Pius XII and the discourse Un'Ora

Laissez-passer à la Cité du Vatican

The laissez-passer to the Vatican materializing his election as member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 28th, 1936

In 1936, Georges Lemaître was named a member of The Pontifical Academy of Sciences whose mission is to ensure, in a certain independence, progress and research in the scientific disciplines. 

On November 22nd, 1951, Pius XII addressed the speech Un'Ora to the Pontifical Academy. The context was particular: the encyclical “HumaniGeneris”, published a year before, had been badly received in scientific circles which saw in it an obstacle to scientific progress. Impassioned by astronomy, Pius XII wanted to testify to the importance of science. However his speech took on concordist accents, making reference to the book by the Pontifical Academician Edmund Taylor Whittaker,Space& Spirit. Theories of the Universe and Arguments for the Existence of God, whereinthe concepts of Beginning and Creation had become thoroughly interchangeable. Pius XII described that thesis and, on several instances, evoked the primitive atom theory. He never mentioned Lemaître by name, but the allusion was obvious. 

“(…) you who examine and reveal the secrets of nature and, at the same time, teach with the language of figures, formulas and discoveries, ineffaceable harmonies of God of infinite wisdom. True science, the more it progresses, the more it discovers God”. Pius XII, Un' Ora, November 22nd, 1951.

That discourse greatly disturbed Lemaître for several reasons. The first is that his theory of the primitive atom was not proven at that time and was not an object of consensus in scientific circles. The second is the confusion made between Beginning and Creation. Moreover, belonging to the Academy the speech was delivered to, his adversaries might risk accusing him of supporting that concordist vision, whereas in recent years he had been struggling to detach himself from the image of a priest doing science to prove the existence of God.

A second speech was envisaged at Castel Gondolfo, September 7th, 1952, before the International Astronomical Union. (Some have brought up the possibility that Lemaître may perhaps have 'gone through' Father O' Connell, close collaboratorto the pope and future director of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, to ask the Sovereign Pontiff to refrain from referring to his theory.) In any case, it seems that Pius XII got the message, for the primitive atom theory was not mentioned in the second speech.

Lemaître, although frustrated, did not hold it against Pius XII. In his view, the pope remained in his domain, even if a concordism based on the primitive atom theory was not welcome as far as he was concerned. For that matter, in 1963 he said:

“As to the attitude of the Sovereign Pontiff, it is clear that it is situated in the terrain which is proper to him and that it has no relationship to Eddington's or to my theories. Moreover, my name is not cited in that speech”.

Lettre de nomination à l’Académie pontificale des sciences

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences of the Vatican welcomed Lemaître as a member in 1936 and elected him President in 1960. Placed under the Sovereign Pontiff's protection, the Academy defines its own activity, in accordance with its object, delineated by its statutes: “promoting the mathematical, physical and natural advance of knowledge, and studying the epistemological problems connected to them”.