- Fr. Bryan
The Catholic Church and Science: Part 2
In Part 1 of this series we demolished the popular narrative that the Catholic Church has held scientific progress back. Using the history of science, we showed that the Catholic Church has contributed to science, perhaps more than any other institution in the world today. In this post we will look at the same question a bit more theoretically and show how theology and science are not incompatible.
This particular question is also very necessary because there are many Christians who do not understand how science and revelation (scripture) relate to each other. Many Christians in Cowlitz County are under the impression that they need to accept a belief that the earth is relatively young and that the creation account in scripture is intended to be taken literally. In fact, many Churches in Cowlitz County recently promoted a film in which this exact theory was advanced.
Catholics shouldn’t settle for a dilemma that we must pick between accepting divine revelation or science. All truth, whether it is a truth we can observe in nature or whether it is a truth that we need to be revealed to us by God, has the same source which is God. Divine Revelation and science ultimate have the same source and therefore they cannot contradict each other. Catholics - or any religious believer for that matter – must understand how these disciplines interact.
Thankfully for us Catholics, our Church has a rich understanding of how science and revelation interact. In order to grasp this understanding, we need to consider that science and divine revelation tend to answer different questions. Science, for example, tells us what the world is and perhaps how it came to exist as it is now in a physical sense. Our present culture tends to be very interested in these particular questions.
However, not every culture in the world is interested in those questions. In fact, the Jewish people who recorded the stories of creation in the Hebrew scriptures were not interested in these types of questions. Rather, they were interested in why their world was the way it was and how people came to be the way they were in a spiritual sense. They didn’t care about science like we do. They wanted to know why their lives were difficult and why their relationships in the world were strained. Even the early Church fathers were not interested in science as we are today. St. Ambrose of Milan famously stated that, "To discuss the nature and position of the earth does not help us in our hope of the life to come."
It is an error for us to project our own modern preoccupation with science onto the scriptures. Atheists make this mistake, but so do many Christians. The people who received these stories simply were not interested in science like we are and we shouldn’t interpret these stories in a scientific manner. When we put science aside and try to get at these deeper questions we will find that these stories are packed with wisdom and teach us things that science can’t.
Put another way, there are many things that science can tell us about the world in which we live and this information is very valuable to us. However, there are many things that science cannot tell us. Science cannot tell us what it means to be human, or what is right or what is wrong. It can’t tell us why bad things happen to good people and why good things happen to bad people. It cannot explain why human beings are alone among other species in the sense that we have free will. Science can give us hints for these questions, but it can’t definitively answer them.
Divine revelation actually sheds light on some of these other questions. The definitive revelation (from a Catholic perspective) is not the scriptures but the life of Jesus of Nazareth. For Catholics, Jesus was not merely a nice man who taught some nice ideas about how to live. Catholics believe that Jesus was God who came down from heaven and became human. By becoming human, Jesus revealed what God had in mind when he created humans and he revealed to us how to be fully human in a world that is less than humane.
We need science because science can make our world better, but we also need revelation, because science done only for the sake of science can often lead us towards an unethical use of scientific knowledge, which always has harmful consequences for individuals, families, and society as a whole.
This is good news. Catholics do not need to pick and choose between science and our religion. We are free to pursue knowledge from both systems and there are many Christians in Cowlitz County who don’t feel as free in this regard. If you have friends at other Churches in Cowlitz County, I want to encourage you to have a discussion on this topic. Ask how they understand faith and science to interact and, if they aren’t sure, you can point them to our Church’s history to enrich their faith.