Bishop: Decoder Ring

by Bishop Joensen | January 12, 2021

Bishop William Joensen

Not long after the pandemic hit our shores last year about this time, drug companies ramped up to “warp speed” in their coronavirus research in order to produce a vaccine.  Decoding the protein and DNA structures of the virus is a relatively straightforward affair these days.  Long before effective vaccines were developed (and it is NOT my task here to offer an ethical analysis of the different cell lines and means of production enlisted—several relevant analyses are available on our diocesan website and other sources), a television ad circulated declaring, “Science will save us.”  Hmmm.  I guess whether one believes science “saves” all depends on what one’s definition of “save” is. 

If being saved means to be preserved or restored to natural health, to resume human life on this earth as we know it, and to prescribe the values and conditions of this life on our terms, then maybe science can go a long way toward saving us.  However, I think that is a pretty shortsighted horizon of understanding that can lead us to sell ourselves­--let alone God--short.  St. John Paul II defines being “saved” as being delivered from the ultimate evil of sin and death.  To be saved means being healed from the rupture of relationship with God and from the forfeiture of divine life and love that God wants to share with us.  Being saved means the full realization of our human identity, our calling and destiny that extends far beyond this universe.  It means to abide within God’s own communion of persons, to be loved and to love freely, forever, and to experience the unqualified peace and joy this love generates.  It means to have all our questions answered (or at least, the questions that really matter to us beyond idle curiosity), to have all the paradoxes, problems, and sufferings we presently endure finally make sense.

Of course, in this more complete sense of “saved,” science’s reach is not as far as advertised.  Only Jesus, whose very name discloses his identity and mission, saves.  Only by faith in Jesus and the power of the water, blood, and Spirit by which he dies and is raised up, are we saved.  Only by demonstrating our faith through acts of love for our neighbor and tenacious hope that in God all things are possible do we participate even now in eternal life with the Father that Jesus accesses for us through baptism, Eucharist, and the life of grace.  There is no app, no experiment, no laboratory that can lay claim to this formula, let alone patent and mass produce it. 

Yet as we approach the Week of Christian Unity and Catholic Schools Week, my point is not to disparage science, but to commend it in proper measure.  Science has the vital capacity to contribute to the human-divine project of redemption and Kingdom consciousness that Jesus inaugurates.  The newest edition of the Directory for Catechesis (DC) cautions us that one of the biggest stumbling blocks on the path to mature faith for teenagers and others is a misperception of the relationship between faith and reason, theology and science.  Many hold the mistaken notion that there is a fundamental antagonism that cannot be reconciled, and are then swayed by our culture to side with science as the ultimate arbiter of all truth, holding authority to determine the “really real.”  No wonder that “science will save us” can be a siren song seducing some to forsake faith.   

In a positive way, The Directory praises many qualities of scientists: “The man or woman of science is an impassioned witness to mystery; seeks the truth with sincerity; is naturally inclined toward collaboration, communication, and dialogue; cultivates depth, rigor, and correctness of reasoning; loves intellectual honesty” (DC 358).  All of these qualities are marvelous dispositions to engage the word of God, to decode our experience in the “ring” of the various circles of life to which we belong.  We are bold enough to examine the phenomena of our own hearts and their infinite longings, and to enter the spiritual laboratory of dialogue among atheists, agnostics, “nones” (no religious affiliation), and persons who confess various forms of Christian faith.  In such dialogue, it is a mark of respect and recognition of common dignity not to write anyone off from the outset, or to be so skeptical that we cannot really listen and reflect upon someone else’s perspective.  No one should be expected to blink or back away from hard questions, for there is great precedence in salvation history: “God posed questions to humanity, and required a response from them” (DC n. 157).

Catholics and other Christian believers should be expected to be humble, courageous, and undaunted in their belief that the God who creates the world and the God who saves cannot ultimately contradict himself.  We should neither over-explain nor apologize for a God whose mysterious being and saving activity transcends our preconceptions and our biases.  Persons of faith are to be open to ongoing conversion of mind and heart such that what we profess and how we live can mesh —a beautiful harmony that appeals, bears witness, and does not berate or bruise those who are searching for something, someone in whom to believe.

In my clerical habit of reading what some priests call, “the Irish sports pages,” i.e., the obituaries, I noted one distinguished fellow who died of COVID-19 in his 80s who was described as a doctorally-trained analytical chemist, a man of firm Lutheran faith highly regarded both by his fellow scientists and by his church and larger civic community for his many acts of kindness and generosity toward others.  I wish I’d met him in life—I’ll bet the conversation would never have been boring, for while no one might mistake him for one of the “magi,” he must have been a truly wise man.

He must have imitated the wisest of all humans, our Savior Jesus Christ:  “Jesus seeks, encounters, and welcomes people in their concrete life situations. . . He begins from observation of events in life and history, which he reinterprets from a [wisdom] perspective.  . . . Jesus made human experience more livable through the recognition in it of the presence and call of God” (DC 198).  As one sage observes, “Jesus interprets God in the language of a human life.”  And for a complete life, both science and practical wisdom are indispensable, though not sufficient.  For where faith and hope lead us, in the end, only God’s saving love remains. 






Bishop Joensen

The Most Reverend William Joensen is the current bishop for the Diocese of Des Moines, having been ordained and installed in 2019.