What do Gregor Mendel, Nicolaus Copernicus, Georges Lemaitre, and Louis Pasteur have in common? They were all inventors or scientists whose discoveries changed our view of the world, or made our lives better in it.
They were also Catholic.
Mathematician Blaise Pascal’s “Pensees” is an enduring philosophical tract, important in the western canon. He also invented the adding machine, the hydraulic press, and developed the theory of probability. Rene Descartes discovered the laws of refraction and analytic geometry. But his “Cogito Ergo Sum” was the pivotal beginning of existentialism and the numerous and varied philosophical theories put forth by such diverse figures as Rousseau, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Kierkegard, among others.
Pascal and Descartes were Catholic too.
Many scientists are not just Catholic, but priests and clerics as well, men of God and logic both. Why is it, then, that the question of faith versus reason persists? Are they antithetical? Is the one objective, analytical, dispassionate, while the other is murky, irrational, unprovable and a sure road to superstition and suppression?
“To me, there’s never been a difference between science and religion,” says Father Felix Just, S.J., the Executive Director of the Loyola Institute of Spirituality in Orange.
“I grew up in a family of believers. My father was a theoretical physicist. I have a master’s degree in mathematics.” (He also earned his Ph.D. at the Department of Religious Studies at Yale.)
“I view the question as both/and. It’s a matter of understanding properly. The Book of Genesis isn’t a step-by-step explanation of creation. That is not its intent. Some scientists will tell you that you can’t know the how without the why, and cite the Big Bang theory as the origin of creation. But what was there first that made the bang happen? Why is there something rather than nothing?”
Just goes on to cite some of the numerous instances in which the Church has encouraged scientific inquiry: the 120-year-old Vatican Observatory’s prominence in the study of astronomy; its university endowments in scientific fields; and its dissemination of knowledge by explorers and missionaries.
“It’s a misreading of history to say that the Church has not been open to science,” he says.
If that’s the case, why is the Church often perceived as having impeded scientific discovery, and even blocked progress? (This charge isn’t limited to the Vatican. Still, Catholicism holds by far the largest number of adherents in the Christian world.)
“The Church has always been open, but it’s also been cautious,” Father Felix says. “It doesn’t like to go super-duper fast when you don’t know where that’ll take you. Scientists look to the future. The Church works to join that with tradition. When there’s an apparent contradiction between faith and logic, they might take a while to reconcile. But the apparent might not be actual contradiction. We can have different kinds of truths. But in the end, Truth cannot contradict Truth.”
The question, then, may not be philosophical but doctrinal. There are historic instances, particularly the famous 1633 trial of the astronomer Galileo, when the Vatican considered contrary views, however scientifically based, heretical. The penalty could be death.
“There are times when the church has not been ready for certain views,” says Brother Charles Jackson, Associate Director at the Loyola Institute, “Henri Bergson said of creative evolution, ‘There is something behind what I’m looking at.’
“Evolution isn’t just biological, there’s evolution in languages, culture, reason, so natural that it’s not even a matter of belief. You don’t say, for example, ‘Do you believe in gravity?’
“Doctrine evolves,” Brother Charles adds. “Particularly over the past 100 years. The Catholic Church has grown in its understanding of the different books of the Bible. The Old Testament is a different game. In the new, the Nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke are difficult to reconcile. The facts are different. We take a historical approach, asking how these accounts were written. Myth is a way of making understandable things that are difficult to understand. But understanding can only take you so far. Augustine said, ‘If you understand it, it is not God.’”
Brother Charles cites a number of writers and thinkers, Cardinal Newman among them, who have argued toward greater engagement with a wider world.
Brother Charles also cites the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 as one of those instances of “creating dialogue with other religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism., and to respect truth wherever it’s found.” The dialogue also took place with atheists.
Once this would have been unthinkable.
“One of the great developments of the modern Church is its willingness to listen,” Brother Charles concludes.
“If anything characterizes Pope Francis, it’s his willingness to listen to people.”