Silly claims about the conflict between science and religion come thick and fast, these days. We know them to be erroneous, but the history of Catholic engagement with any scientific discipline you might care to mention is more spectacular than many of us realise. This isn’t to say that the Church hasn’t cracked down, sometimes foolishly, on maverick boffins or taken its time accepting this or that theory. But on balance, the track record is pretty good.
It is tempting to identify golden ages in Catholic science. The 13th and 14th centuries lead the pack. Albertus Magnus was proving himself to be the smartest chap in Europe, and Roger Bacon was giving new meaning to the word “innovation” and getting all empirical way ahead of his time. Theodoric of Freiberg was analysing rainbows and Albert of Saxony was doing good work on the theory of motion.
The trend continued and, when it was still possible to be a true polymath, the 17th-century Jesuit Athanasius Kircher would tackle everything from fossils to the workings of volcanoes – even having himself lowered into a crater at one point.
Ah, but then the Enlightenment, you say. Well, hold your horses. At the start of the 18th century anyone who toured Europe’s leading mathematical and scientific higher education institutions would quickly have noted how important Catholic scientists still were.
There was no more respected mathematician in that era than François Jacquier. And even when the musings got a little whimsical, the science was still sound. So what if the Dominican Joseph Galien spent his days calculating how large a notional airship would have to be to float an entire army to Africa? The maths were still precise.
Latterly, the pace has not slowed. Seismology, asteroid orbits, climate science and the taxonomy of insects are all being tackled just as, in the past, pendulums were perfected, and the flora and fauna of new worlds were catalogued.
The crucial point, I think, is that the faith of such men is and was crucial to their work: they see what Aquinas meant about science being a tribute to God’s creation. But just as importantly, this rarely has an impact on the rigour and objectivity of their explorations. When Richard of Wallingford did his sums and made his astronomical clocks at St Albans Abbey in the 14th century, he had his mind on the job. When Georgetown observatory became the envy of the astronomical world during the 19th century, it didn’t really matter that the stargazers were priests. And should you ever make it to the Botanical Garden in Montreal, you’ll thank Brother Marie-Victorin for helping to create the view and won’t much care about his religious credentials. Even popes sometimes got in on the act. Sylvester II did a lot for the abacus back in the 10th century.
Continuity is the key word and, as odd as it might sound, there was something fitting about the Vatican observatory hosting – a couple of years back – a conference on black holes, gravitational waves and space-time singularities. The Church has sometimes looked askance at scientists who pushed the limits of enquiry. But it also brought us Roger Boscovich, whose ideas seemed bonkers in the 18th century but turned out to be a precursor of atomic theory. Or the 13th-century bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste, who can stake a credible claim to be one of the founding fathers of modern scientific method.
All in all, not a bad innings. And it’s not for nothing that 35 lunar craters are named for Jesuit scientists.
Jonathan Wright is an honorary fellow in the department of theology and religion at Durham University