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Does the Church Oppose Science?

A fair look at the evidence shows that the Catholic Church has always encouraged scientific study

One sunny July day, just out of college, I went running around Green Lake in Seattle with a close friend of mine. We had gone to a Catholic high school together, and his wonderful family had a rich faith tradition. He was facing challenges in life and didn’t know which way to go. He asked me what he thought he should do.

“Have you tried praying about it?” I asked. We ran in silence for a few moments, and then he replied, “I don’t believe in God anymore. After taking science classes at the university, I lost my faith.”

My friend’s experience raises important questions. Are faith and science opposed? Does religion contradict reason? Is the Church against science?

Science itself does not demonstrate that fundamental Catholic beliefs are wrong. No one cuts open a frog in biology and finds the message, “God does not exist” written on the liver. The mixing of chemicals in beaker heated up by the Bunsen burner does not yield the chemical equation “Faith is a fantasy.” No experiment in physics shows that miracles are impossible.

What is scientism?

So, what is behind the claim that the Church is opposed to science? In some cases, it is the philosophical claim known as scientism. Scientism is the view that science and science alone provides the truth. According to scientism, we should believe statements only if we have empirical evidence to support those statements.

But science alone does not prove that God exists. There is no empirical evidence that we could send to the lab that establishes that Jesus is God’s Son. So, if we accept scientism, we cannot consistently also accept the fundamental claims of Christianity.

But should we accept scientism? Is it true that science and science alone provides the truth? Scientism goes beyond the uncontroversial view that science provides many truths to make the bold claim that science alone provides truth.

We can ask, what scientific evidence is there that science alone provides the truth? Can we find this truth in chemistry? In physics? In biology? What scientific experiment proves that science alone provides the truth? What is the empirical evidence that shows that we should only believe claims backed by empirical evidence?

It turns out that science does not show that science alone provides the truth. There is no empirical evidence to support the claim that we should only believe claims supported by empirical evidence. Given this lack of scientific proof, scientism is a self-refuting view. Scientism cannot be true because scientism undermines itself. It is not just Catholic faith but philosophical consistency that calls for the rejection of scientism.

Catholic scientists galore

Obviously, the Church and every reasonable person oppose scientism. But does the Church oppose science? If we take a scientific approach to this question, we should answer this question by looking at the evidence.

If the Catholic Church opposed science, you’d expect to find few, if any, Catholic scientists. But, in fact, there are innumerable Catholic scientists among the most distinguished in their fields (see below). From the very beginning of modern science in the seventeenth century through to today, these distinguished researchers demonstrate that there is no contradiction whatsoever in being a believing Catholic and being a practicing scientist.

Now, perhaps a skeptic could explain away these scientists by saying, “Well, yes, some individual Catholics went against the institutional Church and did end up becoming distinguished scientists. But the Church as an institution is opposed to science despite the existence of these scientists. These individuals acted as rebels against the institutional Church.”

One trouble with this view is that many of these scientists were Catholic priests. As priests with vows of obedience, they could hardly have dedicated themselves to their scientific endeavors without the support of Church authorities who could have at any time ordered them to stop engaging in scientific experiments. Indeed, it may come as a surprise how many priest-scientists made significant scientific discoveries. Bishop Robert Barron asks:

Do you know about Fr. Giovanni Battista Riccioli, a seventeenth-century Jesuit astronomer and the first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a free-falling body? Do you know about Fr. George Searle, a Paulist priest of the early twentieth century who discovered six galaxies? Do you know about Fr. Benedetto Castelli, a Benedictine monk and scientist of the sixteenth century, who was a very good friend and supporter of Galileo? Do you know about Fr. Francesco Grimaldi, a Jesuit priest who discovered the diffraction of light? Do you know about Fr. George Coyne, a contemporary Jesuit priest and astrophysicist, who for many years ran the Vatican Observatory outside of Tucson, Arizona? Perhaps you know about Fr. Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian monk who virtually invented modern genetics; and about Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, a twentieth century Jesuit priest who wrote extensively on paleontology; and about Fr. Georges Lemaître, the formulator of the Big Bang theory of cosmic origins.

Religious pursuit of science

The men Bishop Barron mentions are just a few on the long list of priest-scientists. These priests did their scientific work not in opposition to the institutional Church but with the express support of their bishops or religious superiors. In fact, not just Church authorities but even church buildings supported scientific investigation. As Thomas Woods notes:

Cathedrals in Bologna, Florence, Paris, and Rome were designed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to function as world-class solar observatories. Nowhere in the world were there more precise instruments for the study of the sun. Each such cathedral contained holes through which sunlight could enter and time lines (or meridian lines) on the floor. It was by observing the path traced out by the sunlight on these lines that researchers could obtain accurate measurements of time and predict equinoxes (How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, 112).

This support for science continues today at Catholic universities throughout the world. Science is not “off limits” at such universities. On the contrary, all undergraduate students are required to take courses in science. The Catholic University of America and the University of Notre Dame, for example, have distinguished departments of physics, biology, and chemistry the equal of rival departments in secular universities. The Vatican Observatory fosters cosmological discoveries. The Pontifical Academy for Science promotes the collaboration of scientists of all faiths and none during their meetings in Vatican City.

People open to the evidence have come to the conclusion reached by the agnostic scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who recognizes the distinctive contributions of the Catholic Church in the history and contemporary practice of science (see the YouTube video “The Mystery That Keeps Neil deGrasse Tyson Up At Night”).

Given this abundant evidence, an honest critic might concede that there have been many great Catholic scientists, and the Church as an institution supports scientific research. Nevertheless, a critic could continue, faith and science are radically different. The Church is based on faith. Science is based on the opposite of faith, on reason. So, the Church must be against science.

But this objection presupposes something false: that faith and reason are opposed to each other. By contrast, the Church views faith and reason as complementary, two ways that human beings come to deeper knowledge of the truth. Indeed, it is an explicit part of Catholic teaching that faith and science are not opposed but rather are complementary. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth. Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are (159).

The evidence from the beginning of modern science through today suggests that the Catholic Church supports, rather than opposes, science.

Genesis versus Darwin?

But let us also consider what some people see as evidence on the other side, specifically, the Genesis story of creation. On this view, faith and reason are opposed, because the Genesis story and Darwinian evolution are opposed.

The biblical story of creation accounts for the origin of all life, including human beings, taking place in just seven days. Darwinian evolution indicates that all life, including human life, gradually evolved over millions of years. Both of these accounts cannot be true. So, a person devoted to science should give up faith in the biblical creation account of Genesis. Doesn’t the contradiction between the creation story and Darwinian evolution show that faith and reason are irreconcilable?

In the Catholic tradition, the creation story of Genesis has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Some Catholics, such as St. Ambrose, did interpret Genesis in a literalistic way as meaning by “day” a 24-hour period of time. But most Catholics reading the Genesis story such as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict, and Pope Francis have not interpreted the creation story in this simplistic way. As St. John Paul II put it:

The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer (“Cosmology and Fundamental Physics,” address to the Pontifical Academy of Science, Oct. 3, 1981).

Taking into account the genre and context of any work is essential for understanding it properly. Indeed, the meaning of a word is determined in part by its context. The word gift means “a present” in English, but the same word spelled the same way in German means “poison.” The meaning of a sentence is also determined in part by its context. “I saw him murder her with my own two eyes” has legal significance when said to judge and jury from a witness box in capital murder case. “I saw him murder her with my own two eyes” has another significance when uttered on stage by one actor to another in a play.

If we want to know what the author of Genesis was intending to communicate to his original audience, we must know something about the original context and genre of Genesis. If we ignore genre and context, we will almost certainly misunderstand what the text means.

It is absolutely clear that the original context and genre of Genesis is not a critique of Darwinian evolution. Interpreting Genesis as an implausible story against evolution is like interpreting Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as an implausible account of an NBA finals game. The text of Genesis was written thousands of years before Darwin wrote The Origin of Species. The original context of Genesis was not scientific debates at all, since the scientific method had not yet been invented.

So, what is the original context?

Making order out of chaos

The writer of Genesis is responding to rival pagan stories of creation. In these stories, multiple gods fight a war from which arises a chaotic universe composed of divine sun, moon, and stars. The author of Genesis contradicts these stories by teaching that just one God created an ordered universe through rational speech (reason) rather than through violence. Genesis teaches that the sun, moon, and stars are not divine beings, but rather created entities.

Science is able to begin millennia later on the basis of these suppositions. The cosmos is orderly, and so it makes sense to investigate it. If the cosmos is not divine, it is appropriate not to worship it but to investigate it. Genesis is not science, but its account of the universe as orderly and non-divine lays the groundwork for the emergence of science.

And what about the seven days of creation? As Scott Hahn has pointed out, the word seven in the text of Genesis also means to make a covenant. If Hahn’s interpretation is right, the seven days of creation are not about seven twenty-four-hour periods but rather about God’s care for creation. In any case, we radically misread Genesis if try take it to be a scientific treatise in opposition to evolution.

So, can a faithful Catholic believe in evolution? Catholics are not required to believe in evolution or any other view taught by scientists. Faithful Catholics may also interpret Genesis in a variety of ways. But accepting evolution and being a faithful Catholic are not incompatible, as the examples of St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis make evident.

Critics who think that there is a contradiction between Darwinian evolution and Genesis may be correct if they are talking about Genesis as interpreted by some fundamentalist Protestant Christians. But they are mistaken if they are talking about the views of Catholics like Augustine, Aquinas, or John Henry Newman.

In the view of these thinkers, faith and reason, science and Christian belief, are not in opposition. Rather, they operate harmoniously together. The Church is not, and never has been, the enemy of science.

Sidebar: What? Catholic Scientists?

  • Nicolas Copernicus, a Catholic cleric, discovered that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of our solar system.
  • Blaise Pascal created the first adding machine and pioneered mathematical probability theory.
  • Augustinian priest Gregor Mendel founded the modern study of genetics.
  • Louis Pasteur pioneered vaccinations to fight disease as well as the pasteurization to preserve milk.
  • Alexander Flemming discovered penicillin.
  • Using the equations of Albert Einstein, priest and physicist Georges Lemaître proposed the “big bang” model of an expanding universe with a beginning.
  • Catholic scientists continue to contribute to the expansion of knowledge in the twenty-first century, with Gerhard Ertl and Brian Kent Kobilka winning Nobel Prizes for their scientific achievements.

In the words of Martin Nowak, professor of biology and mathematics at Harvard University, “Science and religion are two essential components in the search for truth. Denying either is a barren approach.”

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