November 14, 2014


The Catholic Church and science

In our Oct. 31 issue, we reported on the talk that Pope Francis gave in which he said that the Big Bang theory and evolution are not incompatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church. He said, “The Big Bang, which today is held as the beginning of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine Creator, but requires it.”

As for evolution, he said, “Evolution in nature is not at odds with the notion of creation because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.” And he explained, “[God] created living beings, and he let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave each one, so that they would develop and reach their full potential.”

We placed that story on page 1 because we thought it was important. The secular news media also must have thought it important because they reported it, too. We thought it was important because the pope was teaching Catholic doctrine. The secular media apparently thought it was important because they thought it was surprising, something unexpected coming from a pope.

It shouldn’t have been surprising. After all, it was a Catholic priest, Belgian Father Georges Lemaître, who first proposed the Big Bang theory. But much of our secular world seems to have the idea that Catholicism and science are incompatible. They seem to think that the Catholic Church is a fundamentalist religion that considers the Bible to be a scientific textbook. That’s exactly what it is not.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults devote several pages to creation and evolution. They quote an encyclical from Pope Pius XII, written in 1950, that accepted the theory of evolution as long as it accepts the concept that each human soul is immortal and individually created by God.

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, approved by the American bishops in 2004, made it quite clear: “The Bible is not a scientific textbook and should never be read as such; rather it reveals what God wants us to know for the sake of our salvation” (p. 61).

As usual, the Catholic Church is in the middle when it comes to the debate over the beginning of the universe and evolution. It rejects both “creationists,” fundamentalists who insist that it happened exactly as stated in the Bible, and those who support a materialist and anti-religious interpretation that leaves God completely out.

“But what about Galileo?” That’s often the retort of those who think that the Church opposes science. In the 17th century, Galileo Galilei taught Nicolaus Copernicus’ theory that the Earth revolves around the sun, which was unacceptable to some Church authorities. So he was commanded to refrain from teaching that, and, when he persisted, was placed under house arrest. The Church long ago admitted that those Churchmen made a mistake, and St. John Paul II exonerated Galileo in 1992.

Today, as has been true throughout history, some of the world’s most renowned scientists are Catholics. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, where Pope Francis gave his talk on Oct. 27, was founded by Pope Pius XI in 1936. It’s a successor to the Academy of Lynxes, established in 1603, which once had Galileo as its president.

There are 80 members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, elected from all over the world, including 16 from the United States. Members include 49 winners of the Nobel Prize, including such laureates as Ernest Rutherford, Max Planck, Otto Hahn, Niels Bohr and Charles Hard Townes. Its current president is Nobel laureate Werner Arber, the first Protestant to hold the position.

The point is that the Catholic Church encourages science and sees no conflict between true science and religion. In fact, one of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” said clearly, “Methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God” (#36).

That doesn’t mean that the Church approves of everything scientists do, such as killing human embryos while doing research. That’s an example of “overriding moral laws.”

—John F. Fink

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