The scientific method looks to evidence to settle questions, so perhaps it would be fair to look at evidence to answer the question whether the Catholic Church is opposed to science.
Let’s consider some evidence pro and con.
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Historically, Catholics are numbered among the most important scientists of all time, including René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Roger Bacon, Roger Boscovich, Gregor Mendel, Louis Pasteur and Nicholas Copernicus.
Jesuit priests, in particular, have a long history of scientific achievement. As Jonathan Wright notes in his book “The Jesuits” (Harper Collins, $41.35): Jesuits “contributed to the development of pendulum clocks, pantographs, barometers, reflecting telescopes and microscopes, to scientific fields as various as magnetism, optics and electricity. They observed, in some cases before anyone else, the colored bands on Jupiter’s surface, the Andromeda nebula and Saturn’s rings. They theorized about the circulation of the blood (independently of Harvey), the theoretical possibility of flight, the way the moon effected the tides, and the wave-like nature of light.
“Star maps of the southern hemisphere, symbolic logic, flood-control measures on the Po and Adige rivers, introducing plus and minus signs into Italian mathematics — all were typical Jesuit achievements, and scientists as influential as Fermat, Huygens, Leibniz and Newton were not alone in counting Jesuits among their most prized correspondents.”
The scientist credited with proposing in the 1930s what came to be known as the “big-bang theory” of the origin of the universe was Georges Lemaître, a Belgian physicist and Roman Catholic priest. Alexander Fleming, the inventor of penicillin, shared his faith.
Catholics also constitute a good number of Nobel laureates in physics, medicine and physiology.
How can the achievements of so many Catholics in science be reconciled with the idea that the Catholic Church opposes scientific knowledge and progress? One might try to explain such distinguished Catholic scientists as rare individuals who dared to rebel against the institutional Church that opposes science.
However, the Catholic Church as an institution funds, sponsors and supports scientific research in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and in the departments of science found in every Catholic university across the world, including the one governed by the U.S. Catholic bishops, The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
This financial and institutional support of science by the Church began at the very birth of science in 17th-century Europe and continues today.
Even Church buildings themselves were not only used for scientific purposes but designed in part to foster scientific knowledge.
In his book “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” (Regnery Publishing, $29.95), Thomas E. Woods notes: “Cathedrals in Bologna, Florence, Paris and Rome were designed in the 17th and 18th centuries to function as world-class solar observatories. Nowhere in the world were there more precise instruments for the study of the sun. Each such cathedral contained holes through which sunlight could enter and time lines (or meridian lines) on the floor. It was by observing the path traced out by the sunlight on these lines that researchers could obtain accurate measurements of time and predict equinoxes.”
John L. Heilbron, a science historian at Worcester College in Oxford, England, says the “Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and probably, all other institutions.”
Faith vs. reason
This financial and social support extended to other branches of scientific inquiry.
Such support is not only consistent with official Catholic teaching but is enthusiastically endorsed. In the Church’s view, science and faith are complementary to each other and mutually beneficial.
In 1988, Pope John Paul II addressed a letter to the director of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory noting, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”
Dr. Joseph Murray, a recipient of the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on organ and cell transplantation, said: “Is the Church inimical to science? Growing up as a Catholic and a scientist — I don’t see it. One truth is revealed truth, the other is scientific truth. If you really believe that creation is good, there can be no harm in studying science. The more we learn about creation — the way it emerged — it just adds to the glory of God. Personally, I’ve never seen a conflict.”
Unfortunately, many people believe that the Church is antagonistic to science because of the condemnation of Galileo Galilei in 1633. It is true that ecclesial authorities wrongly condemned Galileo’s view that the earth rotated around the sun, but in 1633 this was not yet scientifically demonstrated.
In a 1992 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul said: “Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the center of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system. The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture.”
Pope John Paul acknowledged that the ecclesial judicial authorities in the trial of Galileo were wrong. These errors of a disciplinary and judicial nature were not a formal part of Catholic teaching. Church infallibility only applies to official teachings of faith and morals, not such disciplinary matters.
Does the Catholic Church oppose science?
On the one hand, we have the many Catholic scientists of distinction who argue that there is no conflict between their faith and their pursuit of science. We have the institutional Church sponsoring scientific endeavors of all kinds. We also have the explicit Catholic teaching, which states that faith and scientific reasoning are mutually enriching.
On the other hand, we have the condemnation of Galileo. The Galileo case appears, against the larger background of Catholic teaching and practice, as an unfortunate aberration from the norm.
However, both Galileo himself — who remained a faithful Catholic — and those involved in his trial, such as St. Robert Bellarmine, agreed that there can never be a true conflict between science and faith. Apparent conflicts can arise through a mistaken interpretation of faith (as was made by those who condemned Galileo), a misunderstanding of science (for example, that science requires denying miracles), or both.
It is, therefore, a myth — albeit a persistent myth — that the Church opposes science.
Christopher Kaczor is professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and author of “The Ethics of Abortion.”