Will Francis Inspire More Priest-Scientists?

John Farrell has an interesting speculation about the influence Pope Francis might have inspiring more priests with an interest in the sciences:

This week’s issue of Nature notes with approval that the new Pope Francis has a background in science.

A pope who’s also a scientist is rare. But these days even parish priests who are scientists are not exactly common.

To be sure, everyone knows the name of Gregor Mendel, the founder of genetics. And there’s my hero, the Belgian priest and physicist Georges Lemaître, who came up with version 1.0 of The Big Bang.

But there used to be many more.

A few years ago, Physicist and author Stephen Barr discussed the many contributions that Catholic priests made to science in the early days of the Scientific Revolution. And they are not insignificant.

The first asteroid was discovered by a priest named Giuseppe Piazzi. Fr. René-Just Häuy is called the “father of crystallography.” Fr. Christoph Scheiner was one of the discoverers of sunspots and discovered the rotation of the sun on its axis.

An extremely important effect in physics called the “diffraction” of light was discovered by Fr. Francesco Grimaldi in the seventeenth century (something no physics textbook that I have ever seen bothers to mention, so that few scientists are aware of it). One of the top biologists in the world in the eighteenth century was Fr. Lazzaro Spallanzani. Among his many accomplishments was to disprove the theory of “spontaneous generation.” (Pasteur later made use of Spallanzani’s work in doing his own famous experiments disproving spontaneous generation.)

He goes on to discuss Pius X’s wariness about the sciences, but I’m not so sure I buy the notion that he was “anti-intellectual”.  Pius was, after all, Pope at a time when social Darwinist racism was approaching its highwater mark and it was not such a bad idea to be cautious about the arrogant claims of SCIENCE[TM].  It did, after all, lead to “scientific” eugenics and the experiment in “scientifically” manipulating “inferior” human stocks known to history as the Holocaust.  So I can see why a Catholic pope, watching such popular tides of human thought being propounded by such thinkers as Spencer, Galton, and Haeckel would want to put the brakes on.

  • Susan

    There are actually quite a few (Father Thad at the Bioethics Center comes to mind) but most are under the radar – I know one priest who is a PhD professor of genetics, and I met several other scientist-priests at World Youth Day. But of course, the MSM says the Church is anti-science!

  • The Deuce

    …it was not such a bad idea to be cautious about the arrogant claims of SCIENCE[TM].

    Going by the assembled quotes at Mike Flynn’s, I think a reasonable person must conclude that it’s still not a bad idea.

  • Dean

    http://www.faculty.fairfield.edu/jmac/sj/scientists/lunacrat.htm
    35 craters on the moon named after Jesuit scientists and a brief bio of each.

  • Adolfo

    I humbly suggest that those interested in this topic take a look at Dr. Christopher Baglow’s book, “Faith, Science, and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge”.

  • ivan_the_mad

    I suggest a new order, the Albertian Order of Leibowitz.

  • Mark R

    So many priests today are second-carreerers, I don’t see why not.

  • Margaret

    Opus Dei priests normally have a terminal degree in a secular profession. So a lot of them are former dentists, lawyers, etc., but I’ve known two that were physicists. One did particle research at CERN…now he hears confessions & celebrates Mass. It’s kind of awesome.

  • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com Robert King

    There has been an increasing professionalization of life – both for the clergy (who are expected to spend every waking hour ministering to the flock) and for scientists (who have to pursue more and more massive grants to acquire the facilities to run their experiments). So a priest who is simultaneously a scientist who makes the kind of paradigm-shifting discoveries of Mendel and Lemaitre is less and less possible, just practically speaking.

    That doesn’t mean that Catholics can’t infuse the sciences with the wisdom and insight of the faith. It’s just that those Catholics will be lay professionals who seek the glory of God in the mysteries of creation. We just need to make sure that all of us – especially those working in the sciences – are continually steeping in the faith, bolstered by prayer and sacrament and solid theology, so that we are prepared for the questions and apparent conflicts that arise from time to time.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    My pastor here in Moses Lake has a degree in microbiology. I love trotting him out whenever some yahoo (who almost never has a background in the sciences) natters on about the Church being anti-science.

  • Ron Van Wegen

    No-one has mentioned the late great Father Stanley Jaki who, amongst other things, showed that the origins of science could be directly attributed to the philosophical and theological foundations of Christianity. And that even the first law of motion generally believed to have been discovered by Newton was in fact first stated by the French priest Jean Buridan in the fourteenth century. Read on and be amazed!

    “After completing undergraduate training in philosophy, theology and mathematics, Father Jaki did graduate work in theology and physics and gained doctorates in theology from the Pontifical Institute of Sant’Anselmo in Rome (1950), and in physics from Fordham University (1958), where he studied under the Nobel laureate Victor Hess, the co-discoverer of cosmic rays. He also did post-doctoral research in Philosophy of Science at Stanford University, UC Berkeley, Princeton University and Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.”

  • Caroline

    How are we fixed for clergy with advanced degrees in economics?


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