What is 'Nature' Today in Science and Theology?

Boisi event

Welkin Johnson
Boston College

Mark Massa, S.J.
Boston College

Julie Hanlon Rubio
Santa Clara University

Andrea Vicini, S.J.
Boston College

Richard Gaillardetz
Boston College (Moderator) 

Date: October 22, 2019

Event Flyer


Scholars will discuss 'nature' in light of recent theological and scientific developments, including the statement from the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education on transgendered persons as well as its use more broadly in current Catholic natural law discourse.

Welkin Johnson, Ph.D.

Welkin Johnson, Ph.D., is a professor of biology and the chairperson of the biology department at Boston College. He is a virologist specializing in the evolutionary interplay between retroviruses and their hosts, and researchers in his laboratory use evolutionary principles to design and guide experimental approaches to the study of virus-host molecular interactions. He is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley (B.A.) and Tufts University School of Medicine (Ph.D.). After completing his Ph.D. research on human endogenous retroviruses, he worked in the department of microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard Medical School, focusing on the immmune response to HIV and other AIDS-causing retroviruses. Johnson joined the biology department of Boston College in 2011. 

Mark Massa, S.J.

Mark Massa, S.J. is the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, where he is also a professor of theology. Massa received his Ph.D. in American religion from Harvard University, and is the author of seven books. His most recent book is titled The Structure of Theological Revolutions: Catholic Debates About Natural Law, from Oxford University Press, 2018. His monograph published in 1999, Catholics and American Culture: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day, and the Notre Dame Football Team, received the Alpha Sigma Nu Award for Best Work in Theology for 1999-2000. His ongoing area of research is American Catholic faith and culture of the past century.

Julie Hanlon Rubio

Julie Hanlon Rubio joined the faculty at Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, California after nineteen years at St. Louis University where she was Professor of Theological Studies and Women's and Gender Studies. She writes about Catholic social thought as it relates to sex, gender, marriage, and family. She is the author of four books, including the award winning Hope for Common Ground (Georgetown, 2016). She is a board member of Horizons, the Journal of Catholic Social Thought, and the Catholic Theological Society of America. Currently, she is editing a collection on love, sex, and families with Jason King and writing a book of her own called Catholic and Feminist: Is It Still Possible?

Andrea Vicini, S.J.

At Boston College, Andrea Vicini, S.J., is the Michael P. Walsh Professor of Bioethics and Professor of Moral Theology in the theology department; he is also an affiliate member of the Ecclesiastical faculty at the School of Theology and Ministry. He is an M.D. and a Pediatrician (University of Bologna), an alumnus of Boston College (S.T.L. and Ph.D.), and holds an S.T.D. from the Pontifical Faculty of Theology of Southern Italy in Naples. He has taught in Albania, Chad, France, Italy, and Mexico. He is co-chair of the international network of Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church, as well as a lecturer and member of associations of moral theologians and bioethicists in Italy, Europe, and the U.S. His research interests and publications include theological bioethics; ethical issues regarding the environment, global public health, and new biotechnologies; and fundamental theological ethics.

Richard Gaillardetz

Richard Gaillardetz (moderator) is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College and is currently the chair of the theology department. He has published numerous articles and authored or edited fourteen books. Most recently, he published a newly revised and expanded edition of his popular book, By What Authority? Foundations for Understanding Authority in the Church (Liturgical Press, 2018). He is the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Vatican II which will be published by Cambridge University Press in the spring of 2020. In 2000, he received the Sophia Award from the Washington Theological Union for theological excellence in service of ministry and in 2018 he received the Yves Congar Award for theological excellence from Barry University. Gaillardetz served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America in 2013-14. 

Event Photos

Boisi event

Members of the wider BC community joined to partake in a discussion surrounding what 'nature' means in today's political and religious conversations.

Boisi event
Boisi event

Photos by MTS photography

Event Recap

On October 22nd, the Boisi Center hosted a panel discussion entitled, “What Is ‘Nature’ Today in Science and Theology?” Panelists included chair of Boston College’s biology department, Welkin Johnson; the director of the Boisi Center, Mark Massa, S.J.; professor at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, Julie Hanlon Rubio; and professor of bioethics and moral theology at Boston College, Andrea Vicini, S.J. The chair of Boston College’s theology department, Richard Gaillardetz, moderated.

Gaillardetz opened the conversation by presenting several understandings of ‘nature’ and ‘the natural’ as conceived in the spheres of discourse today. He then asked each panelist to present how these concepts are used in their respective disciplines.

Julie Hanlon Rubio, speaking from the field of Christian ethics, emphasized the significance of natural law in determin- ing how we should formulate moral norms. She suggested that the development of norms is complicated by humanity’s inherent fallibility and the church’s own incorrect conceptions of morality historically. She also emphasized that humanity’s creation in the image of God implies a universal dignity that must be recognized more consistently.

Welkin Johnson spoke from a scientific perspective, explaining that science does not use the terms “nature” or “natural” to distinguish human life. He also emphasized that “nature,” in science, precisely defines the limitations of the field—science does not address anything outside the bounds of nature.

Andrea Vicini, S.J., speaking as a theological ethicist who focuses on bioethics and a trained medical doctor and pediatrician, discussed the importance of interaction between disciplines when making efforts to understand nature. He described theology and science as different “lenses” through which one observes human nature’s complexity. Vicini defined “naturalistic essentialism” as the error of thinking you can know all about human nature by looking through one lens, which misses the complexity of the human experience.

Finally, Mark Massa S.J. defined nature as a conceptual construct—the best human attempt to define what constitutes the rationality of the world. But just as institutions and beliefs have evolved, he argued, so has human nature and it is important to allow for this development instead of resisting or rejecting it.

Gaillardetz then asked panelists to address the problems that emerge when there are disputed appeals to nature.

Rubio invoked the recent document from the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, released in June, entitled “Male and Female, He Created Them,” and emphasized that many who are critical of gender fluidity fear that such fluidity will extend to other realms which they regard as fundamental to Christianity—a slippery slope argument. Rubio suggested that engaging gender theory in Christian theology will require us to explain why this area can be considered fluid and if or how such fluidity applies to those other categories.

Johnson outlined the long history of human attempts to scientifically define what it means to be human. Viewing these attempts as problematic, he argued there are many cases in which humans did not reflect the theory’s definition, for example, instances when no one exists that resembles what the mean or average might render as the “norm,” yet applications of the normativity sparked controversy. He considers this problematic particularly in conceptions of evolution.

Vicini’s response addressed four large concepts central to an understanding of human nature: diversity, variation, healing and medicalization of human nature, and culture and colonization of human nature. He suggested that diversity and variation should be embraced, not feared, and that we should be wary of extreme efforts to make normative certain elements of human nature or medicalize it to the point that we lose the import of natural aspects of human life, such as death. Reflecting on human nature, he noted, must entail reflecting on the diversity of cultures that form us.

Massa criticized this summer’s Vatican document through appeals to the problematic concept of “human realism.” Human realism asserts that we can come up with principles and ideas about human nature by observing the real world “out there.” Massa argued that the problem with such an assertion is that it calls for an understanding of human nature as set and objective. Instead, Massa proposed that essential to human nature is its fluidity and evolution. It should not be considered apart from us, but internal to us, and changing as we do.

An interesting Q&A followed, during which a number of interesting questions raised concerns ranging from, among other things, the way human nature should be discussed in educational institutions, particularly with regard to childhood development and transgenderism, to the psychological relevance of biological conceptions of nature, as well as how biological or scientific concepts of nature could inform Christian moral thought.

Read More


Horrell, David G. The Bible and the Environment: Towards a Critical Ecological Biblical Theology. London: Routledge, August 2015. 

Rubio, Julie Hanlon. Family Ethics: Practices for Christians. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2010. 

Rubio, Julie Hanlon. Hope For Common Ground: Mediating the Personal and the Political in a Divided Church.  Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2016. 


Kolakowski, Victoria. “Toward a Christian Ethical Response to Transsexual Persons”.  Theology and Sexuality 1997 no. 6 (April 2015): 10-31.  https://doi.org/10.1177/135583589700300602

Levy, Denise L. & Jessica E. Lo. “Transgender, Transsexual, and  Genderqueer Individuals With a Christian Upbringing: The Process of Resolving Conflict Between Gender Identity and Faith.” Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Social Work 32 no. 1 (February 2013): 60-83. https://doi.org/10.1080/15426432.2013.749079

Migliorini, Damiano. “LGBT Catholics: A Paradigmatic Case of Intra-confessional Pluralism”. Theology & Sexuality 25 no. 1-2 (August 2019): 111-130. https://doi.org/10.1080/13558358.2019.1647717

Vicini, Andrea. “Bioethics: Basic Questions and Extraordinary Developments”. Theological Studies 73 no. 1 (February 2012): 169-187.  https://doi.org/10.1177/004056391207300108

Vicini, Andrea. “Ethical Issues and Approaches in Stem Cell Research: From International Insights to a Proposal” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics  23, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2003): 71-98. https://www.jstor.org/stable/i23556520  

Whitehead, James D. & Evelyn Eaton Whitehead. “Transgender Lives: From Bewilderment to God’s Extravagance”. Pastoral Psychology 63 no. 2 (April 2014): 171-184. 

Event Video

In the News

In an article from the National Catholic Reporter, the outlet describes that on June 10, 2019, the Vatican released a document entitled “Male and female he created them.” The document, which does not carry the Pope’s signature, is meant to serve as an aid for Catholic school teachers. It was immediatley critized by LGBTQ+ Catholics as it overtly denounced the legitimacy of transgender identities. It invokes the creation story as evidence of the intended difference between men and women and suggests that such identities are firm and unchangeable. Meanwhile, the Pope has delivered contradictory remarks in regards to acceptance of gender theory. LGBTQ+ rights activists are frustrated with the church as it continues to echo sentiments that alienate them and delegitimize their identities.