May 29, 2009


The Church and scientific truths

This editorial was prompted by the release of the movie Angels & Demons. It is not a review because we haven’t seen the movie. Some who have seen it, though, have criticized it for its attack on Catholic beliefs, especially the canard that the Church is opposed to science.

The movie is an adaptation of a novel by Dan Brown, who also wrote the anti-Catholic The DeVinci Code.

In the book Angels & Demons, and apparently also in the movie, he claims that the Catholic Church murdered scientists who were dedicated to scientific truth.

Unfortunately, the idea that the Church opposes scientific truth remains widespread, mainly because, in 1633, the Holy Office condemned the writings of Galileo Galilei for teaching that the Earth revolves around the sun. It was an error on the part of the Church’s officials of that era which was officially corrected in 1992.

But the Galileo case is an exception to the norm. For centuries before it and for centuries since then, the Church has been dedicated to the notion that the universe can be understood through scientific research because it came into being through its intelligent Creator.

We are in the midst of the International Year of Astronomy, established by the United Nations to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of the telescope to observe the cosmos. The Vatican Museums, Vatican Observatory and various other Vatican offices are participating in the observance with special programs.

At the beginning of the astronomy year, the Vatican described Galileo as “a believer who tried, in the context of his time, to reconcile the results of his scientific research with the tenets of the Christian faith.”

Pope Benedict XVI praised Galileo as a man of faith, “who saw nature as a book written by God.” He said that the discoveries of science and astronomy can help people better appreciate the wonders of God’s creation.

The Church’s attitude toward science is indicated by the mission statement of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. It says that it “seeks to pay honor to pure science, wherever it is found, to assure its freedom and to promote its research.” The academy includes 80 of the world’s most famous scientists.

The academy has scheduled a symposium from Oct. 31 to Nov. 4 on “Scientific Insights into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life.” That will be followed on Nov. 6-11 by a week dedicated to astrobiology, jointly sponsored by the Vatican Observatory and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Astrobiology studies the possibility of life in other parts of the universe. Astronomers are searching for what they call a “Goldilocks planet,” one that is not too hot or too cold, but just right to sustain life.

It is not true that most scientists are atheists. Catholic scientists have long been involved in discoveries that unlock the mysteries of creation, including Nicolaus Copernicus, considered the father of modern astronomy in the 17th century. And it’s not true that the Church murdered him. He died of a stroke at age 70.

Father Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest and astronomer, was one of those responsible for formulating the Big Bang theory for the origin of the universe. After one of his seminars on the theory in 1933, Albert Einstein, who was in the audience, stood up and said, “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.”

Fred Hoyle is another scientist associated with the Big Bang theory, and the one who gave it its name. The theory reverses the earlier belief that the universe always existed.

Now scientists know that it is continuing to expand, which also means that it must have had a beginning. Hoyle was converted from atheism when he came to realize that the Big Bang couldn’t have come about by accident, but required an intelligent cause.

Don’t let anyone tell you that the Church is opposed to scientific truths. It cannot be because it knows that God is the author of all truth, whether it be scientific or theological.

—John F. Fink

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