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.