Catholic scientists discuss faith’s role in work

The division between faith and science has been greatly exaggerated.

That’s one message of the Society of Catholic Scientists, a group formed in 2016 under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which aims to bring together Catholic professional scientists for fellowship and mentoring of Catholic university students studying for careers in the sciences.

The society held its first conference April 21-23 in Chicago on the theme of “Origins,” with papers and talks on the beginnings of the universe, habitable planets, life, consciousness and human language.

“A lot of people who are not in science have this idea that world of science is hostile territory for religion, that religion is not welcome there,” said Stephen Barr, president of the society. “It’s not true. But a lot of religious scientists keep a low profile. When I was young, there were probably a lot of religious scientists around me, but I didn’t know that.”

Young Catholic scientists now may also think they are alone in their pursuit of science and in their faith.

“A lot of Catholic colleagues are out there — many of them quite prominent in their fields — maybe that they didn’t hear about,” Barr said.

Origins of the project

Barr is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Delaware and director of its Bartol Research Institute.

He and Jonathan Lunine, the David C. Duncan professor in the physical sciences of Cornell University and director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, both came to the independent conclusion that a society of Catholic scientist would be a good thing, Lunine said.

Such a group could demonstrate the compatibility of a life filled with faith and science, he said.

Barr took on the majority of the organizing work and became president. He secured the sponsorship of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the agreement of Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., to serve as bishop adviser.

Then they identified five board members, in addition to themselves. They include: Robert Scherrer, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University; Stephen Meredith, a professor in the Department of Pathology, the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Department of Neurology at the University of Chicago; Karin I. Öberg, associate professor in the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University; Dominican Father Nicanor Austriaco, a professor in the Department of Biology of Providence College; and Martin A. Nowak, a professor in the Department of Biology and the Department of Mathematics of Harvard University and director of the Program of Evolutionary Dynamics.

“It was shockingly easy,” Lunine said. “A lot of professional scientists who happen to be Catholic feel as we do, that this is an idea whose time has come. This kind of organization has been needed for some time.”

Since the board was assembled, the group has grown to 350 members, with new applications arriving each day.

The big questions

About 110 people attended the conference, 90 of whom are Catholic scientists.

They join luminaries such as Father Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian friar who founded the modern science of genetics, to Belgian priest Father Georges Lemaître, who first proposed the theory of an expanding universe and the Big Bang theory, in their dedication to both faith and science.

Öberg, an astrochemist who recently received tenure at Harvard, spoke about how planets are formed and how to find planets outside our solar system that may be habitable for life. Looking for other worlds that may support life necessarily changes the way people look at God.

“If we believe God does express himself through creation, what does it mean if God’s creation is full of habitable worlds?” she said.

In the past, the night sky was seen as “manifesting the beauty and magnificence of God, but it was cold and vast.” Now, knowing many of the stars that are visible is the center of a solar system that might have habitable planets makes the sky “something that is a bit more cozy.”

The society, and the conference in particular, aimed to give participants like Öberg the opportunity to share both their work and their thoughts on how it affects their faith.

Myth of incompatibility

One reason many scientists who are religious don’t talk about their faith life with their colleagues is that academic conferences and other scientific gatherings just isn’t the place for it, Barr said.

“When you’re at work, when you’re at an academic conference, is not the time to go around preaching to your colleagues,” he said.

That reticence might lead to what Barr called the “widespread impression among the public thatvery few scientists are religious.”

“This is part of the myth that science and religion are incompatible and have historically been at war,” he said. “This myth has led many young Catholics to lose their faith, as several recent studies have shown.”

Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory and a member of the society, said that he finds the younger crop of scientists to be more accepting of all kinds of religious traditions than they were 30 and 40 years ago.

“’Inclusiveness’ is the buzzword of the day,” said Brother Consolmagno, who offered a talk at the April 22 banquet. “The downside is that they see Catholicism as just another lifestyle choice, and it’s not.”

Brother Consolmagno said he wants to explore the differences in the way Catholics do the job of being scientists as compared to those who claim no religious faith.

“If you’re doing something for personal ambition — if the carrot that’s dangling in front of you is that you’ll get promoted, you’re going to choose problems that are flashy and easy to solve,” Brother Consolmagno said. “You’re more tempted to treat science as a contact sport and undermine your rivals.”

The better way is to seek truth for its own sake, to work on the problems that pique your curiosity and to appreciate the contributions of rivals who are expanding the base of knowledge about your subject, as well as stopping you from going wrong, Brother Consolmagno said.

While Brother Consolmagno said he sometimes sees a prejudice against religion among scientists, he doesn’t generally see a corresponding prejudice against science in the Catholic Church.

“But I live in the Vatican,” he said. “The Vatican loves science.”

That’s been true for generations, and certainly for the last 100 years, he said, since Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII looked at science as a way to learn about God and his creation.

Both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI were academics who understood and appreciated science, Brother Consolmagno said, and Pope Francis has continued that, and maybe taken it a step further with emphasizing the ethical underpinnings and necessity of science in Laudato Si’, his 2015 encyclical on caring for creation.

Unfortunately, Brother Consolmagno said, there are too many Catholics, especially in the United States, who have come to believe the image of a religious Christian as a fundamentalist who does not understand the role of science in understanding and appreciating God’s creation.

“Too many Catholics don’t see the Catholic model,” he said.

For more on the Society of Catholic Scientists, visit www.catholicscientists.org.

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.