The 1633 trial of Galileo Galilei is often used as evidence that the Catholic Church opposes scientific thought. The reality is that the Catholic Church has had a fruitful relationship with science and has been one of its biggest proponents. Scientific historian J.L. Heilbron asserts, "The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries ... than any other, and probably, all other, institutions."
In his book, "How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization," Thomas E. Woods Jr. argues that, while many early civilizations had technological achievements, true science never developed because they saw the universe as uncertain, with natural phenomenon often attributed to the whims of deities.
Christianity revealed a creation that was orderly, rational, predictable and consistent — all necessary factors for the scientific method. Therefore, Woods writes, "the appearance of modern science in the Catholic environment of Western Europe was no coincidence after all." Jesuit historian Father Stanley Jaki goes even further to propose that "... science is not Western, but Christian."
The Church's positive view of the natural world, the goodness of God and His faithfulness paved the way for the scientific method. Even before Galileo's time, Catholic universities had been created precisely for the systematic study of knowledge. St. Albert the Great (teacher of Thomas Aquinas) had insisted on the importance of direct observation. Today, St. Albert is the patron saint of the natural sciences and a Doctor of the Church. Other Churchmen formalized the steps for scientific experimentation and made discoveries in astronomy, optics and physics.
Since Galileo's time, Catholic Churchmen have contributed significantly to discoveries in magnetism, volcanism, epidemiology, anatomy, geology, paleontology, seismology, atomic theory, electromagnetic fields, genetics and even the Big Bang Theory. Ours is hardly a Church that is ignorant or afraid of science.
An article written by Mark Gray, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) in "Our Sunday Visitor" in August caught my attention. He described two research studies seeking to understand reasons why and when Catholics cease identifying with the faith. While many parents worry about their children falling away from the faith in college, the CARA research suggests that the disaffiliation begins much sooner, between the ages of 10-17.
A major reason uncovered by the research is when children feel a disconnect between Church teaching and modernity. Many described feeling that science is "smart" and faith is a "fairy tale." Perhaps a big factor is that 42 percent of millennial Catholics have never been enrolled in Catholic education or participated in youth or college ministry programs. They have never had the privilege of learning the complementarity between the two.
Christian Smith, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame, found three factors that, after parental influence, make it more likely that a young Catholic will stay connected to their faith: 1) a weekly activity where they connect to the faith, 2) having adults besides their parents that they can talk to about the faith, and 3) deep spiritual experiences.
Our Catholic schools fulfill all three of these criteria. The daily instruction and intersection of faith, science, literature and other subjects helps students develop a faith that is integrated into all aspects of their life. Students are surrounded with teachers who don't just instruct, but discuss the faith and model the vocation of the Christian life. Finally, students participate in many retreats and Christian service.
"The Catholic school environment is unique among educational institutions in the United States," Gray wrote. "It is a context where students can learn about their faith and science on the same day and in the same place. They may be in a religious education class at one moment and in a laboratory learning about evolution in the next. This is something a Catholic student in a public school or at another private Christian school is unable or very unlikely to encounter."
Our students, teachers and parishioners are celebrating National Catholic Schools Week from Jan. 29-Feb. 4. This annual event reminds us of the many ways Catholic schools uniquely shape our children, our Church and our nation. I encourage all parents to visit a school near you to see for yourself what the gift of a Catholic education can do for your child — next year and throughout his or her life.
Catholic schools not only teach that the sun is the center of our solar system, they also teach that the Son is the center of our life.
Nelson is superintentent of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. RELATED ARTICLE(S):