What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Catholic Scientist’?

Detail of a painting of St. Albert the Great on the ceiling of Santa Maria dell'Anima in Rome. St. Albert, a Dominican friar and bishop who taught St. Thomas Aquinas, is the patron saint of scientists.Detail of a painting of St. Albert the Great on the ceiling of Santa Maria dell'Anima in Rome. St. Albert, a Dominican friar and bishop who taught St. Thomas Aquinas, is the patron saint of scientists.Flickr Lawrence OP (CC)

Any reference to “Catholic scientists” might appear to mean scientists who happen to be Catholics, just as one would speak of politicians, economists, or writers who happen to be Catholics. The phrase “happen to be” suggests a merely accidental pairing, as though each half of the phrase “Catholic scientists” is true but there is no whole — no real unity or single identity. A culture in which religious belief is generally relegated to the sphere of private practice encourages such a view. So we are told that we ought not to mix religion with essentially secular activity — like science.

But we are not very consistent in this view. We often hear arguments about the need to take action about global warming, or to support various new medical techniques, or to encourage or prevent human reproduction. In these and many other cases, it is obvious that we cannot exclude ethical questions from scientific and technological practices. And since ethics involves both reason and faith, we implicitly grant an important role to religious belief in certain scientific activity. We tend, however, only to legitimize those religious arguments concerning such activity when they support what we already have decided needs to be done — for example, reduce our carbon footprint or encourage embryonic stem cell research.

What would it mean to be a Catholic scientist — as distinct from a scientist who happens to be Catholic? This is a question central to the new Society of Catholic Scientists, which had its inaugural meeting in Chicago in April 2017. The founding president of the society is Stephen Barr, a professor of physics at the University of Delaware who frequently writes for popular audiences, including the books Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (2003) and The Believing Scientist: Essays on Science and Religion (2016). The society proposes to offer a witness “to the harmony between the vocation of scientists and the life of faith.” What such a harmony entails is not, however, a scientific question; it is a question for theology. And, like all theological questions, it necessarily involves philosophical analysis.

The Philosophy of Nature
A Catholic scientist cannot avoid theological and philosophical engagement. There is a sense, of course, in which no scientist functions in a theological or philosophical vacuum. A fundamental feature of the Catholic tradition is its explicit recognition of the theological and philosophical contexts of all human activity, and not just of the activity of scientists. Nevertheless — once again this is a feature of Catholic thinking — there is a special importance for scientists to grasp this truth since all our knowledge begins with sense experience.

My focus in these comments is not on ethics — what to do with our knowledge — but, rather, on what it is that a scientist knows. Is there some understanding of scientific knowledge that is embraced by a Catholic scientist precisely because he or she is Catholic? Surely, such knowledge would not be in contradiction to or a replacement for what the natural sciences tell us about the world. Indeed, it is a fundamental principle of Catholicism that God is the author of all truth, and hence whatever truths human reason discovers about the world cannot contradict what God’s revelation discloses. The principle is easy to state, but it is not always easy to be sure what reason discovers and what faith reveals. A Catholic scientist can help fellow scientists see that Christian revelation does not challenge the truths of science, and he or she can help Christians see that they ought not to fear science as a threat to religious belief. These principles do not eliminate all tensions and conflicts throughout history or today. But they do set the benchmark for how one can respond to such controversies.

How should a Catholic scientist respond to claims that some contemporary cosmological theories — which include an eternal series of big bangs or multiverse scenarios in which our universe is but one of an infinite number — call into question (if not deny) the doctrine of creation? What about the fact that chemical analysis suggests that the bread and wine do not change during the Mass, when the doctrine of transubstantiation affirms that they really become the body and blood of Christ? Or what about the claims of evolutionary biology that human beings exist in biological continuity with the rest of the living world and do not represent any qualitative difference within that world, when revelation tells us that men and women are created in the image and likeness of God? What of the view that the natural sciences are sufficient to explain all that needs to be explained in the world (with no need to appeal to divine causality), when God’s providence is constantly at work in all that happens?

For a scientist who happens to be Catholic, these and related questions might prove personally vexing but could, perhaps, simply be left to others to discuss. But a Catholic scientist, I think, has an obligation to think systematically about them. Such engagement requires the Catholic scientist to integrate his or her own work into a more general science of nature, traditionally known as the philosophy of nature. The importance of the philosophy of nature — and the metaphysics that follows from it — has always been a key insight of Catholic thinkers, especially St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and his teacher, St. Albert the Great (1200–1280). The philosophy of nature is not the philosophy of science (a more or less modern discipline). Rather, it concerns questions such as the nature of change, of various kinds of cause, of time, of life, of purposes in nature, of the reality of the soul, and similar topics. The philosophy of nature is not theology and it is not limited to Catholic scientists. In fact, it is important for any scientist (believer or non-believer) to think clearly about this more general science of nature, of which his or her own specialty is a part. But Catholic theology puts a special emphasis on the importance of a sound philosophy of nature in order to resolve many of the questions to which I have already referred. This ought to serve as an impetus for any Catholic scientist to study the philosophy of nature.

Science, Naturalism, and the Knowledge of God
There is a widespread acceptance today, especially in scientific circles, of a materialistic natural philosophy: that there is nothing more to the natural order than material or physical entities.

Materialism is often expressed in various forms of mechanism that considers living things only as machines so that, finally, there really is no difference between artifacts and organisms. For this philosophy of nature, free will, rationality, consciousness, and the soul are reduced to mere illusions or perhaps epiphenomena of material reality. Despite challenges to science offered by various forms of fundamentalism and biblical literalism, the more significant threat comes from an exclusively materialist understanding of nature. The latter eliminates the distinction between the living and the non-living, reduces change to the rearrangement of material entities, and eviscerates nature of any intrinsic principles.

The Catholic scientist ought to recognize the materialist philosophical framework in which much of contemporary science is set forth and then use resources from the Catholic tradition to challenge the presuppositions of such a philosophy. An initial motivation to reject materialism and mechanism may come from faith, but the analysis of the claims must come from the discipline of the philosophy of nature. Since discourse in the philosophy of nature does not require faith, the Catholic scientist can engage in such discourse with other scientists who do not share this faith.

As a more general science of nature than the individual empirical sciences, the philosophy of nature depends on those sciences, but also requires an elevated level of analysis. The Catholic scientist is especially well prepared to enter this intellectual arena. However, he or she must first be aware of the arena and then learn how to navigate in it. There are historical sources to aid in this enterprise, such as Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. There are also more recent authors, such as Benedict Ashley, William Wallace, and Michael Dodds.

Most of the challenges to an understanding of the relationship between science and faith come from a kind of “totalizing naturalism” that affirms that the natural sciences tell us everything that can be known about the world. Any appeal to God is to be rejected as superfluous. Too often the choice presented is whether or not to explain a particular feature of the world in terms of natural causes or in terms of divine causality. The more one appeals to nature, the less, it seems, one appeals to God’s agency, and vice versa. It is the province of the natural sciences to discover causes in the natural order. And the Catholic scientist, like any other scientist, seeks to discover the natural causes that explain the phenomena revealed through the observation and investigation of nature. Albert the Great, who was named patron saint of scientists by Pope Pius XII in 1941, put it this way: “In the natural sciences we do not investigate how God the Creator operates according to His free will and uses miracles to show His power, but rather what may happen in natural things on the ground of the causes inherent in nature.”

Albert’s famous student Aquinas pointed out that there is an autonomy and integrity to nature such that there are real causes operating: acorns really do cause oak trees, hydrogen and oxygen are causes of water, and so forth. God causes creatures (animate and inanimate) to be causes of their own proper effects. God’s causality is so powerful, so utterly transcendent, that He can be the complete cause of all that is and happens, and creatures, too, are the causes of what they do. It is by examining what it means for God to be the Creator — an examination in metaphysics and theology — that we are able to come to some understanding of how “to be created,” that is, to be completely dependent upon God, is also an affirmation of individual autonomy, of having one’s own nature from which one’s characteristic behavior flows. In fact, there can be no real autonomy in existing things were it not for the fact that they are created ex nihilo. Creation is not some distant event; it is the ongoing causing of the whole reality of whatever is. There can be no nature — and hence no science of nature — without there being a Creator.

The Catholic scientist has a crucial role to play in helping people recognize that God is revealed in nature; the Creator’s footsteps are seen, as it were, in the created order. The theological emphasis on the philosophy of nature was affirmed in 1870 in the First Vatican Council’s solemn proclamation that:

God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason…: “ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” (Romans 1:20)

The route from creatures to Creator begins with the natural sciences, but then passes through the philosophy of nature and, ultimately, metaphysics.

In a well-known letter written in 1988 to George Coyne, S.J., then the director of the Vatican Observatory, Pope John Paul II referred to the dynamic relationship between science and faith: “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other to a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.” In this wider world, the Catholic scientist, supported by philosophical and theological analysis, can help Catholics see that the tenets of their faith are not called into question by the extraordinary advances of science. The harmony between faith and science does not destroy the special characteristics of each — yet it does affirm a real unity in our understanding of both Creator and creatures.

14 Responses

  1. mikehornMike says:

    This article is confused about what science is. Science is, at its most basic, methodological naturalism, which states that all pursuits and evidence and experimentation and conclusions must be based on the natural, observable world. Science doesn’t say that nothing more exists than the natural world, only that science as a tool of reason cannot coherently investigate something if it isn’t part of the natural world. The claim that a Catholic scientist is not two things is a bit odd. A scientist explaining the naturalistic methods and conclusions of science is being a scientist. A Catholic talking about faith and divine will and all is simply not being scientific. Perhaps a Venn diagram would help: A scientist could also be a Catholic, but many things a Catholic would say or teach or believe are not scientific. Similarly, a scientist could not base a scientific conclusion on divine agency or anything similar, but only on natural world observations and data and the math around those. Anything supernatural is not science and cannot be part of the work of science if you want that work to be valid.

  2. Dubber says:

    Science and Faith are decidedly incompatible with each other.

    Science (observation, data collection, experiment, consensus) has the tools to determine truth, whereas religion (scripture, dogma, personal revelation) does not.

    Remember religionists were indoctrinated in early childhood (without knowledge, without consent!) when their neuropsychiatric systems were most vulnerable. As adults, they remain deeply emotionally attached to religion, despite reason and rationality telling them otherwise. An unhealthy duality.

    Besides, religion IS science insofar as religion is derived from the times of the ancient dance-trance hunter-gatherers, who developed religion as a tribal or communal mechanism of solidarity and cooperation (planting, harvesting, hunting, defense, war), in other words, a bio-evolutionary survival mechanism. The three main Abrahamic monotheisms derive ethics and morality from pre-humans and proto-humans and early modern pagan societies, rather than from a metaphysical origin. Our ethics and morality have likewise evolved.

  3. Bret Lythgoe says:

    In response to Mike, above: science is not “methodological naturalism.” The latter is a philosophical position. Science is following the evidence, wherever it may lead. It doesn’t, a priori, deny the possibility of supernatural explanations.

    • mikehorn says:

      There are two “naturalisms” that are similar but distinct. Methodological naturalism is the scientific method, where only natural things are considered as a means to tighten the scope of investigation and get repeatable results. Philosophical naturalism by contrast states that the natural world is all there is, ruling out most religions. While a scientist might believe in philosophical naturalism without it affecting the science, the two are distinct.

  4. Howard says:

    A Catholic scientist must accept the dogma of the Holy Trinity. He will know that this is a mystery that cannot be fully comprehended by mere humans; he will also know that although it does not actually contradict the monotheism of the Old Testament, it is in tension with the Old Testament, so much so that it was completely unanticipated by Temple Judaism, was revealed by God, not discovered by human reason, and is to this day mistakenly believed by many to contradict monotheism. The Holy Trinity is a mystery in the proper sense, and whenever we encounter such a mystery we reach the limits of human reason, in which people have a very strong tendency to be too sure of the conclusions they reach when they extrapolate from known truths.

    A Catholic scientist will know there are A LOT of mysteries taught by the Church. As a result, a Catholic scientist has no excuse for not knowing that there is a difference between saying, “I cannot imagine how statement X and statement Y could be compatible” and proving rigorously that statement X and statement Y contradict each other. This, together with the historical record of the mistakes of others, make a Catholic scientist very, very, very cautious about rejecting scientific ideas for religious reasons.

    He may, on the other hand, be motivated to show how Church dogma is compatible with science by showing that apparent contradictions are due to unnecessary implications being drawn from the dogma or from the science not yet being sufficiently mature.

  5. waterside4 says:

    And yet our present Pontiff consults with the greatest anti-scientists such as abortionists and believers in the pagan goddess Gaia, who promulgate their non-scientific and unproven theories of the ‘evil’ life-giving trace gas called carbon dioxide?

    • mikehorn says:

      You’ve got different things wrapped together, some science and some not. First, abortionists being evil is a religious/moral judgement on which science is silent. Whether or not to actually engage with people you disagree with to get to a better outcome is also not science but a mixture of tactics and ideology. Any disagreement you have with the pope here is completely irrelevant to science.

      Second, whether or not someone is pagan or Christian does not necessarily say anything about whether their science is correct. Similar for political leanings. On the left, many are correct about climate change but dead wrong on GMOs. On the right it tends to be the opposite. People on both fringes are wrong on vaccines. Science doesn’t care what your opinion is or what your theology is. On climate change, 200-300 ppm on CO2 was a good balance between retaining heat at night and shedding it into space. Now, at 400ppm+, we are retaining too much heat to stay at the same normal temperatures. That is basic science, and it’s been 100 years since we first asked the question and 30 years since the reality became clear. Your opinion on whether the amounts of CO2 or methane or water vapor or others are tiny or huge is irrelevant to what that amount does.

      Then again, what we propose to do with that knowledge should be based on science, but the actions themselves only approach science through engineering. The choices themselves are social and economic. I’m a proponent of action, but oil and coal are so much a backbone of our prosperity that finding solutions will be neither easy nor fast. It will take decades at a bare minimum.

      Then there are additional concerns. Germany, the U.K., and the rest of Europe are going heavy into solar and wind power only partly over ACC. A big factor is independence from Gazprom and Russia. China is at least a decade ahead of America on renewables not because of climate change but over their acute pollution from coal plants killing their people. The primary and immediate motivators are not ACC.

  6. Dave S. says:

    Catholics have nothing to fear from science; the converse should also be true — but it isn’t. And that’s too bad. Some science has become the hammer for socio-politico advocacy — and we know where that has led.

    • mikehorn says:

      It depends. If Catholicism spreads demonstrably untrue things on subjects where science has actual, demonstrable answers, then Catholicism puts itself at odds with science and against truth. The example Americans might know best is over the ACA, contraception, and the legal gymnastics of “sincerely held belief,” which says that a religion can sincerely believe falsehoods and still be protected by the free exercise clause. While this has some legal merit, on the issue of science it is about true and false.

  7. Me-sir says:

    Potentially God could cause an event to happen and the reasons for the change are rational. If you can pinpoint the interference you can include him in the natural universe as a being, if somewhat hard to observe. Otherwise, it is best to scientifically assume he is not interfering because there is no evidence that he/she is. Like Albert the Great says we should look at the natural world with science. Though why can’t we try and work out or examine how God influences things. It would be scientific to do so, though some might think it is impossible or unethical. What if we find some of his tools while exploring, a worrying/exciting possibility.

    • Me-sir says:

      Also I think “materialism” is a sad viewpoint. Without hope. With a smattering of trust and faith you can have a hopeful universe. As everything is temporary in form it appears that anything you love or like will one day die. Better to hope for more I think.

      • mikehorn says:

        Talk to someone who is philosophically a materialist and they will disagree with you. Children are a huge source of hope, for instance. The enduring works of art and architecture. The beauty of astronomy.

    • mikehorn says:

      Science can investigate anything observable. If a god is observable, science can study it; then that God can be defined in nature and deed. It will no longer be a matter of faith, but of evidence and fact.

      The problem comes with the failure to observe that a god exists yet asserting it does, then assigning actions or ideas or morals to that asserted but unproven god and declaring them beyond question or study. That is not only unscientific, but profoundly anti science.

  8. Harry Biltz says:

    For the sake of clarity regarding the teaching of the Catholic Church for those who may not be familiar with it: It is a dogma of the Catholic Church that God “can be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason.”

    If the Universe and everything within it came into existence through the Word(1), and continues to exist through the Word(2), and His providential care of it is “concrete and immediate” right down to the very “least things,” including the activity of each and every subatomic particle, such that He has “absolute sovereignty over the course of events,”(3) including acting upon that which He brought into being not just indirectly through “secondary causes,” but sometimes in a direct way that demonstrates His personal “primacy and absolute Lordship” over it all(4), then Catholics ought to agree with atheist Richard Dawkins that “the doctrine of creation requires a Divine Tinkerer.” Although we wouldn’t put it quite that way, Dawkins’ point is well taken. God holds the Universe in existence from instant to instant and manages it in a “concrete and immediate” way that sometimes includes His direct, supernatural intervention.

    If atheists who are intelligent enough to investigate the world “have no excuse” for failing to find its Author, and failing to see that it is the work of a supremely intelligent Master Artificer(5), then Catholics ought to be able to explain why they find belief in God utterly reasonable. We should be a light to those with the “darkened” minds of which St. Paul spoke.(6) The Universe and the life within it shout to those who will but listen that that they were intelligently designed by the ultimate Master Craftsman and Artist Who reveals Himself to us through His works. This is the belief of orthodox Catholics.(7)(8)

    (1) … the Word was God. … Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him.
    — John 1:1,3

    (2) God created the universe and keeps it in existence by his Word, the Son “upholding the universe by his word of power” (Heb 1:3), and by his Creator Spirit, the giver of life.
    — Catechism of the Catholic Church, #320

    (3) The witness of Scripture is unanimous that the solicitude of divine providence is concrete and immediate; God cares for all, from the least things to the great events of the world and its history. The sacred books powerfully affirm God’s absolute sovereignty over the course of events …
    — Catechism of the Catholic Church, #303

    (4) And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes. This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world …
    — Catechism of the Catholic Church, #304

    (5) Yes, naturally stupid are all who are unaware of God, and who, from good things seen, have not been able to discover Him-who-is, or, by studying the works, have not recognized the Artificer. … let them know how much the Master of these excels them, since He was the very source of beauty that created them. And if they have been impressed by their power and energy, let them deduce from these how much mightier is He that has formed them, since through the grandeur and beauty of the creatures we may, by analogy, contemplate their Author. … they have no excuse: if they are capable of acquiring enough knowledge to be able to investigate the world, how have they been so slow to find its Master?
    — Wisdom 13:1,3-5,8-9 (Jerusalem Bible)

    (6) For what can be known about God is perfectly plain to them, since God has made it plain to them: ever since the creation of the world, the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things. And so these people have no excuse: they knew God and yet they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but their arguments became futile and their uncomprehending minds were darkened. While they claimed to be wise, in fact they were growing so stupid …
    — Romans 1:19-22 (Jerusalem Bible)

    (7) If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema.
    — Vatican Council I, can. 2 § I

    (8) … The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason … (Cf. Vatican Council I, can. 2 § I)
    — Catechism of the Catholic Church, #286

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