The (Imaginary) Conflict Between the Church and the Scientists

If you ever find yourself in the mood for stirring up some controversy when hanging out with some of your non-believing friends, I would suggest that you bring up the topic of the Catholic Church and science. You can begin by saying something along the lines of, “I love how the Catholic faith has always gone hand in hand with science,” or, “It’s interesting to see all these scientists who were and are devout Catholics,” and then sit back and enjoy your friends’ reactions. Once the chaos that will inevitably follow has subsided (this chaos includes the rending of garments and the pulling of beards accompanied with wailing and grinding of teeth, all very biblical expressions of grief and despair), and after all have desperately cried out in unison the name of Galileo, you can add, “Yes, it is precisely Galileo’s case which proves that the Church has no problem with science.”  Expect some confused and startled looks after that. Do not let this worry you because now, at last, you have their full attention.

How can I uphold this laughable claim without looking like a fool? Moreso, how can I say this without making the Church look stupid (which is much more important than me looking like a fool)? Very simple. Ask your friends about actual instances in which the Catholic Church has had serious conflicts with a scientist. I bet the vast majority of people you know can only come up with Galileo’s case. Maybe someone will mention the whole creationism versus evolution debate, but you should be quick to point out that that has never been a problem for Catholics. The Popes were swift to settle that dispute for us long ago: Pius XII in 1950 with his encyclical Humani Generis, and John Paul II in 1996 with his speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Someone might have picked up the blatant lie that Pope John XXI (who was a great supporter of the sciences and a scientist himself) attempted to condemn the idea that there are laws governing the natural order of the universe from Stephen Hawking’s last book The Grand Design,. Besides this being untrue, the Condemnation of 1277, also known as the Articles of Paris, which was meant to condemn a series of heretical philosophical and theological theses being taught at the University of Paris, did not represent an obstacle to scientific learning. Rather, it allowed scientists to break free from the false theories of Aristotelian physics, and, according to some, paved the way for modern science. Mr. Hawking, of course, conveniently left that out of his book. Anyway, I believe it would be very rare for anyone to bring up this particular incident.

What matters is, even if the whole Galileo trial was as bad as people try to portray it to have been, which it was not (those silly Catholics, instead of destroying all evidence about the trial, they put it on display and even on sale!), it is the only instance in which we can, with some seriousness, maintain that the Church condemned someone for his scientific views. My point is this: a single case in two thousand years of history seems to prove not that the Church is anti-scientific, but that it has, in general, had a pretty good relationship with science. Galileo’s case seems to be more of an exception (a pretty bad exception, but an exception nonetheless) than a rule, and it is, I would argue, the exception that proves the rule. Galileo’s trial was a mistake, if only because it was something out of the norm; something that, ordinarily, would not have happened. If the Church were truly anti-scientific, if it sought to persecute scientists for their views, Galileo’s trial would not have been exceptional; it simply would have been one more among many. But it turns out that it was exceptional in that nothing like it had occurred before, nor has it occurred after.

In any case, if we still hold on to the idea that the Church is against science because of Galileo, we might as well begin to believe that the Church is against theology, given that it has condemned, censored, and silenced not one but many, many theologians, and it continues to do so. We would also have to say that the Catholic Church is anti-Catholic because it has told and continues to tell many Catholics that they are wrong and need to change their beliefs. All of this is clearly ridiculous.

The truth of the matter is that the Church has been pretty consistent in respecting the discoveries of science. In doing this, it has simply followed St. Augustine’s advice: “Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars[…]. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics[…]. Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Book I, Chapter 19).

Furthermore, the hypothesis of the Church’s rejection of science does not withstand the evidence, and is science not all about evidence? If this hypothesis were true, how could we explain that the father of modern geology, Blessed Nicholas Steno, was a cardinal and is a soon-to-be saint of (you guessed it) the Catholic Church? What ought we make of the fact that the founder of the science of genetics was (surprise, surprise!) an Augustinian friar? Or that the first person to propose the Big Bang theory was (oh, the humanity!) a Catholic priest? This non-exhaustive list only includes a few Catholic clergymen (there are plenty of laymen I could add to the list) who were not only involved with, but also made a profound impact on, the sciences. If the Church were opposed to science, then why are so many of its sons and daughters good scientists while remaining good Catholics?

There is nothing that can actually be proven by science that is in opposition to the Catholic faith, because truth cannot contradict truth. Therefore, there is nothing the Church needs to fear from some good and honest science. What she does fear, and what she has to protect herself and her children from, are those scientists who think themselves bearers of absolute Truth, even when their theories are only speculation. Galileo proved the theologians wrong (he did not prove “the Church” wrong) because he knew Catholic doctrine, and he knew that the doctrine they were using to judge him was not good (they were ignoring Augustine and all the Christian tradition). One might say that Galileo was right not so much because he was a scientist but, first and foremost, because he was a Catholic who knew his Catholic faith.

Perhaps all this will not be enough to keep your friends from rending their garments and pulling their beards, and perhaps it will only encourage them to do so with renewed vigor. It is their loss (of clothes and facial hair). Worry not, for, hopefully, hidden behind their external and exaggerated reaction, a first spark of actual independent thought has been ignited. It is also good, and highly recommended, that you entrust them to the prayers and intercession of the host of saints in heaven who, during their time on earth, were not only great scientists, but also good and faithful Catholics. May we all come to rest in the Truth in which they now rejoice, the Truth which is the summit and goal of all true science.

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