A focus for our class this semester is Roman Catholicism’s response to a burgeoning modernism, which emerged as theory during the Enlightenment and came to rival orthodox Catholic doctrine throughout the 19th century and into the early 1900s. Our discussion this past week in class in particular has veered towards the relationship between science and the Catholic faith, a relationship perceived by most as fraught if not adversarial.
A sidenote– the Church, of course, should not be viewed as a monolith. Within the cast of clergy and laity there is of course some variation in belief. I’m looking at the dominate view which generally was forwarded by the papacy.
Throughout the centuries the Vatican promoted scientific discovery through its patronage. Many leading scientists were Catholic including Descartes, Pascal, and Mendel, and many European churches were built not only for worship but also as solar observatories. The Vatican continues to sponsor scientific research through the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences and of course through educational institutions. Yet historically scientific discoveries that seemed to challenge Church teachings were swiftly condemned by the Church and had potentially serious consequences for scientists. Galileo‘s work to advance Copernicus’s theory of a heliocentric universe went against the Bible’s teachings of a fixed Earth, resulting in a trial in 1633 conducted by the Inquisition in Rome. Galileo recanted in order to save himself from being burned at the stake. Amazingly, it wasn’t until 1984 that the Vatican acknowledged its error.
During the trial, Galileo contended that science and religion naturally supported each other rather than acting as substitutes. Another groundbreaking scientist would imply the possibility of something similar in 1859. In the final pages of his On the Origins of Species, Charles Darwin suggests the potential of God setting the conditions for evolution, even if evolution renders a strict creationist view false. Darwin’s publication split the Catholic world into two general camps: a minority of progressives such as Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul and Fr. John Zahm of Notre Dame who adopted theistic evolution and the conservative wing led by the Jesuits and the papacy which rejected evolution. Other than calling into question the literal interpretation of Biblical teachings (which was actually more central to Protestant arguments against Darwinism), evolution was challenged by the Vatican establishment for its amoral implications (social Darwinism) and due to its worldly rather than supernatural nature. A declaration by Pope Pius X condemning modernism in 1907 halted the progressives’ push to reconcile Darwinism with doctrine.
The Holy See shifted its position in 1950. Though the Vatican was nominally neutral prior, Pius XII approved the possibility of a theistic model of evolution that year. A year later, he accepted a modified account of the Big Bang that acknowledges God’s role. Successive popes, including Francis, have affirmed these views. The Church, from the second half of the 20th century and into today, has signaled a new willingness to incorporate modernist thought into Catholic teachings.
It is smart to evaluate new ideas critically, which was something conservative Church leaders in the US stressed during late 1800s in regards to evolution. Theories are not facts and should be subject to scrutiny. Yet many conservatives held Darwin to an investigative standard that they did not subject themselves to in evaluating their own beliefs. An ethics professor of mine from last year lectured on the fallacy of what she called the history argument, which I think applies here. The argument essentially says that because we have done something a certain way means we should probably continue to do something a certain way. Her point was that while a traditional belief may or may not be right, the fact that it is traditional should not qualify as a reason to believe it. R. Scott Appleby, in “Exposing Darwin’s ‘Hidden Agenda'”, notes “the debate did not leave a strong antievolutionist legacy to future Catholic educators… The advent of evolution theory, in other words, served as a catalyst for the resolution of internal Catholic issues rather than a sustained evaluation of Darwinism and evolutionary theory in itself”. In Appleby’s view, the Church did ultimately take a hard look at its own tradition.
The picture of the relationship between science and Catholic religion is more complex than the tug-of-war narrative. Centuries ago the promotion of science by the Church was meant to reinforce or elaborate further upon doctrinal understandings of how the world worked that were taken as given (as in Galileo’s case, as Pope Urban VIII gave his research permission on the grounds that his findings would be in accordance with the faith). In recent decades, the Church has reinterpreted its teachings to reconcile with scientific discoveries. A more flexible reading of the scriptures in recent history (compared to Protestant fundamentalism) has allowed the Church to embrace the mutual beneficence between religion and science stressed by Galileo centuries before. The Church has evolved just as science has, even if the process has been slow.