June 2017

Science and Catholicism, Again?

I don’t know about you, but I am getting tired of trying to explain why science and Catholicism are not opposed. Scientists study the world God created, right? The same God sent Jesus. If there is conflict, it is either bad science or bad theology, or both.

Most articles that report conflict are not about Catholics, but about biblical fundamentalists who oppose evolution. It doesn’t help that the majority of scientists who are believers hide in the closet. Luckily, it looks as though this situation might finally be changi ng-thank God!

The popular assumption that science and religion are opposed often goes back to the sixteenth century “Galileo Affair.” Even though both Galileo and the Vatican were at fault (see the wonderful book, Galileo Goes to Jail and other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald Numbers), the “Galileo Affair” is trotted out as proof that science and religion don’t mix. In the United States, not long after the 1859 publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, conservative Protestants began to emphasize the literal truth of the Genesis creation stories.

After the Civil War, the power and influence of modern scientific research grew rapidly, provoking even more pushback from biblical fundamentalists. A great defender of Darwin, Englishman Thomas H. Huxley, asked “Who shall number the patient and earnest seekers after truth from the days of Galileo until now, whose lives have been embittered and their good name blasted by the mistaken zeal of Bibliolaters?” Leading academics began to use the metaphor of a war between science and religion. In fact, the first president of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White, repeatedly used the metaphor. He refused to allow theology to be taught at the university. In contrast to pre-civil war colleges, he founded an explicitly secular university.

The great popularizer of this metaphor was John W. Draper, a chemist from New York University. In 1874 he published The History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, which went through fifty reprints in the United States, twenty-one in Britain, and was translated into nine European languages and Japanese. Add to this the famous 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, and you’ll understand what sealed in the popular imagination the opposition between science and “religion.” I put “religion” in quotes because there are many more forms of Christianity than biblical fundamentalism. While Catholicism interprets Scripture in many ways, it does not interpret it as fundamentalists do.

So, what gives me hope that this perception of inevitable conflict might be changing? In April of this year, over 100 scientists met at the University of Chicago. Stephen Barr, director of the Bartol Research Institute at the University of Delaware and founder of the Society of Catholic Scientists, organized the conference with the help of the Lumen Christi Institute. Bartol founded the Society because “many Catholics in science — especially students and young scientists…feel isolated because they do not realize how many other scientists share their faith… This sense of isolation can be demoralizing.”

The following month, Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, held a conference near Rome to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Fr. Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest, physicist and mathematician, who is credited with formulating the Big Bang theory. At the conference, Bro. Guy, who spoke at our Institute last year, encouraged Catholic scientists to “come out of the closet,” to give talks at their parishes, and to “set up their telescopes in the Church parking lots, or lead nature trails for youth groups.”

Much more could be said about this topic, and I’ve already gone on a bit longer than I usually do in these monthly reflections. These two recent conferences give me hope that we might finally be finding more effective ways to debunk the myth that science and Catholicism are somehow intrinsically and inevitably opposed. Given the credibility scientists enjoy today, Catholic scientists should occupy the “bully pulpit.” Who listens to theologians anyway?

Recent Oxford Publications

Learned Ignorance: Intellectual Humility Among Jews, Christians and Muslims

“This explicitly theological and exceptionally engaging collection of scholarly essays represents trilateral dialogue in its most refined yet attractively challenging form.”
— John Borelli, Georgetown University