Catholicism and science

Catholicism is interesting in the way it can be such a big tent. Protestants go their separate ways when they disagree, which I guess gives them some clarity at the expense of unity. But especially the way Catholics respond to science in so many different ways is fascinating.

There are plenty of Catholic conservatives who strenuously oppose a modern scientific picture of reality. Many conservative Catholics reliably support distortions of science that promise to restore a God-centered view of the universe. So you get plenty of Catholics involved in the intelligent design style of creationism. See, for example, this review of God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?, by British Christian anti-evolutionist and philosopher Lohn Lennox. I haven’t read the book, but my acquaintance with Lennox so far leads me to believe that it’s typical intelligent design tripe.

But then, for every Catholic intelligent design proponent like Michael Behe, there’s also a Catholic defender of science such as Ken Miller. Mind you, I can’t be fully enthusiastic about Miller, as he seems to merely displace intelligent design onto cosmology. But even with his own misinterpretations of science, Miller is at least a strong and reliable voice for proper science education. And for every Catholic cardinal or theologian making antiscience noises, there’s a Catholic theologian speaking up for science, such as John Haught who was a very effective witness in the Dover ID trial. Again, I can find plenty to gripe about in Haught’s work, such as the way he struggles to read some progressive qualities into evolution. But in the end, he’s relatively harmless. If all theologians produced warm and fuzzy but insubstantial anti-materialist writings like Haught, we could just ignore theology and get on with the serious business of acquiring knowledge about nature.

In the end, I guess we just have to hope that the more liberal Catholics get the upper hand over their stricter colleagues.

Update: The Vatican is shutting down the observatory at the Pope’s summer residence. This news story finds some symbolic significance in this act, but I don’t know enough about the whole context to be able to say anything about it. There’s also a protest against a Papal visit by Italian scientists, due to the antiscientific stance of the present Pope. Again, I don’t know enough about the context to comment. But clearly not all is well between official Catholicism and scientific institutions.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04896874203614519678 Tom Heneghan

    It’s not just about “more liberal Catholics.” Even conservatives like Pope Benedict reject the literal creationism supported by conservative Protestants. He also considers evolution as the scientific theory that best explains the development of life (although he says it has some holes). He has spoken of life as an “intelligent project,” but does not support the ID view that certain life forms are too complex to have developed without the intervention of a higher power (i.e. God). Rather, he sees God as the overall intelligent creator of the universe and the laws of nature (which pope wouldn’t?) and accepts that life forms then developed over time through evolution. This is all standard Catholic teaching. What Pope Benedict and others like Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn say they oppose most is a materialist world view based on what they call “evolutionism” that says evolution proves there is no God. They say this goes beyond the limits of science, a theme Benedict has repeated several times recently. In their view, this so-called “theistic evolution” approach that they advocate is rooted in philosophy, not science. They do not claim to have scientific proof for this (in contrast to ID proponents and their “irreducible complexity” argument). So the official Catholic position effectively straddles the creationist-Darwinist divide, assuming God created the world whose life forms developed evolution. This view is regularly misunderstood by scientists who object to the God part and creationists who object to the evolution part.
    Tom Heneghan
    http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04896874203614519678 Tom Heneghan

    It’s not just about “more liberal Catholics.” Even conservatives like Pope Benedict reject the literal creationism supported by conservative Protestants. He also considers evolution as the scientific theory that best explains the development of life (although he says it has some holes). He has spoken of life as an “intelligent project,” but he does not support the ID view that certain life forms are too complex to have developed without the intervention of a higher power (i.e. God). Rather, he sees God as the overall intelligent creator of the universe and the laws of nature (which pope wouldn’t?) and accepts that life forms then developed over time through evolution. This is all standard Catholic teaching. What Pope Benedict and others like Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn say they oppose most is a materialist world view based on what they call “evolutionism” that says evolution proves there is no God. They say this goes beyond the limits of science, a theme Benedict has repeated several times recently. In their view, this so-called “theistic evolution” approach that they advocate is rooted in philosophy, not science. They do not claim to have scientific proof for it (in contrast to ID proponents and their “irreducible complexity” argument). So the official Catholic position effectively straddles the creationist-Darwinist divide, assuming God created the world and let (or used) evolution develop the life forms in it. This view is regularly misunderstood by scientists who object to the God part and creationists who object to the evolution part.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09010421115826273321 Rourke

    With all due respect, I disagree with Mr. Heneghan. I have been to Catholic schools throughout my academic life so far, and have they been serious about science? In my experience, only somewhat. While the actual science curriculum is not affected by religious teachings, in other classes and other areas teachers feel free to openly doubt evolution and claim “it’s just a theory.” And that’s just evolution. In general my teachers are suspicious of “too much science,” and while they may be more nuanced than some fundamentalist Protestant teachers I have been taught by, it’s not by much.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04896874203614519678 Tom Heneghan

    Ah, the difference between theory and practice! I didn’t mean to say that all Catholic schools were gung-ho on science. And individual teachers may be influenced by creationism they pick up from the culture. But the official teaching, which is what I was talking about, is more nuanced than it is usually assumed to be. And there conservatives like Pope Benedict and liberals like the rebel theologian Hans Kueng (who wrote a book about evolution about a year ago) agree.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09010421115826273321 Rourke

    Actually, I see your point there. I have heard both official and unofficial church views on evolution in the course of my continuing education in the Catholic school system, and the official teaching, in my experience, does seem to be rather nuanced.


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