As a priest with an assignment of diverse ministries (parish, primary school, jail ministry, and university students), there are ample opportunities to receive and address questions about faith and science from multiple perspectives. What I find fascinating is that, regardless of what ministerial environment the questions are posed, there is a common narrative that often emerges: Faith is against science.
Much can be said about how this presumption has come to be the norm. Often times, I find that much of the fuel that feeds this fire doesn't come from scientists, new atheists, or secular politics. Rather, I find that it is the poor understanding and presentation of biblical creation in a hyper-literalist manner combined with a history of scandals in the Church that has flipped the opinion of many to view Catholicism not as the vessel that pursues truth to a fallen institution that is riddled with scandal and corruption, lacking the needed transparency to foster trust in the faithful.
For those who love the Church, both lay person and clergy, there can be an inner frustration of feeling a deep need to defend the Church while at the same time feeling helpless to address the legitimate criticism levied against the Church. This tension reminds me of a simple distinction I use is spiritual direction of identifying the difference between our Sphere in of Concern and our Sphere of Influence.
The Sphere of Concern constitutes those things that can trouble us on a personal level, but are realities we have little to no ability to impact on a personal level. This sphere can be as intimate as our concerns for a dear friend in crisis to global realities like the mounting tensions between nuclear powers. The danger of only living in the Sphere of Concern is that it can lead to discouragement, thinking that we really can't do anything to change our world, so why bother?
To snap us out of the melancholic heart that presumes we can't change the world is to embrace the truth that there is a sphere in which we do have direct impact to bring about good we can call our Sphere of Influence.
For example, when I was in seminary I expressed to one of my professors that I was frustrated that the first time I really learned about what the Church taught about human dignity was in seminary. When I was ordained, this professor sought me out, reminded me of this frustration, and simply stated, "As a priest, make sure your parishioners learn what you wished you would have learned in your youth." Even though I affirm that, as a priest, my Sphere of Influence has broadened, there is another lesson I am learning that this influence also needs to be met by a heart receptive to this truth. As time goes by, I often wonder if I actually did receive the Church's vision of human dignity in my youth, but, for whatever reason, my heart was still shut off to receive this truth?
With this distinction in mind, the first lesson I have learned is that the best way to reclaim the truth about the authentic relationship between faith and science is to avoid lingering in the Sphere of Concern that becomes an endless hamster wheel of negativity. Rather, I try to focus primarily on the Sphere of Influence God has blessed me with as a Catholic Priest and an author for The Catholic Astronomer. In light of this, I feel a need to ask you a simple question: What is your Sphere of Influence to bring good into this world?
Applying this ministerial philosophy has led to a basic starting point when addressing questions of faith and science: Simple is better. For example, last week I was invited to visit our Freshman religious education class where many questions had to do with faith and science. It was a beautiful moment when I simply asked the students, "What's the difference between a scientific question and a faith question?" After overcoming the initial fear of many Freshman to answer a question from their pastor, the discussion led to a healthy starting point: Scientific questions lead to truth about the material world that is tentative, meaning that it may change or be disproved in the future, while faith focuses on questions of meaning, purpose, ultimate beginnings, and ultimate ends in a way that science does not address.
We were able to realize that faith and science ask different kinds of questions to discover different kinds of truth. It reminded me of the writings of the Benedictine priest, Fr. Stanley Jaki. Here is a video I did for the Vatican Observatory Foundation explaining his insight into the relationship between faith and science.
This first lesson leads to a second, equally powerful lesson: There is no better way to demonstrate the true relationship between faith and science than to learn about real people who embody this relationship. Everyone knows about Galileo. Many know about Bruno. Most people presume that these two figures embody the relationship between faith and science (even though of the list of things Bruno was condemned for, his view of the sun centered universe was not one of them).
What saddens me are the many positive stories about faith and science many people don't know, but should be common knowledge. For example, Laura Bassi (1711-1778) was a Catholic laywoman who was the second woman in Europe to receive a Doctorate in the emerging sciences of the day and was the first woman to become what we would call today a professor at the University of Bologna. This breaking of a historical glass ceiling was made possible by the patronage of a Catholic Cardinal who later become Pope Benedict XIV. It is important to remember that these events took place after Galileo was accused of grave suspicion of heresy. Bassi was never condemned for her involvement in science as a Catholic laywoman, but eventually was invited to be a part of the Pope's inner intellectual elite that he brought together to promote the emerging science of the day in Bologna.
Another story that should be common to all people who study science is the "Father" of the Big Bang Theory. I still find it astounding that many well educated Catholic adults and youth are shocked to discover that what we call The Big Bang Theory doesn't find its origins in Einstein or Edwin Hubble, but a Diocesan Priest by the name of Monsignor Georges Lemaitre. Equally confusing and ironic is the presumption that somehow the Big Bang Theory is in opposition with biblical creation. Lemaitre's idea of a "cosmic egg" was first met with resistance. The resistance was rooted in the fact that many presumed a priest-scientist promoting a theory of the universe beginning from an infinitely small, infinitely dense point seemed a bit too close to the book of Genesis. This, and other concerns, led some scientists to question Lemaitre's theory, mocking him by called his idea "Lemaitre's Big Bang Theory." Needless to say, history vindicated his theory. Here is another video I did for the VOF on Lemaitre.
The list of significant Catholics who have made major contributions to science is long and could be turned into multiple volumes. Whether it be the father of modern genetics, Fr. Gregor Mendel, the Catholic layman whose name identifies one of the more troubling mental illnesses of our time, Alois Alzheimer, or Roger Bacon who is often credited as the forerunner of the modern scientific method, the list of Catholic scientists, both layperson and clergy, is long and provides one of the strongest examples of the true relationship of faith and science.
Last, but definitely not least, we need to remember that the very reason this blog exists is because of the Vatican Observatory, the continuing symbol established by Pope Leo XIII to demonstrate that Catholicism supports true science.
Spiritual Exercise: What is the Sphere of Influence God has blessed you with to support the true vision of faith and science? Pray with this question and ask God to open doors for you to help promote faith and science as dialogue partners in truth instead of the common myth that they are and must be sworn adversaries.