Teaching Our Faith – Faith and science

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz

This series of teaching editorials focuses on the relationship between faith and science.

For the last few years, I have engaged with a group of Catholic scientists who serve in various settings in our Archdiocese. I very much enjoy our dialogue, both because of their erudition in science and because of their deep faith.

Some assume that faith and science are mutually exclusive answers on a multiple-choice test. Faith and science rightfully understood, however, work well together.

Though tensions have existed in the Church between faith and science over the centuries, reviewing this small sample of Catholic scientists tells a compelling story about the scientific contributions of people of faith:

Augustinian priest Gregor Mendel founded modern genetics.

Louis Pasteur was a pioneer of microbiology and a creator of the first vaccines for rabies and anthrax.

Cleric Nicolaus Copernicus first developed scientifically the view that the earth rotated around the sun.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi wrote the first textbook discussing both differential and integral calculus.

Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian physicist and Roman Catholic priest, is credited with what became known as the “Big Bang” theory.

More recently, Catholics have been numbered among Nobel Laureates in Medicine and Physiology, including John Eccles and Alexis Carrel.

Section 159 of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” which in large part echoes the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” – “Gaudium et Spes” says the following:

“Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.” 37 “Consequently, 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 …”

Challenges that cause tensions between faith and science arise from two extremes that Saint John Paul II discussed in his encyclical “Fides et Ratio” (“Faith and Reason”): fideism and scientism. Fideism denies the application of reason to faith, and scientism asserts that science is the only basis for truth and denies any ethical framework for evaluating scientific or technological advances.

An illustration of the challenge posed by these two extremes can be found in the approach to the origin of the universe, often a source of tension between the faith and scientific communities. A version of fideism finds truth only in the biblical explanation of the beginning of the world found in Genesis, treating it almost as a scientific textbook about the origins of the universe.

The Church teaches that the Holy Spirit inspires Scripture and that Scripture presents the truth without error. In Scripture, however, truth emerges in many different forms, such as poetry and myth, as well as through historical facts. While science can and is providing insights about the origin of the universe, the creation stories in Genesis seek the deeper truth and do not so much explain in literal or scientific terms how the Earth came to be. Instead, they present the truth of God as the author of creation and reveal God’s invitation to be in intimate communion with Him.

Scientism, on the other hand, rejects as fantasy any consideration of the truth that is communicated through Scripture or tradition about God as creator of the universe, about the nature of God and about how God calls us to find ultimate meaning in life.

Science and faith need each other. On this topic, Saint John Paul said the following in a letter to the Director of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory: “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”

Faith also has a vital role to play in establishing ethical frameworks for science. At the end of 2017, Pope Francis spoke to the Pontifical Academy for Culture and thanked scientists for their contributions to the development of humanity, which he acknowledged the Church has not always respected. He also challenged scientists to put the human person at the center and to observe ethical responsibilities, which sometimes involves proper limits: “Not everything that is technically possible or feasible is therefore ethically acceptable.”

It is important to make this distinction between what we can do and what we ought to do. We need science in order to solve problems and in order to understand our wondrous world better. Science needs philosophy and theology to help with the “ought” question.

The Most Reverend Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D. is the Archbishop of Louisville

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