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  • Writer's pictureSean O'Leary

Catholicism & Science

In a Pew Research Center survey, science was listed as one of the biggest reasons why people, especially young people, leave Christianity. This shows the success of the popular myth that Christianity and science are at loggerheads and that rational science is capable of replacing the need for superstitious religion.

There are some religions that do significantly oppose the findings of science. However, the myth that science and Catholicism are at war is false. Indeed, Christianity helped science to develop beyond existing knowledge because of its view of nature as ordered and worthy of investigation.

In Catholicism, there is a long tradition of science and religion working together to lift humankind towards the truth like two wings of a bird.

For instance, the forerunner of the scientific method was a 13th Century Franciscan Friar named Fr. Roger Bacon who emphasised the study of nature through observation, hypothesis, experimentation and independent verification. Blessed Nicholas Steno, a 17th Century Catholic bishop, contributed to palaeontology.

Nicolaus Copernicus developed a model of the universe in the 16th Century that placed the sun at its centre, known as heliocentrism. In the 19th Century, Fr. Gregor Mendel founded the modern science of genetics that contributed to evolutionary biology. In the 20th Century, Sr. Mary Kenny Keller was a pioneer in computer science while Fr. Georges Lemaitre formulated a theory to explain the origin of the universe, known as the Big Bang.

Right up to today, there are several Catholics who contribute to science and there are several ways of thinking about the harmony of science and faith. For me personally, both science and faith erode our sense of isolation from the real world and opens our hearts to a shared sense of the transcendent that we find from direct experience of our highly ordered universe. I am unconvinced by atheistic arguments that the order we discover or the love we experience in this life developed accidentally. No, the universe has a meaningful purpose and we are part of this greater purpose.

There is enormous evidence from historical literature, philosophy, the arts and the sciences as well as our lived experience that speaks of the human capacity to sense the transcendent. This is what Rudolf Otto describes as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (the mystery at the same time fearsome and compelling). In other words, we sense that we are much more than a physical being, a reality described by C. S. Lewis as ‘longing for joy’.

In our experience of God, we find a goodness, beauty and truth that is beyond subjective experience. I believe that combining this experience of wonder and awe with scientific discoveries about the order found in nature encourages us to share in the intellectual, spiritual and pastoral tradition of the Catholic Church.

In this way, we go beyond materialism towards solidarity. As expressed by Pope Pius XII, ‘For two thousand years this sentiment has lived and endured in the soul of the Church, impelling souls then and now to the heroic charity of monastic farmers, liberators of slaves, healers of the sick, and messengers of faith, civilisation, and science to all generations and all peoples for the sake of creating the social conditions capable of offering everyone possible a life worthy of man and of a Christian’ (Pius XII, Summi pontificatus, October 20, 1939; AAS 31 (1939) 423 ff.).

There are several references to science in the Catechism of the Catholic Church e.g. ‘The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers’ (CCC, 283).

Knowledge alone is insufficient for understanding or living a good life. Beyond our capacity for language, God is revealed through the universal language of creation. Practicing goodness, spiritual joy, moral beauty and truth-seeking belong together and can often carry us beyond words to the depths of our souls towards the mystery of God.

Wisdom is available to us as the breath of God emanating from the glory of the Almighty, a reflection of eternal light. In the Blessed Trinity, we find the ultimate source of creativity, truth and love.

Whether our interests concern cosmology or evolution or the natural world or the nature of humanity, we can find numerous resources on the following Web Sites. Each of these organisations attest to the beautiful harmony between science and faith.

1) Reason, Faith & Science

A U.S. Catholic evangelical initiative ‘Word on Fire’ also provides a Web Site that pulls together resources on science, including articles and video commentaries, alongside short profiles of scientific founders who were deeply religious.

2) Vatican Observatory Foundation

The Vatican Observatory can trace its roots to the 16th Century Pope Gregory XIII who wished to study the scientific data involved in reforming the Julian calendar that had been used since 45 BC. The Vatican Observatory Foundation supports scientific research into the knowledge of the universe and promotes relevant scientific, philosophical and theological education.

3) The Society of Catholic Scientists

The Society of Catholic Scientists was established to answer the call of Pope St. John Paul II that scientists who are members of the Church be of service to those who are attempting to integrate the worlds of science and religion in their own intellectual or spiritual lives. The Society achieves this through an annual conference, seminars, discussion groups and its Web Site.

4) Pontifical Academy of Science

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has its roots in the Academy of the Lynxes (Accademia dei Lincei) which was founded in Rome in 1603 as the first exclusively scientific academy in the world. Pope Pius XI renewed and reconstituted the Academy in 1936 and gave it its present name. The academy is international in scope, multi-racial in composition, and non-sectarian in its choice of members. Among its goals are the promotion of the mathematical, physical and natural sciences, and the study of related epistemological questions and issues; the recognition of excellence in science; and stimulating an interdisciplinary approach to scientific knowledge.

5) The website of the Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion and Science is edited by the Advanced School for Interdisciplinary Research (ADSIR), operating at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. It offers information on the relationship between theology, philosophy and scientific thought. The website is principally addressed to those who teach in schools and universities, promote pastoral initiatives for the Christian evangelization of culture, or those who are interested in the interdisciplinary aspects of scientific research.

St. Albert the Great, a Doctor of the Church who expanded empirical investigation in the 13th Century, is the patron saint of scientists. When exploring the interface of science and faith, it is good to say a prayer to St. Albert.

O Divine Creator, Saint Albert was a bishop who introduced Greek and Arabic science to medieval Europe, raising understanding of botany, biology, physics, and other studies of nature. A scientist himself, he wrote many books on these subjects. I ask him to pray for all scientists today, for their talents to be used to promote life rather than to destroy it, for elusive cures to be found, and for the moral use of the discoveries that they have already made. O Lord, fill them with Your Holy Spirit to guide them into understanding and respecting that You are the Author and Master of all creation. Saint Albert, pray for us. Amen.


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