Faith and Science at Notre Dame
By John Slattery
University of Notre Dame Press, 272pp, £28.99/$27
The Catholic Church has had a bad rap over the years for its relationship to science. Indeed, the whole “conflict thesis” – that the differences in rationality between religion and science inevitably led to hostility – was developed explicitly with the Church in mind. From the trial of Galileo to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Catholic Church has been caricatured as clinging to outdated models of the world, the enemy of any theory that might question the faith.
The conflict thesis has been largely discredited today by historians of science, and for good reason. The Catholic Church is the world’s most generous patron of the sciences. She has founded universities, research hospitals and academies devoted to scientific advancement. Many of her clergy have been successful scientists. Scientific method itself is attributed to a Franciscan (Roger Bacon); the sciences of embryology and mineralogy were launched by a Dominican (St Albert); and the Big Bang was first theorised by a Jesuit-educated priest (Lemaître).
Still, the Church has been quick to intervene whenever scientific discovery is thought to be detrimental to the sensus fidelium. Nowhere has this been more evident than with the theory of evolution. Though the theory itself has a Catholic forerunner (Lamarck), and its prime explanatory mechanism, genetics, was discovered by an Augustinian (Mendel), the Church initially viewed evolution as theologically dangerous and a threat to Catholic morality.
This new book by a historian of science, John Slattery, examines this very thing. It is a highly nuanced treatment of the last quarter of the 19th century, when the Church took it upon herself to combat the growing consensus among Catholic scientists around the theory of evolution.
Faith and Science centres on a Catholic priest, Fr John Zahm, a popular professor and vice president at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
In 1893, Zahm delivered a series of lectures – published in 1896 as Evolution and Dogma – which claimed that evolution theory and Catholic theology were compatible. Zahm’s book propelled him to international fame, but the Church would have none of it. In 1898, Zahm was asked by the Congregation of the Index to retract his thesis. Zahm initially fought the indictment, then negotiated a compromise and, until his death in 1921, spent his final years writing travelogues, shunned by his beloved university.
In five short chapters, Slattery’s book traces the history of two competing arcs: that of Zahm’s growing fascination with evolution theory, which came to a sad end, and the Catholic Church’s growing fascination with Thomism, which ended in triumph. It is in the intersection of these two narratives that the real drama takes place.
Slattery’s method of presenting Zahm v the Church is to take a step back from the details to assess the first principles of each position. What was Zahm’s philosophy of science and how did it conflict with the borders being drawn by Catholic intellectuals around Neo-Scholasticism? This is the question Slattery uses to tease out the story.
On Slattery’s reading, the disagreement between Zahm’s theistic evolutionism and the Church’s censure of the same is not theological but philosophical: it rests upon two very different views of science.
For Zahm, science is an inductive, bottom-up endeavour. Zahm’s theory of science, which Slattery labels “Baconian progressivism”, holds that science is a sure path to an ever more sophisticated knowledge of the world. The Church, however, holds with St Thomas that knowledge is built from the top-down on objective principles which can never change. With these battle lines drawn, conflict between the Church and Fr Zahm was inevitable.
Thus, per Slattery’s thesis, Zahm got into trouble with the Church not over the science of his claim but over the principles behind it. Zahm’s ambition, both as priest and as a regent of Notre Dame – fuelled, Slattery contends, by his growing fame – was to bring the Church into the modern world by encouraging her to embrace, not evolution itself necessarily, but the progressivist experimentalism that supported it.
His timing could not have been worse. Under the leadership of Leo XIII, the Church was in the throes of instituting Thomism as its dominant educational paradigm. Among the first principles of Thomism are that like only begets like, and the lower cannot be the cause of the higher. Thus, it was meta-science rather than science proper that shut down Zahm’s programme.
Faith and Science at Notre Dame is the publication of Slattery’s doctoral thesis. As such, it suffers stylistically – the traces of research, the lengthy analyses of prior studies, etc – from the requisites of that genre. There is also very little discussion of evolution theory itself. Notwithstanding which, it will be of interest to historians of science and of 19th-century Catholic America.
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