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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Church and Science

One of the great misunderstandings perpetrated in popular culture and the mainstream media is that the Church is anti-science. After all, just look at what the Church did to Galileo! But for Catholic ecologists, science and faith blend naturally. And so the question, how did a Church that some say was so anti-reason ever become engaged in the natural sciences?

The truth is, the Church was never anti-science.

But this lie has been told so often that it's become ingrained in our popular culture. Take for instance a story sent out by the Associated Press in November, 2009. The piece was about archaeological findings at Galileo's burial site, but it contained the following paragraph that was as misleading as it was irrelevant to the story.

“Galileo, who died in 1642, was condemned by the Vatican for saying the Earth revolved around the Sun. Church teaching at the time held that the Earth was the center of the universe.”

There was never nor is there any official Church dogma on particular matters of science. While in Galileo’s day many scholars embraced the teachings of Aristotle, who did maintain a geocentric worldview, the Church made no such formal pronouncement.

One could write reams about the real scientific issues at play—such as Galileo’s faulty assumption that planetary orbits were impossibly circular, or that he held that the Earth’s movement was proven by the motion of the tides, or that Church scientists understood that empirical evidence wasn’t matching Galileo’s mathematical models and wanted the scientist to fess up to this scientific principal. Galileo wouldn’t, and so began his political problems with what colleges today call academic review boards.

Still, Galileo was a genius; his contributions to science are immense. And yet what many seem to ignore is that his great hope was to prove the heliocentric planetary model that had been proposed decades earlier by Nicaolaus Copernicus—who was a devout Catholic, scientist and Church canon lawyer.

My concern is that sloppy (or agenda-driven) journalism, etc., like that AP story, will reinforce for the casual reader the myth that the Church was, and is, anti science. Quite the opposite is true. It has always been a Catholic trait to engage and employ worldly sciences, as can be seen in the writings of St. Paul through St. Augustine and St. Thomas, to Fr. Gregor Mendel, the founder of the modern science of genetics, and Fr. Georges Lemaitre, who took Einstein’s work and formulated the cosmic expansion theory—the Big Bang—a theory that not even Galileo could have ever imagined.

All this is important to keep in mind. Because when Catholics work in the natural sciences, or use them to bring about ecological or social good, we have to be ready to explain and defend our forebearers--as well as the faith-reason genetic code that has always been at the core of Catholic thought.

For more, take a few minutes and watch the following ...

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