The Catholic Church and Science by Fr. Benjamin Bradshaw

As one of the primary arguments against Christianity and “organized religion” (which is usually code for the Catholic Church), a number of avowed atheists contend that the “Church hates science,” often proposing Darwinian Theory as a maligned truth which has been systematically silenced by Catholicism. If this is then ineffective, thereafter the trump card of the Galileo trial is sure to follow. The redundancy of this argument is no less pronounced today than that of Karl Marx’s assertion of the 19th century that “religion is the opium of the people” (A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right). The truth is that the Catholic Church has long taught that there is a fundamental difference between the atheistic theories of Charles Darwin and an acceptable theistic understanding of evolution.

Darwin advocated a humanistic notion of evolution that amputated God and which asserted a “survival of the fittest” framework of anthropology and nature, likewise, his theories inspired much of the despotic logic of National Socialism in the 20th century. Juxtaposed to this argument, as Popes Pius XII, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have noted, Catholics are not at all forbidden from believing in a theistic understanding of evolution so long as we recall that God is indeed the source of creation, that he made man in his image and likeness, and that the human soul did not “evolve” from physical matter (Pius XII – Humani Generis #36, John Paul II’s Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 22, 1996. General Audience Address, July 10, 1985).

That the Catholic Church has championed the value of science and reason is both a historical and theological fact that even some of the most hardened critics of the Church have attested to, though they frequently argue its notion of academic freedom is imperialistic. In response to this critique, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have enthusiastically supported the legitimate academic freedom of science and medicine in the university for many years, though they point out, this freedom should always respect human life in all of its stages and Catholic universities should actually uphold Catholic doctrine (sentire cum ecclesia); thereby rejecting moral relativism and scientific utilitarianism (ex Corde Ecclesia, Sapientia Christiana).

I am sometimes asked how some young men and women can enter college at a Catholic University and leave four years later as a non-practicing agnostic, or for all intents and purposes, a practical atheist? Much of the answer lies in the orthodoxy of the professors, the Catholic identity of the institution, and certainly the prayer life of the campus. Is the institution Catholic in name only, or have they taken it upon themselves to uphold the right of young people and students to receive the “product” they actually pay for, namely moral truth in addition to their chosen field of study? As George Weigel as noted, considering the amount of money paid for a basic Catholic college education nowadays, this is also just a matter of basic consumer protection (God’s Choice. Harper-Collins. 2005).

The truth of science and the truth of the faith complement each other perfectly and, contrary to popular belief, are in no way at odds.
Although an extraordinary service to mankind, science has become a type of religion for many (scientism/rationalism). This “religion” may preoccupy one for a lifetime, it may financially support him/her, and even gain one public notoriety; however, it can ultimately never satiate man completely. He will always bear St. Augustine’s “restless” heart within him, perpetually wondering: “What else is there?” “Why am I not completely fulfilled?”

Unfortunately, there have been more than a few Christians throughout the centuries that have perpetuated the myth of anti-science attitudes among the faith, many of whom blatantly deny the advances of science and wholesome medicine (fideism). For her part, the Catholic Church upholds the authentic benefit of science and medicine and has an entire Pontifical Council devoted to the pastoral Care of health care workers and their patients (Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers). Likewise, in 1603, the Holy See founded the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which has since sought to promote science, astronomy, medicine, and sound academic scholarship. It is similarly worth noting that some of the most eminent scientists in human history were in fact Christian: Gregor Mendel, Louis Pasteur, Blaise Pascal, Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Keplar, and Msgr. George Lemaître, who is credited with conceiving of the Big Bang theory. Lemaitre himself was the president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences for six years (1960-1966), was an acquaintance and colleague of Albert Einstein, and worked closely with several popes.

Nobel Laureate and Christian, Werner Heisenberg, once described the danger of intellectual pride that can frequently afflict those who work in science, medicine, and academia: “The first swallow from the cup of the natural sciences makes atheists, but at the bottom of the cup God is waiting.” Commenting on this phenomenon, Pope Benedict XVI has said that without a sense of humility one can be “intoxicated by individual discoveries” and can ultimately forget about God “who is at the origin of all things” (Light of the World. Ignatius. 2010. 168). Blessed John Paul II, drawing on the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), repeatedly reiterated the vitality of faith and reason working together, noting in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio/Faith and Reason, that “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

It is altogether puzzling then how some authors and journalists such as Dan Brown can allege that the Church has historically bullied science, considering that few institutions have done more to defend and financially support its legitimate autonomy throughout the centuries. As historian Thomas E. Woods Jr. has noted, Western civilization as a whole is deeply indebted to Catholicism, especially as it pertains to education, science, astronomy, agronomy, linguistics, mathematics, agriculture, logic, rhetoric, music, architecture, and the arts (How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Regnery. 2005). The fact that the liberal arts curriculum in the West traces much of its origins back to Alcuin of York and the Carolingian renaissance of the 9th century Church is often completely disregarded, as is the fact that it was the Benedictine monks after the fall of the Roman Empire who almost single-handedly preserved valued manuscripts and learning during a time of societal chaos. As Woods observes, it is striking how these facts of Catholicism are often patently absent from most high-school and university text books.

The last decade has seen a flurry of prominent scientists adopt Christianity as being logically harmonious with science and reason. Perhaps most prominent among them is geneticist Dr. Francis Collins, current director of the National Institutes of Health and former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, which is credited with mapping the human genome. Though a former atheist, Collins began to see the finger-prints of God evident in the beauty of the created world, as he notes in his book The Language of God (Free Press, 2006). The design and splendor of the universe and the human body helped lead Collins to the source of this beauty, namely God. Back in the 13th century both St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure argued that on can come to know that God exists by reason alone by simply following order of creation (CCC#50). In his book, Collins argues for a theistic notion of evolution, which as stated prior, is doctrinally acceptable, though certainly not mandatory, for Catholics to believe. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Dr. Collins as a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

In his recent address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope Benedict XVI noted that science and faith must work together in addressing the “quest for a comprehensive vision of this universe in which human beings, endowed with intelligence and freedom, are called to understand, love, live and work” (November 9, 2012). As Hans Urs Von Balthasar often proposed, both fides et ratio point us towards the Beauty that is God, and this beauty then reveals something about the beauty of man as well. Just as the beauty of art points us to the artist, the music points us to the musician, the architecture points us to the architect, so too does the order and splendor of creation point us to the Creator and Author of life. Beauty points us to the source of all beauty, which can then become a source of authentic prayer for each of us. When, however, we amputate God from this beauty, we inevitably make “gods” out of ourselves, buying into the lie of Satan in the garden: “Your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods…” (Gn 3:5). Pope Leo XIII frequently argued that “Truth cannot contradict truth,” thus the authentic truth of science and reason cannot contradict the authentic truth of faith. Truly, they are “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”


About thereserita

Happy Catholic seeking to share that happiness with others.
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1 Response to The Catholic Church and Science by Fr. Benjamin Bradshaw

  1. Pingback: Rationality demands that we believed in God | The Bread of Life Blog

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