A Catholic History of the Fake Conflict Between Science and Religion


The conflict model of science and religion says that scientific inquiry and religious faith (especially Catholicism) have been intractably opposed to each other throughout history. According to it, there is no possibility of harmony between science and faith, because they are rival ways of explaining the universe, with the proponents of each fighting each other in a zero-sum game. This is a deeply rooted assumption in the minds of many Americans, and recent research reveals that the perspective of many young Catholics in America today is shaped by it—as many as 70% of Catholic emerging adults, according to sociologist Christian Smith. 

We will examine the origin of the conflict model in the United States, including the historical context and the specific persons and events that gave rise to it. This will give some insight into why these ideas, though false, were found so persuasive when first proposed and achieved the enormous influence that persists to this day.

After that we will see that the Catholic Church’s theological tradition, as embodied in a number of great thinkers, reveals a very different approach to the relation of science and faith than suggested by the conflict model. It will also become apparent that this tradition contains important principles that can guide us today in presenting the gospel to a culture that is increasingly shaped by science.

Part I: The Origins of the Conflict Model.

The conflict model of science and faith can be traced to the late 19th century and the work of two American authors, whose historical claims were discredited both then, and repeatedly since, by serious historians. One of them was a scientist and popular history writer named John William Draper, and the other a historian named Andrew Dickson White. It is no exaggeration to say that these two men together invented the model, which so many today still accept as unquestionable. In fact, it is often simply called the Draper and White Conflict Thesis by historians. To understand its origins, we have to go back several centuries and recognize three trends, two intellectual and one sociocultural, that set the stage for the success of Draper and White. 

The first intellectual development, which goes back to the 17th century, was a suspicion of any Christian doctrines other than moral teachings. Terms such as “dogma,” “divine mystery,” and “articles of faith” began to be used pejoratively to imply foolishness and fear of progress—and even religious deception. This is best captured in a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816 to his friend, the Dutch minister Adrian van der Kemp, about the dogma of the Trinity: “Ridicule,” he wrote, “is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the [tricksters] calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”

By the late 19th century, dogmas had begun to be seen by many as anti-rational, the products of blind, dangerous faith. Many thought that science should be made to replace dogmas through a crusade to rescue religion from irrational ideas. Lost to view was the recognition that Christian dogmas can be rational, even though they relate to realities that are by their nature not fully comprehensible by the human mind, concerning as they do the self-revelation of God rather than facts about the physical universe.

The second intellectual trend took place in the 19th century and was much more positive. The various areas of study which we now refer to with the umbrella term “science,” such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc., were becoming professionalized, taking on a whole new level of respectability and exciting popular enthusiasm through the new knowledge and industrial and medical benefits they were producing. For science, it was one of the best of times. This was the age of Lyell’s geology giving the first glimpse of the ancient age of the earth, of Pasteur’s germ theory, above all, of Darwin’s Origin of Species. As a result, science as we define it today began to stand out as a specific and separate pursuit. This change in perception even involved a change in vocabulary.

Before the 19th century, the word “science” (from Latin scientia meaning “knowledge”) referred to any knowledge demonstrated logically, including theological knowledge. The words “philosophy” and “science” were treated as synonyms, as in the title of a book published in 1821: Elements of the Philosophy of Plants Containing the Scientific Principles of Botany. But by the late 19th century the terms “science” and “scientific method” began to be associated exclusively with the study of the physical universe through observation and experiment. This change in perception added new words to the English vocabulary, terms such as “scientist” and “physicist,” which were coined in 1833 by the Anglican theologian and natural philosopher William Whewell (1794-1866). Sadly, the restriction of the science “word family” to one kind of human knowledge left open the possibility that other areas of knowledge such as philosophy, art, morality, poetry, and theology could be considered as unfruitful, subjective flights of fancy by comparison.

The third trend, Anglo-American in its roots, was sociocultural: the rise of anti-Catholic prejudice, even mania, in the United States as a response to the large influx of Irish and other Catholic immigrants that began in the mid-1840’s. From the perspective of the Catholic Church in America, the mid- to late-19th century was one of the worst of times, and the decade of the 1870’s marked a high-point of anti-Catholic prejudice. The American bishops were seeking tax exempt status for tuition at Catholic schools, and the battle was fierce. In 1871, in Harper’s Weekly, the famous political cartoonist Thomas Nast published what many regard as one of his most powerful images, “The American River Ganges.”

The image shows a Protestant public school teacher, with a Bible tucked in his waistcoat, shielding a group of young children from menacing crocodiles, who are creeping up the shore in order to devour them. When the crocodiles are viewed closely, one realizes that their jaws are ornate, jewel-encrusted miters, and that the predators are actually Irish Catholic bishops. On the cliff, the New York politician William Tweed, a.k.a. “Boss Tweed,” and his cohorts are handing children down to be devoured. Behind him there is a gallows and Lady Liberty is being led away to be hanged. Across the water is what looks like St. Peter’s Basilica, but the name inscribed on it is Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine run by Boss Tweed. Over the colonnade of the basilica can be seen the words “The Political Roman Catholic School.” The U.S. Public School in the foreground is crumbling.

The majority of Catholic immigrants were poor and illiterate, which gave their religion an air of ignorance and superstition to non-Catholics. A largely successful attempt to forbid public aid to Catholic schools drew upon these prejudices and upon fears that Catholics secretly wanted to bring the entire nation under the political control of the pope by corrupting education. A bias against the possibility of Catholics being open to the progress of knowledge ruled the day.

Science was identified with progress, and Catholicism with backwardness. Science brought knowledge, whereas Catholicism with its dogmas and mysteries was seen as fostering ignorance. This was the soil in which false claims about the history of the Church and science could take root and flourish, and such claims were not long in coming.

In 1874, John William Draper (1811-1882), a successful American chemist and early innovator of photography, published his book entitled History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. He begins by making a generalized judgment: “The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from [traditional] faith.” Shortly after this declaration, he qualifies it by proclaiming the innocence of Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christians, whom he claims have never opposed the advancement of knowledge and have always had “a reverential attitude to truth, from whatever quarter it might come.” He later refers to Protestantism as the “twin-sister” of science. The true religious enemy of science is the Roman Catholic Church, which he indicts for rejecting science and using violent means to maintain power over its adherents, with the long-term goal of gaining total political supremacy over all peoples:

In speaking of Christianity, reference is generally made [in this book] to the Roman Church . . . None of the Protestant Churches has ever occupied a position so imperious—none has ever had such widespread political influence . . . But in the Vatican—we have only to recall the Inquisition—the hands that are now raised in appeals to the Most Merciful are crimsoned. They have been steeped in blood!”

Throughout the rest of the book, Draper alleges conflict after conflict between the Catholicism and science while offering little or no evidence. He makes up details and presents them as facts. He rearranges sequences of events in order to support his position. He selects quotes that seem to support his case and fails to give the context, even leaving out parts of quotes that call into question his interpretation of them.

For instance, Draper condemns St. Augustine (354 - 430) for teaching that the sky is stretched out like a flat skin over a flat earth. Actually, St. Augustine quotes Psalm 104:2 in order to demonstrate his principle that the Bible must be read figuratively, not literally, in its depictions of natural phenomena. He actually affirms the very position Draper accuses him of rejecting: “rational arguments,” St. Augustine concludes, “inform us that the sky has the shape of a hollow globe all round us.” Draper concludes the book with a prophecy of doom for religion and victory for science:

As to the issue of the coming conflict, can anyone doubt? Whatever is resting on fiction and fraud will be overthrown. Institutions that organize impostures and spread delusions must show what right they have to exist. Faith must render an account of herself to Reason. Mysteries must give place to facts. Religion must relinquish that imperious, that domineering position which she has so long maintained against Science.”

Despite his fury and contempt for Catholicism, or, more likely, because of it, Draper’s book was an instant success. It outsold every other book in the series in which it was included. Since then it has been reprinted 50 times and translated into 10 languages. It remains readily available.

Numerous critics emerged to respond to Draper’s work, including Orestes Brownson, a celebrated intellectual and a Catholic convert. A common theme of their criticisms was that The Conflict seemed to be written with the primary aim of achieving bestseller status rather than historical accuracy. In the May 23, 1875 issue of a San Francisco newspaper called The Daily Alta California, a reviewer put it this way: “He may be a rhapsodist, but he is no historian. He is neither unprejudiced nor painstaking. If he investigate(d) authorities, he does not dare to cite them to sustain his ballooning [allegations]. His book is an immense pretension.” The anonymous author of this review knew that the facts of history were often the opposite of what Draper claimed and showed that Draper was not invincibly ignorant, just malicious.

The reviewer corrected Draper on three claims:

  1. he noted that the murder of the philosopher Hypatia by a mob in Alexandria, Egypt, in 413 AD was not animated by Christian fear and envy of her skill in mathematics and science but by politics.
  2. he noted that Giordano Bruno was executed by the Roman Inquisition not for his belief in a plurality of worlds and a heaven filled with “space and stars,” as Draper claimed, but for theological heresies. And,
  3. he pointed out that Galileo’s condemnation had more to do with his recklessness and lack of discretion than an entrenched ecclesiastical or theological antagonism toward cosmologies that “threatened” the assertions of the Bible.

Contemporary historians of science also dismiss Draper’s book as an exercise in propaganda rather than scholarship. Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths of Science and Religion, a collection of essays by noted experts, includes discussions of several of the historical myths invented by Draper.

Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918) was an American historian, who in 1865 cofounded Cornell University, the first purely secular institution of higher learning in the United States. This resulted in criticism for separating learning from religion—criticism that came mostly from competitors at Protestant institutions of higher education. In response, White decided to write a book showing that both religion and science would be better off once “dogmatic theology,” a subject not included in the curriculum at Cornell, was overcome. “I will give them a lesson which they will remember,” he wrote to his friend Ezra Cornell in 1869.

White delivered this “lesson” to his opponents over the next 27 years, during which he published 27 articles, which he finally brought together in 1896 in a two-volume work called History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. He begins the book by praising Draper for “his work of great ability” and then goes on to repeat many of Draper’s errors, including one that is widely believed to this day: the infamous “flat-earth dogma.” White claims that until Christopher Columbus’s time the majority of Christian thinkers had insisted on biblical grounds that the earth was flat, and that a flat earth was practically a dogma of the Church. In reality, only two Christian authors of record, the early Christian writer Lactantius and the relatively obscure 6th century Greek traveler and monk Cosmas Indicopleustes, had ever argued that the earth is flat.

Whereas St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Albert the Great, and many other ancient and medieval Christian theologians testified to the rotundity of the earth, as did such major popular writers as Dante and Chaucer. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas, in the very first article of the first question of the first book of his enormous Summa Theologiae says, “Sciences are differentiated according to the various means through which knowledge is obtained. For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion, for instance that the earth is round, [but in different ways].”

Despite this mountain of evidence, White portrays the entire Christian tradition as committed to flat-eartherism, and presents Lactantius and Cosmas as typical. To add a touch of drama, he adopts Washington Irving’s fictional account of Christopher Columbus struggling unsuccessfully to convince Catholic priests and professors that the earth is spherical at the University of Salamanca in 1487:

The warfare of Columbus the world knows well . . . how sundry wise men of Spain confronted him with the usual quotations from the Psalms, from St. Paul, and from St. Augustine; how, even after he was triumphant, and after his voyage had greatly strengthened the theory of the earth’s sphericity . . . the Church by its highest authority solemnly stumbled and persisted in going astray.

Had White done his homework, he would have discovered that all parties at Salamanca agreed with Columbus that the Earth is spherical. What they debated was the size of the Earth, not its shape. Columbus thought it was small enough that he could reach Asia with sufficient supplies, while his opponents knew that it was much larger (and their estimates of the Earth’s circumference were quite accurate). What neither side could have known was that between Europe and Asia lay the Americas (luckily for Columbus).

The “one-two punch” of Draper’s and White’s books has a remarkable, long-standing effect on popular opinion. Appealing to the prejudices of their day, especially anti-Catholicism, and riding the wave of enthusiasm for scientific progress, they created the very conflict they claimed to resolve. The errors and misrepresentations they foisted upon their readers are now routinely repeated as historical facts by non-historians and have been given new life in the work of popularizers such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who in his 2014 TV series Cosmos adopted Draper’s account of the execution of Giordano Bruno. The flat-earth “dogma” idea is now so widespread that many learn it in elementary school. In 2012, even U.S. President Barack Obama repeated it in a jibe against political opponents: “If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they probably would have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society. They would not have believed that the world was round.”

If Draper and White created the completely false story that Catholic Church has been hostile to science, then what is the true story? How has the Church and her theologians understood the relation of science and faith?  

Part II: The Catholic Tradition and Science

Draper and White excoriated the Catholic Church for its emphasis on dogma and divine revelation. Their approach resembled, in a way, that of Martin Luther, though Luther would not have approved of it. Luther had held up the Bible as the sole source of religious truth and the antidote to what he saw as corrupt theological tradition. Draper and White held up science as the sole source of truth and the antidote to both the Bible and theological tradition—or what they imagined theological tradition to be, a distorted image that appears in their caricatures. Whereas scripture alone was a motto of the Protestant Reformation, Draper and White’s new reformation is based on the principle science alone.

The Catholic Church’s approach is significantly different. It does not pit the Bible against theological tradition, or either of them against science. The Church recognizes the divine authority of both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. While the Church has had many customs and human traditions of greater or lesser value, what the Church calls “Sacred Tradition” is something far deeper. Where Sacred Scripture is the word of God given long ago; Sacred Tradition is nothing less than Jesus Christ, the Word of God, living within his Church throughout history and in the here and now. Because the Church’s very existence at any and every moment depends upon Christ’s union with her and the Holy Spirit’s activity within her, Sacred Tradition is the very life and consciousness of the Church, her deepest self-identity and self-expression.

When Sacred Tradition is understood in this way, the question raised by Draper’s and White’s critiques becomes inscreasingly pressing—what is the witness of Sacred Tradition with respect to scientific discovery and the natural world? Can we find any continuity among the great thinkers whom the Church has celebrated for their insights into divine truth? I believe that the answer is affirmative, and that running like golden threads through the Church’s long history and the writings of her greatest theologians can be found at least two fundamental principles that are favorable to natural science and utterly opposed to the conflict model.

One of these principles is that what is known from divine revelation and what is known from reason must be in accord, as having the same Author, so that even things newly discovered or demonstrated must affect how we understand revealed truth. Draper, however, characterized the Church’s approach this way: “A divine revelation . . . admits of no improvement, no change, no advance . . . it discourages . . . all new discovery.” And in White’s opinion the definition of papal infallibility in 1870 implies that nothing new can ever be asserted, even in matters of empirical investigation. Completely ignoring the Church’s limitation of the charism of infallibility to matters of faith and morals, White wrote, “Omniscience cannot be limited to a restricted group of questions; in its very nature it implies the knowledge of all, and infallibility means omniscience.” Belying these claims, however, are numerous examples of great thinkers throughout the Church’s history embracing newly-established facts about the universe and the scholarly insights of their age, and allowing such discoveries to challenge their understanding of revealed truths and to bring about development in Christian doctrine. In short, they let reason inform their faith. Let us look at three striking examples.

Our first example is found in St. Augustine’s commentary on the Book of Genesis, written in 414 AD. There St. Augustine relied on established astronomical observations to come to the conclusion that the first creation account of Genesis must be a symbolic cosmogony rather than a scientific description. In that account, each “day” ends with the words “evening came and morning followed.” St. Augustine realized that the six “days” could not possibly have the usual meaning of 24 hour days, because it was well-known that the times of night and day are different in different parts of the world:

But if I say that [the days are 24 hour periods], I am afraid I will be laughed at by those who know for certain . . . that during the time when it is night with us the presence of light is illuminating those parts of the world past which the Sun is returning from its setting to its rising . . . So then, are we really going to station God in some part [of the world] where evening can be made for him, while the light withdraws from that part to another?

The second example is the response of St. Robert Bellarmine, the Church’s leading theologian, when confronted with Galileo’s claim that the Earth moves around the Sun. This claim was seen by many at the time as contrary to such scriptural passages (i.e. Josh 10:12-14) where it is said that God made the Sun stand still in the sky to allow the Israelites to prevail in a battle against the Amorites. Bellarmine wrote in a famous letter,

I say that if there were a true demonstration that the Sun is at the center of the world and the Earth in the third heaven, and that the Sun does not circle the Earth but the Earth circles the Sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say that we do not understand them rather than say that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown to me.

Bellarmine is here explicitly declaring that Scripture must be interpreted in a way that accords with reason, so that if Galileo’s claims could be demonstrated to be true it would require a new way of explaining Scripture. No proofs were available at the time, therefore Bellarmine stuck to the common understanding.

The third example is the reaction of St. John Henry Newman, widely regarded as the greatest Catholic theologian of the 19th century, to Darwin’s theory of evolution and new ideas about the age of the Earth. Scientists at that time argued that the age of the Earth was between 20 million and 400 million years, not 6,000 years as assumed by some on the basis of a naïve reading of scriptural passages. Newman was entirely open to these new hypotheses, pointing to the traditional distinction in Catholic theology between God’s “primary causality” and the “secondary causality” whereby one thing causes another within nature. In 1870, he wrote:

If second[ary] causes are conceivable at all, an Almighty Agent being supposed, I don’t see why the series of such causes should not last for millions of years [rather than] thousands.

And yet four years after Newman penned these words, Draper would claim that the “sacred science” of a 6,000-year-old earth was unalterable, having been in place since the time of St. Augustine. Draper and White seem to have been impervious to the facts of theological history, whereas Newman was quite attentive to the newly discovered facts of natural history and willing to be challenged by them to a deeper understanding of doctrine.

In these three cases we find leading representatives of the Catholic tradition giving the discoveries of science a kind of “veto power” in interpreting biblical texts. In their view, new scientific knowledge can help us to interpret Scripture in a better way. Rather than Sacred Tradition trumping reason, Sacred Tradition itself teaches that reason should always inform our faith.

A second principle found in Sacred Tradition is that God’s providence generally respects the integrity of nature by acting through natural secondary causes rather than by disrupting the course of nature. Ignorant of this, Draper wrote, “[the sacred science] likened all phenomena, natural and spiritual, to human acts. It saw in the Almighty, the Eternal, only a gigantic man.” In another place he even wrote that it “rejects . . . secondary causes”—a strange claim indeed given that the very concept of secondary causation first arose within Catholic theology. The truth of the matter is that the great thinkers of the Catholic tradition were very careful to avoid any supernaturalism that relies upon divine, miraculous interventions to explain how the universe works, which is nowadays often called the “God of the Gaps” error. Instead, they emphasized the wisdom of God in establishing the universe in such a way that it could bring about the ends he intended for it. For them, the universe itself is a miracle because it exists and is able to do God’s will. They avoid suggesting any kind of divine micromanagement of the universe, and they reject the temptation to see God as constantly tinkering with or “fixing” the universe through miraculous intervention.

Once again, St. Augustine’s commentary on Genesis is a prime example. Inspired by his reverence for God’s perfect wisdom, St. Augustine found the idea of separate creative acts on God's part to be problematic, even to explain the origins of living things or human beings. If God is perfect, his creative act must also be perfect, lacking nothing, requiring no additional divine acts to complete it. Therefore, St. Augustine speculated that God created the universe with everything it needed to be life-producing. For example, he taught that all living things, human beings included, naturally existed in the universe from its first moment, not as actual organisms but as “rationes seminales”—i.e. “seminal reasons” or “seed-like principles”—hidden in “the very fabric, as it were, or texture of the elements . . . [requiring only] the right occasion actually to emerge into being.”  

Although he had no idea of common descent from an original ancestor, or of natural selection and genetic variation, the integrity of nature as the source of life, which Darwin would champion, was already being celebrated by this Father and Doctor of the Church one and a half millennia before him. Following St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas would later teach that “in the first founding of the order of nature we must not look for miracles, but for what is in accordance with nature.”

We have numerous examples of this respect for the integrity of nature in the Middle Ages. In the early 12th century, Adelard of Bath wrote his Quaestiones Naturales, which marks the dawn of medieval science, in the form of a Platonic dialogue between himself and his nephew. His nephew believed that the spontaneous appearance of life in a dish of dried soil was miraculous. At a time when there was a strong devotion to miracles, it would have been easy for Adelard to agree. Instead he drew a firm distinction between the action of the Creator and the natural workings of his creation: “It is the will of the Creator that herbs should sprout from the earth. But the same is not without a reason either.”

When his nephew persisted and pointed out that a natural explanation from the doctrine of the four elements was inadequate, he stuck to his point: “Whatever there is, is from Him and through Him. But the realm of being is not a confused one, nor is it lacking in disposition which, so far as human knowledge can go, should be consulted.” In other words, we should persist in seeking natural explanations and not attribute everything we do not understand to the direct action of God.

Centuries later, once biology had proposed that human beings have an evolutionary origin that connected them to all living things on Earth, the Catholic philosopher Charles De Koninck (1906 – 1965) dismissed creationists who considered such an idea to be an affront to the Creator and to the special dignity of human beings. He made it clear that the temptation to insert miraculous explanations leads not only to bad science but to bad theology as well, because it deforms the natural order of which all created things in the physical universe are a part:

Creationism, which opens the world directly to God . . . implicitly rejects what is essential to the universe: the unity of order . . . If man and the ape have . . . a common ancestor, how would that detract from human dignity? Why prefer that he came from the mud? . . . Is it not a sin . . . for man to deny his humble origins? . . . Is it not rather his glory to be the goal of these immense efforts of the world [to produce him]?

These examples show a thorough belief in the integrity of nature that is based on the perfection of divine wisdom and power. They show how very different the Catholic way of honoring the Creator is from creationism. Although not all theologians went as far as St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas in offering alternative, speculative interpretations of biblical narratives, the great thinkers of the Catholic tradition sought to appreciate as much as possible the causality of creature—not to get God out of the picture, but to glorify him, because God is most profoundly at work when the universe is able to do his will. God is not one cause among many; he is the cause of all causes. The more a creature can do, the more it shows forth the power of God. Creationism incorrectly squeezes God into the picture of nature; Catholicism gives the whole picture to him.

The two “golden threads” that we have traced through the history of the Church show that the Church’s theological priorities favor a harmony between faith and science. The emphasis on balancing faith and reason allows for reason to have a profound impact on faith; the emphasis on the integrity of nature out of reverence for divine wisdom encourages confidence that the universe can be understood and that natural explanations exist and ought to be pursued.

From Conflict to Communion

With these principles, Catholicism is well-equipped to engage in dialogue with the denizens of our scientific-technological age in such a way that the scientific outlook can be brought into a relational unity with religion. In this regard, there has not been a more insightful and compelling guide than St. John Paul II. His letter of June 1, 1988, to Fr. George Coyne, S.J., the Director of the Vatican Observatory, can be seen as the Magna Carta of faith-science dialogue. I will only offer a few extracts, but can recommend a much more sustained analysis given by Jordan Haddad.   

In his letter St. John Paul II described the proper relationship between faith and science as one that resembles a healthy relationship between persons, in which each becomes more himself or herself through a dynamic and respectful interchange:

The unity that we seek . . . is not identity. The Church does not propose that science should become religion or religion science. On the contrary, unity always presupposes the diversity and the integrity of its elements. Each of these members should become not less itself but more itself in a dynamic interchange, for a unity in which one of the elements is reduced to the other is destructive, false in its promises of harmony, and ruinous of the integrity of its components. We are asked to become one. We are not asked to become each other.

In this regard, one might recall St. Augustine’s use of natural observations to come to an understanding of what the Book of Genesis is saying and not saying. St. Augustine’s attentiveness to well-founded knowledge of the natural world helped him, paradoxically, to engage in theological reflection more thoroughly.

Moreover, this respect for diversity must involve a sincere attempt at mutual understanding:

What, then, does the Church encourage in this relational unity between science and religion? First and foremost that they should come to understand one another. For too long they have been at arm’s length.

Finally, there is the promise that, in coming to understand each other, each will be enriched by the other:

Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish . . . For the truth of the matter is that the Church and the scientific community will inevitably interact; their options do not include isolation. Christians will inevitably assimilate the prevailing ideas about the world, and today these are deeply shaped by science. The only question is whether they will do this critically or unreflectively, with depth and nuance or with a shallowness that debases the Gospel and leaves us ashamed before history. Scientists, like all human beings, will make decisions upon what ultimately gives meaning and value to their lives and to their work. This they will do well or poorly, with the reflective depth that theological wisdom can help them attain, or with an unconsidered absolutizing of their results beyond their reasonable and proper limits . . . The uses of science have on more than one occasion proven massively destructive, and the reflections on religion have too often been sterile. We need each other to be what we must be, what we are called to be.

In conclusion, the prevailing misconceptions about an inherent conflict between science and religion are precisely that—misconceptions forged by the propagandists of the distant past, based on their prejudices and biased historiography. But it is also a challenge to Catholics today to adopt the humble, open dialogue and seek the relational unity so eloquently expressed and fervently desired by St. John Paul II. The more that scientific literacy and discoveries become part of our common worldview, the more a sense of their relation to the Catholic faith becomes essential for us to be compelled by the beauty, goodness and truth of the Catholic faith. In our scientifically literate culture, ignoring science, or offering only shallow reflections upon it, leads to the impoverishment of evangelization and catechesis and to the scorn of a world that needs the gospel.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This article is part of a collaboration with the Society of Catholic Scientists (click here to read about becoming a member). You can ask questions and join a wider discussion of the above essay at the bottom of this and this page where the original two-part version of it is published. 

Featured Image: Thomas Nast, The American River Ganges, 1871; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Christopher Baglow

Christopher Baglow is Director of the Science & Religion Initiative of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Faith, Science and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge and is the co-recipient of the 2018 Expanded Reason Award in the Teaching category.

Read more by Christopher Baglow