Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel 
Shannon Mayer, associate professor and chairwoman of the University of Portland Physics Department, speaks about the optical set up for an interferometer with students (clockwise from left) Mikayla Whiteaker, Margaret Ehrich, Joseph Albright and Efrain Venegas Ramirez. 

Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel 

Shannon Mayer, associate professor and chairwoman of the University of Portland Physics Department, speaks about the optical set up for an interferometer with students (clockwise from left) Mikayla Whiteaker, Margaret Ehrich, Joseph Albright and Efrain Venegas Ramirez. 

“Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

Dogma-changing words made by Pope Francis? 

No. A long-held belief of the Catholic Church rearticulated in the pope’s address a few years ago to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences — and an idea supported by the majority of U.S. Catholics, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

But step back in time 158 years, to the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” 

“The challenges to people’s faith was incredible at the time,” said Holy Cross Father Thomas Hosinski, who taught a course on science and theology for nearly four decades at the University of Portland. “We used to think we were created separately, not part of the animal kingdom. Some felt Darwin degraded humanity by putting it in a world with animals. It was a tremendous shock.”

It was not the first time science rattled faith. Science and its discoveries often unsettle people’s views of themselves and God. But for many, it enriches those views. 

“As the depth of our insight into the wonderful works of God increases, the stronger are our feelings of awe and veneration in contemplating them and in endeavoring to approach their author,” wrote the 20th-century Irish physicist William Lord Kelvin, for whom the Kelvin scale is named.

Science as evangelizer? 

Several years ago, the physicist-genius Stephen Hawking said that before we understood science, “it was natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation.”

There’s much believers could dispute in Hawking’s statement. A number of scientists feel that certain discoveries made by science make it increasingly difficult to deny God’s existence. 

Stephen Barr, in his 2016 collection of essays, entitled “The Believing Scientist,” writes that from the fields of physics and cosmology have come the “anthropic coincidences.”

“This term refers to the fact, now widely appreciated by physicists, that many features of the laws of nature seem arranged so as to make possible the emergence of life,” writes Barr, a professor of theoretical particle physics at the University of Delaware. “If certain parameters of the ‘Standard Model’ of particle physics [a kind of periodic table of the elements for particle physics] were even slightly different from what they are measured to be, either stars would never have formed or biochemistry would not be possible.” 

Barr writes that many of these anthropic coincidences are so striking, they have led at least a few scientists to reconsider their atheistic views.

Reflecting the wonder of God

Shannon Mayer, an associate professor and chairwoman of the U.P. physics department, said the more she understands the intricacies and order of the world through science, the more in awe she is of God’s handiwork — and our ability to grasp at least a small portion of it. 

Mayer, an evangelical Christian, works in optics and often talks to her students about the law of reflection. During a recent interview on the U.P. campus, she said most people’s experience with the law is when they brush their hair or put on their makeup in front of the mirror each morning. “But that quality of mirror is very recent,” she said, pulling a small copper pot out of a drawer to aid her explanation. “For most of history, you’d be looking at a mirror more like this,” she said, holding up the pot. “It would be a very unclear reflection.”
This reality of optics helped her understand a verse of Scripture, said Mayer, quoting 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”

The law of reflection and this verse also affirm that we don’t have all the answers — either in science or faith — and that’s OK, she said. We cannot yet know the mind of God, and within each scientific discipline, every generation builds on past, incomplete, knowledge. 

“If we can make peace with not having all the answers, that’s a nice place to be to ask important questions,” she said. “We don’t need to be afraid of some uncertainty.” 

Faith and science are not at odds at Catholic U.P., but many young people Mayer has encountered have been told previously that you can either be a person of faith or of science, but not both. “They are unnecessarily conflicted,” she said, noting that many scientists are faith-filled — although perhaps not as vocal as prominent atheist scientists, such as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.  

“A lot of scientists see the religious implications of science but are afraid to bring it up, especially at secular universities,” added Father Hosinski. “But more (believing scientists) exist than people think, and that’s a hopeful sign.”

From quantum particles to priesthood  

One of the most famous ideas in physics helped nudge Father Patrick Donoghue, pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Portland, toward his vocation. Majoring in physics as an undergraduate, he was introduced to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which says there is a fundamental limit to what we can know about the behavior of quantum particles and, therefore, the smallest scales of nature. 

Father Donoghue recalled exploring several possibilities for why this level of fuzziness in quantum theory existed, including the lack of sufficiently precise instruments of measurement; the disruption caused to an object while measuring it; and the idea that “it’s the inherent nature of things that we are not able to measure them exactly.” 

The last possibility stood out to the college student. 

“That idea that there’s a limit to how definitely we can understand matter or physical reality, for me pointed to God,” said Father Donoghue. “There is a definite reality, but it’s not necessarily fully in our understanding of the physical.”  

Father Donoghue believes that science not only enriches belief, but in some cases, clarifies it.

He said the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe was a key part of some people’s faith, for example. “But then science disproved that theory. The Earth doesn’t need to be at the center of the universe for our faith to be true — that reality will not change the core of our faith.” 

Simply joy

Faith and science don’t always feel complementary, as Father Hosinski knows personally. The first in his family to attend college, he was raised in a Catholic family with a literalist view of Scripture.  “When I learned about evolution, it definitely challenged my belief,” he said. 

The writings of Jesuit paleontologist Father Pierre Teihard de Chardin allowed the seminarian to see the compatibility of evolution, and all science, with faith. De Chardin worked to amalgamate evolutionary thought with theological concepts during the first half of the 20th century. “He helped me a great deal in my faith development,” said Father Hosinski.

Scientific inquiry can challenge the believer, but it also offers a lens or a language that reveals more about God, ourselves and our faith. For the non-believer, science can stoke curiosity and elicit wonder — and, at times, provoke an awe or understanding that illuminates the divine.

It also brings joy. 

“The wonder that comes out of science,” said Father Hosinski, “it’s powerful.”