Q10: Hasn’t the Catholic Church historically been opposed to science (e.g. Galileo)?

History shows quite the opposite. The Catholic Church has been a friend of science and has contributed greatly to it in many ways.  A leading historian of science, Prof. Lawrence Principe of Johns Hopkins University, has written that “it is clear from the historical record that the Catholic Church has been probably the largest single and longest-term patron of science in history.” 1

One fact that dramatically illustrates this is that Catholic priests were founders of several branches of science.  Marin Mersenne (1588-1648), a priest of the Minimite order, founded (along with Galileo) the science of acoustics (the physics of sound). The science of geology started with the work of Bl. Nicolas Steno (1638-1686), who discovered the origin of sedimentary rock and fossils and established the laws of stratigraphy.  One of the founders of astrophysics was the Jesuit priest Angelo Secchi (1818-1878), who pioneered the use of spectroscopy to study stars and developed the first systematic classification of them. The Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) is regarded as “the father of genetics.”  The Big Bang theory was first proposed by Fr. Georges Lemaître (1894-1966), a Belgian priest and theoretical physicist. 

A key step in the development of science was the invention of the university in the Middle Ages.  By the year 1500 there were about 100 universities in Europe. It was in these Catholic institutions that science was first studied and taught by a stable community of scholars from generation to generation.  In the forefront of scientific research in the Middle Ages were not only priests but bishops, such as St. Albert the Great, Thomas Bradwardine, Robert Grosseteste, and Nicolas Oresme. The Church held natural science (then called “natural philosophy”) in such high esteem that it was a prerequisite for studying theology in medieval universities. These universities were seedbeds of the later Scientific Revolution. Most of the great figures of the Scientific Revolution, including Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, studied in universities that had been founded in the Middle Ages. 

The Church’s religious orders have always been active in scientific research.  As Catholic missionaries spread across the world in the 1500s, they studied the flora, fauna, geology and geography of their areas and sent back reports and specimens.  The Jesuit order has a particularly brilliant record of scientific achievement, especially in astronomy, starting with Scheiner, Riccioli and Grimaldi in the 1600s.  In the late 1700s, one quarter of all the astronomical observatories in the world were run by the Jesuit order, as is the Vatican Observatory to this day. The Jesuits were also pioneers in the field of seismology, their far-flung missionaries setting up seismological stations around the globe.   

The Catholic Church has been involved with and supported science for over eight centuries. The contributions of her members, both laypeople and clergy, to science have been immense, as the biographies of 84 “Important Catholic Scientists of the Past” on this website attest.  The tragic conflict between Galileo and the Church authorities of his time was indeed a blemish on that history, but it did not typify the Church’s otherwise impressive 800-year record with respect to science.

References

1.. Lawrence Principe, “Myth 11. That Catholics Did Not Contribute to the Scientific Revolution,” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, ed. Ronald L. Numbers (Harvard University Press, 2009)..

Resources for further study

The Church and Science:

Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, ed. Ronald L. Numbers (Harvard University Press, 2010)  Chapter 2 (Myth 2: That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science”, by Michael H. Shank); Chapter 11 (“Myth 11: That Catholics Did Not Contribute to the Scientific Revolution”, by Lawrence Principe); also Chapters 1, 3, 5.

Biographies of 84 Catholic Scientists of the Past on SCS website  http://catholicscientists.org/catholic-scientists-of-the-past

The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, James Hannam (Regnery, 2011)  

The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts, Edward Grant  (Cambridge University Press, 1996). 

Faith, Science, and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge (2nd edition), Christopher T. Baglow (Midwest Theological Forum, 2019), Chapter 5, Appendix.

Video Archive of SCS website, “Recommended” section: videos about Lemaitre, Angelo Secchi, Marin Mersenne, and Gregor Mendel.

Science and Religion. Lawrence Principe. The Great Courses, 2006. (12 lectures)  

On Galileo:

Science and Religion. Lawrence Principe. The Great Courses, 2006. Lectures 5 and 6.

“What If Modern Science Had Started Differently,” Christopher Graney, SCS website article. https://www.catholicscientists.org/idea/copernican-revolution-real-imagined 

“Galileo and the Inquisition.” William E. Carroll. Journal of Religion and Society, Volume 1 (1999).

 


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