Meet five Catholic heroes of science

Mendel: the father of genetics

In a previous post I discussed the life and work of Georges Lemaitre, the Belgian Jesuit and cosmologist. Lemaitre’s work and faith challenges the idea, proposed by New Atheism, that religion and science are in conflict. He is not alone as Catholic Church has raised up many scientific pioneers whose stories deserve to be better known, especially in the context of the New Evangelisation and Catholic apologetics. Here are a few examples to consider.

Gregor Mendel
Gregor Mendel is to genetics what Georges Lemaitre is to cosmology. Sadly, during his lifetime he did not receive the credit that he deserved. The significance of his work was only recognised more than 30 years later.

The main focus of Mendel’s scientific life was the study of variation, heredity and evolution in plants. Initially studying pea plants he focused on seven traits which included, seed shape, pod shape, colouring of flowers, seed coat, pod colour when not ripe, plant height and flower location. Over a period of almost seven years he cultivated 29,000 plants for testing. His studies concluded that there was a pattern of inheritance of various traits. He produced two generalisations which later became known as Mendelian inheritance.

Mendel’s first publication was in 1866 and it had relatively little impact at the time. This is partly because he was not a professional scientist and he had limited means to communicate his work with the scientific community. There was also criticism from some in the scientific world, but his paper is now considered to be a seminal work. Gregor Mendel’s work encompassed far more than the study of pea plants but unfortunately much of his writing was destroyed when his papers were burned after his death.

In 1843, Mendel entered the Augustinian Monastery in Brno, which is today in the Czech Republic. He later was ordained to the priesthood and in 1868 was elevated as abbot. The administrative work and commitments required of an abbot saw the end of Mendel’s scientific work. In later years, Mendel smoked up to 20 cigars a day, in an effort to lose weight, but it did not work. He died on January 6 1884.

Mary Kenneth Keller
When we think of the pioneers of computer science the image of a religious sister is probably far from our minds. Mary Keller entered the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ohio in 1932 and made her final profession in 1940. She was an outstanding mathematician and gained several degrees over the next few years.

In the late 1950s, Keller began working in the Computer Science Centre at Dartmouth College. At the time she was the only woman on the staff and faced some hostility. After gaining her doctorate she moved to Clarke College in Iowa to found a computer science department. During her twenty year tenure, her department did much pioneering work and she became renowned in her field.

She is remembered today through a scholarship created in her honour and a department at the college which is named after her. Sister Mary Keller wrote four books, which were influential at the time and certainly helped lay the foundations for modern computer science.

Stephen Barr
Barr was awarded the Benemerenti Medal by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 for his work in the areas of religion, science and public life. He regularly gives lectures on the relationship between religion and science and has published such discussion in journals and peer reviews. Stephen Barr’s writing has also reached more popular audiences with appearances in secular newspapers and magazines.

He is a practising Catholic who takes his faith and family life seriously. Stephen Barr’s significant scientific achievements have mainly involved research in cosmology and theoretical particle physics. He has helped to make significant discoveries in the study of basic particles.

Barr’s academic CV is impressive. He obtained his Ph.D from Princeton in 1978 and has since held research and leadership posts at the University Pennsylvania, University of Washington and the Brookhaven National Laboratory. He has been based at the University of Delaware since 1987 and has held the position of Director of the Bartol Research Institute, within the university, since 2011. He is also a Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. For several years Barr has been a fellow of the prestigious American Physical Society, which is the world’s largest organisation for physicists.

Barr is a good example of a Catholic who combines fidelity to science and his faith.

Giovanni Inghirami
Giovanni Inghirami is not alone among Catholic priests in having parts of the moon named after him, having both a valley and a crater which bear his name. This accolade reflects his significant contribution to astronomy.

At the age of 17 Giovanni Inghirami joined the Piarist Fathers. He started work as a teacher, eventually rising to the position of Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy at the Pious Schools of Volterra. He published works primarily on astronomy and astronomic tables and lesser works on hydraulics and statics.

In his religious life Inghirami rose to be Superior General of his order but he later resigned this office due to his failing health and poor eyesight. This retirement gave him more time to teach, write and research. He continued working until a few weeks before he died in 1851. He also influenced a future Pope as one of his former pupils was Pius IX.

Mariano Artigas
A member of the personal prelature, Opus Dei, Fr Artigas was ordained to the priesthood in 1964. In 1995 he received the Templeton Prize for his work on the relationship between science and religion. Much of his work was in the area of apologetics and he was a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Dialogue with non-believers.

Mariano Artigas was interested in the ways in which science, philosophy and religious could actually work together and this led to him co-founding The Science, Reason and Faith Research Group at the University of Navarra in 2002. He also published over 150 articles and books on the interweaving of these three areas.

He held Ph.Ds. in philosophy, physics and theology. He died in 2006.

His work certainly challenges the shallow arguments that new atheism proposes about the relationship of religion and science.

In his opening words in the Encyclical, Fides et Ratio, Pope St John Paul II states that “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart the desire to know the truth — in a word, to know himself — so that by knowing and loving God, men and women can come to the fullness of the truth about themselves”. These faithful Catholic scientists have lived out this reality in their lives and work. We should use their stories and example when meeting with those who try to use science to undermine faith and belief.