Catholic Guidelines for Science Part I

The Church Should Not Judge Scientific Merit

Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.–Pope St. John Paul II, “Letter to Rev. George Coyne,S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory.”

This is the first of two articles about how the Catholic Church might deal with matters related to science.  In this piece I’ll argue that it is altogether inappropriate for the Church to judge the scientific merit of theories and hypotheses.  As a corollary, the Church should not incorporate the results of science (which can change) into Catholic teaching.  On the other hand, it is appropriate that the Church set guidelines for how scientific results might be used,  as in applications of genetic modification of humans (see Catholic Guidelines for Science, Part 2).

Axioms: The Church and Science

Here are propositions I’ve defended that can be regarded as axioms, foundations for how the Church should deal with science.   They summarize the stance I’ve taken in my ebook, A Science Primer for the Faithful.

  • The Catholic Church is not the enemy of science and, indeed, was the midwife of science for Western civilization.
  • The Catholic dogma, Creatio ex Nihilo, God created the universe from nothing, is consonant with settled cosmological science.
  • Logic and rational inquiry have limitations and exceptions. Also, science, which employs several modes of rational inquiry, requires both theory and reproducible empirical validation: for example, science can neither disprove nor prove the existence of a Trinitarian God.
  • There is no conflict between Catholic Teaching and the science of common descent (evolution) provided we acknowledge that the human soul is uniquely bestowed by God at the moment of conception.  Moreover, there are several theories to explain how evolution occurs.
  • Cognitive science explains how the brain works but does not tell us what is a soul or how consciousness works.   Philosophers disagree generally about “the hard problem of consciousness.”   What Catholic teaching says about the soul is not challenged by scientific findings or philosophical conjectures.
  • Miracles have occurred and will occur.  Although such events are outside the realm of scientific inquiry, they are validated empirically and by faith.

Just as science and technology do not tell us what our moral or religious beliefs should be, so our Catholic faith can not help us to judge what is good or bad science, as I’ll demonstrate below..

Judging The Scientific Validity Of Theories And Hypotheses

1. The Galileo Affair—Should the Church Judge Scientific Truth?
In 1633 the Catholic Church made a big mistake: it convicted Galileo of heresy for advocating the Copernican theory, that the earth revolved around the sun.   That is a bald statement of a much more complicated situation,  as I’ve said in another article.

George Sim Johnston, gives a fine analysis in his article, “The Galileo Affair.”

“The Galileo affair is the one stock argument used to show that science and Catholic dogma are antagonistic. While Galileo’s eventual condemnation was certainly unjust, a close look at the facts puts to rout almost every aspect of the reigning Galileo legend.”
–George Sim Johnston, “The Galileo Affair

Summarizing Johnston’s arguments, one can say that both Galileo and some Church officials were at fault, that it was a different time with different concerns–high officials in the Church, initially sympathetic to Galileo, were defending orthodoxy against the onslaught of the Reformation.

Galileo was condemned not for his advocacy of the Copernican theory per se, but for his position that Scripture was to be interpreted loosely (even though St. Augustine had also argued for a non-literal interpretation of Genesis). And Galileo’s science was not entirely correct: he proposed circular orbits for the planets and an incorrect theory of tides. All this is dealt with at greater length in the article linked above. Nevertheless, this one piece of history has been the cannon used in the war of materialists against the Church to support their perceived conflict between the Church and Science.

In 1979 Pope St. John Paul II asked the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to make an in-depth study of the affair. Commenting on their report in 1992, he said, as an apology, explaining what had happened:

“Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system. The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture….”
–Pope St. John Paul II, “Address to Pontifical Academy of Sciences”, as quoted in L’Osservatore Romano N. 44 (1264) – November 4, 1992

2. Cardinal Schonbrun and Intelligent Design—Should the Church Judge Scientific Truth?

Clearly the Church should not make judgments on scientific matters when the science itself is not settled, Church dignitaries should carefully consider whether it is necessary that they support one of several contending interpretations.  Cardinal Schonbrun caused much controversy by  publishing an essay in the New York Times, “Finding Design in Nature”, that seemed to support the theory of Intelligent Design as opposed to the neo-Darwinian mechanism of evolution.

The essay was criticized by a number of Catholic scientists, including the then director of the Vatican Observatory, and by the physicist, Stephen Barr, in an article in First Things.  Cardinal Schonbrun enlarged on his position in a later article in First Things and explained that he was not necessarily supporting Intelligent Design theory, but that God guided all events, including evolution, and that our universe is not the product of chance. I certainly agree with that opinion.  It was a good save!

3. Pope Francis and Anthropic Global Warming (AGW)—Should the Church Judge Scientific Truth? 
I’m very much afraid that Pope Francis has repeated the mistake made by Cardinal Schonbrun, by advocating the truth and perils of Anthropic Global Warming in his Encyclical  Laudato Si.  In statements from the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Science there are judgments and statements that are contentious, that are not held by all scientists.   For example, it is not the case that polar ice and Himalayan snow are decreasing (they continually melt, but the net amount is not decreasing due to global warming–see evidence from satellite images.)

I don’t propose in this essay to debate extensively the merits of AGW.  (See “Scientific Integrity: Lessons from Climategate,” Laudato Si on the Science of Global Warming.“)  On the other hand, it is essential that two points be made:

  • First, it is not true that a “97% consensus” of scientists support the AGW / Climate Change proposition.   See, for example the 97% myth.   And in any case, scientific theories and propositions are not judged by majority vote, but by empirical confirmation.   Before the Michelson-Morley experiment a majority of scientists believed in the ether as the medium for propagation of electromagnetic waves;  afterwards, not many.
  • Second, the extent of data massaging (“fudging”) revealed in the Climategate excerpts and of fiddled temperature data from Paraguayan weather stations   should cause one to regard reported temperature increases with more than usual skepticism.

Accordingly, global warming caused by human production of CO2 is by no means a settled scientific issue.  For a fuller account see Andrew Montford’s “The Unintended Consequences of Climate Change Policy”.

 4. LeMaitre & Pope Pius XII: the Big Bang as Doctrine—Should the Church Judge Scientific Truth?
Pope Pius XII wanted to use the Big Bang theory of Abbe LeMaitre as evidence in a proof for God, supported by the Church. (See here.) Abbe LeMaitre dissuaded him from doing so by arguing that scientific theories are tentative, subject to change, and that certainly isn’t a property one should expect of a religious truth.  After his conversation with Abbe LeMaitre, Pope Pius XII evidently agreed.  He made no further proposals about the Big Bang as part of Catholic theology.

5. Evolution, Cosmological and Biological—Should the Church Judge Scientific Truth?
Perhaps the most contentious topic is evolution, both cosmological and biological.  I’ve discussed this in several articles (see “Did Neanderthals have a soul,” “Can a faithful Catholic believe in science,“) and in Chapter 5 of my web-book, “A Science Primer for the Faithful,“) so I’ll not repeat those arguments here.

I will assert, however, that this is a battle between those Catholics who, like some evangelical Protestants, believe that Scripture should be taken as literally true, and those, like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who believe that the Bible is not a science textbook but a guide for how to live.

As Pope St. John Paul II remarked (and I paraphrase), there are a number of theories explaining evolution (the theory of common descent of species from some single organism) but the empirical facts support the general notion of common descent.   The problem is that many people (including some scientists) confuse evolution—common descent—with the Darwinian model for evolution (the survival of the fittest).

Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Pius XII asserted that any theory of evolution which regards man as a totally material being and does not take into account a soul imparted by God, could not be true.  (Again I paraphrase.)

Catholic Teaching Is Eternal, Science Changes

The Dogma and Doctrine of the Church are handed down from God as eternal truths, whereas theories and fundamental principles of science can change, supplanted by new theories and new empirical evidence.  Accordingly, for Church officials to evaluate scientific theories—settled or unsettled—is a serious mistake.  They assume knowledge and authority which they don’t have.  And such judgments are not in accord with how the truth of Dogma and Doctrine is established, by Revelation and Tradition, rather than by empirical validation.

Nevertheless, the Church should be involved in scientific matters, setting guidelines for how science is to be used.  Since the scientific enterprise itself has no ethical content (other than how one should do science), the Church can make judgments only on the ways scientific results are used, not on the “truth” of scientific theories or hypotheses. 

In Part 2, I’ll discuss an example of this: Catholic guidelines for genetic modification of humans. 

Avatar photo


Dr. Kurland is a graduate of Caltech (BS, 1951, “with honor”) and Harvard (MS, 1953, PhD, 1956). His scientific career (Carnegie-Mellon, SUNY/AB, Cleveland Clinic, Geisinger Medical Center) has focused on biochemical and biological applications of magnetic resonance, including MRI. Since his conversion in 1995 at the age of 65, he has tried to spread the message through blog posts and ebooks that there is no war between the Catholic Church and science. His motivation is that of St. Augustine (The Trinity 1,8): “It is also necessary—may God grant it!--that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to find answers to their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.”

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage