Several days ago the crew of the second-to-last Space Shuttle mission, STS-134, spent 20 minutes of their time speaking with Pope Benedict XVI. Shuttle missions are always tightly packed with activities, so NASA must have considered this phone call a high priority. So what did they talk about?
One item of discussion was the recovery of mission commander Mark Kelly's wife, Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot through the head by a gunman in January. The Pope wished Giffords a speedy recovery from her injuries. The Pope's wish will do nothing to help Giffords recover, except possibly improve her mood if she hears and cares about the Pope's remarks. If Giffords recovers, it will be because of the emergency medical team that picked her up off the ground, the hospital staff that took her in, the scientists that toiled over the centuries, and the inventors and industrialists that made this society possible. Nowhere does the Pope come into play.
What is a young child going to think when NASA—which is thought to represent science and rational thinking—arranges for their astronauts to waste 20 minutes of their time talking to an old mystic in a robe? Why, the child might wonder, is this man so important as to hold up the mission? Speaking to the astronauts, Benedict said, "You are our representatives spearheading humanity's exploration of new spaces and possibilities for our future." If the astronauts are our representatives, then they ought to represent the best and brightest of us. They ought not pay homage to backwards, patriarchal organizations that have quite awkward relationships with science and exploration.