Arts & Books

Book review: The surprisingly fruitful relationship between the Church and science

A detail from a portrait of Galieleo by an artist from the Italian school

The Tiara and the Test Tube by Paul Haffner

It is very common today among people of no faith to think Christianity stands in opposition to the truths discovered by science. Some of this is a misunderstanding of the Galileo affair. More usually, it is the domination of the scientific world outlook in the Western world, from academe to the high street. Paul Haffner, a priest and theology professor, sets out to refute this assumption, providing clear evidence of papal interest, involvement and encouragement of science from the medieval period to the present day.

Using the writings of the late priest/scientist Stanley Jaki, Haffner raises the pertinent question: why did the impetus for scientific research and progress take place in the Christian West rather than, for example, in China, ancient Greece (or within Islam)? As Jaki wrote in his book, Science and Creation, “Great cultures, where the scientific enterprise came to a standstill, invariably failed to formulate the notion of physical law, or the law of nature. Theirs was a theology with no belief in a personal, rational, absolutely transcendent Lawgiver or Creator. Their cosmology reflected a pantheistic and animistic view of nature caught in the treadmill of perennial, inexorable returns.”

It seems that, paradoxically, the frame of mind necessary for sustained scientific progress emerged only when faith in a “personal, rational Creator, had truly permeated a whole culture … It was that faith which provided … confidence in the rationality of the universe, trust in progress and appreciation of the quantitative method.”

Those who think science began with the Enlightenment will be surprised to discover that medieval scholarship at the Sorbonne paved the way for the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo. Indeed, this period was not a “Dark Ages” for science but rather its cradle, led by the great Christian medieval scholar, Jean Buridan, who anchored his theory of impetus in the beginning of all motion, the first moment of creation. For the Sorbonne scholars, the cosmos was created by God and therefore good, coherent and orderly – thus accessible to the human mind and worthy of study.

Pope Sylvester II, a gifted mathematician born in 946, reintroduced the abacus to Europe as well as the nine Arabic numerals, still used today. The 13th-century Pope Innocent III helped foster progress in medicine and founded the Hospital of the Holy Spirit in Rome – at the time the foremost hospital in Europe. Gregory XIII founded the Gregorian University as well as reforming the calendar in 1582.

Haffner provides countless other examples of the fruitful relationship between the Church and science, such as the founding of the Vatican Observatory in 1891. “To the Catholic Church the study of creation has long been viewed as an act of reverence to God the Creator”, he writes.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (20/11/15)

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