"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, July 21, 2008

Getting the Church up to scientific speed

John Farrell of Farrellmedia has published a rather bracing article in Faith magazine called "Has the Church Missed the Import of Science?" It should go without saying that I believe the answer to be no, at least if we consider the historic role of Catholic priests in the progress of modern science. Consider just Copernicus, who first promoted heliocentrism as a hypothesis; Fr. Gregor Mendel, founder of modern genetics; and Fr. Georges Lemaitre, who first formulated the "Big Bang" theory in cosmology. But John certainly has a point about the contemporary Catholic hierarchy, who by and large are clueless about scientific developments.

What is to be done? John proposes:

It seems the time has come – and if not now, when? – for the Church to establish an order specifically dedicated to training theologians as scientists – or taking scientists and turning them into first-class theologians, so that they can more closely delve into the modern science of the natural order and its continued importance for Christian theology. A Church with philosophers of firsthand experience in the study of the natural order, would go a long way to helping her regain for the West what Pope Benedict rightly praised in his Regensburg address, that dedication to the importance of reason in its service to Faith.

My favourite example is Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, a neuroscientist, who is currently the director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center. He was in the lab full-time while he was taking night courses in theology and preparing to enter the seminary. The church needs more priests like him, some for example who could head a new faculty dedicated to training scientists in theology and also overseeing the recruitment and scientific training of seminarians and clergy who have the aptitude and the wish to become experts in branches of science.

Does this sound unrealistic? The Belgian Cardinal Mercier, who died in 1926, would not have thought so, I think. Cardinal Mercier not only began the revival of the study of St. Thomas in the late 19th century, with the gratitude and encouragement of Leo XIII, but it was he who noticed the mathematical precocity of a young seminarian, and fellow Belgian, whom he encouraged to study the then revolutionary new branch of physics developed by Albert Einstein. Georges LemaĆ®tre not only quickly mastered Einstein’s physics, he took it to the next level by convincing Einstein and his generation that the universe itself was dynamic. In doing so, he laid the foundations of modern cosmology that still guide research to this day. The metaphysical implications of this insight have still to be worked out.

Pope John Paul II liked to repeat Cardinal Newman’s adage that truth cannot contradict truth. The Church should not only not fear the truth of the natural order, it should take the lead in studying it, in championing it. For there is nothing to fear in the workings of the natural order and a lot to be gained from deepening our interpretation of it. If this can be grasped by those who have no faith, why can it not be grasped by those who claim they do?

Fair enough. We don't have enough men like Tadeusz Pacholcyzk, or Stanley Jaki and Michael Heller for that matter. But I'm not entirely convinced that it's up to a new generation of theologian-scientists to get the Church up to scientific speed. You almost have to be a celibate priest, free of family obligations, to do the amount of professional study necessary for attaining competence in both natural science and Catholic theology; and there aren't enough priests of any degree of talent to begin with. Yet there are plenty of laymen out there, John Farrell included, who are doing a creditable job in steering Catholic thought between the shoals of fundamentalism on the one hand and materialism on the other.

The chief obstacle to their success, it seems to me, is academic politics rather than a failure of will on the part of the hierarchy and the Catholic intelligentsia. But even fashions like that come and go.
blog comments powered by Disqus