Science and religion are partners, not antagonists

By Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

People are often surprised to learn that the Vatican runs an Astronomical Observatory in Arizona in association with the Mount Graham International Observatory. Questions arise in many minds as to what the Vatican is doing meddling in astronomy. Is the Observatory’s task to bend science to the convictions of religion? Is the Observatory simply a hobby for Jesuits with too much time on their hands?

In fact, the Vatican Observatory symbolizes the truth that science and religion are properly partners, not antagonists, and should work together in seeking to unveil the mysteries of the universe.

Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, one of the principals at the Arizona Observatory states: “Religion needs science to keep it away from superstition and keep it close to reality, to protect it from creationism.” By the same token, science needs religion to answers questions like: Why is there something and not nothing? Where did the order of the universe and the laws of nature come from? How is it that creation had a beginning in time?

The Vatican Observatory reminds us of the mostly-forgotten truth that the Catholic Church was, from the early Middle Ages, a leader in the development of science. The Church founded the first universities, like Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge.

What people are most surprised about is that many of the great scientists of the past were priests and members of religious communities. Polish cleric Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was the first person to place the sun at the center of the solar system, with the earth revolving around it, rather than the sun revolving around the earth. This discovery upset the accepted theories of religion and science.

Ignatio Danti (1536-1586), Bishop of Altari, was renowned for his wide-ranging interests in astronomy, mathematics, architecture, civil engineering, hydraulics, and cartography. The French Jesuit Jean-Felix Picard (1620-1682) was the first person to provide an accurate measure of the size of the earth.

The Augustinian Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) is acclaimed as the father of modern genetics, and his work continues to be an important starting point for genetic science today.

The Belgian priest Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966) was the first to propose the “Big Bang” theory—which revolutionized standard views of how the universe was created. The “Big Bang” theory continues today to be the accepted view of the origin of the universe.

So where did the antagonism between science and religion originate, so that people like Galileo were condemned by the Church? Not from a supposed religious hostility toward science, but from misunderstandings and ecclesiastical politics. In fact, popes over the centuries have been far more positive about science than is often thought.

Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI devoted considerable attention to the relationship between religion and reason, insisting that they are two complementary tracks toward an understanding of the world. In 1988, Pope John Paul II issued a landmark  encyclical titled “Faith and Reason” (Fides et Ratio) in which he argued for the complementarity of religious faith and scientific reasoning.

In recent times, the “New Atheists” (principally Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens) have been enormously successful in convincing people at a popular level that science and religion stand in radical opposition, and that religion is fundamentally nonsense, even dangerous and destructive, and has nothing to offer science.

The truth is that the development of science stands at the heart of the Church’s mission. Catholic universities and colleges have science programs not only to qualify young people for jobs, but to advance the cause of science through rigorous study and research.