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March 26, 2014
Science and the Catholic Church
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

Last week, Stephen Colbert, the satirist and prominent Catholic, playfully scolded Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist, author, director of the Hayden Planetarium and current host of the television science-documentary, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.” Why did Colbert chide his guest?

In part one of this documentary, the Church’s Roman Inquisition is scorned for its harsh treatment of Giordano Bruno, a sixteenth-century Dominican friar and his cosmological views.  In fact, he was condemned for his denial of core church doctrines such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and Transubstantiation. Regrettably, in sixteenth-century Europe, refusal to retract one’s heretical tenets was punishable by being burned at the stake, a cruel and common fate.

Through text and cartoon figures, this segment repudiates the Church’s “thought police” and, in a mean-spirited way, trots out the false and hackneyed refrain: "The Catholic Church is hostile to science."

The Truth about Science and the Church

Were scientists to do their homework, what would they find?  Since the eleventh century, beginning with the Cathedral School of Chartres, the Church has supported scientific pursuits.  Thirteenth-century scholars like Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and Roger Bacon head the list of almost three hundred clerics who advanced scientific inquiry. 

Since its founding in 1534, no other religious order has dedicated itself more to science than has the Society of Jesus.  From the seventeenth century to the present day, more than seventy Jesuits have contributed in significant ways to the field of science.  Thirty-five craters on the moon have been named after them.  Moreover, hundreds of Catholic scientists have been educated in Catholic institutions, many of them, Jesuit-run.
In 1582, the Jesuit polymath, Cristoforo Clavius, headed the commission that put into effect the Gregorian calendar thus negating the Julian calendar. To synchronize the calendar with the solar year, Clavius calculated ninety-seven leap days every four hundred years. 

The “Father of the ‘Big Bang:’” Father George-Henri Lemaître

In “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” Dr. deGrasseTyson describes the wonder of the Big Bang without referring to the man who discovered it, Georges-Henri Lemaître, a Belgian-born priest and theoretical physicist. 
The name Lemaître is not a household name like Albert Einstein’s or Edwin Hubble’s.  Yet, in 1931, Father Lemaître, startled the world of science. By applying Einstein’s theory of general relativity, he proposed that, at a definite point in time, the expanding universe began with the explosion of a single particle, a primeval atom or, as he called it, “the exploding egg.”  The universe emerged from an extremely dense and active alpha point which has been expanding ever since, carrying galaxies with it, like raisins in a rising loaf of bread.  The French Jesuit  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would point to Christ the Omega toward whom this cosmos is advancing.

At the time, Lemaître’s theory was rejected by most astronomers and physicists, including Einstein, who deemed his finding to be untenable and preposterous. Yet, after Lemaître’s presentation, Einstein reversed his opinion, stood and applauded at the seminar, declaring: “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened” (“Space/Astronomy”).

Eventually, Sir Fred Hoyle coined the term, “the Big Bang,” a jocular and perhaps derisive way of speaking about Lemaître’s “exploding egg.” 

Who was Georges-Henri Lema?tre?

Born in 1894 in Charleroi, Belgium, Lema?tre, as a child, gravitated to science with an insatiable curiosity about it.  After a classical education at Collège du Sacré-Coeur, a Jesuit secondary school at Charleroi, he studied civil engineering at the University of Louvain.  He served in World War I and was awarded the Belgian War Cross with palms after which time his studies in astronomy continued at the University of Cambridge and then at Harvard.  In 1927, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology awarded him a Ph.D. 

The Theological Question

In their book, Cosmic Horizons: Astronomy at the Cutting Edge, Stephen Soter and Neil deGrasse Tyson, write: “It is tempting to think that Lemaître’s deeply-held religious beliefs might have led him to the notion of a beginning of time.  After all, the Judeo-Christian tradition had propagated a similar idea for the millennia.” 

“Yet, Lemaître insisted that there was neither a connection nor a conflict between his religion and his science.  Rather, he kept them entirely separate, treating them as different, parallel interpretations of the world, both of which he believed with personal conviction.  It was his firm belief that the scientific endeavor should stand isolated from the religious realm.” 

Lemaître’s parallel careers in cosmology and theology were kept on separate tracks in the belief that one led him to a clearer comprehension of the material world, while the other led to a greater understanding of the spiritual realm. He himself commented: “As far as I can see, such a theory [exploding egg] remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question.”

The Wonder of It All

From the very beginning, almost fourteen billion years ago, the cosmos was tailor-made for humankind.  This means that “if the precise details of [its] expansion and contraction had been even minutely different from its present calculation, there would be no galaxies, no stars, no life.  Men and women would not exist.” (John Haught, “God in Modern Science,” NCE 18: 179).

The Galileo Case

In the sixteenth century and against universally-accepted theory, Copernicus had speculated that the sun, rather than Earth, was at the center of the solar system.  Galileo also advanced this theory, and his work was praised by Clavius the Jesuit.  On Galileo’s visit to Rome, Pius V honored him and his discoveries.  However, the views of Copernicus and Galileo stood as hypotheses and not as yet objectively proved.  Galileo insisted that the Copernican theory was literally true. 

The Church had to consider the argument of the Protestants.  They had faulted the Church with insufficient attention paid to the literal meaning of Scripture, which seemed to contradict the findings of the two astronomers. 

Galileo was asked not to publish the theory until it could be objectively proven.  He refused but was eventually proven correct. The Church’s naming him a heretic can be explained but not defended. (Thomas Woods, How the Church Built Western Civilization, 70ff; New Catholic Encyclopedia 6: 250ff).  In 1979, John Paul II conceded that the Church had erred in the Galileo incident, and in 1984, all the Vatican documents about the case were made public.  There is no contradiction between science and faith, church leaders have insisted. Nor is the Bible a book of science.  Catholic faith and science, working together, can reinforce the mystery of creation while offering a reasonable grasp of how the mystery arose in the first place.

Guy Consolmagno, S.J., an astronomer and planetary scientist, notes that “religion needs science to keep it away from superstition and keep it close to reality, to protect it from creationism, which at the end of the day is a kind of paganism.”

In 1996, John Paul II addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, reminding the conveners that “the Gospel truth can shed a higher light on the horizon of your research into the origins and unfolding of living matter.  The Bible in fact bears an extraordinary message of life.  It gives as a wise vision of life inasmuch as it describes the loftiest forms of existence.” 

The Big Bang in the Arts: Two Examples

One visual depiction of the Big Bang takes the contemporary mind back to a thirteenth-century French Bible (Codex 2553) in which a picture of God the Father is portrayed measuring the world with a compass at the time of Creation.  In the High Middle Ages, the compass was the only standard of measurement.

When Franz Joseph Haydn (d 1809) composed his oratorio, “The Creation,” his response was remarkable. At the words, “And then there was light,” he was overcome with tears.  Pointing upwards, he exclaimed, “This music came from heaven.”

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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