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Infinite Space, Infinite God

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Catholic Science Fiction. Not exactly a household phrase. Some might even call it an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or military intelligence. It's a common misperception that the Church is anti-science, even archaic, and that Catholics would rather look backward than forward. Nonetheless, the Church is active in promoting science and research and, according to one survey, more science fiction writers are Catholic than follow any other religion.

Some of the Church's reputation can be laid at the feet of its infamous trial of Galileo, though a deeper study of the events surrounding the trial, as well as the trial itself, show that the outcome had more to do with scientific rivalries among scholars within the Church and Galileo's own acerbic personality than it did with Galileo's scientific pronouncements. After all, it was Nikolai Copernicus, a Catholic priest, who first proposed the heliocentric theory of the solar system. (If you want to learn more, we recommend "Galileo and the Catholic Church" by Robert P. Lockwood at http://www.catholicleague.org.) Ironically, Martin Luther and John Calvin, the Protestant leaders of the time, rejected heliocentric theory out of hand because they believed it contradicted Scripture.

In many ways, it was the Church that supported and actively encouraged scientific advancement through the centuries. Look in the Catholic Encyclopedia or check out 1000 Years of Catholic Scientists by Jane Meyerhofer and you'll find hundreds of scientists who were not only Catholic, but often priests, monks, and even saints. Writer Stanli Jaki, a Benedictine priest, physicist and author of The Savior of Science, asserted that the only culture where science truly progressed beyond the Classical Era knowledge was that of the Christian West, where it received "permission" and support through Catholic thinkers and the Church of the Middle Ages.

Many popes have been interested in science, even Pope Urban VIII, who disagreed with Galileo. Pope Pius IX established the Pontifical Academy in 1847, which consists of scientists around the world chosen for their contributions to science without regard to their particular religious beliefs--or lack thereof. Although independent of the Church, the Holy See supports its research financially, and its academicians research and publish papers on a variety of topics from theoretical mathematics to molecular biology.

For two millennia, the Church has shown its ability to adapt and change as science and society have grown, from the understanding that Scripture does not explain the scientific workings of our universe to the evolving roles of its clergy. It continues to support science while exercising its duty as Christ's earthly authority to provide moral guidance on its application. "The Church's Magisterium does not intervene on the basis of a particular competence in the area of the experimental sciences; but having taken account of the data of research and technology, it intends to put forward, by virtue of its evangelical mission and apostolic duty, the moral teaching corresponding to the dignity of the person and to his or her integral vocation," says the Instruction on Respect for Human Life.

It's certainly true that in the last millennium, western culture has seen an explosion of scientific inquiry and understanding without peer anytime else in the history of the world. Many of the centers of inquiry were in Catholic nations, and many of the scientists involved were Catholic.

It's equally true that in the last century or so, scientific discovery has often been preceded by science fiction. Jules Verne, a Catholic writer way ahead of his time, suggested space travel in 1865; we made it reality a century later. In the 1940s, Isaac Asimov postulated intelligent robots, with positronic brains and the ability to interact with people and their environment. Robot maids aren't here yet, but Kevin Ashton, vice president of ThingMagic.com, told Popular Science that they're only a decade or two away. ("Where's My Robot Maid?" Popular Science, March 2006). Meanwhile, today's children are growing up with interactive toys that teach songs, react to movement, and laugh, cry, or growl according to input. Even Star Trek's warp drive has spurred serious study by mathematicians and physicists like Chris Van Den Broeck of the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium. The Planetary Society and the Russian Babakin Space Center and Space Research Institute (IKI) are working on the first solar sail spacecraft, which started appearing in science fiction as early as the 1950s. Want to know more? Check out Science Fiction and Space Futures, edited by Eugene Emme (Univelt, 1982). It's been said that what the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve, and in no other genre do we see that as clearly as in science fiction.

Unlike many other genres, however, science fiction has often been a way to make a statement or project the outcome of a political, moral, or even technological issue. Star Trek was well known for using the future to bring up issues of the day. George Orwell's 1984 warns what would happen when people willingly give up their independence for comfort and security. Larry Nevin's books are littered with societal and ethics questions, particularly the question of where society's needs outweigh individual rights, and vice versa. Heinlein's Starship Troopers brings up serious issues on the role of the military in society. Science fiction provides an excellent forum for examining the ethical questions arising from new technologies. In fact, Rosalyne Berne of the University of Virginia and Joachim Shummer of the Technical University of Darmstadt and the University of South Carolina have suggested using science fiction to teach the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology ("Teaching Societal and Ethical Implications of Nanotechnology to Engineering Students Through Science Fiction," Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society, Vol 25, No. 6 (2005)).

Little wonder, then, that the Catholic Church has often been a player in science fiction. For one, it's an easily identifiable icon: whether you need a pro-life morality, a place receive sanctuary, or a scene of religious peace and grandeur, or (unfortunately) someone to balk against scientific progress, the Catholic Church comes to mind for many, regardless of religious affiliation. It's been played in every conceivable way. Ben Bova used the Catholic Church as the ideal place for the storing of bodies held in stasis for his story "In Trust" (included in Twice Seven by Ben Bova, Avon, 1998). In Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (Spectra, 2000), computer programmer Juanita Marquez studied under the Jesuits as a way of inoculating her mind against a linguistic virus that re-writes the brain. James White wrote an award-winning novelette, "Sanctuary," (Analog, December 1998), in which an Irish nun protects an alien from secular powers, including the press. Star Sapphire by Joan Fong has strong Catholic characters and deals with the sacrament of marriage and adapting to the absence of the temporal Church in a faraway world. Some are just fun, like Poul Anderson's High Crusade (I Books, 2003), in which crusaders balk an alien invasion and start an intergalactic Catholic empire; or Robert Frezza's SF comedy VMR Theory (Del Rey, 1996), which has an alien priest for the dual purposes of housing the heroes and getting in a few Notre Dame jokes. In many SF stories or novels, the Catholic religion is there in the background for contrast against secular progress, to stand as a moral compass with others of different faiths, or to cover the fullness of human experience--spiritual as well as physical. For a truly complete list of SF that deals with the Catholic Church, check out "Speculative Catholic" at http://www.idlefellows.com/speculativecatholic/2005/09/catholicism-in-science-fiction.html

Very few books deal with the Catholic Church itself and its future role, however. Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller (Spectra, 1997) is, of course, unsurpassed in its depiction of the role of the Church in preserving information and wisdom in a post-nuclear world as well as fighting for the higher values of life in a world where once again, expediency and comfort become supreme. Robert Hugh Benson's 1911 novel Dawn of All (Once and Future Books, 2005) projects a future Church that has brought most Protestants back to the fold but which faces the challenge of Socialism. James Blish's Case of Conscience (Del Ray, 2000) is another classic for its depiction of the Church seeking to understand the salvation status of aliens. Lynden' Rodriguez's Drumwall (available from her http://www.geocities.com/lynden_us/) also deals with extra-terrestrial evangelization.

And now, Infinite Space, Infinite God.

The fifteen stories included here not only project Catholics living and working in the future, but depict a Church still alive and influential. They also bring up hard questions, the kind that keep catechists dreaming and theologians debating.

But after all, that's what good SF does.

Faith and Fiction for the Thoughtful Reader.