Has the Church Missed the Import of Science?

John Farrell FAITH Magazine July-August 2008 s

John Farrell tabulates a worryingly weak strain of the contemporary Catholic Church. The apparent devaluation of science by Catholicism may have had significant consequences. Mr Farrell is the author of The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaître, Einstein and the Birth of Modern Cosmology, published by Thunder’s Mouth Press. He lives with his family in Newton, Massachusetts.

“… the concern is that the Church is ignoring the power of the ever more startling evidence of the workings of the natural order … to inspire more persuasive arguments -not only to reinforce and defend classical philosophy and Church theology - but to prompt careful re-examination of them …”

In the opening paragraph of his famous Regensburg address on the relationship of Faith and reason, Pope Benedict fondly reminisced about his days “at the old university” where “we would meet before and after lessons in the rooms of the teaching staff. There was a lively exchange with historians, philosophers, philologists and, naturally, between the two theological faculties.”

Notably absent from these discussions, apparently, were scientists of any stripe. This is not to take the Pope to task –but rather to point out how there seemed nothing odd about overlooking science in the philosophical discussions in the first place. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that his references to science qua science in the Regensburg address were mainly negative, which might suggest that science represents an outpost of positivist skepticism.

And this raises the question whether the Church is neglecting science?

The question may seem startling at first glance. Virtually alone among religions, the Catholic Church maintains a prestigious Academy of Sciences under the auspices of the Pope. Every year Rome sponsors conferences on controversial subjects dealing with science and how it affects humanity. All of the major Catholic universities teach the sciences and confer PhDs in biology, physics, astronomy, etc. The Vatican has its own observatory. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has sponsored a programme precisely to keep abreast of scientific issues that affect society. One could go on.

Catholics and Scientific Expertise

And yet, for all of this activity at the surface level … there seems to be something missing down deep. Very few of the Catholic universities (with the exceptions of Notre Dame and Georgetown) are considered on the vanguard of any cutting edge research by leaders in the field, whether in biology, physics or astronomy. And for those whose science departments do specialise in research, they, like their secular counterparts, apply to the government for grants to fund their studies. (Not that Rome should necessarily be in the business of funding science. On the other hand, why not?) Rome seems more and more disconnected from the progress of science qua science, and to view it increasingly as an outsider.

Many of the scientists who come every year to Rome to take part in the conferences of the Pontifical Academy these days are themselves neither Catholic nor the product of Catholic institutions. And while Stephen Barr showed in his admirable historical list of key discoveries made by priest-scientists over the centuries (featured recently on First Things’ weblog and in his excellent book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith) , there have been no priest-scientists of major distinction since the death of Georges Lemaître in 1966.

The Church has not neglected in the past to give the world of science its share of geniuses – and is not hesitant to point this out. At the outset of the expansion of modern science, two priests in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were key contributors to our understanding of genetics and cosmology. However, we have not seen another Gregor Mendel in well over 125 years, nor another George Lemaître in the last half century and more. With few exceptions, we have not seen men of the cloth actively applying the scientific method and revealing new laws of nature that add to our appreciation of the created world. It’s almost as though, with the rise of more secular geniuses, such as Darwin, Einstein, Dirac and Feynman, the Church has become discouraged and dropped out of the race, as itwere, content to stand on the sidelines and absorb what it can from purely superficial accounts. Given the Church’s crucial role in the foundation of the University system and the birth of natural philosophy in the high Middle Ages this seems tragic.

It is difficult to get hard data on the present generation of US bishops, but it’s likely that the percentage with any formal training, either at the undergraduate or graduate level, in science, is small. What percentage of bishops have any training in science? What percentage of priests for that matter? What percentage have a completed undergraduate degree in a science? These are not trivial questions, as I hope to make clear – especially when you compare the clergy to the percentage of the general population of Catholics who are trained in the sciences (including medicine). There is a knowledge imbalance.

A look at the curricula of several US seminaries shows no requirement for even a survey course on any one of the sciences. Theology, philosophy, theosophy, canon law, are all part of the regular regimen of the training of priests – as well they should be – but not science. When science affects so many aspects of life throughout society, from the stages of life before birth to the stages of life at its very end, from the fragile balance of the global climate to the technology of modern communications, the conduct of wars, the very place of the earth in the cosmos, one can only wonder why.

Admittedly, part of the reason for this, as Ohio University Professor of Philosophy Scott Carson suggested to me, may be due to the way that humanities majors are structured in universities today. Not just priests in training, but most college students, in fact, can ‘get away’ with few if any science requirements in order to get an undergraduate degree. The pity of this is, they miss being exposed in a
more rigorous fashion to exactly how scientists go about their daily work.

Papal Teaching

There have been close to 400 Papal Encyclicals issued since the death of Galileo in 1642. Very few explicitly deal with a scientific question. Humani Generis by Pope Pius XII is a recent exception, but in that letter, a scientific theory was touched on only peripherally: that is, as the theory of evolution applied to the larger question of reason and its ability to reveal the existence of a personal God and the spiritual soul. Of course, there were signs of earlier enthusiasm for science. Pope Leo’s excitement was not lost on John Henry Cardinal Newman, whom Leo raised to the cardinalate on April 27, 1879. According to historian Friedrich Gontard in his The Chair of Peter:

“Newman said that he was living in a curious period. He himself had not the slightest doubt that the Catholic Church and her teaching stemmed directly from God. But he also saw quite clearly that in certain circles a spiritual narrowness predominated that was not of God. To this the new pope, Leo XIII replied: ‘Away from narrowness!’ He spoke of Galileo as of a man ‘to whom experimental philosophy owes its most powerful impulses’. For this pope, the natural sciences – the Italian Volta, the Swede Linnaeus, the Englishman Faraday – ‘reached as high a degree of nobility and brilliance as we ever see in man’. He was as excited over the railway and other means of communication as if they were miracles. He praised technology or rather man and its creator. ‘What power he displays when throughhis discoveries he releases this energy, captures it again and so directs it along the paths he has prepared for it as to give inanimate material movement and something akin to intelligence. Finally, he puts it in the place of man and relieves him of his hardest labour …and the Church, this most loving of mothers, seeing all this happen, has no intention of hindering it but rather is glad to see it and rejoices over it.’” (pp. 518-519)

It is hard to notice the same enthusiasm among Leo’s successors of the past century – or indeed even an awareness that the the implications of the phenomenal rise of science might be passing the Church by.

The only highly publicised letter we have from a recent Pope on a scientific subject is Pope John Paul’s letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 on the subject of evolution. And while the letter is admirable in its clarity (Sean Carroll singles it out in his recent book, The Making of the Fittest) , it has been open to misunderstanding even amongst the bishops. In his attack on evolutionism in July of 2005, Cardinal Schönborn dismissed it as “vague” before, in First Things, thinking better of his assessment. John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio devotes a few paragraphs to the importance of science in general terms, but devotes more pages to warning of the dangers of scientism, the negative aspects of extreme positivism.

Other Contemporary Catholic Contributions

The Catholic disconnection with modern science seemed most acute during the Dover Trial in the U.S. and its aftermath. The uneasiness with which Cardinal Schönborn in his famous New York Timesop-ed, for example, addressed the scientific aspects of Darwinian evolution; the surprising hostility of many Catholics to the theory as found in countless articles, blog entries, etc., seem to suggest that the Catholic Church and science are not as compatible as we are often assured. Catholic scientists are puzzled now by sudden calls to ‘rescue Darwin from Darwinism’ and are no longer sure what their own Church believes about the theory.

Recent debates in the pages of First Thingsand other conservative journals over Darwin’s theory of evolution and creationism reveal the degree to which Catholics seem stuck in the trees for want of seeing the forest, the lopsided degree to which the Church gives assent to philosophy without deeply exploring the particular science it considers a threat, (this journal, it goes without saying, excepted). Both Cardinal Schönborn and Cardinal Dulles, for example, have suggested in recent essays that science ignores formality, but Stephen Barr, in First Things’ January ‘08 letters, has shown that this is not the case, with examples from physics and biology that, for better or for worse, hard-nosed atheists like Richard Dawkins would agree with. While it’s true that manyscientists have no use for ultimate Final Causality in science, it does not follow that they dismiss the importance of formal and final causes in the study of species and their evolution.

To be sure, overcoming the atheism and materialism which many scientists seem to think is demanded by Darwin’s theory is, of course, very important. But the falsity of this is now fairly widely accepted, and repeatedly pointing it out does not progress the argument. The late William F. Buckley’s recent article in National Reviewi s an example of this. Too often attacks on evolution lack understanding of the basic science as it is understood by working biologists and paleontologists, and this undercuts the point and undercuts the respect that scientists would otherwise be disposed to give to theologians and commentators when they publicly fret about the philosophies that may lurk behind the methodology of modern science.

Catholic commentators too easily posit a great divide between academic scientific interpretation and the immediate faith and salvation of any individual. Father Martin Hilbert of the Toronto Oratory made this quip in a June 2006 article for Touchstone magazine:

“It makes no obvious difference to our salvation whether the geometry of our universe is Euclidian, whether quantum mechanics is the last word in atomic physics, or whether the Big Bang is the correct model for the development of the universe. These theories witness to the power of the human intellect, but few would claim that they bear on questions of faith and morals.”

But should we be so quick to dismiss the question of how the world works and what it means for the greatness of God’s creation as it is praised in the words of the Psalmist, the Prophets and Saint Paul? Is it not a scandal how few of the clergy and professors of theology decide to devote their lives directly to the study of the natural order – as more of them did in centuries past to the world’s everlasting benefit? And worse, how few understand enough science not to feel an immediate defensiveness, wariness and hostility whenever the work of scientists reaches the front pages of the newspapers? Furthermore, how much of the recent scandal would the Church have avoided had bishops and priests in positions of authority in the 70’s and 80’s been better educated about psychology?

Contrary to Father Hilbert’s generalisation, on closer inspection, apprehension of the laws of nature does more than simply bear ‘witness to the power of the human intellect’. It underlines the degree to which the universe is subject to rational, dependable laws: laws that can be tested, laws that can be depended upon, processes that can be tested, and processes that can be depended upon. Further, the foundational role that physics plays for metaphysics is, in the final analysis, what allows theologians coherently to defend questions of faith and morals.

Knowledge of the natural order – like the precedents in Canon Law – is cumulative. And it builds among scientists of every persuasion and none a great regard for the natural world and its laws. (How else to explain the appalled reaction even atheistic scientists had to the ridiculous propositions of the deconstructionists and post-modernists, so brilliantly exposed by Alan Sokal’s hoax paper on a post-modern interpretation of Quantum gravity over a decade ago?) For Christians, science reinforces faith in the stability and the rationality of the natural order. Even that term, natural order, more common in the days of the medieval university system, reveals the proper appreciation of science that seems so scarce among the clergy and laity today.

The Need To Develop

It remains strange that so many of the Church’s leaders seem incurious to the opportunity of science for the Faith, as the potential impact of science on society (for good and ill) becomes ever more important with each passing year.

While the question of the Church’s indifference sounds provocative, it emerges from a concern that the Church on the whole is ignoring the great strides being made in modern science, over the past 50 years in particular, and the opportunity it affords – for modern science to inspire theology. Not with new ideas, I hasten to add, or very old ideas dressed up in new jargon (of which the Church over the centuries has seen quite enough). Rather the concern is that the Church is ignoring the power of the ever more startling evidence of the workings of the natural order, as only the scientific methodology can reveal them, to inspire more persuasive arguments –not only to reinforce and defend classical philosophy and Church theology – but to prompt careful re-examination of them.

It is important to clarify: I am not suggesting a new approach to concordism, the hapless temptation to defend a literal interpretation of Scripture, for example, by distorting the latest hot topics in relativistic physics or geology. Father Stanley Jaki has written a superb history (Bible and Science) of the many Christians over the centuries who have fallen into that trap.

What I mean is something at once more basic and more ambitious: Exploring science for more detailed empirical reasons to reinforce the Faith.

St. Thomas Aquinas was attuned to what Aristotle had accumulated about the physics and biology of the natural world as it was known in his era. Aristotle was new and controversial in the world of 13th century Christendom, having come to Europe via translation from the Muslim world. But Thomas ingested Aristotle – one might almost say, he swallowed him whole and imported everything that was useful, not just of his metaphysics, but of his physics and biology, into his work. His commentary on the Physics of Aristotle alone, In Aristotelis Physicorum, would have assured his place among the greats of Christian philosophers. But he went much further, arguing that Christian philosophy, like that of Aristotle, should be empirical: it should proceed from what can be grasped by the senses– and not, as the Augustinian tradition held, by what can be grasped purely by the Mind. This did not sit well with many of his fellow theologians at the time (including St. Bonaventure and the Archbishop of Paris), and indeed Thomas’s work was condemned for a brief period after his death.

It hardly needs pointing out that St. Thomas is not what most students of philosophy decide to concentrate on when they enter the subject these days. And Aquinas has been dead for over 730 years. During the centuries since the discoveries of Galileo, philosophies of modern science, for better or worse, have replaced the scholastic natural philosophy which was already in decline when he was born. And, with the exception of the brief Copernican hiccup, the Church has not disputed the truth of any of the great scientific revolutions since then (in spite of the recent confusing signals about evolution). But neither, it seems, has it shown any deep interest in them. As Barr’s list shows, there were at first quite a few outstanding cleric-scientists at the start of the scientific revolution.But their numbers have dwindled as Rome has shown less and less interest in encouraging the study of the natural order by the clergy.

Instead, the Church too often seems to front a position of defensiveness regarding science, a defensiveness that is not lost on the younger generation of Catholics pursuing careers in biology, physics and chemistry, to say nothing of medicine.

The Need To Rethink

Should not the Church, then, reconsider its current, passive relationship to science quascience? Meaning, should it not more directly engage once again in the study of natural philosophy?

One of the 20th century’s greatest historians of Christian philosophy long ago suggested that it is time that the Church consider an ambitious approach to the challenge of modern science. In his 1960 book, The Philosopher and Theology, Etienne Gilson recommended the Church encourage no less than the training of theologian-scientists:

 “…the future of Christian philosophy will therefore depend on the existence or absence of theologians equipped with scientific training, no doubt limited but genuine and, within its own limits, sufficient for them to follow with understanding such lofty dialogues not only in mathematics and physics but also in biology and wherever the knowledge of nature reaches the level of demonstration.”

In his encyclical letter on the importance of St. Thomas’ work, Pope Leo also alluded to the Church’s need to maintain a deep study of science: “When the Scholastics, following the teaching of the Holy Fathers, everywhere taught throughout their anthropology that the human understanding can only rise to the knowledge of immaterial things by things of sense, nothing could be more useful for the philosopher than to investigate carefully the secrets of Nature, and to be conversant, long and laboriously, with the study of physical science.”

A Proposal

It seems the time has come – and if not now, when? – for the Church to establish an order specifically dedicated to training theologians as scientists – or taking scientists and turning them into first-class theologians, so that they can more closely delve into the modern science of the natural order and its continued importance for Christian theology. A Church with philosophers of firsthand experience in the study of the natural order, would go a long way to helping her regain for the West what Pope Benedict rightly praised in his Regensburg address, that dedication to the importance of reason in its service to Faith.

My favourite example is Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, a neuroscientist, who is currently the director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center. He was in the lab full-time while he was taking night courses in theology and preparing to enter the seminary. The church needs more priests like him, some for example who could head a new faculty dedicated to training scientists in theology and also overseeing the recruitment and scientific training of seminarians and clergy who have the aptitude and the wish to become experts in branches of science.

Does this sound unrealistic? The Belgian Cardinal Mercier, who died in 1926, would not have thought so, I think. Cardinal Mercier not only began the revival of the study of St. Thomas in the late 19th century, with the gratitude and encouragement of Leo XIII, but it was he who noticed the mathematical precocity of a young seminarian, and fellow Belgian, whom he encouraged to study the then revolutionary new branch of physics developed by Albert Einstein. Georges Lemaître not only quickly mastered Einstein’s physics, he took it to the next level by convincing Einstein and his generation that the universe itself was dynamic. In doing so, he laid the foundations of modern cosmology that still guide research to this day. The metaphysical implications of this insight have still to be workedout.

Pope John Paul II liked to repeat Cardinal Newman’s adage that truth cannot contradict truth. The Church should not only not fear the truth of the natural order, it should take the lead in studying it, in championing it. For there is nothing to fear in the workings of the natural order and a lot to be gained from deepening our interpretation of it. If this can be grasped by those who have no faith, why can it not be grasped by those who claim they do?

Faith Magazine

July - August 2008