Science and faith - Catholic Courier
U.S. Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, is pictured at the observatory in Rome. Science and religion are not seen by the church as opposing forces, but distinct and valuable approaches to understanding the universe and our place in it. (CNS photo by Annette Schreyer) U.S. Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, is pictured at the observatory in Rome. Science and religion are not seen by the church as opposing forces, but distinct and valuable approaches to understanding the universe and our place in it. (CNS photo by Annette Schreyer)

Science and faith

In this issue:
Science and religion not a battle
What are Catholics’ opinions about faith and science?
Science expressed in the Bible
Food for Thought

In a nutshell

Science and religion are not seen by the church as opposing forces, but distinct and valuable approaches to understanding the universe and our place in it.

An in-depth 2017 survey from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that Catholics are generally more accepting of science than other religious groups.

The Bible is a love letter from God to humanity, not the final thoughts of scientific progress.

Science and religion not a battle

By Michelle M. Francl/Catholic News Service

When friends and colleagues find out I work with the Vatican Observatory, their first reaction is often surprise that the Catholic Church supports a scientific research institute, particularly one that studies astronomy. After all, the Catholic Church put Galileo on trial for heresy.

As it turns out, Galileo’s difficulties were more the exception than the rule. The Catholic Church has supported science and scientists throughout her history, beginning with the early Fathers of the Church through to the 21st-century Popes Benedict XVI and Francis.

The Vatican Observatory itself was founded by Pope Leo XIII for exactly this reason, so “that everyone might see clearly that the church and her pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but that they embrace it, encourage it and promote it,” as read in the document “Ut Mysticam.”

Many early Catholic saints, including St. Augustine, St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom, encouraged Christians to study the universe as a way to learn about the Creator, often referring to creation as God’s “other book.” St. Anthony the Great, a monk who lived in the desert in the fourth century, said, “My book is the nature of created things, and as often as I have a mind to read the words of God, it is at my hand.”

Many people know that Pope Francis trained as a chemist, but he is not the first scientist to become a pope. At the start of the 11th century, when the first flickers of modern science began to be seen in Europe, the pope was a mathematician and astronomer.

Gerbert of Aurillac, who would become Pope Sylvester II, was sent by his abbot to Barcelona in 967 to study mathematics. Gerbert wrote several popular mathematics textbooks, but it was his calculating device, based on Arabic numerals, that would introduce the decimal system to Europe and set the stage for modern mathematics.

Popes have supported scientists and mathematicians for hundreds of years. In 1748 Pope Benedict XIV read “Foundations of Analysis” by the Italian mathematician (and theologian) Maria Gaetana Agnesi. “Foundations” was one of the first calculus textbooks written and the first mathematics book by a woman in Europe.

Pope Benedict XIV was so impressed by Agnesi’s work that he appointed her to the faculty at the University of Bologna. The first woman professor of physics in Europe, Laura Bassi, was also a protege of Pope Benedict XIV, who asked her to join his elite circle of scholars, the Benedettini. 

The religious orders have nurtured scientists and their work for more than a thousand years. Among the scientific writings of 12th-century Benedictine abbess St. Hildegard of Bingen are a catalog of the local plants and animals, and a primitive theory of evolution. In 1979, St. John Paul II called her a “a light for her people and time,” and in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI added her to the church’s formal list of saints and recognized her as one of the 36 doctors of the church, for both her spiritual and scientific insights.

Gregor Mendel, known as the father of genetics, was an Augustinian monk. Mathematician and Sister of Mercy Mary Celine Fasenmyer’s doctoral thesis made possible key discoveries in computer science.

The priests and brothers of the Society of Jesus have produced scores of scientists, from Father Jean Leurechon who in 1626 published one of the first descriptions of a thermometer to astronomer Father Angelo Secchi who in the middle of the 19th century developed the first classification systems for stars. Present-day Jesuit scientists include physicists Father Cyril Opeil at Boston College who explores the fundamental properties of matter and Brother Robert Macke of the Vatican Observatory who studies meteorites.

Faithful Catholic lay men and women have also made many major contributions to science, and many see their work as rooted in their faith. Henri Bequerel, who won the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of radioactivity, was remembered at his funeral as a man who found God “on the very highway of science” as well as in the simple prayers of his childhood.

Andre-Marie Ampere, who made fundamental discoveries about electricity and magnetism, would startle his roommate by crying, “How great is God, and how little is our knowledge!”

Science and religion are not seen by the church as opposing forces, but distinct and valuable approaches to understanding the universe and our place in it. Each has something to offer the other.

St. John Paul II observed in a 1988 letter to Jesuit Father George Coyne, then the director of the Vatican Observatory, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”

The church also recognizes the common thread that unites faith and science, the search for truth. Addressing the world’s scientists on this shared vocation at the closing of the Second Vatican Council Pope Paul VI noted, “Your road is ours. Your paths are never foreign to ours. We are the friends of your vocation as searchers, companions in your fatigues, admirers of your successes and, if necessary, consolers in your discouragement and your failures.”

The universe is a wonderful mystery we are called by our Creator to explore with delight — whether we are scientists or not.

(Francl is chair and professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College and adjunct scholar of the Vatican Observatory. She and Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, recently recorded an audio series, “Seeking the Face of God: The Lives and Discoveries of Catholic Scientists.”)

What are Catholics’ opinions about faith and science? 

By Kurt Jensen/Catholic News Service

Are Catholics more accepting of science than adherents of other religious groups?

Yes, an in-depth 2017 survey (1,927 respondents, including 1,010 Catholics) indicated.

However — and it’s a big “however” — it’s not an overwhelming difference. Catholics can be just as inconsistent as other adherents when it comes to seeing conflicts between faith and science.

The questions among Catholics are usually about the same as those attributed to others: whether Adam and Eve were real historical figures, whether the Big Bang theory accurately describes the creation of the universe and whether the theory of evolution is to be believed.

One key finding, Mark Gray, co-author of the report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, noted: “Not many teachers in Catholic schools take (the Book of) Genesis literally,” although 56 percent of the respondents said they believed that Adam and Eve were real, historical people.

The survey also showed “that many in each category of believers are grappling with the issue of compatibility.”

In other words, “Half or slightly fewer of those professing a Christian faith believe that current scientific theory and evidence is compatible with the belief that God created the universe and Earth, compared to about a quarter of non-Christians and just over 1 in 10 with no affiliation.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “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.”

But that, of course, assumes a strong faith.

“We find that a lot of people who leave the faith do so because they think it’s incompatible with science,” Gray observed. “There’s a belief that they can’t coexist. They don’t have a good understanding of science or their Catholic faith. There are gaps.”

The survey asked respondents specifically about their faith practices: how often they attended Mass, prayed or went to confession, the firmness of their belief in God and their beliefs in biblical inerrancy.

“Displaying great variability,” the survey concluded, “those mostly likely to agree that (faith and science) are compatible are those who most often practice their faith: those who attend Mass weekly or more,” who go to confession “at least yearly” and who participated in a variety of Lenten practices.

And that, to Gray, is not surprising. “People who think about the afterlife and that heaven and hell make sense ‚Ķ reconcile the faith with what they know about the world at large,” he said.

In general, the survey found “that Catholics compared to other religious people are more receptive to science,” Gray said.

It’s not a matter of piety, but rather, Gray thinks, that regular worshipers stay involved in the world and become more open-minded to a range of ideas.

Pope Francis studied chemistry and worked as a chemist for a time, but Gray said the survey didn’t seem to find any “Francis effect” in scientific beliefs among Catholics, nor did it delve into environmental policies.

As for belief in climate change, the survey showed that “two-thirds of Catholics agree that temperatures on Earth are rising in response to higher concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases,” and about the same proportion believe that this is “largely a result of human activity.”

But here again, acceptance of science sometimes can split along lines of the frequency of faith practices. Those attending Mass at least weekly are “least likely to agree that they have a moral responsibility to combat climate change,” but “the more likely respondents are to observe Lenten practices, the more likely they are to feel they have a personal responsibility.”

(Jensen is a freelance writer. Read CARA’s report here:

Science expressed in the Bible

By Andrew Dutko/Catholic News Service

The Bible is a love letter from God to humanity, not the final thoughts of scientific progress. It was written at specific moments that reflect our understanding at those times. These “freeze-frames” of understanding are not unique to the Bible.

Isaac Newton’s scientific understanding of the world inspired humanity to do great things until the limitations of those understandings were discovered and his theories needed assistance.

Then Albert Einstein, and minds like his, solved these problems and incorporated new knowledge into new science. This process is still evident as we see problems arising in their scientific understanding, for example, the reality within black holes or the moment of the Big Bang.

It would be inaccurate to suggest that the science of the Bible, or Newton, or Einstein contradicts the reality in which we live; it only suggests that none are the final thoughts of scientific progress.

That being said, the science expressed in the Bible is not the reason for its existence. It exists to express God’s love for us and to determine what he expects of us. We do this by focusing on those larger and deeper conversations between God and humanity within Scripture and interpreting their meanings to the best of our ability.

St. Thomas Aquinas suggests four ways to interpret Scripture: literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical. A literal interpretation limits us to view the contents of the Bible from a single view and to take what we can from it.

Science is limited to this interpretation because it only attempts to express a physical reality that exists in the greater context of scriptural teaching.

For example, Hebrews 11 is arguably the most eloquent teaching on faith in Scripture. Hebrews 11:3 uses as an example of faith a simple understanding of atoms, “What is visible came into being through the invisible,” or what we see is made of things we cannot see.

While accurate, read alone it is vague and does not reap the benefit of the rich and multifaceted fourfold approach of St. Thomas that can be applied to the greater story of Scripture.

As a common example, look at the story of Abraham intending to sacrifice Isaac on the mountain. A literal interpretation limits us to focus on the story as an historical event — Isaac walking up Mount Moriah with the wood for his sacrifice — and one might be appalled that a father would try to kill his son.

As an allegory, we add depth to this story as we see Isaac as a prefigurement of Jesus as he walks the Via Dolorosa to Calvary carrying the wood for his own sacrifice. A moral interpretation adds more to the story as we understand the importance of obedience and faith in God’s will.

And, finally, anagogically, we realize how sacrifice prepares us for the eternal glory that is promised to us. The science expressed in the Bible does not have this depth.

Science progresses and our understanding of it changes. What does not change is the truth of the Bible’s purpose: to know of God’s love for us and to determine what he expects of us.

(Deacon Andrew Dutko is a transitional deacon studying for the priesthood for the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey. He managed the Princeton University Advanced Physics Lab from 2000-2006. He has degrees in mathematics and business.)

Food for Thought

Catholic scientists and students of science, did you know there is an international organization of Catholic scientists?

Founded in 2016, the Society of Catholic Scientists is an international lay organization created to “foster fellowship among Catholic scientists and to witness to the harmony of faith and reason,” as stated on its website.

The society is a response to St. John Paul II’s call that “‘members of the church who are active scientists’ be of service to those who are attempting to ‘integrate the worlds of science and religion in their own intellectual and spiritual lives.'”

In only two years membership has grown to 750 and its members span six continents.

At the society’s most recent conference, “The Human Mind and Physicalism,” held June 9 at The Catholic University of America, more than 100 professionals and students gathered to hear experts speak about physics, ecology, free will and the human mind.

Many of the conference participants and organizers told Catholic News Service they see no conflict between science and their faith.

“Part of why the sciences are so interesting is precisely because of the knowledge that we are created by God in his image. So when we’re talking about studying psychology or neuroscience they are the mechanism by which we understand the world, almost like we’re interacting with God’s creation. It demonstrates the awe of creation,” said Vanessa Chan, a doctoral student studying cognitive neuroscience at the University of Toronto.

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