A few Christians still are troubled by science because of a misunderstanding about biblical truth. But the Catholic Church has not taken that path. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, for example, welcomes the worthy ideas of researchers. Truth is truth, the church teaches.
The faith-science tradition goes back centuries; in fact, Western science emerged from a Catholic culture. Many great scientists have emerged from the church and have even been priests. Here is a look at a 10, some you know and some who may be surprises.
Bishop Robert Grossteste (c. 1175 – 1253)
An Englishman, Bishop Grossteste wrote the steps of scientific method in the 13th century and is one of the first Western thinkers to argue that natural phenomenon can be described mathematically. That shaped Western science. Oxford-educated, he introduced translations of Greek and Arabic scientific treatises and wrote an influential commentary on Aristotle’s scientific method.
St. Albert the Great (circa 1200 – 1280)
St. Albert the Great, a German Dominican and the mentor of Thomas Aquinas, was accomplished in science and is the patron of natural sciences. Benedictine Brother Louis de Montfort Nguyen of Mount Angel Abbey, a physician and science teacher, says St. Albert promoted use of reason and experimentation in the physical world. He did work in physics, logic, metaphysics, biology and psychology. Meantime, he led his religious order.
Fr. Roger Bacon, OFM (c. 1220-1292)
An English Franciscan, Father Bacon became among the first thinkers to use experiments — the very foundation of modern science. Skeptical of rational deduction in favor of observed experience, he studied mathematics, astronomy and optics. He proposed flying machines and motorized ships and carriages well ahead of their time. He described spectacles and was among the first in Europe to devise a way to make gunpowder. In letters to Pope Clement IV, Father Bacon argued that an accurate experimental knowledge of nature would be of value in confirming what Christians believe.
Fr. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543)
Few realize that the Polish-born physician-turned astronomer was the nephew of a bishop and became a priest. Father Copernicus was not the first to suggest that the sun, rather than the earth, is the center of the solar system, but he advanced the idea in Europe using more efficient math. Despite being opposed by some Catholic and Protestant leaders who banned his work, his contributions revolutionized understanding of the universe and he remained a priest. Galileo Galilei, a lifelong Catholic despite trials over his science, would use Copernicus’ work. All was eventually accepted by the church.
Bishop Nicolas Steno (1638-1686)
Bishop Steno, a Dane, made great strides in both anatomy and geology. For example, he employed geometry to show that a contracting muscle changes shape but not volume. Various parts of the body are named after him: Stensen’s duct, Stensen’s gland and Stensen’s vein. Defining the term “Renaissance man,” the bishop also is the founder fossil study. Inspired by finding rocks that appeared to be shark’s teeth, his work on the formation of rock layers and the fossils therein was crucial to the development of modern geology.
Fr. Angelo Secchi, SJ (1818-1878)
Considered the father of astrophysics, Father Secchi did groundbreaking work on the light from stars, dividing it into its wavelength components and thus learning about star composition. He was the first scientist to explain that the sun is a star. “At a time when astronomy was considered the measurement of planetary orbits and stellar positions, he changed the question from ‘Where are the stars and planets?’ to ‘What are the stars and planets?’” says Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory. Father Secchi provided the first detailed observations of the surface of Mars and the clouds tops of Jupiter. He did his work from the roof of St. Ignatius Church in Rome.
Fr. Gregor Mendel, OSA (1822-1884)
Fr. Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian friar, founded the modern science of genetics. The terms “recessive” and “dominant” come from him and his work in a monastic garden in what is now Czechoslovakia. He worked with pea plants for years, but slowed when he was elected abbot. Decades later, his ideas and data were rediscovered and genetics has moved in directions he may have imagined but might not approve.
Fr. John Zahm, CSC (1851-1921)
Father Zahm, the man who helped Archbishop Alexander Christie found the University of Portland, was a celebrated physicist and pioneer thinker on faith and evolution. In 1879, he helped the University of Notre Dame become the nation’s first electrified campus. In 1883, he began to think about evolution. By 1896, he wrote a book saying that God was grand enough to use chance as a secondary cause of continuing creation. That got Father Zahm in hot water then, but he was vindicated. His book on evolution was republished in the 1970s and by 1996, Pope John Paul echoed Father Zahm’s thinking.
Fr. Julius Nieuwland, CSC (1878-1936)
A Belgian-born chemist and Holy Cross priest, his studies of acetylene culminated in the discovery of lewisite, a chemical-warfare agent that was never used, and neoprene, the first commercially successful synthetic rubber. In 1920, Father Nieuwland discovered that acetylene’s molecules could be combined to form giant molecules that were similar to rubber. Eleven years later, a group of chemists working at E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company succeeded in modifying the priest’s procedure to produce neoprene. The insulating, heat-resistant substance is used for diving suits and in wire and cable insulation, hoses, belts, springs, gaskets and adhesives.
Fr. Georges Lemaître (1894–1966)
A Belgian priest and father of the Big Bang Theory, Father Lemaître was a contemporary of Albert Einstein, and based his work on Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Lemaître, for a time director of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, gave the first definitive formulation of the idea of the expanding universe, an idea at first rejected then accepted by Einstein. Popular discussions of the seminal Big Bang idea rarely give Father Lemaître his due.