By Father Richard Peddicord, O.P.
A recent Pew Research Center national poll revealed that a majority of Americans believe that science and religion are “mostly in conflict” with each other. In light of this, people may be surprised to learn that the theorist behind the Big Bang Theory (Georges Lemaître), the founder of genetics (Gregor Mendel), the father of modern geology (Niels Stensen), and the discoverer of sunspots (Christoph Scheiner) were all Catholic priests. It’s as if the 17th century Galileo affair is taken as the norm for understanding the relationship between science and religion—when, according to Dr. Stephen Barr, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Delaware, the Catholic Church has been one of the greatest patrons of the sciences.
Dr. Barr was at Fenwick High School on September 14th to engage theology and science teachers from around the Archdiocese of Chicago on the relationship between science and religion. The day-long in-service day was sponsored by the Science & Religion Initiative of the McGrath Institute for Church Life of the University of Notre Dame. It was organized by Fenwick’s Theology Department Chair, Br. Joseph Trout, O.P., and Science Department Chair, Marcus McKinley. Dr. Barr was joined by colleagues Dr. Chris Baglow (above) and Dr. Philip Sakimoto (left) — both of the University of Notre Dame.
According to Br. Trout, like Americans in general, a good number of high school students believe that science and religion are implacable enemies. Their sense is that one must choose one or the other. Moreover, many believe that science has outright disproved religious truth claims. When all is said and done, there is a sense that accepting the theory of evolution means that one must deny the existence of God.
In his presentation, Dr. Baglow admitted that some Christian groups do indeed attack and deny Darwin’s theory of evolution. They hold that it is contrary to biblical teaching. They espouse a literalist interpretation of the Book of Genesis, and deny the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community on the propriety of an evolutionary account of the origins of the cosmos, life and humanity. This is a real conflict; one cannot harmonize the science of biological evolution with a literal read of the first three chapters of Genesis.
A dialog between faith and reason
The Catholic tradition of theological reflection, however, is not committed to a literal approach to biblical exegesis. Over 1,500 years ago, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) espoused a metaphorical and symbolic approach to interpreting the sacred text. St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224-1274) argued that the Bible teaches that God created the world, but “the manner and the order according to which creation took place concerns faith only incidentally.” In the 20th century, Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani generis paved the way for Catholics to hold that God creates through the process of evolution. Theological propositions can and do develop over time, given the growth of human knowledge and more penetrating insights into reality.
At the same time, Catholic theology is committed to the position that there is but one source of truth. It follows then, that there can be no real contradiction between faith and reason.
Recently, a number of thinkers have published works that deny the existence of God and denounce religious faith as a nefarious influence throughout human history. Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) are in the forefront of this “new atheism.” When all is said and done, their thought is grounded in the philosophy of materialism. A materialist worldview denies the existence of God by holding that nothing but matter exists. It proclaims that human beings have no spiritual soul and the operations of the human mind can be explained in purely materialist ways.
In response, Dr. Barr noted that the claims of materialism are themselves not scientifically verifiable. Moreover, materialism does not offer satisfying explanations to the human quest to love and to be loved, to the universality of the challenge to lead a life of moral goodness, to be grounded in wisdom and committed to justice.
Sir Isaac Newton shows what’s at stake when he asks: “How came the bodies of animals to be contrived with so much art, and for what ends were their several parts? Was the eye contrived without skill in optics, and the ear without knowledge of sounds? … and these things being rightly dispatched, does it not appear from phenomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent … ?”
Fenwick High School’s Br. Trout and Mr. McKinley were in agreement that Drs. Barr, Baglow and Sakimoto fulfilled the mandate of the McGrath Institute’s Science & Religion Initiative: They equipped the day’s participants with tools to bring faith and reason into dialog, and thereby helped to overcome the myth of conflict between religion and science. Ultimately, the Catholic tradition wishes to espouse “both/and” rather than “either/or.” Science and religion are called to seek the truth; they use different methodologies, but are seeking the same goal — knowledge of reality in all its fullness.
Fenwick is the only high school in the United States sponsored by Dominican Friars. As such, it embodies the 800-year-old four core spiritual values of the Order of Preachers (O.P.): prayer, study, community and preaching.
The Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus this summer passed a resolution seeking sainthood for Fenwick’s namesake, Bishop Edward Dominic Fenwick, O.P., the pioneering first bishop of Ohio and founder of the Dominican order in America. In support of this effort to canonize Bishop Fenwick, Fr. Peddicord last month led a nine-day daily Novena, which concluded on September 26th — the anniversary of Bishop Fenwick’s death.
About the Author
Fr. Richard Peddicord, O.P., is President of Fenwick High School in Oak Park, IL.