The Catholic Church and Science: Part 1
One of the most common reasons people dismiss religion today is because it is understood to be opposed to science. Along with this is the perception that religion is holding science and, therefore, human progress back. These perceptions are remarkably effective, however, they are also remarkably easy to disprove, at least for Christians of the Catholic tradition. Catholics should be proud of the ways in which the Catholic Church has contributed to scientific progress.
The proof that the Catholic Church has contributed to science is easily demonstrable through a simple understanding of the history of science. Catholics have been responsible for some of the greatest leaps in the understanding of science, and Catholic institutions have helped to preserve these discoveries and to pass them onto future generations. In fact, I can’t think of an institution in the last two thousand years that has done more for scientific progress than the Catholic Church.
One of these Catholics who helped scientific progress develop was a priest named Fr. Roger Bacon. While many people in bacon’s day and before bacon’s day were interested in science, many struggled to replicate findings and pass on their knowledge to others. The reason was that there was not a standard scientific method. Bacon is credited with perfecting this method which is absolutely crucial to replicating findings and helping the discipline progress. The scientific method taught in schools today was largely the work of Fr. Bacon.
Another priest who made significant contributions to science was Gregor Mendel. Mendel is considered by most to be the “Father of Genetics.” That’s right. The first person to systematically prove the presence of dominant and recessive traits passed to offspring was a Catholic priest. But Mendel was not just an ordinary priest. He was a very accomplished priest. In fact, he was the Abbot of an Augustinian monastery. Not only was he a brilliant scientist, but he was a brilliant philosopher as well. It is amazing to think of where we would be scientifically without his contributions.
One scientific theory that people like to point to disprove the existence of God is the so-called, “Big Bang Theory.” Simply stated, this theory posits that the Universe originated from a single point and has expanded through time. Although the theory has evolved a bit over the years, versions of this theory remain best scientific explanation we have for the origin of the universe.
Well, the Big Bang Theory is also credited to a Catholic priest. Fr. Georges Lemaitre, a Jesuit from Belgium, was a physicist who systematized the evidence needed to show that the Big Bang was not only plausible, but a likely cause of the universe. It is incredibly ironic that atheists like to point to this theory to dismiss our Church because they fail to realize that it was a member of our Church who advanced the theory, probably more than any other person in history.
That these men were all Catholic is not merely a religious preference like we sometimes think of today. These men were men of deep faith who gave their entire lives to God and His Church. Their love for God filled them with wonder about the world He made and this is what largely drove their inquiry. These men were not motivated by profit. Nor were they motivated by some type of ideology or agenda. They were motivated by a love of truth and a sense of wonder, which is placed inside us through the gift of faith.
One reason these men were able to contribute to scientific progress is because the Catholic Church as an institution was so heavily involved in education. After the fall of the Roman Empire, culture was preserved in Catholic monasteries. There weren’t universities in the way that we think of universities today, and anything they had resembling universities did not survive the fall of the empire. Monks were the ones who continued to develop the scientific breakthroughs of the Empire.
As the middle ages began it was primarily the Catholic Church that passed on scientific knowledge through the University System it developed. Yes, the Catholic Church formed the University system we value so highly in our age. This alone would have stalled scientific progress for centuries, and Catholics should be proud of this. Many accuse the Catholic Church of keeping the world in the Dark Ages, but this is extraordinarily false. It was the Catholic Church’s University system which lifted the world out of the period of time we know as the Dark Ages.**
The Catholic Church has not impeded scientific progress. The Catholic Church has contributed to the progress of science more than any other institution on the planet right now, and if you study history in any institution today – secular or religious – that will be very clear. Catholics should be proud of what our Church has accomplished through science, and we should be quick to share these accomplishments with those who have bought into the lie that faith and science are incompatible.
Stay tuned for further installments of this series about the Catholic Church and Science!
*Contrary to scripture, many Christians today use the word “Religion” in a pejorative sense today. Here, I only intend the word to mean a systematized belief in God.
** The Dark Ages is a very complicated term within the study of history. Protestant historians have often used it to explain the Middle Ages (800-1400), because the Catholic Church was so influential during this time. Thus, even today, people use the word Dark ages in this pejorative sense and are under the impression that life was awful during this time period. Modern Historians, however, reject this usage because of the fact that the Middle ages was actually a pretty good time to live. Culturally the world was developing very well and events during this period are well documented.
When Modern historians use the term today they tend to think of the centuries immediately following the fall of the Roman Empire. During this time, the world regressed in many ways and events during this time were not well documented. It is difficult for historians to see what life was like during this time, so they call it “Dark.”