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Catholics and Science

March 6, AD 2012 9 Comments

Two months ago when the topic of a symposium on Catholic education was first mentioned, I had a brief com-box discussion with my colleague Miss Allie Terrell (her submission to this symposium can be read here). What does (or should) a science course look like at a Catholic University? Or for that matter, what does or should it look like in any Catholic educational context, whether university or high-school or homeschool? I cannot, of course, offer a full answer to this question in just one blog post, but as somebody who is Catholic, a scientist, and a teacher of science, the question does cross my mind. Suffice it to say that I cannot offer here a practical programme to implement what I believe to be a Catholic education in science, but that I can offer a theoretical reflection—a vision, if you will—of what that education may be like.

There’s more to science (yes, more even to physics) than just doing this.

It is tempting to consider one or another method of teaching science: discovery method and guided inquiry, or lectures and labs, or great books and great experiments? But this is not ultimately the heart of the issue. These are techniques for learning the science (and its history and development), all of which are important, but none of which really answers the question posed. Granted, it is important to understand the history and development of science—very little of which is even remotely touched upon at any level of our modern educations—but the history and development of science is no more actually science than is the history and development (or regression) of philosophy actually philosophy. On the other hand, science is certainly more than just being able to work a few equations or to develop some new and exciting technology, which is quite often how it is treated in the secular university (with a good many Catholic universities following suite).

Science is observational, but it is more than observation alone, as Pierre Duhem noted in his essay on the observation, The Primacy of Common Sense:

When a sincere witness, sufficiently sober so as not to take the whims of his imagination for observation and familiar enough with the language to express his thought clearly, affirms to have registered a fact, the fact is certain. If I declare to you that on such a day, at such an hour, I saw a white horse, you must believe, unless you have reason to consider me a liar or a victim of hallucination that on that day, at that hour, in that street, there was a white horse….But…what the physicist states as the result of an experiment is not a recital of facts registered by him. It is rather an interpretation of these facts, it is their transposition into the abstract, symbolic world of theories which he considers to be well established.

Therefore, after the physicist’s testimony has been submitted to the rules which establish the degree of confidence due to the account of a witness, you have accomplished only a part, and the easier part, of the critique of his experiment.

In other words, science consists not merely of the facts (observations), but also the interpretations (theory) which we give to those facts.

Therefore, a good science education—whether Catholic or not—will involve both some kind of laboratory experience in which observations (often, measurements) are made, and also some form of theory work in which those observations are interpreted. It will also involve, by extension, some aspect of development in theory, both in the historical and philosophical context and also in the more direct context of making observation, developing a theory, making predictions, testing those predictions, and then modifying the theory (a cyclic process, to be sure). That is the side of science which might be called “doing science” (or learning science), and that cyclic process of observation-interpretation-theory-prediction-test/observation-modifying theory-test-again-modify again is much closer to a true scientific method than the familiar “observation-hypothesis-prediction-test-conclusion” method so often taught in schools today.

How does this “fit” into a Catholic education? Much has already been said about education in general in this symposium. In particular, I can point to the post by Mr Colin Gormley, and also to the excellent post by Mr Nathaniel Gotcher. In , which looks like it will be the first of a series, Mr Gotcher writes that

“The purpose of a Catholic education is to bring students to a closer proximity to their fulfillment which is in Christ. To be fully human is to be Christ-like.We are currently discussing an intellectual education (there are other kinds…topic for another post) and so we must determine what can an intellectual education can do to make us more Christ-like. There are three areas of growth that not only build on one another but are also sometimes the same thing. They are knowledge, wisdom, and holiness. 

This is true for any education, which means that it must also be true for a scientific education. Now, most “scientific” educations, whether Catholic or secular, tend to do well in causing the student to grow in knowledge, and many also tend to improve his understanding, at least as concerns efficient and material causes. Few take wisdom or holiness seriously as ends to education, and this is I suspect true for both secular and many Catholic colleges. But even the matter of knowledge and understanding goes beyond just “knowing the theory” within whichever specialized field of science the student happens to be enrolled. As Mr Gotcher puts it (my emphasis),

“The linguist should learn not only how to speak and write logically, grammatically and rhetorically in languages, but also to understand the origins of language in a given society and culture. A painter should not just learn how to represent forms but also should learn how the forms work together in a logical or rhetorical way.

What the Catholic university needs, then, is a curricular structure that recognizes the inherent connection between these disciplines. Of course I am not saying that a painter should take as many logic classes as art classes, but his art classes should be based on logic (or rhetoric…or music for that matter). No student can be an expert at everything, but in order to be an expert at one thing, that one thing must be completed by this more integrated idea of knowledge.

Finally, all disciplines at a Catholic university must refer to the philosophical basis of the Catholic faith. In other words, they must all be taught with reference to the Truth–how the world works, what our place is in it and the existence of God as the source of all creation.

This does, of course, include the sciences, which are every bit a part of the Catholic education as are the liberal arts. The sciences must also therefore be taught “with a reference to the Truth,” not in the sense of a “God of the gaps” argument, but rather in reference to God as the Final Cause behind all natural efficient causes, the Efficient Cause of all things, and the Unmoved Mover. It must recognize that science, so far from being opposed to religion or beside religion, can be a compliment to religion, and that scientific discoveries need not all lead away from belief and towards skepticism. In science, we learn many truths about nature, but all of these truths have their root in God, in Christ Who said that He Is the Truth. To this end, my friend Mr Gormley writes (with my emphases),

The purpose of education is to be able to find objective truth.  The pursuit of the truth in all things and the training of the mind to find such.  Far from being exclusively a “Catholic” belief, education was looked upon as the pursuit of truth in the universe and beyond.  It was a noble and worthy goal of all mankind.  The earliest pagans understood this even if the capacity for such was greatly limited.  And up until recently in human history the pursuit of the truth was believed in and honored by people of all religious, philosophical and cultural backgrounds…

As far as a “Catholic” education this to me means that we hold to a particular perspective when it comes to the pursuit of truth.  We see the world through the Church’s eyes.  And we look for the hand of God in all that we do.  This is not to say that “God did it” is appropriate when studying various scientific properties, but that we do not sacrifice the Primary Cause for the sake of the secondary causes.  We see the Truth in a fuller sense, and we pursue the Truth in all things.

This is every bit as true in the sciences as in the liberal arts, or (for that matter) the fine arts. The study of nature should move us to awe at the beauty of creation, and then from there to the contemplation of the Creator. It should lead us to say, as the Italian astronaut Roberto Vitori did say, that “It’s the beauty…the beauty of the earth seen from space, the beauty of nature, the beauty of the blue planet,” which show “there must be something beyond science and technology” which inspired us to turn towards God. That is to say, science inspires us to contemplation, and ultimately to the praise of God through the beauty of His handiwork. Or, as St Thomas Aquinas puts it,

“God is the first exemplar cause of all things. In proof whereof we must consider that if for the production of anything an exemplar is necessary, it is in order that the effect may receive a determinate form. For an artificer produces a determinate form in matter by reason of the exemplar before him, whether it is the exemplar beheld externally, or the exemplar interiorily conceived in the mind. Now it is manifest that things made by nature receive determinate forms. This determination of forms must be reduced to the divine wisdom as its first principle, for divine wisdom devised the order of the universe, which order consists in the variety of things. And therefore we must say that in the divine wisdom are the types of all things, which types we have called ideas—i.e. exemplar forms existing in the divine mind. And these ideas, though multiplied by their relations to things, in reality are not apart from the divine essence, according as the likeness to that essence can be shared diversely by different things. In this manner therefore God Himself is the first exemplar of all things. Moreover, in things created one may be called the exemplar of another by the reason of its likeness thereto, either in species, or by the analogy of some kind of imitation.

Although creatures do not attain to a natural likeness to God according to similitude of species, as a man begotten is like to the man begetting, still they do attain to likeness to Him, forasmuch as they represent the divine idea, as a material house is like to the house in the architect’s mind” (Summa Theologica I q.44 a.3).

In other words, all things created are to some extent a reflection of God’s wisdom, that is, of God’s Word, and this reflection includes “the order of the universe,” whether moral, metaphysical, or physical. That physical order is discovered through the study of the sciences, whether or physics or of biology or of geology or what have you.

The Aurora over Norway. Source: Astronomy picture of the day.

The secular scientist will admit that he finds beauty in nature, and perhaps truth and goodness too. Indeed, this is usually why he studies science, above and beyond other motives []. He finds beauty in the universe and in the order (and sometimes the chaos) revealed by the laws of nature. The Catholic scientist must also see beauty, goodness, truth; that is, he must also recognize the beauty to be found in nature, the truth of her laws, and the goodness of studying nature for the sake of gaining knowledge and understanding. However, he must take this further than his secular counterpart, and find that underlying this beauty, this truth, and this goodness is God, Who Is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. We must “look for the hand of God” in nature, too, and see “the Truth in a fuller sense, and…pursue the Truth in all things.” As the late Fr Stanley L Jaki put it,

“Each measure, each number, and each weight is therefore a God-ordered note in the praise which the universe renders to God through its being strictly limited to one overall measure, numebr, and weight [Wisdom 11:20]. These three are the only, though enormously rich, objects of science. They are also an integral part of the praise which man owes to his Maker” (Science for Catholics, printed in Catholic Essays).

This, then, is how science fits into a Catholic education, indeed as an integral part of that education. Both the Catholic and the secular scientist must be prepared to “follow the evidence,” recalling that the theory is for the data and not the data for the theory. But whereas the secular scientist might stop at finding a new (if only probabilistic) theory, the Catholic scientist must seek out the deeper meaning of that theory. He must see in the simplicity of the theories of physics a reflection of the divine simplicity; or in its seeming complexity the utter transcendence of God, Who cannot be ultimately grasped by our finite intellects [].

In short, the Catholic scientist must be both a good Catholic and a good scientist. His every theory, his every experiment, his every observation must be joyful and just praise rendered to his Creator. Therefore, a Catholic education in science must first instill in him the sense of wonder and awe at nature and her laws–creation–which is befitting a good scientist; but that same education must now take the further step of returning that awe and wonder to its source, which is the Creator. The joy of discovery which he experiences as a scientist must be as a Catholic a holy joy which lifts his mind to the contemplation, not only of the laws, but of the Lawgiver. As a scientist, he may be moved to amazement and wonder in studying the order underlying the cosmos; as a Catholic, he should be further moved to adoration for and praise of the God who is the First Cause of “all things, visible and invisible.”

He must view his laboratory as both a place of holy labor and an oratory in which praise is offered for the glory of God. A good Catholic education will therefore instill in him the idea that his participation in the liturgy, which finds its highest expression in the Mass, nevertheless continues into his daily life as a scientist, in which his every effort is an act of praise and his every discovery a sacramental which reminds him of God’s Providence.


[] Such as “making money” or “controlling nature”, which he will occasionally though not always admit to, and which he sometimes does not care about at all.

[] Saint Thomas Aquinas explain this idea of utter simplicity leading to seeming complexity in this way:

“God, however, as considered in himself is altogether one and simple; but never­theless our intellect knows him by diverse conceptions, because it cannot see him as he is in himself. But, although it understands him under diverse conceptions, it knows that all these conceptions correspond (respondet) [emphasis added] to one and the same simple thing. Therefore, this plurality, which is [a plurality] according to reason, is represented by the plurality of subject and predicate; and the intellect represents the unity by composition.” (Summa Theologiae, Ia q.13 a.12)



About the Author:

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”