The Catholic Church's Role in the Development of Modern Science

Christianity, in general, and the Catholic Church, in particular, were integral factors in the development of modern science. A growing number of scholarly sources support this conclusion. In one such instance, while making the case that Christianity was not the sole factor in the rise of modern science, Noah Efron nevertheless admits that

the claim that Christianity led to modern science captures something true and important. Generations of historians and sociologists have discovered many ways in which Christianity, Christian beliefs, and Christian institutions played crucial roles in fashioning the tenets, methods, and institutions of what in time became modern science.[1]

Along these lines, what follows will cover two main aspects of how the Church aided the development of science. We will consider, first, how the Church’s beliefs fostered a conceptual environment conducive to scientific investigation and, second, the ways that the Church as an institution directly encouraged and supported scientific endeavors.

The main goal is to combat the popular myth that Christianity and the Catholic Church were and are enemies of science. Nothing could be further from the truth. The conflict myth about religion and science is largely the result of a false narrative created for polemical reasons. In opposition to this, Peter Harrison writes:

For much of the time religion has facilitated scientific endeavor. . . . Religious ideas inform and underpin scientific investigation, those pursuing science were often motivated by religious impulses, religious institutions frequently turn out to have been the chief sources of support for the scientific enterprise and, in its infancy, science established itself by appealing to religious values.[2]

As Rodney Stark writes: “I argue not only that there is no inherent conflict between religion and science, but that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science.[3]

The Church’s Conceptual Contribution to the Advent of Science

Science requires certain presuppositions that have not always and everywhere been present and affirmed. The fact that science developed when and where it did is not arbitrary. It was the result of converging factors. One of these factors was a worldview informed by Judeo-Christian beliefs.

There have been numerous advanced civilizations throughout history. Yet, as Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton note, “The type of thinking known today as scientific, with its emphasis upon experiment and mathematical formulation, arose in one culture—Western Europe—and in no other.”[4] As Loren Eiseley remarks, “It is the Christian world which finally gave birth in a clear, articulate fashion to the experimental method of science itself.”[5] This gives rise to the question: Why did science develop then and there, specifically? What is it about a Christian worldview that is conducive to a scientific mentality?

First, scientific rationality presupposes that the world is orderly. The doctrine of divine creation imbued Western culture with the view that nature comes from the divine mind; the universe is intelligible because it comes from divine, creative intelligence. Without a rational structure with regular patterns and processes, no hope could be had for studying the natural world. As Efron remarks, “The very notion that nature is lawful . . . was borrowed from Christian theology.”[6] Rodney Stark likewise affirms: “Christianity depicted God as a rational, responsive, dependable, and omnipotent being and the universe as his personal creation, thus having a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting human comprehension.”[7]

It may seem obvious to people today that nature is intelligible and follows specific laws that are describable through mathematical equations. But not every culture has had this view. In fact, not every culture or religion accepted that the natural world was even real. Some religions have held that the material world is an illusion. A society built upon such an idea would hardly see investigating the world as a positive activity. Why would one spend time and effort analyzing an illusion? That would be akin to feeding a delusion. Not only would it not be praiseworthy, but it could be considered foolish, at best, and dangerous, at worst.

Even if a populace accepts the reality of the material world, that does not automatically mean that it would see the natural world as worth studying. Some ancient civilizations viewed the world as inherently disorderly. One cannot discern order where one expects nothing but chaos. In certain polytheistic or animistic religions, for example, what we call natural phenomena were solely the results of fluctuating divine passions. There would be no sense in searching for a natural cause if the effects themselves were only produced by some deity’s changing moods. If the natural world acts in a completely disordered fashion, then it would be futile to try to unpack its inherent structure and modes of operation.

Additionally, there is the belief that the world is good but not itself divine. Some religions and philosophies saw the material world as evil, while others saw the world as itself divine. Both extremes can act as impediments to conducting scientific investigation.

If the material world is inherently bad, then perhaps it would not be good to investigate it too closely. Some religions and philosophies viewed materiality as such to be evil. The world was something to escape, not delight in. According to the Judeo-Christian perspective, however, not only is the material world real, not only is it orderly, but it is also good! Thus, write Pearcey and Thaxton: “Against the surrounding Greek culture, the early church defended a high view of the material world.”[8]

To the other extreme, certain religions and philosophies held that nature or the various parts of nature were themselves divine. Such pantheistic, polytheistic, or animistic perspectives could actually hinder science for the opposite reason as those that saw the world as evil. If nature is god or a collection of gods, then subjecting natural phenomena to experiments and manipulation could be viewed as impious and morally reprobate. Thus, as the historian of science Reijer Hooykaas contends (according to Pearcy and Thaxton): “The de-deification of nature was a crucial precondition for science.”[9] As Hooykaas writes, “In total contradiction to pagan religion, nature is not a deity to be feared and worshipped, but a work of God to be admired, studied and managed.”[10] The world is good, the creation of a good God, but it is not God, and therefore it can be studied without the fear of impiety. Again, the Judeo-Christian perspective provides the sort of balance needed for scientific investigation to be considered worthwhile.

Related to this is our third point: the Christian view about the place of humanity within Creation. Since humanity was created in the image and likeness of God, humans are elevated above the rest of creation. This view is supported by Genesis 1:28, where God gives humans dominion over the earth. The earth and all that is in it, then, can and should be used by humans as a resource that they can work with for suitable ends. That does not mean humans should exploit or destroy their natural environment, but it does mean they can and should cultivate it, helping it to bear more fruit and to use it to benefit mankind.[11]

Our fourth point: the doctrine of original sin leads to the recognition that there are limits to natural human reason, especially in the fallen state. Because human reason is prone to misperception and errors in reasoning, one has to be very deliberate and intentional in one’s methods of observation in order to come to proper conclusions. Initial intuitions do not suffice; one must test one’s hypotheses to see if they are correct. Efron thinks that this view supported the development of the scientific, experimental approach to studying the world. He writes:

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Augustine’s notion of original sin . . . was embraced by advocates of “experimental natural philosophy.” As they saw it, fallen humans lacked the grace to understand the workings of the world through cogitation alone, requiring . . . painstaking experiment and observation to arrive at knowledge of how nature works. . . . In this way, Christian doctrine lent urgency to experiment.[12]

Another factor in the Church’s ability to help foster the development of science is her openness to sources coming from other cultures, including input coming from philosophical reflection and other modes of natural reason. Since her founding, the Church has viewed rationality as an asset. In particular, the early Church engaged with and in some cases adopted insights coming from classical Greek thought. This openness to truth wherever it is found is a hallmark of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Reason and faith are understood as being compatible and mutually illuminating.

The Church’s Institutional Support for Science

Historically, the Church as an institution has positively encouraged science. It has done so in at least two ways: 1) it set up institutions of higher learning that cultivated scholarship in a variety of academic disciplines and 2) as an institution it supported the development of science through explicit encouragement and funding.

The Church’s recognition of the value of philosophy and natural science helped preserve the intellectual life in the face of the downfall of the Western Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. When Roman schools began disappearing, Christianity was expanding. As David Lindberg notes, “It was, in fact, a Christian institution—the monastery—that contributed the most to preservation and the eventual spread of the classical sciences.”[13]

The Church’s influence on education went well beyond the Patristic Era. Edward Grant opposes the narrative that the Middle Ages were Dark Ages. On the contrary, he contends that the foundations of early modern science were laid in the Middle Ages. In fact, he goes so far as to say that “a scientific revolution could not have occurred in Western Europe in the seventeenth century if the level of science and natural philosophy had remained what it was in the first half of the twelfth century.”[14] In other words, the development of studies in the Middle Ages led to the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century. The scholar of scientific history, James Hannam, agrees, writing, “Much of the science and technology that we now take for granted has medieval origins.”[15]

The Church was at the forefront of fostering attitudes and institutions that provided the impetus for science to develop. Grant offers three pre-conditions supplied in the Middle Ages that made the scientific revolution possible: “(1) the translation of Greco-Arabic works on science and natural philosophy into Latin, (2) the formation of the medieval university, and (3) the emergence of the theologian-natural philosophers.”[16] We will focus our attention on the latter two pre-conditions.

First, the development of the university system was crucial to the emergence of modern science. There are two components to the university system that were beneficial in this regard: 1) the corporate structure of the universities and 2) the curricula that they employed. The Church had a role in both.

Michael Shank notes that “the medieval period gave birth to the university, which developed with the active support of the papacy.”[17] As Stark similarly affirms, “The rise of science was already far along by the sixteenth century, having been carefully nurtured by devout Scholastics in that most Christian invention, the university.”[18] Keep in mind that during this time period in Western Europe, “Christian” is essentially equivalent to “Catholic,” since the Reformation had not yet happened. In fact, “science was well along before there were any Protestants, and Catholics continued to play a vital role in the scientific blossoming of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”[19] The university system is a huge part of the Catholic scientific legacy.

The universities began largely as cathedral schools. The corporate structure of the universities afforded them significant rights and privileges. As Grant attests, the universities received

special treatment from church and secular authorities, who sought to encourage their growth. Each faculty was given jurisdiction over its own internal affairs and therefore had the right to judge the worthiness of teachers and students who joined it as corporate members. . . . There were also privileges relevant to personal status. Members of the universitas were accorded certain crucial rights, the most important of which was clerical status. Although most masters and students were neither ordained nor in orders, clerical status conferred upon them the rights of clergy. To attack a student or master who was traveling was the same as attacking a priest and was subject to severe penalties.[20]

Additionally, Rodney Stark points out that clerical status afforded university students and faculty “the right to be tried only in an ecclesiastical court (where punishments were usually far milder than in civil courts).”[21] Thus, both the Church and the State held the universities in high esteem. According to Nathan Schachner:

The University was the darling, the spoiled child of the Papacy and Empire, of king and municipality alike. Privileges were showered on the proud Universities in a continuous golden stream; privileges that had no counterpart, then, before, or since. Not even the sacred hierarchies of the Church had quite the exemptions of the poorest begging scholar who could claim protection of a University. . . . Popes intervened with menacing language to compel royalty to respect the inviolability of this favoured institution.”[22]

As we can see, the Church was directly involved in the development of the universities, which was a key element in the creation of modern science.

In addition to the import of the corporate structure of the universities, the organization of curricula was also crucial to the development of academia, including science. Generally speaking, a bachelor’s degree took about three to four years of study. A Master of Arts degree required an additional one to two years. It is important to note that, generally speaking, the Master of Arts degree was required before one could pursue a degree within one of the higher disciplines such as law, medicine, or even theology.

This point is important, because the Master of Arts curriculum included key elements in the study of science, and this curriculum was directly supported by the Church. As Michael Shank remarks:

If the medieval church had intended to discourage or suppress science, it certainly made a colossal mistake in tolerating—to say nothing of supporting—the university. In this new institution, Greco-Arabic science and medicine for the first time found a permanent home, one that . . . science has retained to this day. Dozens of universities introduced large numbers of students to Euclidean geometry, optics, the problems of generation and reproduction, the rudiments of astronomy, and arguments for the sphericity of the earth. . . . This was a cultural phenomenon of the first order, for it affected a literate elite of several hundred thousand students.[23]

The cultural impact of this curriculum cannot be overstated, and the Church was intimately involved in this phenomenon.

The arts curriculum was originally centered on the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium was comprised of grammar, rhetoric, and logic; the quadrivium included arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. In time, the works of Aristotle and other Greco-Arabic scholars were also introduced. In particular, studies in moral philosophy (or ethics) and metaphysics became important. Additionally, a precursor to modern science, natural philosophy, also took center stage. In fact, for theologians, logic and natural philosophy, including physics, were considered indispensable.[24]

This leads us to another of Grant’s pre-conditions for the development of science: the class of theologians who were also natural philosophers. As he says:

[a] precondition for the Scientific Revolution was the emergence of a class of theologian-natural philosophers, that is, a class of individuals who were not only trained in theology . . . but who also had previously attained the degree of master of arts or its equivalent and were therefore thoroughly trained in that discipline. Their importance cannot be overestimated. If theologians at the universities had decided to oppose Aristotelian learning as dangerous to the faith, it could not have become the focus of study in European universities. . . . Not only did they endorse a secular arts curriculum, but most believed that natural philosophy was essential for a proper elucidation of theology. . . . They were significant contributors to both natural philosophy and science, and most of them lectured or wrote on these subjects. Indeed, some of the most noteworthy accomplishments in science and mathematics during the Middle Ages came from theologians.[25]

Grant argues that this ecclesial support for the study of natural philosophy and science did not have a precise analog in other societies at the time. While there were Islamic scientists, for example, they did not have the same level of support from their religious leaders as the scientists did in Catholic Christian Europe. Thus, Grant argues:

The three pre-conditions just discussed—the translations, the universities, and the theologian-natural philosophers—laid a foundation for the emergence of modern science because they provided an environment that was conducive to the study of science. . . . And without the support of the theologians and the Church, the medieval universities would have been unable to institute the science-logic-natural philosophy curriculum that began Western Europe’s long, uninterrupted involvement with scientific thought and problems.[26]

Through these considerations, it is evident then, that the Church of the Middle Ages—through the development of universities and the central role of mathematics and natural sciences within their curricula—provided a foundation for the development of modern science. The Church also provided substantial monetary support to scientific advancement. In the words of John Heilbron, “The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries . . . than any other, and probably all, other institutions.”[27] Michael Shank adds that “Heilbron’s point can be generalized far beyond astronomy.”[28] The Church and her high-ranking officials were primary patrons of budding scientists, promoting and financially supporting their work of advancing scientific knowledge.

The history of science shows that the Church has perennially viewed science as a noble and worthy endeavor and has promoted scientific study. The Church supported scientific education both institutionally and through financial backing. This institutional support and the crucial conceptual outlooks outlined above were directly involved in the advent of modern science as we know it today.

[1] Noah J. Efron, “Myth 9: That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science” in Galileo Goes to Jail: And Other Myths about Science and Religion, ed. Ronald L. Numbers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 80.

[2] Peter Harrison, “Introduction” to Peter Harrison ed., The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 4. Fifth Printing, 2013.

[3] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 123.

[4] Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), 17.

[5] Loren Eiseley, Darwin’s Century (Gardin City, NY: Doubleday, 1958, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1961), 62. Quoted from Pearcey, The Soul of Science, 18.

[6] Efron, “Myth 9,” 81.

[7] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 147.

[8] Pearcey, The Soul of Science, 22.

[9] Pearcey, The Soul of Science, 24.

[10] Reijer Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. Reprint. (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1973), 9. Quoted from: David B. Wilson, “The Historiography of Science and Religion” in The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia, Gary B. Ferngren et al. (NY: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000), 6.

[11] See Pearcey, The Soul of Science, 35

[12] Efron, “Myth 9,” 81. On this point, Efron cites Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[13] David Lindberg, “The Fate of Science in Patristic and Medieval Christendom,” in Peter Harrison ed., The Cambridge Companion, 27.

[14] Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 6th Printing, 2006, Chapter 8, 168–206, here 170.

[15] James Hannam, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (Regnery Publishing, 2011), xiii.

[16] Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science, 171.

[17] Michael H. Shank, “Myth 2: That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science,” in Galileo Goes to Jail, 21.

[18] Stark, For the Glory of God, 134–135.

[19] Stark, For the Glory of God, 160.

[20] Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science, 36.

[21] Stark, For the Glory of God, 141.

[22] Nathan Schachner, The Mediaeval Universities (NY: Frederick A. Stokes, 1938), 3; quoted from Stark, For the Glory of God, 141.

[23] Shank, “Myth 2,” 22.

[24] See Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science, 43–47.

[25] Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science, 174–175.

[26] Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science, 176.

[27] John Heilbron, The Sun and the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories (Cambrdige, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 3, quoted from: Shank, “Myth 2,” 21.

[28] Shank, “Myth 2,” 21.

Featured Image: Vermeer, The Astronomer, 1668 - touched up by Sarahconceptory; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Richard DeClue

Richard DeClue is the Cardinal Henri de Lubac Fellow of Theology at the Word on Fire Institute.

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