathedral. During her interaction with the celebrant, she claimed to be a satanist.

Ubowski said that none of the current staff knew her or had any recollection of her, adding, “we all have her in our prayers.”

Cramer’s next appearance in court is scheduled for Feb. 14.

She has a prior conviction on a charge of obstructing police. In 2020, she was sentenced to a year of probation and 48 hours of community service. 

Denver’s Catholic cathedral had also sustained costly damage in mid-2020 amid racially charged protests against police brutality related to the murder of Minnesota man George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. At the time, the church building and rectory were spray painted with slogans referencing sex abusers or declaring "God is dead" and "There is no God." There were also anti-police, anarchist, and anti-religion phrases and symbols. 

The cathedral houses the earthly remains of Servant of God Julia Greeley, a former slave who converted to Catholicism and was known for her charity to Denver’s poor and her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. 

Archdiocese of Denver spokesman Mark Haas told CNA last year that since February 2020, at least 25 parishes or ministry locations in northern Colorado are known to have been the target of vandalism, property destruction, or theft.

In a November 2021 essay in the Washington Post, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver lamented the vandalism, arson and other destruction that has targeted Catholic property. He highlighted the Oct. 10 incident at the cathedral and noted that other religions saw their own property vandalized.

“As Catholics, we recognize that this is a spiritual crisis,” Aquila said. “We pray for the end to such horrifying attacks and for God’s love to drive out the hate in the perpetrators, regardless of who they have targeted. Yet as Americans, we also clearly see a cultural crisis. People of goodwill, whether religious or not, must condemn and confront the societal trends that encourage attacks on houses of worship — trends that extend far beyond religion.”

Religious, pro-life groups make proposals for Chilean constitutional convention

The flag of Chile. / Juan R. Velasco/Shutterstock.

Santiago, Chile, Jan 13, 2022 / 16:38 pm (CNA).

Chile's Constitutional Convention has created a digital platform for citizens to make proposals for issues they consider must be debated and enshrined in the new constitution. 

In an October 2020 referendum, Chileans voted in favor of the drafting of a new constitution.The constitutional convention began meeting in July 2021. Another referendum on whether to accept the to-be-drafted constitution should be held by September.

The threshold to guarantee the convention will consider an issue is 15,000 signatures. Although initiatives backing the right to life, freedom of religion and conscience, and parents’ right to have their children educated in accordance with their convictions have reached that mark, proponents are urging more signatures before the Feb. 1 deadline to signal strong public support and eventual inclusion in the constitution.

Right to freedom of conscience and religion

Religious communities in Chile organized themselves to create Initiative 3042 on “Freedom of conscience and religion,” which states that "religious freedom includes its free exercise, the freedom to profess, continue to practice and change religion or beliefs, as well as the right to associate to profess and propagate religion or beliefs, both in public and in private.”

“The State may not coerce any person to act against his convictions or religious beliefs and any person may refrain from engaging in conduct contrary to them,” it adds.

The initiative also calls for religious confessions to be recognized "as subjects of rights" that "enjoy full autonomy and equal treatment for the development of their purposes in accordance with their own regulations."

Consequently, the state may enter into "cooperative agreements” with these groups. They may "build churches, facilities, places of worship, which will be completely tax exempt" and harm done "to said churches, facilities, places of worship, and the people in the exercise of this right are considered an attack against the human rights of those affected.”

In addition, the initiative states that parents or guardians should have "the right for their children or wards to receive the religious, spiritual and moral education that is in accordance with their own convictions."

These religious confessions launched a joint effort in August 2020 to draft an initiative and presented a base text called "Content Proposal on Religious Freedom in the new Constitution" that was delivered to the Constitutional Convention on Oct. 18.

Bishop Juan Ignacio González Errazuriz of San Bernardo told ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish language sister news agency, that gathering the minimum number of signatures only ensures discussing and voting on the proposal, but "nobody is ensuring that the content of the proposed provision will remain in the Constitution."

Therefore as "more citizens express their support for these initiatives" it could help those who "don't understand them well or have another interpretation of these essential themes" to "accept some of the proposals that are made," he noted.

For example, the bishop referred to the decision that the delegates to the constitutional convention could make when they see that the initiative in support of abortion has already gathered more than 24,000, while the initiative defending the right to life has 19,000 signatures.

Bishop González said what is at risk is that fundamental rights, which today are enshrined in the current constitution, could end up being “very poorly configured or insufficiently assured.”

"What’s important is that the State recognize that the religious factor in any of its aspects is a relevant social factor in the life of a country," he stressed.

Parents' right to choose their children's education

Initiative 4102 for a "free and diverse education" calls for freedom of education and the preferential right of parents to educate their children, and seeks to ensure a quality education with universal access.

The proposal states that education should be an "integral good of the human person in the different stages of his life, both in his bodily and spiritual dimension.”

Therefore the state should be responsible for "fostering and financing said development from the communities of families" without "imposing a single vision on the human person, society and the world, nor a single understanding of human rights.”  On the contrary, it must help and support parents in their role of “educating, raising and training their children, as well as the right to choose the educational establishment for them.”

Ingrid Bohn, of the group Con Mis Hijos No Te Metas (Don’t mess with my children) and also a member of the Free and Diverse Education group, explained to ACI Prensa that although 15,000 signatures have already been gathered, today work is being done across the country to gather more, because “the initiative must have a lot of citizen support.”

"We support this proposal and sponsor it together with other organizations of parents, guardians, teachers and students because we are the ones who know our children best and who should have the freedom to choose between a variety of educational projects," she said.

The right to life

Organizations such as Always for Life and the NGO Community and Justice created Initiative 4138 on the "Right to Life.”

The initiative proposes that the right to life have constitutional protection from the moment of conception, "regardless of age or stage of development," because "if the laws and the Constitution do not recognize that we are all equal in dignity and rights, it can contribute to the social problem of arbitrarily discriminating against the unborn.”

The proposal is based on biological, philosophical, and legal arguments from international law.

"It is inconceivable that a Constitution that seeks, precisely, to protect the dignity of all people, without arbitrary discrimination, were to leave a group outside of this protection, just because they were not born," the initiative states.

Even so, since September 2017, Chile has a law decriminalizing abortion on the grounds of rape up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, and with no gestational limit for both fetal inviability and risk to the life of the mother. 

Verónica Hoffmann, executive director of the United Chile Foundation, dedicated to supporting mothers with crisis pregnancies, encouraged citizens to sign the initiative “so that the Constitution of Chile continue to protect the right to life and the physical and mental integrity of the person, and that the law protect the life of the unborn.”

“We must take part since the right to life is the dignity of every human being, it’s inviolable, from the moment its existence begins. It is essential that this right be recognized for all human individuals, without distinction, and continue to be present in the Chilean Constitution," Hoffmann told ACI Prensa.