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 but also to follow the scientific method which gives evidence for something but does not 'prove' it.
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.

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