Christmas is a season of marvelous and mystical experiences, and maybe it seems churlish to let science and history intrude. What if the Star of Bethlehem was a comet? What if Christ was born in May instead of December? What if the whole literal Biblical picture of how we came to be here is open to question (as it certainly is)? Would that ruin the Christmas experience somehow? Would we grown-ups feel like children who’d had Santa Claus snatched away from them?

Some would, for sure. But this emotionally dangerous ground between faith and science, metaphysics and physics, is familiar territory for Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, a friend and fellow countryman of the Argentine-born Pope Francis.

Bishop Sánchez is the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. It is housed in an elegant little building surrounded by gardens right in the heart of the Vatican, and it promises to be the epicenter of some seismic controversies to come.

Atheists and fundamentalists, both, will be tempted to say the whole notion of a pontifical academy of science is a contradiction in terms. Back in the fiery heyday of the Inquisition, after all, pontiffs and scientists were in deadly opposition, just as Bible-waving Evangelicals and cold-blooded evolutionists are squared off today in the creationist wars that plague American education.

But over the centuries the views of the Catholic Church have evolved, in fact, and conservatives are going to be shocked once again by the way this papacy broadens its message of reconciliation to include an ever-wider spectrum of humanity, including skeptical scientific researchers and intellectuals.

“If we don't accept science, we don't accept reason,” says Sánchez, “and reason was created by God."

The academy, which in various forms dates back to the early 17th century, is today avowedly “non-sectarian” and includes among its 80 members many non-Catholics, non-Christians and, it is fair to say, some non-believers, not to mention some of the most famous scientists and social scientists in the world. Over the years, scores of the academy’s members have won Nobel Prizes, including the awards for chemistry, physics, medicine and economics.

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