As President of the Society of Catholic Scientists, I welcome you all to our first conference, whose theme appropriately enough is “Origins.” SCS itself had its origin only last summer with seven members. As of today [April 22, 2017] we have about 330, which far exceeded our expectations, as has the attendance at this conference.
I would like to say a few words about what the Society of Catholic Scientists aspires to be.
One friend whom I invited to join SCS last summer, was hesitant because, as he put it, “I am not a Catholic scientist; I am a scientist who is Catholic.” His point was that there is not a specifically Catholic way of doing science, nor are there specifically Catholic scientific theories. That is true; and yet, faith is not unrelated to or alien to the scientific enterprise. As we heard last evening in Andrew Sicree’s excellent presentation about Bl. Nicolas Steno, the founder of the science of geology, and as we will hear tomorrow in Bob Scherrer’s talk about Georges Lemaître, the father of the Big Bang theory, religious believers have contributed mightily to the progress of science. But beyond that, one can say that basic Jewish and Christian beliefs support both the possibility and the value of scientific research. Indeed, it has been suggested by many that Jewish and Christian revelation helped prepare the ground for the emergence of modern science. It did so, most fundamentally, by sharply distinguishing between God and nature.
Biblical revelation taught that the sun, moon, oceans, wind, forests, and other things of this world are neither gods, nor the habitations of capricious deities, but are, rather, the works of God. This stripped the world of divinity and made it truly a natural world. Though not itself divine, the world nevertheless reflects its divine Author. As the Book of Wisdom said, “from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.”
In particular, as God is rational and wise --- indeed God is Reason and Wisdom itself --- one expects the universe to be governed by laws and principles intelligible to and discoverable by reason. Johannes Kepler, a devout Lutheran, announced his discovery of one of those laws with the words: “I thank Thee, Lord God our Creator, that Thou hast allowed me to see the beauty in Thy work of creation.”
This was the attitude of all the great founders of modern science, including Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Pascal, Boyle, Steno, and Newton. It is the attitude of religious scientists today. It is the attitude of the Society of Catholic Scientists, whose own motto means “Knowledge with devotion, research with wonder.”
And yet, there is a proper distinction between theology and natural science, just as there is a distinction between God and nature. Theology and science should not be put into a blender to produce some pseudo-mystical or pantheistic mush that has the characteristics neither of genuine science nor of sound theology. Science should not pretend to be theology, nor should theology pretend to be science. Each is grounded in a sense of wonder, and a belief that the world makes sense, but each has its own methods, competence, and sources.
While God gave laws to nature, he did not choose to reveal them to us supernaturally. The laws of nature are thus not only discoverable by reason, but must in fact be discovered by reason. And since reason is the common possession of all human beings, who are made in the image of God, science is a human activity and not a specifically Catholic, or Christian activity. Moreover, as reason is a common human possession, we are prepared as Catholics to learn from anyone who has something to teach us, whether it be the great pagan philosophers of antiquity, Plato and Aristotle, or those of our professional colleagues today who are atheists. We will engage them on the field of reason and in the common pursuit of truth, without ever, of course, sacrificing those truths to which we are committed as Catholics.
There is, as my friend noted, no such thing as “Catholic Science.” Nor is there such a thing as a scientific Catholicism. Science is the same for Catholic and non-Catholic. The Catholic faith is the same for scientist and nonscientist. As members of SCS we are Catholics and we are scientists. There is a distinction, but there is also a profound harmony. It is to that harmony we wish to give witness, by our lives and work, through our discussions and our fellowship.
I should point out that in addition to members of SCS, who must be scientists, SCS has what it calls Scholar Associates, who are elected by the Board. These are distinguished Catholic theologians, philosophers, and historians of science, who are interested in the relation of science and the Catholic faith and wish to be a part of our activities. About a dozen of them are present at this meeting. We hope that our Society will increase opportunities for interaction between Catholics scientists and Catholic scholars in other fields. We also would like to foster interaction between Catholic scholars and non-Catholic scholars.
Later today we shall give an award named after St. Albert the Great. St. Albert is the patron saint of scientists and of the natural sciences. But St. John Paul II has a claim to this as well. Never before had any pope written so much or so appreciatively on modern science and so penetratingly on the relation of science and faith and more generally on the relationship of faith and reason. His writings on these subjects form, as it were, a Magna Carta for the Catholic Church’s relation to science.
In 1988, Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to the head of the Vatican Observatory, which contained these words:
“those members of the Church who are either themselves active scientists, or in some special cases both scientists and theologians, could serve as a key resource. They can also provide a much-needed ministry to others struggling to integrate the worlds of science and religion in their own intellectual and spiritual lives. …”
I see the founding of the Society of Catholic Scientists as an attempt to answer this call. May the intercession of St. John Paul II, St. Albert the Great, and Blessed Nicolas Steno help us to do so in a manner worthy of them.