Roman Catholicism, science, and evolution
Christianity was the ideological ground out of which science sprouted. Moreover, the Reformation was a critical factor in the ‘Scientific Revolution’ of the 16th and 17th centuries. However, Protestants were not the only contributors to science. The foundations of the empirical mindset pre-date the Reformation, and many of the most important names in the history of science are Roman Catholics—e.g. Nicolaus Copernicus, Nicolaus Steno, André-Marie Ampère, Louis Pasteur, and Gregor Mendel. But, when we mention the positive role of the Reformation in the history of science, are we thereby purposefully ignoring all Roman Catholic (and pre-Reformation) contributions to science?
M.F. from the United States commented on Richard Dawkins, anti-Christian language and the rise of science, accusing us of this very thing (his comments in red).
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds, with comments interspersed.
‘Purposefully ignoring Roman Catholic contributions to science’?
“Good science has developed in the West because … an acceptance of the creation account and the Reformation—not in spite of it. The ‘new atheists’ wilfully ignore this historical evidence … ” [Sibley, in CMI’s article]
This is absurdly hypocritical. Most of the people at CMI are protestants who purposefully ignore all Catholic development and contributions to science.
We do not “purposefully ignore all Catholic development and contributions to science.” We have written articles (The biblical roots of modern science) and favourably reviewed books that stressed that science was not a purely Protestant phenomenon, but was birthed in the pre-Reformation era (specifically in the universities of Europe) out of a biblical theism that Catholics and Protestants share—e.g. Rodney Stark’s For the Glory of God and The Victory of Reason. Moreover, we have commented on the monumental contributions to science of a number of Roman Catholics—e.g. Nicolaus Steno, Blaise Pascal, and Louis Pasteur. We have even published papers from Guy Berthault, a well-known modern Roman Catholic biblical creationist, on his groundbreaking research in sedimentology! If we purposefully ignore Roman Catholic contributions to science, why would we publish groundbreaking science from a Roman Catholic? For the most part, we focus on these scientists’ biblical creationist credentials, which is a doctrine Protestants and Roman Catholics have not historically disagreed over, and which is of course our ministry focus.
Nonetheless, you are no doubt objecting to Mr Sibley’s use of the work of Peter Harrison, who does emphasize that certain concerns nurtured by the Reformation were instrumental in the blossoming of the scientific enterprise in the 16th and 17th centuries, namely, the centrality of the literal sense of Scripture, and the revival of an Augustinian understanding of the complete fallenness of man. The 16th and 17th centuries were clearly a unique time of amazing scientific discovery, unprecedented in the development of a thoroughgoing empirical approach to the study of nature, and these ideas prominent in Reformation theology provided major impetus for this blossoming of science.
However, the divergent perspectives of Stark and Harrison are not necessarily contradictory. Consider this possible harmonization: the Christian universities, as well as biblical theism, provided a foundation for the empirical research mindset and the collegiate atmosphere needed to encourage the development of science. However, to a certain degree, too much attention to synthesizing Christian theology with Aristotelian philosophy stymied the ideational progress of science (though far from completely and albeit with a somewhat critical eye). There is, after all, little doubt that most Roman Catholic theology is deeply indebted to Thomas Aquinas, in whom we find a sympathetic (though not uncritical) synthesis of Aristotle with the Bible (though Thomas was indeed a biblical creationist).
However, the heliocentrism of Copernicus’ Dē revolutionibus shook this program of synthesizing Aristotle and Scripture to the core, as did the Protestant emphasis on the sole supremacy of Scripture, especially in their biblically based rejection of e.g. transubstantiation,1 which is heavily reliant on Aristotelian metaphysics (not that the Protestants were the first to reject transubstantiation; it’s just that the Reformation was the first time in centuries that a rejection of transubstantiation gained considerable traction in Western Europe). In the light of this shaken synthesis, new ways of looking at nature were sought, almost all remaining grounded in biblical theism (since it remained dominant in both Protestant and Catholic Europe through the Reformation era), but with more willingness to abandon Aristotle. (One place where the battle between Aristotle and the new empirical mindset bubbled up was the Galileo affair, though it was as much a clash of egos as it was a clash of empirical philosophies.)
But why move toward a more thoroughgoing empirical approach? This is where Harrison’s thesis becomes important. A focus on the literal sense of Scripture fostered a more vigorous interest in the literal sense of nature, hence the rejection of Aristotle in favour of what people could actually observe and measure. Moreover, the revival of an Augustinian anthropology of the complete fallenness of man brought about a renewed impetus to ‘reclaim’ the knowledge of nature that the pre-Fall Adam was widely supposed to have had, in order to properly get the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28 back on track. In our post-Fall state, however, the only way to achieve what Adam had naturally was by studious attention to observation and methodology in studying nature. Of course, none of these ideas were new in the Reformation era; they had ancient pedigree in church history. Rather, they had become distorted, or forgotten, or downplayed, or rejected by certain portions of the church, and the Reformers simply saw themselves as bringing a needed emphasis back to these important doctrines.
‘Christian theism’ and the ‘Catholic’ church
Science did not start to develop under “Christian theism” as a result of the reformation, it had been developed over the course of 15 prior centuries under the Catholics before the thousands upon thousands of various denominations of Protestantism ever showed up on the map.
We happily acknowledge that the foundations of the scientific enterprise go back well before the Reformation, and find their proper home in the university system of Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. However, it’s simply anachronistic to call the pre-Reformation church in the West (and the ‘pre-Great Schism’ church) ‘Catholic’ as if the Roman Catholic Church is the only church that bears any sort of continuity with the apostolic church. First, the term ‘catholic’ simply means universal, and the Roman Catholic Church is hardly a universal representative of Western Christianity, let alone all of Christianity. The “holy catholic and apostolic church” that confesses the Nicene Creed is far broader than that branch of Christendom that submits to the Pope. Nor is the Roman Catholic Church the only church with ancient institutional links. The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church have institutional ties that go back at least as far. And as Protestants we would of course argue that any institutional continuity the Roman Catholic Church can claim with the apostolic church is seriously undermined by its failure to maintain doctrinal continuity with the New Testament. Institutions, like the people that comprise them, are fallible.
As such, ‘Christian theism’ (i.e. the revelational Trinitarian monotheism summarized well in the Nicene Creed) is not the sole property of Protestants or Roman Catholics; we share it. Likewise, the foundations of science are found not so much in Protestant or Roman Catholic Christianity as they are found in Western Christianity, which is a heritage Protestants and Roman Catholics share. In fact, one can probably say that science developed in Western Christianity even in contrast to Eastern Christianity largely because Western Christianity has a more positive assessment of the value of cataphatic theology—speaking of what God is (apophatic theology describes God via negation; i.e. what He is not). If there is enduring value in speaking about what God is, there is also enduring value in speaking about what nature is. Pillars of the scientific enterprise such as Nicole Oresme, Roger Bacon, and John Buridan belong just as much to the history of the Protestant churches as they do to the Roman Catholic Church.
Church history and the ‘literal’ reading of Genesis
A literal reading of Genesis was in no way a result of the Reformation, Catholics had been reading it literally for the most part for 1500 years prior.
Not only were pre-Reformation Christians not ‘Catholic’ in the Tridentine sense, this fails to understand the point that was being made. The Reformation brought with it a new emphasis on the literal (i.e. historico-grammatical) sense of Scripture, in large part because it was the Reformer’s use of the literal sense of Scripture that undermined the prevailing ‘papocentric’ worldview in the Western church of the day. This has nothing to do with the fact that the prevailing understanding of the literal sense of Genesis 1–11 throughout the history of the church (and the synagogue) was the historical reading that we as a ministry defend.
All the Catholic Church Fathers held that plants and creatures were created suddenly or instantaneously when God gave the creative command, as well that the word “day” meant a literal 24 hours, and that Adam and Eve were created literally from the dust of the earth and from Adam’s rib (or side).
Once again, the church fathers are not the sole property of the Roman Catholic Church, which is merely one branch of western Christendom. Nonetheless, some of the church fathers did deny that the word “day” in Genesis 1 referred to a historical 24-hour period. For example, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine thought the world was made instantaneously. Augustine called his view “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” because he thought it’s what Moses intended to convey (since ‘literal sense’ in those days was synonymous with ‘what the human author intended to convey’).
All the Church Fathers and Doctors, Saints, and magisterial pronouncements held a literal interpretation of Genesis, and this was not the fruit of the reformation.
We did not say that the literal interpretation of Genesis was birthed in the Reformation; we believe it was birthed well before the New Testament church even existed! (Though the Roman Catholic notion of ‘saints’ is definitely post-biblical, since the NT use of the word applies it to all Christians.) We not only have articles demonstrating that the historical understanding of Genesis 1–11 is the consensus view of historic Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but also of Judaism. Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, and even Jews, all share Genesis as authoritative Scripture. We have plenty of disagreements with each other, but this historically was not one of those disagreements. What was new in the Reformation was not the literal sense per se, but the central focus on the literal sense combined with a de-emphasis on allegorical senses of Scripture.
Has the modern Roman Catholic Church accepted theistic evolution?
There is a big misunderstanding among modern-day protestants, that the Catholic Church has somehow “accepted” or “permitted” evolution theory, but if you know anything about the Catholic Church you know this to be false, and that if there is any accepting the “theory” of evolution it is the result of the faithful ignoring the Church’s commands and warnings, and not in any way the fault of the Catholic faith or the Magisterium (See: A Catholic Assessment of Evolution Theory, and Repairing the Breach, as resources to back up my claims)
The 1950 Papal encyclical Humani Generis,2 John Paul II’s address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996,3 and Pope Francis’ 2014 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences4 are some of the main reasons why so many Roman Catholics think it's OK to believe in theistic evolution. Humani Generis opened up Genesis and origins to discussion and debate, though it put two caveats on any church acceptance of evolution—i.e. that the naturalistic origin of the soul must be rejected, and polygenism must be rejected. However, John Paul II’s comments suggest that he thought the debate had swung in evolution’s favour since Humani Generis, and Pope Francis’ recent comments are even more accepting of theistic evolution than John Paul II. Now, the ‘private’ statements from John Paul II and Francis are not regarded as official dogma, so that theistic evolution has not been officially sanctioned as acceptable for Roman Catholics to believe. Nonetheless, the comments of successive popes ‘as private theologians’ in favour of theistic evolution convince many Roman Catholics that there’s no harm in accepting it. Why? Even when the pope is only speaking as a private theologian, he doesn't stop being the pope, so all his statements carry a persuasive force no other ‘private theologian’ can carry. Even if the ‘Magisterium’ is not to blame (since ‘Magisterium’ refers to the definitive teaching of the Roman Catholic church), modern popes must shoulder much of the blame for the large-scale departure of the Roman Catholic church from biblical creation.5
References and notes
- Transubstantiation is the Roman Catholic teaching that during the Lord’s Supper, when the priest consecrates the bread and wine, they are transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus. In other words, they believe that the bread and wine, once consecrated, are no longer really bread and wine, though they retain their appearance of bread and wine, but are actually the body and blood of Jesus. Return to text
- Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis, w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_12081950_humani-generis.html, 12 August 1950. Return to text
- Pope John Paul II, Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: on evolution, ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP961022.HTM, 22 October 1996. Return to text
- For the text of Pope Francis’ speech, see Pope Francis, Address of His Holiness Pope Francis on the occasion of the inauguration of the bust in honour of Pope Benedict XVI, w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2014/october/documents/papa-francesco_20141027_plenaria-accademia-scienze.html, 27 October 2014. Return to text
- This paragraph has been altered (29 January 2016) to more accurately describe the Roman Catholic understanding of authority (though it does not imply an endorsement of Roman Catholic notions of authority). Return to text