Catholicism, Catholics for Choice and Science
Jon O’Brien, President, Catholics for Choice.
Photo Credit: Eric Haase. This picture is copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without the express permission of Catholics for Choice.
The Catholic hierarchy’s long and public battle with science and scientists over the centuries is well known and well documented. What’s perhaps less well known is the fact that despite these battles, various elements of the Catholic church have a long and well respected reputation for supporting scientific endeavor.
From the very earliest days of the church, Catholic theologians have been at the forefront of scientific revolutions and support for the sciences.
Tertullian, one of the very earliest Christian theologians (c160-225), said that God wanted the world to “be handled and understood by reason.” Saint Augustine (354-430) insisted that reason was a central aspect to faith: “Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls.” Later still, Saint Thomas Aquinas (c1225-1274) in Summa Theologiae argued very strongly for the importance of logic and reason as ways to understand the world around us—a simple but powerful rendition of the scientific method.
The list of Catholic scientists is a lengthy one, both pre- and post-Reformation. Our museums and textbooks are full of findings either directly discovered of based on experiments carried out by individuals such as Bede the Venerable, Nicholas Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Gregor Mendel, and a host of other faithful Catholics, including especially a great number of Jesuits.
It is certainly true that scientists such as Galileo (exiled and later placed under house arrest), Copernicus (censored) and Bruno (burned at the stake) have faced the hierarchy’s wrath. Yet it is somewhat telling that it was Catholics who were at the forefront of the many scientific developments that attracted the wrath of the church hierarchy.
The Galileo case is certainly one of the most famous, and has been made into a harrowing play by Bertolt Brecht. “The Life of Galileo” explores the historic struggle between religious and scientific worldviews, and illuminates the challenges that Galileo experienced in advancing the unconventional idea that the earth revolved around the sun. In exploring these issues, the play considers themes such as the conflict between dogmatism and scientific evidence, as well as holding your ground in the face of oppression. As we know, Galileo caved into pressure from the hierarchy in order to save his own life, with the case of science martyr Giordano Bruno, who had been burned at the stake 30 years earlier, at the forefront of his mind.
However, despite these high-profile cases, it is clear that church teachings not only allow but encourage adherents to the Catholic faith to support and promote scientific discovery.
According to the Pontifical Academy of Science, the Catholic church has always taught that “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.” (Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus 18)
And, in one of the central documents outlining Catholic teaching, the Catechism notes, “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 the of the 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.” (CCC 159)
It is clear that, on the surface, the Catholic church has no fear of science or scientific discovery. That sadly is not always reflected in the actions of the hierarchy, perhaps most notably in the Vatican’s recent claims that condoms are ineffective in the battle against HIV and AIDS and in various discussions about the personhood of the fetus in the abortion debate.
Sadly, it is true that support for scientific and public policies that are determined by evidence-based research, democratic structures and the common good, are rarely supported wholeheartedly by the hierarchy. Too often, the hierarchy seeks to put religious dogma at the center of its public policy pronouncements, rather than sound scientific reasoning. This is regularly made explicit, for example in 2003, when the Vatican issued the Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life. While ostensibly about public life and not scientific policy, the document seemed to be a throw-back to a pre-Vatican II conception of the relationship between the Roman Catholic church and the state. As Catholics for Choice noted at the time, the document asserted that, for example, on issues that involve concepts and definitions of the human person, no opinions other than those of the Catholic church can be seen as relevant to the formulation of public policy. This assertion of an absolute truth, owned by the Roman Catholic magisterium, flies in the face of modern science and theological studies.
However, the fact is that both Catholic policy makers and lay people are better educated in their moral and public responsibility than this document suggested. They have rejected demands that they slavishly apply church dogma to public policy and as has been proven time and time again, individual Catholics have a great respect for freedom of inquiry and individual conscience.
Catholics for Choice has long held that the pursuit of the truth and the right thing to do comes before the dictates of the hierarchy and is in fact central to Catholic teaching. It is for this reason that we have supported the right of women to use contraception and avail of abortion services. Most recently, we dedicated an issue of our newsjournal, Conscience, to the so-called life issues of stem-cell research, euthanasia and personhood. In it, we examined Catholic-inspired objections to stem-cell research and raised questions about what the real prolife position on such medical research is. CFC board member and theological scholar Sheila Briggs also explored how the development of a theory about a “consistent life ethic” among some progressive Catholics in fact exposed just how inconsistent Catholic teachings on life issues have been.
There is no getting away from the fact that there has been an uneasy relationship between the Catholic hierarchy and science. But however you try to spin it, the fact is that Catholic scientists have been at the forefront of many of the most important discoveries in human history, and Catholics have been there, supporting them all the way. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon, and Catholic policy makers, who are often in the front line when it comes to gaining public funds for such research, know that they can rely on Catholics for Choice to support them whenever they need it.
Perhaps we should leave the last word to another famous Catholic scientist, John Rock, who was the co-inventor of the pill. “You should be afraid to meet your Maker,” an angry conservative wrote to him, soon after the pill was approved. “My dear madam,” Rock replied, “in my faith, we are taught that the Lord is with us always. When my time comes, there will be no need for introductions.” Rock was also a pioneer in in-vitro fertilization and the freezing of sperm cells, and was the first to extract an intact fertilized egg. Here clearly was a man who did much to promote life and the dignity of the individual. Now that is something that all good Catholics can support.
Read the November 2016 message from Jon O'Brien: Pope Francis’ Announcement on Abortion Is About Bridging the Deep Chasm Between the Church Hierarchy and the Reality of Everyday Catholics