Scientist Priests and the Thanks the World Owes Them

Father Stanley Jaki (1924-2009)

A rich experience in my life was knowing Father Stanley Jaki, the Benedictine priest and physicist who did much to explain the dependency of modern physical science on Christianity’s perception of the universe. He received the Templeton Prize, a monetary award larger than a Nobel Prize, for explaining how the scientific method issues from the Judeo-Christian concept of a benign and ordered universe.

While priests are dedicated to theology as the “queen of sciences,” some of them have contributed to the material sciences as well. Some days ago Google rightly honored Nicholas Steno whose research in stratigraphy earned him the sobriquet “Father of Geology.” Google did not mention that he was a convert to Catholicism in 1667 and only ceased his research due to pastoral obligations when he became a bishop in 1677. His scientific achievements were not as important as his heroic virtue, for which Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1988.

Father Jean-Felix Picard (1620-1682). How does one measure a planet?

The scientific lobe of my brain is lax, and buttoning my cassock is a complex challenge, but I enjoy thinking of my fellows in the priestly fraternity who advanced our knowledge of God’s creation. As a student, I practiced the piano on the site where the Franciscan Roger Bacon, Doctor Mirabilis — “Wonderful Teacher,” explored mathematics, optics and astronomy in the thirteenth century. His own teacher is thought to have been Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln who gave the basic structure for scientific experimentation. In the sixteenth century, Ignazio Danti, an Italian bishop, made discoveries in engineering, cartography, hydraulics and astronomy. On his heels came a French priest, Marin Mersenne, a friend and fellow student of Descartes. He pioneered attempts at a formula representing all prime numbers and established an international scientific congress. His contemporary, Father Jean-Felix Picard, is known as The Father of Modern Astronomy and was the first to measure accurately the size of our planet.

Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel, the Father of modern genetics

The nineteenth-century Augustinian abbot Gregor Mendel fathered modern genetics, discovering dominant and recessive genes as a high-school teacher. His contemporary, a missionary priest named Armand David, specialized in zoology, botany, geology and paleontology in China where he discovered, among other things, the Giant Panda. An American son of Belgian immigrants, Father Julius Nieuwland, invented the first synthetic rubber material by first polymerizing acetylene into divinylacetylene. Belgian native Father Georges Lemaitre proposed the Big Bang Theory which he called the First Atomic Moment, and influenced Einstein. Still living is Father Michal Heller of Poland, whose research in general relativity theory and quantum mechanics was recognized, like Father Jaki’s, with a Templeton Prize.

The liturgical season of Ordinary Time witnesses to the creation ordered by our Creator, the Father of all thought: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; and before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified you” (Jeremiah 1:5).


Originally published under the title “Honouring Scientist Priests” in From the Pastor, Jan. 22, 2012

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Fr. George W. Rutler is a parish priest in Manhattan who is known internationally for his programs on EWTN, including Christ in the City and The Parables of Christ. He is the author of thirty-two books including newly released, A Year with Fr. RutlerHe holds degrees from Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Rome, and Oxford.

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