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Catholic Church and science

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Catholic Church and science

God as Architect/Geometer, from the frontispiece of French Codex Vindobonensis 2554, ca. 1250.

The relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and science is a widely debated subject. Historically, the Church has often been a patron of sciences. It has been prolific in the foundation of schools, universities and hospitals, and many clergy have been active in the sciences. Historians of science such as Pierre Duhem credit medieval Catholic mathematicians and philosophers such as John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and Roger Bacon as the founders of modern science.[1] Duhem concluded that "the mechanics and physics of which modern times are justifiably proud to proceed, by an uninterrupted series of scarcely perceptible improvements, from doctrines professed in the heart of the medieval schools."[2] Yet, the conflict thesis and other critiques emphasize historical or contemporary conflict between the Catholic Church and science, citing in particular the trial of Galileo in evidence. For its part, the Catholic Church teaches that the Christian faith and science are complementary.

Catholic scientists, both religious and lay, have led scientific discovery in many fields. From ancient times, Christian emphasis on practical charity gave rise to the development of systematic nursing and hospitals and the Church remains the single greatest private provider of medical care and research facilities in the world. Following the Big Bang cosmological model. The Jesuits have been particularly active, notably in astronomy. Church patronage of sciences continues through elite institutions like the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Vatican Observatory.

This view of the Church as a patron of sciences is contested by some, who speak either of an historically varied relationship, which has shifted from active and even singular support; to bitter clashes (with accusations of heresy) - or of an enduring intellectual conflict between religion and science. Enlightenment Philosophers such as Voltaire were famously dismissive of the achievements of the Middle Ages. In the 19th century, the conflict thesis emerged to propose an intrinsic conflict or conflicts between the Church and science. The original historical usage of the term asserted that the Church has been in perpetual opposition to science. Later uses of the term denote the Church's epistemological opposition to science. The thesis interprets the relationship between the Church and science as inevitably leading to public hostility, when religion aggressively challenges new scientific ideas — as in the Galileo Affair. An alternative criticism is that the Church opposed particular scientific discoveries that it felt challenged its authority and power - particularly through the Reformation and on through the Enlightenment. This thesis shifts the emphasis away from the perception of the fundamental incompatibility of religion per se and science-in-general to a critique of the structural reasons for the resistance of the Church as a political organisation.

The Church itself rejects the notion of innate conflict. The Vatican Council (1869/70) declared that "Faith and reason are of mutual help to each other".[3] The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1912 proffers that "The conflicts between science and the Church are not real", and states that belief in such conflicts are predicated on false assumptions.[4] Pope John Paul II summarised the Catholic view of the relationship between faith and reason in the encyclical Fides et Ratio, saying "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves."[5] The present Papal astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno describes science as an "act of worship" and a way of "a way of getting intimate with the creator."[6]

Some leading Catholic scientists

Scientific fields with important foundational contributions from Catholic scientists included: Lemaître). Jesuits devised modern lunar nomenclature and stellar classification and some 35 craters of the moon are named after Jesuits, among whose great scientific polymaths were Francesco Grimaldi and Giambattista Riccioli. The Jesuits also introduced Western science to India and China and translated local texts to be sent to Europe for study. Missionaries contributed significantly to the fields of anthropology, zoology and botany during Europe's Age of Discovery.

Definitions of science

Differing analyses of the Catholic relationship to science may arise from definitional variance. While secular philosophers consider 'science' in the restricted sense of natural science, theologians have viewed science in a very broad sense, as given by Aristotle's definition that science is the sure and evident knowledge obtained from demonstrations.[7] In this sense, science comprises the entire curriculum of university studies, and the Church has claimed authority in matters of doctrine and teaching of science. With the gradual secularisation of the West, the influence of the Church over scientific research has gradually faded.


Early Middle Ages

Skellig Michael, Ireland. Following the Fall of Rome monastic settlements systematically maintained knowledge of classical languages and learning.

After the Fall of Rome, while an increasingly Hellenized Roman Empire and Christian religion endured as the Byzantine Empire in the East, the study of nature endured in monastic communities in the West. On the fringes of western Europe, where the Roman tradition had not made a strong imprint, monks engaged in the study of Latin as a foreign language, and actively investigated the traditions of Roman learning. Ireland's most learned monks even retained a knowledge of Greek. Irish missionaries like Colombanus later founded monasteries in continental Europe, which went on to create libraries and become centres of scholarship.[8]

The leading scholars of the Early Middle Ages were clergymen, for whom the study of nature was but a small part of their scholarly interest. They lived in an atmosphere which provided opportunity and motives for the study of aspects of nature. Some of this study was carried out for explicitly religious reasons. The need for monks to determine the proper time to pray led them to study the motion of the stars,[9] the need to compute the date of Easter led them to study and teach rudimentary mathematics and the motions of the Sun and Moon.[10] Modern readers may find it disconcerting that sometimes the same works discuss both the technical details of natural phenomena and their symbolic significance.[11] In an astronomical observation, Bede of Jarrow described two comets over England, and wrote that the "fiery torches", of AD 729, struck terror in all who saw them - for comets were heralds of bad news.[12]

Among these clerical scholars were Bishop Isidore of Seville, who wrote a comprehensive encyclopedia of natural knowledge, the monk Bede of Jarrow, who wrote treatises on The Reckoning of Time and The Nature of Things, Alcuin of York, abbot of the Abbey of Marmoutier, who advised Charlemagne on scientific matters, and Rabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz and one of the most prominent teachers of the Carolingian Age, who, Like Bede, wrote treatises on computus and On the Nature of Things. Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham, who is known mostly for his Old English sermons, wrote a book on the astronomical time reckoning in Old English based on the writings of Bede. Abbo of Fleury wrote astronomical discussions of timekeeping and of the celestial spheres for his students, teaching for a while in England where he influenced the work of Byrhtferth of Ramsey, who wrote a Manual in Old English to discuss timekeeping and the natural and mystical significance of numbers.[13]

Later Middle Ages

Pythagoras on one of the archivolts at Chartres Cathedral. From Medieval Europe's Cathedral Schools grew many of Europe's modern universities.

Foundation of universities

In the early Middle Ages, Cathedral schools developed as centers of advanced education, often evolving into the medieval universities which were the springboard of many of Western Europe's later achievements.[14] During the High Middle Ages, Chartres Cathedral operated the famous and influential Chartres Cathedral School. Among the great early Catholic universities were Bologna University (1088); Paris University (c 1150); Oxford University (1167); Salerno University (1173); Vicenza University (1204); Cambridge University (1209); Salamanca University (1218-1219); Padua University (1222); Naples University (1224) and Vercelli University (1228).[15]

Using church Latin as a Robert Grosseteste of the University of Oxford, an early expositor of a systematic method of scientific experimentation;[16] and Saint Albert the Great, a pioneer of biological field research.[17] By the mid-15th century, prior to the Reformation, Catholic Europe had some 50 universities.[15]

Condemnations of 1210-1277

The Condemnations of 1210-1277 were enacted at the medieval University of Paris to restrict certain teachings as being heretical. These included a number of medieval theological teachings, but most importantly the physical treatises of Aristotle. The investigations of these teachings were conducted by the Bishops of Paris. The Condemnations of 1277 are traditionally linked to an investigation requested by Pope John XXI, although whether he actually supported drawing up a list of condemnations is unclear.

Approximately sixteen lists of censured theses were issued by the University of Paris during the 13th and 14th centuries.[18] Most of these lists of propositions were put together into systematic collections of prohibited articles.[18]

Mathematics, engineering and architecture

According to art historian Kenneth Clark, "to medieval man, geometry was a divine activity. God was the great geometer, and this concept inspired the architect".[19] Monumental cathedrals such as that of Chartres appear to evidence a complex understanding of mathematics.[19] The Church has invested greatly in engineering and architecture and founded a number of architectural genres - including Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, High Renaissance and Baroque architecture.[15]

Development of Modern Science

"The Vitruvian Man" by Leonardo da Vinci.


geology and "Father of Mineralogy".[20][21] He made important contributions which paved the way for systematic study of the earth.[21] A German Catholic who retained his faith through the Reformation, he also wrote on patristics (early church history).[20] Nicolas Steno (1638-1686) is a notable Catholic convert who served as a bishop after making a series of important anatomical and geological innovations. His studies of the formation of rock layers and fossils was of vital significance to the development of modern geology and continue to be used today.[22] He established the theoretical basis for stratigraphy. Originally a Lutheran, he did important anatomical work in the Netherlands but moved to Catholic Italy and, in 1667, converted. Denied office in the Protestant north, he continued his medical and geological studies, but in 1675 became a priest and soon after was appointed a bishop, writing 16 major theological works.[23]


Detail of the tomb of Pope Gregory XIII celebrating the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar.

Historically, the Catholic Church has been a major a sponsor of astronomy, not least due to the astronomical basis of the calendar by which holy days and Easter are determined. The Church’s interest in astronomy began with purely practical concerns, when in the 16th century Pope Gregory XIII required astronomers to correct for the fact that the Julian calendar had fallen out of sync with the sky. Since the Spring equinox was tied to the celebration of Easter, the Church considered that this steady movement in the date of the equinox was undesirable. The resulting Gregorian calendar is the internationally accepted civil calendar used throughout the world today and is an important contribution of the Catholic Church to Western Civilisation.[24][25][26] It was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII, after whom the calendar was named, by a decree signed on 24 February 1582.[27] In 1789, the Vatican Observatory opened. It was moved to Castel Gandolfo in the 1930s and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope began making observation in Arizona, USA, in 1995.[28]

Nicolaus Copernicus, the clergyman astronomer who put the sun at the centre of the solar system, upsetting both scientific and religious accepted theory.

Nicolaus Copernicus was a Renaissance astronomer and Catholic clergyman who was the first person to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology which displaced the Earth from the centre of the universe.

In 1533, Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter delivered a series of lectures in Rome outlining Copernicus' theory. Pope Clement VII and several Catholic cardinals heard the lectures and were interested in the theory. On 1 November 1536, Nikolaus von Schönberg, Archbishop of Capua and since the previous year a cardinal, wrote to Copernicus from Rome:

Some years ago word reached me concerning your proficiency, of which everybody constantly spoke. At that time I began to have a very high regard for you... For I had learned that you had not merely mastered the discoveries of the ancient astronomers uncommonly well but had also formulated a new cosmology. In it you maintain that the earth moves; that the sun occupies the lowest, and thus the central, place in the universe... Therefore with the utmost earnestness I entreat you, most learned sir, unless I inconvenience you, to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars, and at the earliest possible moment to send me your writings on the sphere of the universe together with the tables and whatever else you have that is relevant to this subject ...[29]

By then Copernicus' work was nearing its definitive form, and rumors about his theory had reached educated people all over Europe. Despite urgings from many quarters, Copernicus delayed publication of his book, perhaps from fear of criticism—a fear delicately expressed in the subsequent dedication of his masterpiece to Pope Paul III. Scholars disagree on whether Copernicus' concern was limited to possible astronomical and philosophical objections, or whether he was also concerned about religious objections.[30]

At original publication, Copernicus' epoch-making book caused only mild controversy, and provoked no fierce sermons about contradicting Holy Scripture. It was only three years later, in 1546, that a Dominican, Giovanni Maria Tolosani, denounced the theory in an appendix to a work defending the absolute truth of Scripture.[31] He also noted that the Master of the Sacred Palace (i.e., the Catholic Church's chief censor), Bartolomeo Spina, a friend and fellow Dominican, had planned to condemn De revolutionibus but had been prevented from doing so by his illness and death.[32]

Galileo Galilei
Tomb and monument to Galileo Galilei in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence.

Federico Cesi created the Accademia dei Lincei in 1603 as an Italian science academy, of which Galileo became a member.[35] Galileo's championing of Copernicanism was controversial within his lifetime, when a large majority of philosophers and astronomers still subscribed to the geocentric view. Galileo gained wide support for his theories outside the universities by writing in Italian, rather than academic Latin. In response, the Aristotelian professors of the universities formed a united effort to convince the Church to ban Copernicanism.[34]

Initially a beneficiary of church patronage of astronomy, Galileo rose to prominence with the publication of [36]

Galileo's career coincided with the reaction of the Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation, in which the Roman Church found itself in a struggle for authority in Europe, following the emergence of the Protestant Churches, and nations of Northern Europe.[37] Pope Paul III created the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition to stop the spread of "heretical depravity" throughout the Christian world. From 1571, the institution had jurisdiction over books and created the Index of Prohibited Books.[38] Rome established the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in 1622. The historian of science Jacob Bronowski wrote that "Catholics and Protestants were embattled in what we should now call a Cold War... The Church was a great temporal power, and in that bitter time it was fighting a political crusade in which all means were justified by the end...". In this climate, Cardinal Bellarmine, himself a distinguished scientist of the age, instigated inquiries against Galileo as early as 1613.[37]

After 1610, when Galileo began publicly supporting the heliocentric view, which placed the Sun at the centre of the universe, Galileo met with bitter opposition from some philosophers and clerics, and two of the latter eventually denounced him to the Roman Inquisition early in 1615. Galileo defended his theories by means of the long established Catholic understanding of scripture, that the Bible was not intended to expound scientific theory and where it conflicted with common sense, should be read as allegory.[34] Although he was cleared of any offence at that time, the Catholic Church nevertheless condemned heliocentrism as "false and contrary to Scripture" in February 1616,[39] and Galileo was warned to abandon his support for it—which he promised to do.

In March 1616, the Church's Congregation of the Index issued a decree suspending De revolutionibus until it could be "corrected," on the grounds that the supposedly Pythagorean doctrine[40] that the Earth moves and the Sun does not was "false and altogether opposed to Holy Scripture."[41] The same decree also prohibited any work that defended the mobility of the Earth or the immobility of the Sun, or that attempted to reconcile these assertions with Scripture. On the orders of Pope Paul V, Cardinal Bellarmine gave Galileo prior notice that the decree was about to be issued, and warned him that he could not "hold or defend" the Copernican doctrine.[42] The corrections to De revolutionibus, which omitted or altered nine sentences, were issued four years later, in 1620.[43]

Cristiano Banti's 1857 painting Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition

In 1623, Galileo's friend Maffeo Barberini was elected as Pope Urban VIII. Urban VIII was an intellectual and patron of the arts and architecture, who had written poetry as a young man in praise of Galileo's astronomical writings. Galileo met with the new Pope, hoping to persuade him to lift the 1616 ban.[44] Instead he received permission to write a book on Aristotelian and Copernican theories, provided he did not take sides.[34] The book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was passed by the censors and was well received across Europe,[34] but ultimately offended Urban VIII, whose own arguments were put into the mouth of the buffoon-like Simplicio in the dialogue. The Preparatory Commission for the trial of Galileo noted that the Pope's stated belief that it would be extravagant boldness to limit the power and wisdom of God to an individual's particular conjecture was put "into the mouth of a fool" in Galileo's text.[45]

Galileo was summoned to Rome to be tried by the Inquisition in 1633. According to Bronowski, Galileo's accusers relied on a forged document purporting to have, in 1616, forbidden Galileo from in "any way whatsoever" teaching theories of Copernicus, and thus could find him guilty of dishonestly tricking the censors and therefore ban his book without addressing the issues of substance relating to Copernicus found within it.[46] Galileo was found "vehemently suspect of heresy" for "following the position of Copernicus, which is contrary to the true sense and authority of Holy Scripture".[47] Though never tortured, Galileo was shown the implements of torture to instil fear in him.[46] Forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Galileo remained a practicing Catholic and during his house arrest wrote his most influential work Two New Sciences - a book which had to be smuggled to Protestant Holland in order to be published.[33]

The Catholic Church's 1758 Index of Prohibited Books omitted the general prohibition of works defending heliocentrism,[48] but retained the specific prohibitions of the original uncensored versions of De revolutionibus and Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Those prohibitions were finally dropped from the 1835 Index.[49]

The Inquisition's ban on reprinting Galileo's works was lifted in 1718 when permission was granted to publish an edition of his works (excluding the condemned Dialogue) in Florence.[50] In 1741 Pope Benedict XIV authorized the publication of an edition of Galileo's complete scientific works[51] which included a mildly censored version of the Dialogue.[52] In 1758 the general prohibition against works advocating heliocentrism was removed from the Index of prohibited books, although the specific ban on uncensored versions of the Dialogue and Copernicus's De Revolutionibus remained.[53] All traces of official opposition to heliocentrism by the Church disappeared in 1835 when these works were finally dropped from the Index.[54]

Pope Urban VIII refused Galileo a stately burial upon his death, though later his bones were interned under a monument at the Church of Santa Croce in Florence. In 1980, Pope John Paul II ordered a re-examination of the evidence against Galileo and formally acquitted him in 1992.[55]

Modern view on Galileo

In 1939 Pope Pius XII, in his first speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, within a few months of his election to the papacy, described Galileo as being among the "most audacious heroes of research ... not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks on the way, nor fearful of the funereal monuments"[56] His close advisor of 40 years, Professor Robert Leiber wrote: "Pius XII was very careful not to close any doors (to science) prematurely. He was energetic on this point and regretted that in the case of Galileo."[57]

On 15 February 1990, in a speech delivered at the Sapienza University of Rome,[58] Cardinal Ratzinger (later to become Pope Benedict XVI) cited some current views on the Galileo affair as forming what he called "a symptomatic case that permits us to see how deep the self-doubt of the modern age, of science and technology goes today."[59] Some of the views he cited were those of the philosopher Paul Feyerabend, whom he quoted as saying “The Church at the time of Galileo kept much more closely to reason than did Galileo himself, and she took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo's teaching too. Her verdict against Galileo was rational and just and the revision of this verdict can be justified only on the grounds of what is politically opportune.”[59] The Cardinal did not clearly indicate whether he agreed or disagreed with Feyerabend's assertions. He did, however, say "It would be foolish to construct an impulsive apologetic on the basis of such views."[59]

On 31 October 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled, and issued a declaration acknowledging the errors committed by the Church tribunal that judged the scientific positions of Galileo Galilei, as the result of a study conducted by the Pontifical Council for Culture.[60][61] In March 2008 the Vatican proposed to complete its rehabilitation of Galileo by erecting a statue of him inside the Vatican walls.[62] In December of the same year, during events to mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo's earliest telescopic observations, Pope Benedict XVI praised his contributions to astronomy.[63]

Modern astronomers

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ, Vatican astronomer and Carl Sagan Medalist.

Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit, became the first religious brother to be awarded the American Astronomical Society's Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science in 2014.[64] The judges noted his six books, and nominated his 'Turn Left At Orion' as having had an "enormous impact on the amateur astronomy community, engendering public support for astronomy." They described Consolmagno as "the voice of the juxtaposition of planetary science and astronomy with Christian belief, a rational spokesperson who can convey exceptionally well how religion and science can co-exist for believers."[65] Consalmagno describes science as an "act of worship... a way of getting close to creation, to really getting intimate with creation, and it's a way of getting intimate with the creator."[66]


Conrad Gessner's great zoological work, Historiae animalium, appeared in 4 vols. (quadrupeds, birds, fishes folio), 1551–1558, at Zürich, a fifth (snakes) being issued in 1587. This work is recognized as the starting-point of modern zoology. There was extreme religious tension at the time Historiae animalium came out. Gesner was Protestant. Under Pope Paul IV it was felt that the religious convictions of an author contaminated all his writings,[67] so - without any regard for the content of the work - it was added to the Roman Catholic Church's list of prohibited books.[68]


The Jesuit educated French Catholic Jean-Baptiste Lamarck developed the first theory of evolution.
Pope Pius XII dealt with Evolution in the 1950 encyclical Humani Generis. Pius wrote that the Church did not object to the study of evolution to explain the origins of the human body, though "the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God".
Pope John Paul II told the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 that since Pius XII's encyclical, " findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis."[69]

In the years since the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859, the position of the Catholic Church on the theory of evolution has slowly been refined. For about 100 years, there was no authoritative pronouncement on the subject, though many hostile comments were made by local church figures. In October 1996, Pope John Paul II outlined the Catholic view of Evolution to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, saying that the Church holds that Evolution is "more than a hypothesis", it is a well-accepted theory of science and that the human body evolved according to natural processes, while the human soul is the creation of God.[70] This updated an earlier pronouncement by Pope Pius XII in the 1950 encyclical Humani generis that accepted evolution as a possibility (as opposed to a probability) and a legitimate field of study to investigate the origins of the human body - though it was stressed that "the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God".[71] In contrast with Protestant literalist objections, Catholic issues with evolutionary theory have had little to do with maintaining the literalism of the account in the Book of Genesis, and have always been concerned with the question of how man came to have a soul.[72][73]

Catholic scientists contributed to the development of evolutionary theory. Among the foremost Catholic contributors to the development of the modern understanding of evolution, was the Jesuit educated Frenchman [74] Mendel discovered the basis of genetics following long study of the inherited characteristics of pea plants, although his paper Experiments on Plant Hybridization, published in 1866, was famously overlooked until the start of the next century.[75] The work of Catholic scientists like the Danish Bishop Nicolas Steno helped establish the science of geology, leading to modern scientific measurements of the age of the earth.[76] The church accepts modern geological theories on such matters and the authenticity of the fossil record. Papal pronouncements, along with commentaries by cardinals, indicate that the Church is aware of the general findings of scientists on the gradual appearance of life. The Church's stance is that the temporal appearance of life has been guided by God, but the Church has thus far declined to define in what way that may be.

Modern Creationism has had little Catholic support. In the 1950s, the Church's position was one of neutrality; by the late 20th century its position evolved to one of general acceptance of Evolution in recent years. Today, the Church's official position is a fairly non-specific example of theistic evolution.[72][73] stating that faith and scientific findings regarding human evolution are not in conflict, though humans are regarded as a special creation, and that the existence of God is required to explain both monogenism and the spiritual component of human origins. No infallible declarations by the Pope or an Ecumenical Council have been made.

There have been several organizations composed of Catholic laity and clergy which have advocated positions both supporting evolution and opposed to evolution. For example:

  • The Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation operates out of Mt. Jackson, Virginia and is a Catholic lay apostolate promoting creationism.[77]
  • The "Faith Movement" was founded by Catholic Fr. Edward Holloway in Surrey, England[78] and "argues from Evolution as a fact, that the whole process would be impossible without the existence of the Supreme Mind we call God."[79]
  • Daylight Origins Society [1] was founded in 1971 by John G. Campbell (d.1983) as the "Counter Evolution Group". Its goal is "to inform Catholics and others of the scientific evidence supporting Special Creation as opposed to Evolution, and that the true discoveries of Science are in conformity with Catholic doctrines." It publishes the "Daylight" newsletter.[80]

As in other countries, Catholic schools in the United States teach evolution as part of their science curriculum. They teach the fact that evolution occurs and the modern evolutionary synthesis, which is the scientific theory that explains why evolution occurs. This is the same evolution curriculum that secular schools teach. Bishop DiLorenzo of Richmond, chair of the Committee on Science and Human Values in a December 2004 letter sent to all U.S. bishops: "...Catholic schools should continue teaching evolution as a scientific theory backed by convincing evidence. At the same time, Catholic parents whose children are in public schools should ensure that their children are also receiving appropriate catechesis at home and in the parish on God as Creator. Students should be able to leave their biology classes, and their courses in religious instruction, with an integrated understanding of the means God chose to make us who we are."[81]


Gregor Mendel, Augustinian Friar and scientist, who developed theories on genetics for the first time.

Gregor Mendel was an Austrian scientist and Augustinian friar who began experimenting with peas around 1856. Observing the processes of pollination at his monastery in modern Czechoslovakia, Mendel studied and developed theories pertaining to the field of science now called genetics. Mendel published his results in 1866 in the Journal of the Brno Natural History Society. The paper was not widely read nor understood and soon after its publication, Mendel was elected Abbott of his Monastery. He continued experimenting with bees but his work went unrecognised until various scientists resurrected his theories around 1900, after his death.[82] Mendel had joined the Brno Augustinian Monastery in 1843, but also trained as a scientist at the Olmutz Philosophical Institute and the University of Vienna. The Brno Monastery was a centre of scholarship, with an extensive library and tradition of scientific research.[83]

Where Charles Darwin's theories suggested a mechanism for improvement of species over generations, Mendel's observations provided explanation for how a new species itself could emerge. Though Darwin and Mendel never collaborated, they were aware of each other's work (Darwin read a paper by Wilhelm Olbers Focke which extensively referenced Mendel). Bill Bryson wrote that "without realizing it, Darwin and Mendel laid the groundwork for all of life sciences in the twentieth century. Darwin saw that all living things are connected, that ultimately they trace their ancestry to a single, common source; Mendel's work provided the mechanism to explain how that could happen".[84] Biologist J. B. S. Haldane and others brought together the principles of Mendelian inheritance with Darwinian principles of evolution to form the field of genetics known as Modern evolutionary synthesis.[85]

"Big Bang" Theory for origin of the Universe

Big Bang theory for the development of the universe in the 1920s.

The Catholic University of Louvain, with a PhD from MIT. Lemaître was a pioneer in applying Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity to cosmology. Bill Bryson wrote that the idea was decades ahead of its time, and that Lemaitre was the first to bring together Einstein's theory of relativity with Edwin Hubble's cosmological observations, combining them in his own "fire-works theory". Lemaitre theorized in the 1920s that the universe began as a geometrical point which he called a "primeval atom", which exploded out and has been moving apart ever since. The idea became established theory only decades later with the discovery of cosmic background radiation by American scientists.[86]

Sponsorship of scientific research

In ancient times, the church supported medical research as an aid to Christian charity. The Church supported the development of modern science and scientific research by founding Europe's first universities in the Middle Ages. Historian Lawrence M. Principe writes that "it is clear from the historical record that the Catholic church has been probably the largest single and longest-term patron of science in history, that many contributors to the Scientific Revolution were themselves Catholic, and that several Catholic institutions and perspectives were key influences upon the rise of modern science."[87] The field of astronomy is a prime example of the Church's commitment to science. J.L. Heilbron in his book The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories writes that "The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions."[88]

Scientific support continues through the present day. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences was founded in 1936 by Pope Pius XI, with the aim of promoting the progress of the mathematical, physical and natural sciences and the study of related epistemological problems. The academy holds a membership roster of the most respected names in 20th century science, many of them Nobel laureates. Also worth noting is the Vatican Observatory, which is an astronomical research and educational institution supported by the Holy See.

In his 1996 encyclical Fides et Ratio Pope John Paul II wrote that "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth."[89] Pope Benedict XVI re-emphasized the importance of reason in his famous 2006 address at Regensburg.[90] But the emphasis on reason is not a recent development in the Church's history. In the first few centuries of the Church, the Church Fathers appropriated the best of Greek Philosophy in defense of the Faith. This appropriation culminated in the 13th century writings of Thomas Aquinas, whose synthesis of faith and reason has influenced Catholic thought for eight centuries. Because of this synthesis, it should be no surprise that many historians of science trace the foundations of modern science to the 13th century. These writers include Edward Grant,[91] James Hannam,[92] and Pierre Duhem,[93] to name a few.


Saint Albert Magnus was a pioneer of biological field research.
Illumination from the Liber Scivias showing the physician and Doctor of the Church Hildegard of Bingen receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe and secretary.

The Church has, since ancient times, been heavily involved in the study and provision of medicine. Early Christians were noted for tending the sick and infirm, and priests were often also physicians. Christian emphasis on practical charity gave rise to the development of systematic nursing and hospitals after the end of the persecution of the early church. Notable contributors to the medical sciences of those early centuries include [94]

During the Middle Ages, famous physicians and medical researchers included the Abbot of Monte Cassino [94] So too, convents. Hildegard of Bingen, a doctor of the church, is among the most distinguished of Medieval Catholic women scientists. Other than theological works, Hildegard also wrote Physica, a text on the natural sciences, as well as Causae et Curae. Hildegard of Bingen was well known for her healing powers involving practical application of tinctures, herbs, and precious stones.[95]

Charlemagne decreed that each monastery and Cathedral chapter establish a school and in these schools, medicine was commonly taught. At one such school [94]

In Catholic Spain amidst the early Reconquista, Archbishop Raimund founded an institution for translations, which employed a number of Jewish translators to communicate the works of Arabian medicine. Influenced by the rediscovery of Aristotelean thought, churchmen like the Dominican Albert Magnus and the Franciscan Roger Bacon made significant advances in the observation of nature.

St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney was established by the Sisters of Charity and is among many leading medical research centres established by the Catholic Church around the world.

Through the devastating [94]

The Jesuit order, created during the Reformation, contributed a number of distinguished medical scientists. In the field of bacteriology it was the Jesuit [94]

In modern times, the Catholic Church is the largest non-government provider of health care in the world. Catholic religious have been responsible for founding and running networks of hospitals across the world where medical research continues to be advanced.[96]


Matteo Ricci (left) and Xu Guangqi (right) in the Chinese edition of Euclid's Elements published in 1607.

The Society of Jesus (Jesuit Order) founded by the Spaniard Saint Ignatius Loyola in 1540 were leaders of the Counter-Reformation, who have contributed a great many distinguished scientists and institutions of learning, right up to the present. Its role in the sciences has not been without controversy however.

The Jesuit educational system was considered to be conservative and antithetical to creative thought, while the Order and its members were blamed for the Church's opposition to scientific activity and progress. However, recent scholarship in the history of science has focused on the substantial contributions of Jesuit scientists over the centuries while recognizing the constraints under which they operated.

Historian Jonathan Wright discussed the breadth of Jesuit involvement in the sciences in his history of the order:

[The Jesuits] contributed to the development of pendulum clocks, pantographs, barometers, reflecting telescopes and microscopes, to scientific fields as various as magnetism, optics and electricity. They observed, in some cases before anyone else, the colored bands on Jupiter’s surface, the Andromeda nebula and Saturn’s rings. They theorized about the circulation of the blood (independently of Harvey), the theoretical possibility of flight, the way the moon effected the tides, and the wave-like nature of light. Star maps of the southern hemisphere, symbolic logic, flood-control measures on the Po and Adige rivers, introducing plus and minus signs into Italian mathematics – all were typical Jesuit achievements, and scientists as influential as Fermat, Huygens, Leibniz and Newton were not alone in counting Jesuits among their most prized correspondents.[97]

Christopher Clavius was the main architect of the modern Gregorian calendar. Missionaries like Matteo Ricci and Ferdinand Verbiest introduced Western scientific knowledge to China. Athanasius Kircher proposed his precursor of germ theory. As leading exponents of astronomy, Jesuits were among those arguing the case for and against Copernicanism and made a great many notable astronomical observations. Ruđer Bošković produced a precursor of atomic theory. Angelo Secchi drew an early map of Mars and was the first to classify stars based on their spectrum. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was among the leading paleontologists who discovered Peking Man and Piltdown Man.

The contribution of the Jesuits to the development of seismology and seismic prospecting has been so substantial that Seismology has been called "The Jesuit Science".[98] Frederick Odenbach, S.J. is considered by many to have been the "pioneer of American seismologists". In 1936, Fr. J.B. Macelwane, S.J., wrote the first seismology textbook in America, Introduction to Theoretical Seismology. In the 21st Century, Jesuits remain prominent in the sciences through institutions like the Vatican Observatory and Georgetown University.

Stephen Hawking is a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which gathers leading world scientists to advise the Popes on scientific issues.

Pontifical Academy of Sciences

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences was founded in 1936 by Pope Pius XI. It draws on many of the world's leading scientists, including many Nobel Laureates, to act as advisors to the Popes on scientific issues. The Academy has an international membership which includes British physicist Stephen Hawking, the astronomer royal Martin Rees and Nobel laureates such as U.S. physicist Charles Hard Townes. [99]

Under the protection of the reigning Pope, the aim of the Academy is to promote the progress of the mathematical, physical and natural sciences and the study of related epistemological problems. The Academy has its origins in the Accademia Pontificia dei Nuovi Lincei ("Pontifical Academy of the New Lynxes"), founded in 1847 intended as a more closely supervised successor to the Accademia dei Lincei ("Academy of Lynxes") established in Rome in 1603, by the learned Roman Prince, Federico Cesi (1585–1630) who was a young botanist and naturalist, and which claimed Galileo Galilei as its president.

Vatican Observatory

The [101]

Current Church doctrine

In his 1893 encyclical, Pope Leo XIII wrote "no real disagreement can exist between the theologian and the scientist provided each keeps within his own limits. . . . If nevertheless there is a disagreement . . . it should be remembered that the sacred writers, or more truly ‘the Spirit of God who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men such truths (as the inner structure of visible objects) which do not help anyone to salvation’; and that, for this reason, rather than trying to provide a scientific exposition of nature, they sometimes describe and treat these matters either in a somewhat figurative language or as the common manner of speech those times required, and indeed still requires nowadays in everyday life, even amongst most learned people".[102]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts: "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. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are".[103]

Providentissimus Deus

Providentissimus Deus, "On the Study of Holy Scripture", was an encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII on 18 November 1893. In it, he reviewed the history of Bible study from the time of the Church Fathers to the present, spoke against what he considered to be the errors of the Rationalists and "higher critics", and outlined principles of scripture study and guidelines for how scripture was to be taught in seminaries. He also addressed the issues of apparent contradictions between the Bible and physical science, or between one part of scripture and another, and how such apparent contradictions can be resolved.

Providentissimus Deus responded to two challenges to biblical authority, both of which rose up during the 19th century.

The physical sciences, especially the theory of evolution and geology's theory of a very old earth, challenged the traditional Biblical account of creation taking place 6,000 years ago.

Pope Leo XIII wrote that true science cannot contradict scripture when it is properly explained, that errors the Church Fathers made do not demonstrate error in Scripture, and that what seems to be proved by science can turn out to be wrong.

The historical-critical method of analyzing scripture questioned the reliability of the Bible. Leo acknowledged the possibility of errors introduced by scribes but forbade the interpretation that only some of scripture is inerrant, while other elements are fallible. Leo condemned that use that certain scholars made of new evidence, clearly referring to Alfred Firmin Loisy and Maurice d'Hulst, although not by name.[104]

At first, both conservatives and liberals found elements in the encyclical to which to appeal. Over the next decade, however, Modernism spread and Providentissimus Deus was increasingly interpreted in a conservative sense.[104]

This encyclical was part of an ongoing conflict between Modernists and conservatives. In 1902, Pope Leo XIII instituted the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which was to adapt Roman Catholic Biblical studies to modern scholarship and to protect Scripture against attacks.[105]

Humani generis

Humani generis is a papal encyclical that Pope Pius XII promulgated on 12 August 1950 "concerning some false opinions threatening to undermine the foundations of Catholic Doctrine". Theological opinions and doctrines known as Nouvelle Théologie or neo-modernism and their consequences on the Church were its primary subject. Evolution and its impact on theology, constitute only two out of 44 parts. Yet the position which Pius XII defined in 1950, delinking the creation of body and soul, has been fully confirmed by Pope John Paul II, who highlighted additional facts supporting the theory of evolution half a century later. It is still accepted Church doctrine.

Ethics and science

The Catholic Church teaches of a need for scientific research and conduct to be informed by and put to the aid of Christian ethics. During recent pontificates, issues such as the implications of genetics and anthropological climate change have been important areas of focus. The Vatican draws on leading scientists to examine scientific literature in search of "moral and philosophical problems, either caused by science or which can be helped by science".[99]

Church and science as complementary

The Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin argued in an influential 1959 book, The Phenomenon of Man that science and religion were two vital sides of a same phenomenon: a quest for perfect knowledge.[106] In his 1996 encyclical Fides et Ratio Pope John Paul II wrote that "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth."

Conflict thesis and "drastic revision"

The scientist John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White were the most influential exponents of the conflict thesis between the Catholic Church and science. In the early 1870s, Draper was invited to write a History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), a book replying to contemporary papal edicts such as the doctrine of infallibility, and mostly criticizing the anti-intellectualism of Roman Catholicism,[107] yet he assessed that Islam and Protestantism had little conflict with science. Draper’s preface summarises the conflict thesis: "The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other."[108] In 1896, White published A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, the culmination of thirty years of research and publication on the subject. In the introduction, White emphasized he arrived at his position after the difficulties of assisting Ezra Cornell in establishing a university without any official religious affiliation.

More recently, Thomas E. Woods, Jr. asserts that, despite the widely held conception of the Catholic Church as being anti-science, this conventional wisdom has been the subject of "drastic revision" by historians of science over the last 50 years. Woods asserts that the mainstream view now is that the "Church [has] played a positive role in the development of science ... even if this new consensus has not yet managed to trickle down to the general public".[98] Science historian Ronald L. Numbers corraborates this view, writing that “Historians of science have known for years that White’s and Draper’s accounts are more propaganda than history…Yet the message has rarely escaped the ivory tower." [109]

See also



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  3. ^ Vatican Council (Sess. III, de fide, c. 4)
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  11. ^ Faith Wallis, "'Number Mystique' in Early Medieval Computus Texts," pp. 179–99 in T. Koetsier and L. Bergmans, eds. Mathematics and the Divine: A Historical Study (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2005).
  12. ^ Blainey, Geoffrey (2011), A Short History of Christianity, Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin Group Australia, p. 106,  
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  29. ^ , translated by Edward RosenLetter to Nicolaus CopernicusSchönberg, Nicholas, .
  30. ^ Koyré (1973, pp. 27, 90) and Rosen (1995, pp. 64,184) take the view that Copernicus was indeed concerned about possible objections from theologians, while Lindberg and Numbers (1986) argue against it. Koestler (1963) also denies it. Indirect evidence that Copernicus was concerned about objections from theologians comes from a letter written to him by Andreas Osiander in 1541, in which Osiander advises Copernicus to adopt a proposal by which he says "you will be able to appease the Peripatetics and theologians whose opposition you fear." (Koyré, 1973, pp. 35, 90)
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  40. ^ In fact, in the Pythagorean cosmological system the Sun was not motionless.
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  • Appleby, R. Scott. Between Americanism and Modernism; John Zahm and Theistic Evolution, in Critical Issues in American Religious History: A Reader, Ed. by Robert R. Mathisen, 2nd revised edn., Baylor University Press, 2006, ISBN 1-932792-39-2, ISBN 978-1-932792-39-3. Google books
  • Artigas, Mariano; Glick, Thomas F., Martínez, Rafael A.; Negotiating Darwin: the Vatican confronts evolution, 1877-1902, JHU Press, 2006, ISBN 0-8018-8389-X, 9780801883897, Google books
  • Harrison, Brian W., Early Vatican Responses to Evolutionist Theology, Living Tradition, Organ of the Roman Theological Forum, May 2001.
  • O'Leary, Don. Roman Catholicism and modern science: a history, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006, ISBN 0-8264-1868-6, ISBN 978-0-8264-1868-5 Google books

Further reading

  • Bennett, Gaymon, Hess, Peter M. J. and others, The Evolution of Evil, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008, ISBN 3-525-56979-3, ISBN 978-3-525-56979-5, Google books
  • Johnston, George (1998). Did Darwin Get It Right?. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor.   (google books)
  • Küng, Hans, The beginning of all things: science and religion, trans. John Bowden, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007, ISBN 0-8028-0763-1, ISBN 978-0-8028-0763-2. Google books
  • Olson, Richard, Science and religion, 1450-1900: from Copernicus to Darwin, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004, ISBN 0-313-32694-0, ISBN 978-0-313-32694-3. Google books
  • Thompson, Phillip M (2009). Between science and religion the engagement of Catholic intellectuals with science and technology in the twentieth century. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.  

External links

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