By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
A Venezuelan-born Princeton scientist who is a strong environmentalist and believer in global warming was appointed today to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Vatican’s chief “think tank” on scientific issues, by Pope Benedict XVI.
Ignacio Rodríguez-Iturbe, 65, is also a believer in evolutionary theory, who says that Darwinian evolution poses no conflict with religious faith and that the rival school of intelligent design has been “completely rejected” on a purely scientific basis.
tRodríguez-Iturbe is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Princeton University. He received the 2002 Stockholm Water Prize for his role in developing the science of hydrology, meaning the study of precipitation and water flows, including its relationship to climate change.
Concern for the environment has become a leitmotif of the social teaching of Pope Benedict XVI; in his January 7 address to diplomats, for example, the pope included “monitoring climate change” as an essential element of world peace.
In a telephone interview with NCR, Rodríguez-Iturbe said he regards his appointment to the prestigious Academy of Sciences, with roughly one-third of its members Nobel laureates, as “a sign of the interest of the Holy Father and the academy in getting more and more involved in environmental issues.”
A practicing Catholic and a lay member of Opus Dei, Rodríguez-Iturbe argues that the church faces a moral responsibility to speak out on climate change.
“From a scientific point of view, there is overwhelming evidence of serious anthropogenic impact related to global warming,” Rodríguez-Iturbe said. “This implies an enormous responsibility with regard to the consequences for peace and prosperity for the world, and for future generations.”
“I do not share the view of those who say we should keep out of it,” he said. “If we accept the science, if we believe [global warming] is here and that human activity is a leading cause, then the church, the Vatican, should be involved.”
More broadly, Rodríguez-Iturbe said, he’s encouraged by Benedict XVI’s growing advocacy of sustainable development, especially as it relates to his own interest in water, which he described as “a keystone to human survival and development.”
Though he is not a biologist, Rodríguez-Iturbe also said that he accepts evolutionary theory and sees no conflict with religious faith.
“Even though I’m not an expert in evolutionary ecology, when I see that every scientist of repute in ecology and biology maintains and believes in the evolutionary process, this tells me I should trust it,” he said.
“Frankly, I don’t see why people try to raise the flag of creationism against evolution,” he said. “It’s nonsense. Evolution says nothing about the existence or non-existence of God.”
Rodríguez-Iturbe added that he has many friends in the scientific community who believe in evolution and yet are “people of great faith.”
On intelligent design, Rodríguez-Iturbe said it’s a subject that should not be debated “in the editorial rooms of the New York Times or some institute in Kansas or Minnesota,” but rather in scientific journals and meetings – where, he said, “it has been completely rejected.”
tIn general, Rodríguez-Iturbe said, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences can offer not only the best analysis available of current scientific problems, but can also ponder the dimension of “transcendence” that distinguishes a religious and spiritual approach to scientific questions.
Rodríguez-Iturbe, who was born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1942, is married with five children. His second son is an Opus Dei priest in Venezuela.
The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has its origins in the Accademia dei Lincei (“Academy of Lynxes”) established in Rome in 1603 by Pope Clement VIII. It’s headquartered in the Casina Pio IV at the heart of the Vatican Gardens. The academy is composed of 80 members, appointed for life, who are chosen on the basis of their scientific qualifications rather than religious affiliation. Many of the members are non-Catholic.