Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Catholic Church and Science

. Most people know that Gregor Mendel, who undertook research in the field of heredity, was an Augustinian Friar. Mendel, who was born in Austria in 1822, is sometimes called, ‘The Father of Modern Genetics’. It is not widely known, however, that the scientist who proposed ‘the Big Bang Theory’ was a Catholic priest. Father Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966), a Belgian, was not only a priest but also a physicist and mathematician. He presented his theory of the origins of the universe in 1933 to a gathering of scientists in California. Einstein was present and was reported to declare, “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.”

  Scientific Method and Religion
 The common understanding is that science and religion, especially, science and the Catholic Church, are enemies and that there is no common meeting point between them. Before looking in to the cause of this let us look at why Christianity is a good environment for the development of the scientific method. Stanley Jaki, a scientific historian, and a Catholic priest, points out that from Old Testament (Jewish Bible) times to the Middle Ages, God and His creation were believed to be orderly and rational. The seasons and other regular natural phenomena, show the goodness and beauty and order of God. The writer of the Book of Wisdom (Wisdom 11:21) declares. “You have disposed all things by measure, number and weight.” On the other hand, animism, the belief that the divine is in created things, resulted in the worship, and often fear, of trees, mountains, the sun etc. In some cases, people would sacrifice their children to appease volcanoes or offer gifts to the gods of mountains or rivers. This idea of the divine in creation itself made it impossible to investigate created things. Even though some cultures, for example, the Greeks, made some strides in scientific thought, ultimately they fell short.  Jaki argues, “... that it was up to the Scholastics of the Middle Ages to carry out the depersonalization of nature, so that, for instance, the explanation for falling stones was not said to be in their innate love for the center of the earth.” (quoted in Woods, Thomas E, 2005).  In other words, the belief that the universe itself is god and should be worshipped, is an impediment to scientific inquiry, for people dare not ‘investigate’ and ‘experiment on’ their gods. Why then does the Catholic Church have a bad reputation when it comes to science? The main reason is, of course: Galileo. It is commonly thought that the Catholic Church unjustly persecuted Galileo for his theory that the sun, and not the earth, was the centre of the universe. But is this the true tale?
  Copernicus and Heliocentrism
 In the 16th century, the accepted view, not only of the church, but of all scientists, was that of Aristotle, that is, the earth was the centre of the universe (geocentric view).  Aristotle had claimed to refute the ancient idea that the earth traveled in an orbit around the sun (heliocentric view). Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) was a Polish astronomer, probably not a priest as often claimed, but a Canon and a third order or Secular Dominican. In 1543, he published On the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs, in which he supported heliocentricity. Copernicus had asked Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran clergyman, to write a preface to the book, because he knew that it would be attacked by Protestants (which it was) for its opposition to Scripture. Osiander presented heliocentrism as only a theory that accounted for movement of the planets more simply than that of geocentrism. The Catholic Church gave no censure at this time to Copernicus and the book was well-received by Jesuit astronomers of the time.
 Later the Italian astronomer, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), made some important observations with his telescope: he saw mountains on the moon, discovered four moons orbiting Jupiter and discovered the phases of the planet,Venus. Initially his work was celebrated by Roman churchmen and when Galileo went to Rome in 1611, he was greeted with great enthusiasm. He enjoyed a long audience with Pope Paul V and the Jesuits of the Roman College. Those who were present included Father Grienberger, who had invented a telescope which rotated on an axis parallel to the Earth’s, and Father Clavius, one of the great mathematicians of the day who had helped to develop the Gregorian calendar. The Church had no objection to the use of the Copernican System as a theory whose truth was not yet established. Galileo, however, believed his model to be literally true even though he lacked adequate evidence to support his theory at the time. One problem with his theory was that the movement of tides was a proof of the earth’s motion, something which now modern scientists reject. Galileo refused to present his hypothesis as only a theory and insisted writing about it as proven truth. In other words, he refused to compromise. On the surface, the heliocentric hypothesis did contradict certain Scripture passages but these were not insurmountable problems. The Jesuit Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine stated, “If there were a real proof that the sun is in the center of the universe...and that the sun does not go round the earth but the earth around the sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But as for myself, I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.” (Broderick, James, 1928 quoted in Woods, Thomas E., p. 72).
 In earlier times, St. Thomas Aquinas had wisely said, “First, the truth of Scripture must be held inviolable. Secondly, when there are different ways of explaining a Scriptural text, no particular explanation should be held so rigidly that, if convincing arguments show it to be false, anyone dare to insist that it still is the definitive sense of the text. Otherwise unbelievers will scorn Sacred Scripture, and the way to faith will be closed to them.” (quoted in Woods, Thomas E., p.73)
 In 1632, Galileo published Dialogue of the Great World System. In fact, it was written at the urging of the Pope, who now was Urban VIII. However, in the dialogue, Galileo ignored the instruction to treat the heliocentric theory as an hypothesis rather than established truth. In 1633, Galileo was charged with heresy but went on to publish, Discourses Concerning Two New Sciences in 1635. In the book, Galileo placed an argument of the Pope’s in the mouth of a fictional character called, Simplicio, surely an unwise move on his part. He also alienated the Jesuits by verbally attacking one of their astronomers.
 Contrary to popular opinion, Galileo was not tortured nor did he endure harsh imprisonment. He was confined to his home (house-arrest), where he was provided a servant and every other necessary convenience. Although he was denied the sacraments (excommunication), he remained a Catholic for the rest of his life. His illegitimate daughter, Marie Celeste, a nun, who lived in a convent nearby, wrote letters to him and received answers from him regularly. She died of dysentery in 1634 at the age of 33. A book has been written around the letters which were found in her belongings after her death (Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel). Galileo died a natural death after a fever and heart palpitations in 1642 at age 77.
 In retrospect, we know that Galileo’s theory was right but scientists talk about 'evidence' not 'proof' for their theories. Theories are just theories and newly discovered evidence often changes the conclusions that have been previously made.
  The Church and Science Today
Today the Church continues its involvement in scientific pursuits through the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Its roots are in the Academy of the Lynxes which was founded in Rome in 1603. In 1847, Pope Pius IX re-established the Academy and in 1936 Pope Pius XI gave it its present name. It is international, multi-racial in composition and non-sectarian in membership. It is made up of six major disciplines: Fundamental Sciences, Science and Technology of Global Problems, Science for the Problems of the Developing World, Scientific Policy, Bioethics and Epistemology. The present President (2012) is a Swiss Protestant, Nobel-Laureate in physiology, Werner Arber. Pope Benedict XVI, (now Pope Emeritus) said at an assembly of the Academy that science is neither a panacea for all of man’s problems nor should it be feared. The task of science, “ ... was and remains a patient yet passionate search for the truth about the cosmos, about nature and about the constitution of the human being.” (Zenit ZE10102809, 2010-10-28)
  Suggested Reading
  Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday Publishing. 1995
 Hannam, James. Genesis of Science. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Press. 2011
 Jaki, Stanley L. The Savior of Science. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway. 1988.
 Schönborn, Christoph Cardinal. Chance or Purpose? San Francisco: Ignatius Press. 2007.
 Wiker, Benjamin. The Catholic Church and Science: Answering the Questions, Exposing the Myths. TAN books. 2011
 Woods, Thomas E. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Washington,DC:Regnery Publishing, Inc. 2005.
 Catholic Answers website accessed February 5, 2011.
 The New American Bible. New York:Catholic Book Publishing Co. 1991.
Sobel, Dava. Galileo's Daughter. New York: Walker and Company. 1999.
Woods, Thomas E. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Washington,DC:Regnery Publishing, Inc. 2005.
Vatican Website accessed February 5, 2013
 Zenit News article ZE101102809 28 October, 2010.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Did Jesus Claim To Be God?

Who was Jesus? One popular idea of Jesus is that he was only a good teacher or a rabbi. Some believe he was a prophet, like Isaiah and Jeremiah. Still others claim that he is the Son of God or God himself. The Gospel writers, St. Paul and the writers of the other letters of the New Testament seem to agree. The Nicene Creed (written at the Council of Nicaea in AD325) declares: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. Light of light, true God from true God. Begotten not made, consubstantial to the Father, by whom all things were made”. So it seems that the early church believed that Jesus was indeed, true God from true God and not just a good teacher or a prophet. Some critics say that Jesus himself did not claim to be God but that his followers invented this idea after his death. Let us look at the evidence.
  Reliability of the Manuscripts
In investigating whether or not Jesus claimed to be God, we have no choice but to accept the four gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as faithful records of what Jesus himself said and did. There is no definitive proof that the records are either true or not true but in any search of historical persons we have to accept the record that has been left behind unless there is good reason for not doing so. For example, if we wanted to find out what Julius Caesar was like we would have to examine the writings left behind about him by those who knew him. We don’t know how accurate they are either, but we have no choice except to use the records available to us. As far as the New Testament, the documents are amazingly trustworthy. In most ancient manuscripts, for example, the classical texts, there may be only one existing manuscript available. If there are more there is a great advantage in knowing what was originally written because they can be compared. In the case of the New Testament books there are nearly five thousand manuscripts in Greek, as well as quotations from the manuscripts by later authors. Furthermore, although many of the classical texts date as late as the Middle Ages, there are manuscripts of the New Testament Scriptures that date as far back as the end of the 2nd century. Helmut Koester, Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, said, “Thus it seems that NT textual criticism possesses a base which is far more advantageous than that for the textual criticism of classical authors.” Furthermore, to think that anyone tampered with five thousand manuscripts spread over the entire Roman Empire (as some have suggested) requires quite a stretch of the imagination! By looking at the Gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John we see accounts and viewpoints which differ slightly but do not conflict with one another.

Jewish Scripture
Jesus was born into a Jewish family and Jewish culture. Although, at that time, the Romans ruled most of the known world and there were still Greek influences, for the most part Jesus’ audience was made up of his fellow Jews. These Jews were familiar with the Jewish Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament. Although we, in the modern age, may not always see the relationship between Jesus’ words and what was written in the Jewish Scriptures, the connection would have been clear to his audience. We will examine several instances when it was clear to his audience that Jesus claimed to be God.
I Am
When Moses met God in the burning bush (thought to be circa 1300 BC) he asked God, “If they [ the Hebrews in Egypt] ask me what your name is, what shall I tell them?” God answered, “I Am has sent me to you.” Moses is to say to the people, “YWH, the God of your fathers, has appeared to me, the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob.” (from Exodus 3:13-16) Over a thousand years later, Jesus, when arguing with some Jewish leaders about Abraham, says, “I tell you most solemnly, before Abraham was, I Am.” The response of the Jewish leaders to this remarkable statement was incredulity that someone standing before them would say they existed before Abraham. They picked up stones to throw at him for death by stoning was the punishment for blasphemy. This was clearly blasphemy for Jesus had claimed to be God and there is no other reason for this extreme reaction on their part.

The Good Shepherd
Shepherds are often mentioned in the Jewish Scriptures especially by the Prophets. Sheep were raised for their meat and their wool in Middle Eastern countries and still are. David was a shepherd before he became a King of Israel and so he obviously knew much about being a shepherd. He declares in one of his Psalms, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing.” The Scriptures often compared the leaders at the time to either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ shepherds and the people were said to be like sheep (Jeremiah 12:10). The prophet Isaiah writes about God’s tender care of His people: “He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast and leading to their rest the mother ewes.” God even declares that He, Himself will be their shepherd. The prophet Ezekiel writes: “For the Lord YWH says this: I am going to look after my flock myself and keep all of it in view. As a shepherd keeps all his flock in view when he stands up in the middle of his scattered sheep, so shall I keep my sheep in view. I shall rescue them from wherever they have been scattered during the mist and darkness. I shall bring them out from the countries where they are; I shall gather them together from foreign countries, and bring them to their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. I shall pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in every inhabited place in the land. I shall feed them in good pasturage; the high mountains of Israel will be their grazing ground. There they will rest in good grazing land, and will browse in rich pastures on the mountains of Israel. I myself will pasture my sheep, I will show them where to rest, it is the LORD Yahweh who speaks. I shall look for the lost, bring back the strays, bandage the wounded and make the weak strong. I will watch over the fat and the healthy. I shall be a true shepherd to them.” Ezekiel 34:11-17
Approximately seven hundred and fifty years later, the Apostle John reports that Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep.” Jesus’ discourse about the shepherd and the sheep again caused an uproar and disagreement among the Jewish listeners: “Many said, ‘He is possessed, he is raving, why bother to listen to him?’ Others said, ‘These are not the words of a man possessed by the devil; could a devil open the eyes of the blind?”’ Could it be that those who heard Jesus that day remembered that YWH had also said He would be their shepherd? Was Jesus claiming to be God? If he was not God yet claimed to be God, Jesus was both a blasphemer and a liar. As C.S. Lewis wrote. “Would a good man say he was God if he were not?”

The Charge Against Jesus
It is obvious that those who heard Jesus speak understood him to be claiming to be God. In fact, this charge of blasphemy was why the Jewish leaders plotted to have him killed and eventually brought him before the Roman authorities. In John 10:30-37 , “The Jews fetched stones to stone him, so Jesus said to them, ‘I have done many good works for you to see, works from my Father, for which of these are you stoning me?’ The Jews answered him, ‘We are not stoning you for doing a good work but for blasphemy; you are only man and you claim to be God.’ Jesus answered: ‘Is it not written in your Law: I said, you are gods?’ So the Law uses the word gods of those to whom the word of God was addressed, and scripture cannot be rejected. Yet you say to someone the Father has consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because he says, ‘I am the Son of God.’ If I am not doing my Father’s work, there is no need to believe me; but if I am not doing it, then even if you refuse to believe in me, at least believe in the work I do; then you will know for sure that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.’ They wanted to arrest him then, but he eluded them.” Later, when the Jews brought Jesus before the Roman authorities they said, “We have a Law and according to that Law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”

Although there are many other times that Jesus claimed to be God these are just a few examples. These should be sufficient to see that to claim that Jesus was ‘true God from true God’ was not an addition to Christianity but something which Jesus himself claimed. And indeed, although the crucifixion and resurrection were God’s plan to rescue humanity from sin, from a human standpoint, Jesus’ claim to be God was the reason he was put to death.

Cavins, Jeff, Sarah Christmyer, and Dr. Tim Gray. The Bible Timeline. Ascension Press. 2008

Koestler, Helmut. History and Literature of Early Christianity. Vol 2. New York: Walter de Gruyter. 1980.

 Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. London: Fontana Books (Collins) 1965

The Jerusalem Bible. New York: Doubleday and Company. 1967.