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  • Mary Shivanandan

Science, Faith, and Humanae Vitae

Updated: Apr 4, 2018


It was recently announced that the ashes of deceased scientist, Stephen Hawking, would be interred in Westminster Abbey, London, England, even though he loudly and publicly proclaimed his atheism.  One might well ask what an avowed atheist is doing in a building dedicated first and foremost to Faith?  A further question might be whether in denying belief in God, Hawking was denying the intrinsic connection between science and Faith. In his 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio, St. John Paul II calls Faith and Reason (science) “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (FR Intro.).  The error occurs when either Faith or science exclude the other as a legitimate path to truth.  This is particularly relevant when discussing the Church’s stance on fertility and the life issues, its opposition to contraception and sole endorsement of natural family planning as a legitimate method to space or limit childbearing in marriage. Is this a case where the Church, by holding to Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae vitae, is rejecting modern science?


A scientist, who responded with an emphatic “no” to this question was my husband, Kandiah Shivanandan, an astrophysicist, who in his later years turned his infrared technology to the detection of breast cancer.  In my book, The Holy Family Model Not Exception I show how, far from hurting marriage, natural family planning (NFP), when lived rightly, helps the couples, especially, in their communication.  In my earlier book, Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John II’s Anthropology I give some of the basic science behind the methods.  As a theologian I cannot claim to approach the topic with the rigor of a scientist.  So in this blog I shall quote from my husband’s book, My Autobiography: An Experience in East-West Culture.  He devotes a chapter to his professional career.  Here we learn that he worked for the Space Science Division of Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) “which conducts basic applied research programs in the areas of stratospheric physics, solar physics, solar-terrestrial relations and high energy physics to satisfy national and Navy goals.”  His own work was related to “infrared radiation.”

  

His contribution to astrophysical implications for Gamow’s Big Bang theory of the Cosmos are discussed in the book, Violent Universe.  In the early years of space research he was involved in the placement of infrared telescopes on rockets to observe distant objects in the universe.  With retirement, in the 1990s he turned his infrared expertise to medical research, specifically thermography.  Since infrared detectors are able to discern abnormal growths from heat sources in the body, they can be used as a non-invasive way to detect, for example, breast cancer.  His work in this area led my husband to the dangers of interfering with hormones, which lie at the basis of the contraceptive Pill.  In fact, he was instrumental “in developing an improved procedure for detecting breast cancer.”

What I find even more intriguing from my husband’s autobiography is his assessment of the relative value and significance of Science and Faith.  He, himself, was brought up as a devout Hindu but later converted to Christianity, beginning his conversion in his student days in Melbourne, Australia.   Of the four individuals he listed as contributing the most to humanity in the 20th century, none are scientists.  One is Pope Paul VI specifically for his encyclical, Humanae vitae. While he applauds the success of science he acknowledges its dark side with the development of nuclear weapon.  Above all he recognizes the unity of the worlds of science and Faith, while giving the precedence to Faith.

"Some say that, because we use our minds to appreciate the order and complexity of the universe around us, there is nothing more to that order than what is imposed by the human mind.  That is a serious misjudgment . . .The most precise and reliable knowledge we have about anything is of events in a binary star system more than 3000 light years from our planet and in the subatomic world of electrons and light rays, where we are accurate to better than nine decimal places.  Curiously, our greatest uncertainties all relate to the problems of understanding ourselves, human behavior, human societies and human minds—all the things that really matter for human survival."

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