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Science, the Pope and the Shroud of Turin

Shroud Icon Humanity’s quest for knowledge has been marred by conflict between those who would follow edicts from imposed authority, and those who use logic and examination in the search for truth. Historically, the two long-time combatants in the war for the mind of man have been religion and science.

Perhaps the best example of religion’s attitude toward scientific discovery is its resistance to the changing view of the universe. As long ago as the sixth century B.C.E., astronomers like Pythagoras, and later Aristarchus, and still later Martianus Capella suggested, quite correctly, that the popular belief that the sun and planets revolve about the earth, called the geocentric doctrine, was wrong. “Not until the fifth century of our era did it* timidly appear in the thoughts of Martianus Capella; then it was again lost to sight for a thousand years,” said Andrew D. White in his book, A History of The Warfare of Science With Theology.

From behind the shadow of the holy Inquisition, history tells us of Nicolaus Copernicus (silenced, then vilified after his death in 1543), Giordano Bruno (imprisoned for six years, burned alive), and Galileo Galilei, around whom this war of ideas came to be concentrated (imprisoned, tormented and forced to recant at the age of seventy). Each of these seekers had challenged the prevailing geocentric theory, and suffered for it. An impartial reading of history illustrates again and again that religion has waged war upon science and persecuted its practitioners.

As I read of the Pope viewing the Shroud of Turin on Sunday, May 24, that lengthy, hostile relationship came to mind. In his comments, the Pope encouraged scientists to continue testing the linen believed by many to have once held the body of Christ.

But in his book, Inquest On The Shroud Of Turin, Joe Nickell, Ph.D., examines the history of the shroud, and the results of the testing that has already been performed. The single cloth, one of forty shrouds asserted over time to have been used as Jesus’ burial shroud, is of a weave not known to exist at that time, and does not fit the description from the Bible (John 20:5-7) of multiple cloths with a separate one covering the face. Also, prior to the middle of the 14th century, there is no historical record of this particular shroud; at that time, evidence of fraud was uncovered by a bishop in France, and an artist’s confession was obtained, eventually leading to a report to Pope Clement VII, who officially declared the shroud to be a painted “representation” in 1389.

It should also be noted that the hair of the image on the shroud appears as it would if its subject was standing, rather than lying down, and there are no wraparound distortions of the image as there would likely be if it had encompassed a body. Tests on a stain, still suspiciously red despite the passage of time, have consistently failed to support the claim that it is blood.

Finally, the Shroud of Turin has been subjected to numerous other scientific tests, including Carbon-14 dating by three laboratories in 1988, resulting in close agreement of a period circa 1260-1390 C.E. Scientific investigation deems it likely that the shroud is the work of a medieval artist. And, on this too, the church stands in opposition to the conclusions of science.

But, ah, how the tenor of the times has changed. The Pope asks that scientists respect both the “scientific methodology and the sensibility of the faithful.” This demonstrates the change in the church’s once merciless tactics. Science can no longer be bullied into acquiescence by religion.

Still, despite his overture towards coexistence, the Pope demonstrates a misunderstanding of the nature of scientific inquiry. While the church teaches that unchallenged, unquestioned faith must guide the believer (and history certainly proves theists are willing to do whatever is necessary to ensure that goal), science is the pursuit of knowledge through supposition, experimentation and substantiation, no matter where the conclusions may lead.

Science is not, and must never again be, concerned with assuaging the sensibilities of the faithful… nor the powerful.


*Heliocentric theory: the earth and planets revolve about the sun


The image of the shroud imposed over a question mark, with a cross shadow in the background, was designed by Dave Feroe. We are grateful for his artwork.

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