On Nov. 10, 1979, a meeting was held in Rome by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in honor of the 100th year anniversary of the birth of Albert Einstein. The meeting marked the first time in the history of the church, since the formation of its own science academy, that any pope had presided over such a session.
This meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences may well be more memorable for Pope John Paul II's statements regarding science, Galileo, and the church than for the honoring of the centenary of the birth of Einstein himself.
In discussing the case of Galileo and the church, Pope John Paul II addressed the academy as follows:
"Mr.President, you said very rightly that Galileo and Einstein each characterized an era. The greatness of Galileo is recognized by all, as is that of Einstein, but while today we honor the latter before the College of Cardinals in the apostolic palace, the former had to suffer much - we cannot deny it - from men and orgainzations within the church. The Vatican Council has recognized and deplored unwarranted interferences..."
Approximately one year after his Pontifical Academy of Science speech on Galileo, the pope, in criticizing what he termed "artificial" methods birth control, made a notable statement on modern agriculture, simultaneously. The pope stated:
"There are attacks on fecundity itself with means that human and Christian ethics must consider illicit... Instead of increasing the amount of bread on the table of a hungry humanity as a modern means of production can do today, there are thoughts of diminishing the number of those at the table through methods that are contrary to honesty. This is not worthy of civilization."
Now that the pope has pardoned Galileo for telling the church that the earth is in orbit around the sun, it is time to tell the pope that the other half of Aristotle's church-approved cosmology has also come unglued. The "Four Element" concept (earth, air, fire and water) was the other half of the Aristotelian Earth-centered universe adopted by St.Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century.
Although the Renaissance astronomers successfully challenged Aristotle's and the church's geocentric universe several centuries later, atoms still had not been discovered. For this reason the Four Elements remained intact and unchallenged long after the death of Galileo in 1642.
The discovery of atoms in the last couple of centuries has totally transformed our concept of elements. The former "elements", earth and air, are both composed of a variety of elements. We now know that even the ancient element "water" can be further divided into the elements of hydrogen and oxygen. And the element "fire" is now understood to be a form of radiation.
Justus Von Liebig, the 19th century father of agricultural chemistry, and other pioneering chemists did to Aristotle's Four Elements what the Renaissance astronomers did to Aristotle's concept of the Earth as the center of the universe - they overturned it!
Liebig first pointed out the for plants to utilize carbon dioxide in the air for growth, they must have adequate amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in their soil. Unfortunately, in popularizing the N,P,K concept of modern chemical agriculture, Liebig paved the way for overreliance upon energy-intensive fossil fuel consumption in the mining of phosphorus and potassium as well as in industrial production of nitrogen fertilizers.
We now know that for every orbit of the Earth around the sun - one year - the pope, each member of the Catholic Church, and everyone else on the planet consumes in their food and excretes from their bodies approximately two pounds of phosphorus and various quantities of nitrogen, calcium, potassium, iron, and other trace elements. All these elements generally go unrecycled, often into rivers and oceans or even municipal dumps, further enriching fertilizer industries (who will sell the farmers more for a price) at the expense of the Earth's non-renewable mineral nutrient resources.
When the remaining fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, are exhausted, only bacteria and blue-green algae utilizing phosphorus, potassium, and trace elements in "soil-culture" and "aqua-culture" will be likely candidates to fix atmospheric nitrogen for agricultural fertilization.
Both the trade of grains and the direct trade of phosphates speed the depletion of our limited reserves of phosphate rock in the United States, which comes mainly from mining operations in Florida. Deposits in Idaho are also being mined, at present, and Armand Hammer of Occidental Petroleum has eyed public land near Ojai, Calif. to strip-mine for phosphates.
We should realize the need to conserve our dwindling reserves of phosphates for future generations. The United States not long ago was a net exporter of petroleum, but now we are importers. The same situation could occur with phosphates if we refuse to learn from the past. Some researchers have suggested that we may become dependent upon yet a new OPEC (or Organization of Phosphate Exporting Countries), such as Morocco, with its relatively large rock phosphate reserves.
The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates that our reserves of phosphorus will be depleted some time in the next century. This will inevitably lead to a food and population crisis that will make our oil crisis seem minor by comparison.
The pope's apparent ignorance of science history and modern agricultural technology obscures from his vision the disastrous effects of his policy of unchecked population growth on future generations who will find "no food on the table" nor the resources with which to grow it. This ignorance also shows that the pope has no more expertise in the fields of agricultural science, population planning, or resoure management than the pope in Galileo's time did in the area of astronomy.
The nutrients that subsidize the life of the pope, and everyone on the planet, are a finite resource. Unless the pope realizes the seriousness of the linear flow of elements through himself and the rest of humanity, he shall be partly responsible for contributing to the collapse of modern agriculture.
To sum up, Pope John Paul II is as confused about the movement of atoms as the pope of Galileo's time was about the movement of the Earth and celestial bodies. Based upon the rate of depletion of chemical fertilizers, the present pope does not have 300 years to re-evaluate his view on modern agriculture and birth control. The question still remains as to why the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has not made this disastrous movement of atoms clear to the pope.
Copyright 1997, Tony Ryals