St. John Paul II once said: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” That image — two wings — is a great way to portray the Catholic understanding of faith and reason and, by extension, of religion and science.
People sometimes have the impression that religion and science are opposed to one another. For the Catholic theological tradition, nothing could be further from the truth. The Church’s position is that faith and reason are both gifts from God, and God’s gifts don’t contradict one another. You might say God gave us two books — the book of Scripture and the book of nature — and expects us to study them both.
A helpful image is offered by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book “The Great Partnership.” He wrote: “Religion and science are to human life what the right and left hemispheres are to the brain. They perform different functions and if one is damaged, or if the connections between them are broken, the result is dysfunction.” Rabbi Sacks warns us not to take the analogy too far; both science and religion involve right- and left-brain elements. But his point is similar to St. John Paul II’s: We’re not meant to do without either.
Even the American Association for the Advancement of Science thinks the conflict thesis is an error. They have an excellent short video on “The Draper-White Conflict Thesis.” It explains how the myth of conflict was invented by two thinkers in the late 1800’s who had an agenda and no historical evidence.
The truth is that, historically, the Catholic Church has been one of the great institutional patrons of science. And the list of Catholic scientists who have made major contributions to their fields is truly astonishing. (For some examples with local connections, look up Washington University trained physicist Clyde Cowan and Saint Louis University seismologist Father James Macelwane, SJ.)
Today, our own Kenrick-Glennon Seminary is a leader in integrating faith and science. Our faculty members won grants for courses on faith and science in 2015, 2016 and 2017. In 2018, a group of faculty members together won a $75,000 grant from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to integrate science into the curriculum. In late 2019, they held a day-long event for seminarians dealing with many aspects of the interaction of faith and science: physics, biology, scientific method and the Galileo affair. (You can find all of the talks on the seminary website, www.kenrick.edu.)
Let me leave you with an image. The event for seminarians concluded with a “Gold Mass” celebrating the role of science and scientists in the Church. The celebrant for the Mass was Father David Brown, a Jesuit priest with a doctorate in astrophysics who works as a scientist at the Vatican Observatory. A priest-scientist celebrating a mass for seminarians at the end of a day-long conference on science: that’s a great image of how the Church sees the relationship between faith and reason.
Further Resources on Faith and Reason
This is the second in a series of columns exploring the Catholic “and.” The series will look at how the Catholic Church takes a “both/and” approach to many fundamental issues. This column explores faith and reason.