Can pictures of God and nature fixed firmly for centuries before the birth of science be redrawn without seeming so dramatic as to be unrecognizable to our religious ancestors? And, as the Jesuit geologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin asked years ago, Is the Christ of the Gospels, imagined and loved within the dimensions of a Mediterranean world, capable of still embracing and still forming the centre of our prodigiously expanded universe? Is it possible that science has already changed things too rapidly for Christianity ever to catch up, thus tempting more and more educated people to bind themselves to the seemingly more elegant creed of pure naturalism?
The story of the Vatican’s struggle with modern science since Copernicus will not inspire confidence that the church has faced this challenge successfully. In Roman Catholicism and Modern Science, Don O’Leary, a neuroscientific researcher at University College Cork, shows the history of modern Catholic magisterial encounters with heliocentrism, evolution, Big Bang cosmology, quantum mechanics and biotechnology to be one of habitual postponement. It is not O’Leary’s intention to discourage, but his restrained display of texts and facts documenting the magisterium’s general reluctance to look science squarely in the faceuntil it is too late not to appear ludicrousis not inspiring.
The author’s citation of lines from the Rev. Jerome J. Langford’s well-received Galileo, Science and the Church (1992) encapsulates the impression most readers will get from reading O’Leary’s own sobering chronicle:
The Church’s reaction to scientific advance has seemed to follow the same pattern for centuries. The scientific discovery of theory is announced, and theologians react defensively. The scientific evidence gains acceptance, and theologians begin to investigate ways of incorporating the new insights either by changing their interpretation of Scripture or by doing a bit of reorganizing of their pet world-views. Usually by the time theologians get around to accepting a scientific discovery, they are years behind the times.Without being overtly hypercritical, this important book lays out a dispiriting tale of fearful churchmen recurrently either avoiding or heavily editing scientific information that calls for radical new ways of envisaging religious truth. O’Leary wonders why the pattern of delayed reaction seems to persist indefinitely, especially since a more positive embrace by theology of new scientific ideas would be more consistent with the church’s stated mission of helping humankind to advance in knowledge, justice and love.
The Galileo affair is well known, of course, but the magisterium has struggled mightily over the past century and a half to come to grips with evolutionary biology also. Even if many Catholics today profess to be comfortable with Darwin’s science, especially in light of John Paul II’s favorable assessment in 1996, the more troubling truth is that ever since the publication of The Origin of Species the Vatican has generally spoken as though evolution is either erroneous, unfounded or at best irrelevant. Pope Pius IX almost immediately dismissed it as a mask for materialism, but the Vatican’s tendency to distance itself from evolution is perhaps most evident in later condemnations of Modernism, a broad range of ideas reliant on a sense of life’s natural impetus toward self-transformation.
Distrust of evolution is obvious also in the church’s shabby treatment of Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Curiously, O’Leary devotes only a few paragraphs to Teilhard’s story, perhaps because his research is concerned primarily with displaying the official church’s dealings with science. But if one were to tell the story of Roman Catholicism and Modern Science in a broader way, it would certainly include a lengthier treatment of the contributions of Teilhard, who arguably has done more than any modern thinker to bring his fellow Catholics up to date with science.
Pope Pius XII (quite inappropriately, as the priest-physicist Georges Lemaître complained) did cozy up to Big Bang physics, and his encyclical Humani Generis (1950) finally allowed that life may have evolved. But O’Leary’s account implies that the magisterium, in spite of the establishment of the Pontifical Academy of Science by Pius XI, in 1936, has never fully come to grips with the scientific, and especially the Darwinian, revolution. A persistent distaste for evolution is still evident, for example, when the very same prelate (Cardinal Christof Schönborn of Vienna) who oversaw the writing of The New Catholic Catechism dismisses neo-Darwinism for allowing too much contingency in nature, belittles Pope John Paul II’s positive evaluation of evolutionary biology, and associates neo-Darwinian science with atheistic materialism (The New York Times, 7/7/05).
It is true that some prominent scientists, starting with Darwin’s own generation, have insisted that evolution goes best with materialist naturalism. But this is no reason for church leaders to make the same flawed assumption, especially in view of the writings of many faithful Catholic scientists, philosophers and theologians who have been working toward a theology of evolution for more than a century.
Moreover, as O’Leary understatedly notes, informed Catholic teachers should be aware that any easy dismissal of evolution on the grounds that it includes contingency or randomness had already been rejected in a sophisticated document from the International Theological Commission, published in 2004 as Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God. This text, approved by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, pointed out that true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Such an exemplary production could serve as a model for future church-science encounters.
Roman Catholicism and Modern Science is a fascinating and reliable account of this and earlier episodes in the larger struggle of scientific reason and Catholic faith. It makes an important contribution to modern church history as well as to the present dialogue of science with religion.