Faith Matters

Church places faith in advancing science

Far from being backwards and 'anti-science', the Church has long been at the forefront of scientific discovery. Laypeople should be prepared to challenge lazy stereotypes that insist science renders religion redundant, says Diarmuid Pepper

Belgian priest and physics professor Georges Lemaître proposed the 'Big Bang' theory, arguing that there was a 'primeval atom' from which time and space came into existence

PAT Kenny recently interviewed 'rebel' priest Fr Iggy O'Donovan on his morning Newstalk programme to speak about the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

The Augustinian priest has clashed with the Vatican on a number of issues over the years, and Kenny invited him on to the show to speak about the ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed "how little people care about the Church in modern Ireland".

Fr Iggy argued that "by and large" the Church wasn't missed during the pandemic and the Church's influence has "collapsed like a house of cards".

He added that the Church is "in the ICU" and suffering from "deadly indifference".

However, Fr Iggy ended his contribution by relaying a famous anecdote involving Napoleon and a high ranking Catholic cardinal.

During a fierce argument with the cardinal, Napoleon is said to have darkly reminded his eminence that he has the power to destroy the Catholic Church.

Legend has it that the cardinal wryly replied: "Your majesty, we, the Catholic clergy, have done our best to destroy the Church for the last 1,800 years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you."

One of the most interesting parts of the segment came with the listener comments at the end.

One listener opined that Fr Iggy "should be made Taoiseach or Pope", while another said they would consider returning to the Church on the back of hearing the priest's "refreshing honesty".

However, another said: "Religion is dying because we are pretty sure there is no such thing as God. Fairy tales invented by cavemen who had no knowledge of science. We have computers now, and spaceships."

It's truly incredible that an institution that has pushed and advanced scientific inquiry is so routinely, and lazily, derided as 'anti-science'.

Copernicus was a devout Catholic and a canon of Frauenberg Cathedral. He is perhaps better known as the astronomer who proposed the heliocentric system, which placed the Sun at the centre of the universe, rather than the Earth.

The publication of Copernicus's On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres is often credited as the beginning of the Scientific Revolution.

Copernicus and Galileo, pictured with maps of eastern and western hemispheres, are key figures in the Catholic Church's relationship with science - though their theories did not find immediate universal approval

Catholic theologian and mathematician Blaise Pascal invented the mechanical calculator and developed probability theory, while the Augustinian priest Gregor Mendel is recognised as the founder of the science of genetics.

The 'Big Bang' theory is often spoken about as though it is the final nail in the coffin of God's existence; yet a Catholic priest is credited with developing the theory for the origins of the universe that would later receive the 'Big Bang' label.

In 1931 Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Louvain, proposed his theory that at some point all the mass of the universe was concentrated into a single point, the "primeval atom" from which time and space came into existence.

Evolutionary theory is also seen by many as a risk to the Church, but it was Jesuit-educated Catholic Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who is hailed as an early proponent of biological evolution, alongside the aforementioned Gregory Mendel.

It may be tempting to refute the above by arguing that these are the actions of a few free-thinking rebels who are in direct conflict with a medieval Church.

But it was Roger Bacon, the Franciscan Friar, who was one of the first European advocates of the empirical scientific method. And it was Pope Clement IV who gave him a special commission to write on scientific matters.

Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon, one of the first advocates of the empirical scientific method, was given a special commission by Pope Clement IV to write on scientific matters in the 13th century

The Church has long been a patron of the sciences and it is Catholics like Roger Bacon who are credited as the founders of modern science.

Historian Lawrence Principe called the Catholic Church "the largest single and longest-term patron of science in history" due to the fact that it is the single largest private provider of medical care and research facilities in the world.

The historian added that "many contributors to the Scientific Revolution were themselves Catholic".

Far from being 'anti-science', a belief in God has cultivated Catholicism's input into the sciences. The Church is famed for work in the field of astronomy, which initially stemmed from difficulties in pinpointing the date for Easter.

Easter falls on the first Sunday after the full Moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox. The ability to predict this in a manner which offered enough time to prepare for the holiday drove developments within astronomy.

Today, the Vatican Observatory continues to advance the understanding of the universe via its astronomical research.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that "there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason".

It adds: "Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, not can truth ever contradict truth... The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God despite himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are."

Catholicism's advancement of the scientific method grew from its want to find order in the universe. It was a refutation of paganism and witchcraft and its primitive nature worship.

The universe is full of "mysteries" but the Church held that it was created by a logical God in a logical way.

Thus, it is up to us "humble and preserving investigators" to uncover the underlying truth of the universe by using our God-given intellect.

The Church has been doing this since its very beginning and continues it to the present day with the Church's backing of some of the most prestigious scientific and medical departments in the world's leading universities and hospitals.

Despite all of this, the lazy revisionism of the Church's history continues.

For example, some media outlets recently voiced bemusement that the Pope declared the Big Bang theory to be real, ignoring the fact that a Catholic priest proposed it.

Fr Iggy didn't challenge the listener who claimed the Church is 'anti-science' but it is time laypeople embraced the Church's many and varied scientific achievements and challenged this narrative.

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