The Church's Support of Science

Peter Hodgson FAITH Magazine July-August 2008 s

"The evidence for the Catholic Church’s support of science might be put in three categories. Firstly the historical development of modern science, secondly the work of the scientists themselves and finally the actions of the Church authorities.

1. As described in my article on The Judeo-Christian Origin of Science’[1], science is based on specific fundamental beliefs about the natural world, namely that matter is good, rational and contingent and open to the human mind, and that any discoveries that may be made should be shared freely. These are all Judeo-Christian beliefs found in the Old and New Testaments and in the Councils of the Church. It is thus no surprise that modern science came into being during the High Middle Ages, when for the first time in history there was a society permeated with Christian beliefs. Thus modern science is built on Christian foundations, and this explains why there was no science as we know it in any of the ancient civilisations ofantiquity.

2. Since the Middle Ages, thousands of scientists have extended our knowledge of the natural world. The scientists in the Middle Ages, such as Grosseteste, Buridan, Oresme (a bishop) were Catholic, as were Copernicus (a canon) and Galileo; Newton and Kepler were Christians. This continued during the following centuries, Volta and Ampere (after whom the units of electricity are named) were Christians, as were the pioneers of optics Foucault, Fizeau and Fraunhofer and the mathematicians Cauchy and Hermite. Niels Stensen founded the sciences of paleontology, crystallography and mineralogy, became a priest, was appointed bishop and subsequently declared a saint. The originator of the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe was Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest. TheJesuits have always been very active in scientific research, and include Roger Boscovich who developed a theory of atomic structure and Christopher Clavius who was responsible for our Gregorian calendar. Hundreds more are listed in ‘Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science’[2].

3. The leaders of the Church, particularly the Popes, have continually supported the sciences, initially by founding universities all over Europe during the Middle Ages. The studies of all students included arithmetic and astronomy. More recently the Holy See established the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo near Rome. Staffed
by Jesuits, this carries out an extensive programme of researches on astrophysics and astronomy. Much of the research has now been transferred to Arizona, The Pontifical Academy of Sciences was established as a sign of the Church’s commitment to scientific research. Its members are chosen for their scientific eminence without any form of religious or ethnic discrimination. The Academy frequently organises Conferences and Study Weeks on scientific subjects. Some recent ones were devoted to ‘The Macro-Molecules of Interest to Biology’, ‘Organic Matter and Soil Fertility’, ‘Science for Development’, ‘Science for Peace’, ‘Brain and Conscious Experience’, ‘The Human Genome’, ‘Perspectives of Immunisations’, ‘Parasitic Diseases,’ ‘Mankind and Energy’, ‘Modern Biology Applied to Agriculture’.These meetings are attended by word-famous scientists and the results are published in a series of substantial volumes. Popes frequently address these meetings and encourage the work of scientists.

This work of the Church receives little publicity and is generally unknown, but everyone is continually reminded of what is known as the confrontation between the Church and Galileo. Galileo was a great scientist who was the first to use the telescope to make a series of astonishing discoveries. Although he could not prove it, he became convinced that the earth moves around the sun, and that consequently the general belief, following Aristotle, in a central earth is wrong. The Aristotelian philosophers, unable to defeat him on scientific grounds, tried to discredit him by pointing to some words of the Bible that seemed to support the Aristotelian view. Galileo, a devout Catholic, was anxious to prevent the Church from condemning a scientific theory that might eventually be proved to betrue. He pointed out that the Bible is given to us to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go; in other words we should not treat the Bible as a source of scientific knowledge. However at that time the Church authorities were more concerned with defending the Bible than with assessing scientific theories, and Galileo failed to convince them. Recently Pope John Paul II has declared that Galileo’s theological views are correct and that he was unjustly treated. The Galileo affair is well worth studying as it raises many problems concerning the relations between theology and science, and the philosophy of scientific discovery[3].

[1]P.E.Hodgson. The Judeo-Christian Origin of Science. Coyne lecture given in Cracow; Logos 4.2.138.2001
[2]Karl A. Kneller. Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science. Real View Books, 1995.
[3]Michael Sharratt. Galileo: Decisive Innovator. Blackwell, 1994.