Spotlight Archive

Earlier this year, Fr. George Coyne, SJ, was awarded the American Astronomical Society's George Van Biesbroeck Prize, in recognition of his contribution to our knowledge of the universe. He is one of many American Catholics who have achieved prominence by dedicating their lives to the study of the natural sciences.

The Catholic Church’s relationship with science is long and storied. Some authors attribute to Christianity itself the genesis of a scientific worldview, which posits an ordered creation, knowable by human intelligence. Catholic clerics have made enormous contributions to science through the centuries: Copernicus in astronomy, Mendel in genetics, and Steno in geology, to name a few. Unfortunate historical episodes such as the Galileo affair have nonetheless led many to believe erroneously that the Church and science are fundamentally at odds.

In the United States, Catholic participation in science, as in other intellectual pursuits, was long limited by the socio-economic status of the Church’s members. Through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Catholic universities struggled to survive financially, leaving few resources to devote to research. First- and second-generation immigrants did well to finish a high school education. Only after World War II did large percentages of Catholics gain the benefit of higher education, permitting more significant engagement with fields such as biology, chemistry, and physics.

There were exceptions to this general story. New Yorker Henry James Anderson taught astronomy and mathematics at Columbia University; he converted to Catholicism the year after he participated in the US Navy’s scientific expedition to the Dead Sea in 1848. That project was led by another Catholic, Lieutenant William Lynch.

In biology, another convert made his mark. Philadelphia native William Van Buren studied at the top medical schools of the day—Yale, Pennsylvania, and Paris—and became a well-known surgeon and professor of surgery.

Ireland-born Jesuit James Curley was the first director of the Georgetown Observatory (1944), helping that college to become an early center for the study of astronomy. 

Both the potential and the perils of Catholic engagement of science are on display in the career of Fr. John Zahm, the best-known Catholic scientist of the nineteenth century. A Holy Cross priest, Zahm taught at Notre Dame and strongly advocated Catholic participation in the scientific research and debates of the day. Zahm was especially concerned with reconciling his faith with developments in biology, specifically the findings of Charles Darwin. He articulated his understanding of the relationship in Evolution and Dogma (1896), but the text provoked opposition both in America and in Rome from Catholic thinkers who judged that it departed too far from conventional theology. (The book was apparently in danger of being placed on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books but never was because Zahm voluntarily “withdrew” it.)

The Society of Jesus has furnished a number of learned priest-scientists to the American Church. Italian-born Joseph Bayma, SJ, was a noteworthy mathematician and physicist who came to the United States in 1868. He taught at St. Ignatius College (the precursor of the University of San Francisco) and Santa Clara University.

Alexis Carrel won a Nobel Prize in medicine in 1912 for his discoveries concerning wound treatment and blood circulation. Born in France, Carrel worked in the United States for more than three decades at the University of Chicago and the Rockefeller Institute.

St. Louis University’s School of Medicine was home to another Nobel winner, Edward Doisy. Doisy, with University of Notre Dame president J. Hugh O’Donnell, CSC, served on the government panels that laid the groundwork for the National Science Foundation (1950). The post-war period saw scientific research at Catholic universities blossom, as government contracts and NSF grants flowed to various Catholic institutions. Austrian-born physicist Karl Herzfeld led programs at Catholic University; Georgetown conducted research for the Army; and the University of Dayton benefited from its proximity to the Air Force’s Wright Field.

More recently, Benedictine Father Stanley Jaki, a physicist at Seton Hall University, was a prominent philosopher of science and won a Templeton Prize in 1987 for his writings on the relationship between science and religion.

Although most Catholics acknowledge that Catholicism and science are compatible, the relationship remains contentious. Astronomer-priest Fr. Coyne has roundly criticized intelligent-design critics of contemporary evolutionary theory, yet some Catholic scientists are proponents of the ID approach. When Catholic bioethicists and bishops question the morality of technological possibilities such as embryonic stem cell manipulation, reproductive therapies, or human cloning, some accuse the Church of hostility to science. Such disputes will always be with us, but so will the human desire to understand the world in which we live—and Catholics’ active cooperation in that project.

©2010 Posted September 1, 2010.
Photos, from top: Free stock photo of moon, courtesy; Fr. John Zahm, courtesy of Department of Special Collections, Hesburgh Libraries, University of Notre Dame (used with permission); EPA Gulf Breeze Laboratory, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration (unrestricted).

Sources and Further Reading

"List of Roman Catholic Scientist-Clerics" [Wikipedia]

P. Gleason, Contending With Modernity : Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century