Men and the Moon

HOUSTON—The Lunar Prospector is scheduled to search for water crystals after it slams into the moon's deepest crater on July 31 on the heals of the 30-year anniversary of the first walk on the moon by Neil Armstrong.

NASA officials say the Apollo missions to the moon, in total, have proved a success. They point out that the program has produced 160,000 inventions, uncovered a new source of materials scarce on earth, and advanced the potential of the moon to serve as a base for exploring deep space. But ethicists wonder: At a time when food distribution and other problems press on earth, has space exploration really been worth the cost?

Father Stephen Happel, temporary dean of religious studies at the Catholic University of America, formerly of the Vatican Observatory, spoke on the matter with Register Radio News correspondent Rich Rinaldi.

Rich Rinaldi: What should we have learned from the anniversary of the first moon landing?

Father Stephen Happel: I found the anniversary itself very moving because I'm old enough to remember when it happened. When I read the remarks of Pope Paul VI about the moon walk, I remember the enormous idealism that we all had about this event. Somehow, we thought, this was going to transform us and transform the world that we lived in. There was a considerable amount of [excitement] during that period and, as Pope Paul VI pointed out, it was a historic day.

Perhaps, as someone I heard earlier today said, when people look back 300 years from now what they will remember about our age will not be the wars or the terrible things that happened; it could conceivably be our having gone off this planet into another realm and taken the first step into space.

So when Pope Paul VI says that [the accomplishment] shows incredible courage and ingenuity, I think what it probably, first of all, shows [is] an extraordinary ability of the human mind and heart to imagine a new way of living and a new way of being.

Can you tell us some of the work you've done in the last ten years with the Vatican Observatory?

Over the last ten years I was invited to become part of a research group, a core research group that the Vatican Observatory and the Pontifical Academy of Science and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at Berkeley were all involved in. It was examining the positive interaction between science and theology—and science and Christianity particularly.

We began a series of conferences, about every two years, about topics that would be of immense interest. The first one was on what scientists understand by the origins of the universe and what Christians and Jews understand about creation. We brought together some very powerful scientists and theologians and met to discuss that issue. In turn, that prompted a discussion of things like chaos theory.

It produced things like biological evolution and its influence on the understanding of Christianity and, most recently, actually in the Pope's own homeland in Krakow, we had a conference on neuroscience and the way in which the contemporary forms of neuroscience influence our understanding of religion and theology.

So those ten years of very profound effort—supported very, very strongly I must say by not only the Vatican Observatory but by the Pope himselfw have helped get scientists and theologians together so they can see if they can carry on a common conversation of some sort.

So religion is not opposed to “progress,” as some claim.

I think the whole notion of what counts as progress becomes the real issue. Religion is certainly not simply about the status quo or about maintaining some form of nostalgia for the past. I think at the heart of what the cross and resurrection are for Christians, and for Catholic Christians in particular, is that it involves a real transformation of the person and of the Church and of society and that is at the heart of what we understand progress to be.

We make the claim that our faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus transforms the dignity of the human person in such a way that we form communities and societies which should be based on what is good and true and beautiful. That same kind of goal is certainly at the heart of what good science is about.

Scientists are aiming in one way or another to better the lives of human beings, to stave off the disasters and the illnesses that are endemic to the way we live and the way we inhabit our planet. And so, it is important to me to see that the goals of science and the goals of religion and theology certainly can coincide.

I think that's very clear in the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, where the pope provides guidelines for what academic institutions are supposed to be under Catholic auspices. It certainly is in his encyclical on Faith and Reason, which is his most recent.

What of the charge that advances in technology have hurt interpersonal relationships? Are computers taking over more-human communities?

Well, I think they're ambiguous, like all machines. Machines can extend our senses and give us more refined sight or better hearing or allow us to communicate better with one another. The Internet now [helps many] families I know who are spread out all over the world because of their jobs or because they have changed geographical locations. It allows them to keep all sorts of instant communication that we used to have simply by leaning over a back fence. But, on the other hand, it can also become an all-absorbing, manipulative external structure that takes over peoples'lives.

Is there a problem with the enormous costs related to space exploration? We also have very poor and hungry people.

That's a very important question and I think it's one that, for me at least, leads to the larger questions about the relationship between science and religion.

There's a certain sense in which scientific development can hurt us in various ways. So there needs to be built into the discussion about those things some element of value and some norms by which they can be developed more positively for human beings.

I find that in such situations what we need desperately then is socially, conversation on what counts as good positive goals for these machines that we're inventing. Just because I can create a bigger and better machine or a more powerful automobile doesn't necessarily mean that I should.

Rich Rinaldi is director of Register Radio News.