By Bob Sullivan
Those who reject Catholicism have varied explanations for their decision, but one of the reasons you might hear is, “truth is found in science, not theology.”
Strangely, the person offering this opinion is rarely a scientist. Because of this, they are simply telling you that they have more faith in science than in God, or the Church’s understanding of God.
Such a person may not know that modern science is based on the recently developed scientific method. The scientific method started to come about in the 1600s due to the work of Galileo. Prior to Galileo, science was often a patchwork of unrelated experiments which were sometimes lost, misunderstood, or unrecognized.
In other words, science was piecemeal and pretty sketchy until things started to improve about 400 years ago. It was not all that long ago that leeches were prescribed for numerous medical conditions. Less than 100 years ago, cigarettes were touted as good for your health. However, the Church and her teachings have been around for 20 centuries, not to mention another 20 to 30 centuries of the Jewish roots of Christianity.
Galileo, though most well-known for his scientific discoveries, is also known for being declared a heretic by the Church. Therefore, although he was Catholic, some think there is a black cloud hanging over him and the Church because of his dispute with the Church over his belief that the sun was the center of our solar system (heliocentrism). The sun is the center of our solar system, but when Galileo made that claim, he had no way to prove it. On top of that, Galileo also taught that the sun was also the center of the universe. The sun is not the center of the universe.
When a scientist lacks scientific proof for his work, it is called a theory. However, Galileo insisted that heliocentrism was a fact. Again, he was right about the sun being the center of our solar system, but at best, he was really making a very educated guess at the time, which is a way of saying that he had a lot of faith in his theory.
However, the Church did not penalize Galileo for his leap of faith. Galileo was penalized for insisting that his “guess” was irrefutable truth, and for injecting theology into his “guess” (he used Joshua 10, the passage where God stopped the sun in the sky, as part of his argument). On top of that, Galileo had formally agreed to teach heliocentrism as a theory, not a fact. His breach of that agreement also played a role in the Church’s decision to discipline him.
Don’t forget that while Galileo was right about the sun with regard to our solar system, he was wrong to believe that the sun was the center of the universe. It should also be noted that most astronomers of Galileo’s time also disagreed with his theory, so it was not a Church vs. Science debate, it was a Galileo vs. Nearly Everyone debate. Nicholas Copernicus had formulated a similar heliocentric theory years earlier, but few astronomers other than Galileo thought it was persuasive.
However, Galileo was not declared a heretic. This fact is often overlooked. The Church had never taken a position on heliocentrism because, among other reasons, heliocentrism is not a matter of faith, morals, or theology. The Church has always left non-theological matters such as math, science, literature, art, etc… up to experts in those fields.
Galileo was found to have breached his agreement in which he agreed to teach heliocentrism only as a theory. He was also chastised for injecting theology into his scientific argument and for insulting Pope Urban VIII. He was sentenced to house arrest and was required to read the penitential psalms once per week for three years. His home was a beautiful and spacious villa in Tuscany, and he was allowed to continue his work as a scientist, as long as he stayed away from teaching that heliocentrism was irrefutable scientific fact.
Such is the story of one famous Catholic scientist. Other Catholic scientists which help show that the Church is absolutely pro-science, are:
Nicolas Copernicus (a Polish priest),
William of Ockham (priest),
Albert Magnus (priest),
Giuseppe Mercalli (priest),
Blaise Pascal, Gregor Mendel (priest),
Georges Lemaitre (priest),
Giovanni Battista Riccioli (priest),
Francesco Maria Grimaldi (priest),
Nicolas Steno (priest),
Louis de Broglie,
Jerome Lejeune, and
I suggest you look up each of these names to see that much of modern science owes its existence to these Catholic scientists.
Father Stanley L. Jaki, a well-respected scientist in his own right, wrote dozens of books, some of which explained his well-founded belief that science did not become truly useful or reliable until Catholic medieval Europe turned its attention to science and eventually to the scientific method. Father Jaki persuasively pointed out that the development and advancement of science is indebted to the Church, and to Catholic teaching on creation.
In reality, each time a new scientific discovery brushes up against the teachings of the Catholic Church, science compliments or confirms the Catholic teaching instead of contradicting it. Father Georges Lemaitre’s Big Bang Theory is one of the prime examples of this. The Church has always taught that God created the universe out of nothing. In 1931, Father Lemaitre began to put together the scientific evidence that the universe had expanded from an initial moment, after which all space, time, matter, and energy suddenly came to be. Over the course of 15 years, Father Lemaitre’s theory became the theory accepted by the most respected scientists in the world, including Albert Einstein.
Therefore, it is not Faith vs. Science, it is better to think of it as Faith Supported By Science.