5 Of The Most Influential Catholic Scientists You Didn’t Know
The modern reader might be surprised to read about scientists who were religious. Science is the domain of reason, after all, and faith has nothing to do with it. Further, if atheist authors like the late Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins are to be believed, faith and reason are diametrically opposed. They claim that rational thought necessarily dismisses faith, and scientific endeavors follow that pattern since they assess empirical evidence.
That may be an atheist’s take on the relationship between faith and reason (and this thinking permeates popular culture), but the evidence tells a different story. “An unbiased look at the history of science shows that modern science is an invention of medieval Christianity,” which did not suppress reason, but engaged it (D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity, p. 84). St. Thomas Aquinas is a great example. In the Summa Theologica, he gave five proofs for the existence of God (see Part I, Question 2, Article 3). None of the five reasons rely on revelation—which would have the effect of saying “because God said so, in the Bible.” All five reasons come from rational argument. Science developed in Europe because medieval Christians believed the universe to be ordered, knowable, and able to be experienced.
In our own times, St. John Paul II devoted one of his encyclicals to faith and reason. He described faith and reason as “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” St. Thomas and St. John Paul II are great examples of the many intellectuals in the history of the Catholic Church. Among them, many have made sizeable contributions to science; we may be familiar with the concept, but not so familiar to know that the scientist was a Catholic.
1. Roger Bacon (1219-1294)
The "Grandfather" of the Scientific Method
He was an English Franciscan and a highly regarded academic both in his times as well as historically. Pope Clement IV asked Bacon for his recommendations on improving ecclesiastical studies, and the result was Bacon’s Opus Maius, Opus Minus, and Opus Tertiae. Experience and experimentation were keys to the study of science and theology. This might seem obvious to us, since we were taught some variant of the basic scientific method in elementary school: hypothesis, prediction, testing, analysis. This idea didn’t originate with Roger Bacon, but he advanced it so much so to be “considered to be a forerunner of the modern scientific method” (Woods, Jr., How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, p. 94). He put mathematics as the basis for understanding the natural sciences, enabling him to correctly calculate the calendar and make advances in the study of light/optics. Future scientists used Bacon’s work as a foundation, and no scientist works today without at least some variant of the scientific method.
Although he was considered centuries ahead of his time, Bacon didn’t get everything right; he was imprisoned for one of his works. Nevertheless, we can learn from his example and humility: he obediently accepted the orders of his superior when he was told to stop publishing. And, to answer questions on his orthodoxy, he wrote another work, De nullitate magiae, to set the record straight. In the life of Roger Bacon, science, faith, obedience, and academic endeavors were not mutually exclusive.
2. Fr. Roger Boscovich, S.J. (1711-1787)
Advancing Geometrical Measurements in Astronomy
Imagine finishing a college degree, and upon graduation, being offered a job as a professor. This is what happened to Fr. Boscovich—such was his genius. Boscovisch studied many fields: atomic theory, optics, math, physics, architecture, and astronomy. Before being ordained a priest in the Society of Jesus, he published eight scientific dissertations in the field of astronomy and used geometry to calculate a planet’s orbit. A crater on the moon is named after him! Fr. Boscovich quickly caught the eye of Pope Benedict XIV, himself a scholar. The pope summoned Fr. Boscovich to Rome and tasked him with fixing the cracked dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. His theory worked, preventing any further damage to the dome. Fr. Boscovich’s Theory of Natural Philosophy was a landmark work in his day, and continued to be admired in subsequent centuries.
Added onto that impressive list of accomplishments is a book of poetry on the Blessed Virgin Mary. As a whole, he was an incredibly learned man who stayed true to the Catholic faith and let it inform his scholastic endeavors. “His scientific work was not merely technical, but set into a larger human context, and located within a faith tradition.” From Fr. Boscovich, we can learn that our faith can—and should—be the foundational principle of everything that we do.
3. Fr. Georges Lemaitre, S.J. (1894-1966)
The Father of the Big Bang Theory
Like the scientific method, the Big Bang Theory is so widely known and accepted that we forget its significance. In the early 1930s, a Belgian Jesuit gave the best answer to date on how the universe came into being. Fr. Lemaitre was a contemporary of Albert Einstein, and had the opportunity to collaborate with him. His groundbreaking theory was that “the universe expanded from an initial point, which he called the ‘Primeval Atom,’” which ran contrary to the prevailing theory, that the universe was in a steady state. His theories were published in the early 1930s and met with skepticism. In spite of that, his theory changed the course of scientific thought. The modern-day Big Bang Theory differs from Lemaitre’s original, but it rests entirely on his work.
Pope Pius XII celebrated Fr. Lemaitre’s discovery, claiming it to be scientific proof of the truth of the Catholic faith. Secular physicists are quick to point out Fr. Lemaitre’s discomfort at the pope’s excitement, as well as the following quote from Fr. Lemaitre: “As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God…It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”
Fr. Lemaitre’s reasons for that involved different factors, but none of them involved scorn for religion or an incompatibility of faith and reason. On the contrary, Lemaitre didn’t see a conflict between faith and reason. He lived out his life as a priest, continuing his research until his death.
4. Dr. Thomas Hilgers
Enriching Marriages through Science
The Catholic Church has always stood against artificial contraception (see Humanae Vitae), and the firestorm that resulted from Humanae Vitae was largely characterized by dissent and negativity. Lost in the maelstrom was an incredibly positive development: the Creighton Model Fertility Care System, created by Dr. Hilgers and his associates in 1968, completely in line with Catholic teaching. Dr. Hilgers founded the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction where physicians, surgeons, and nurses have studied and developed this method into NaPro Technology. It is a far cry from the “rhythm method,” and far more precise—tracking observable signs in a women’s body to determine times of greater and lesser fertility. It “works cooperatively with the procreative and gynecologic systems. When these systems function abnormally, NaPro Technology identifies the problems and cooperates with the menstrual and fertility cycles that correct the condition, maintain the human ecology, and sustain the procreative potential.” NaPro is more effective, more personalized, and more treatment-based than artificial contraception.
The advancement of NaPro Technology in matters of infertility have resulted in many babies, including my own son, one niece, and two nephews, thanks be to God! Both the NaPro doctor and surgeon that we worked with had bulletin boards crammed with baby announcements. A blessing for families, the Church, and the world!
Dr. Hilgers’ perspective is something our culture could learn a lot from: fertility is not a disease, something to be avoided at all costs. In addition, it’s a practical and pastoral application of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. By using NaPro, a married couple can live out Jesus’ vision of self-giving love: free, total, faithful, and fruitful.
5. Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J. (b. 1952)
Physicist & Apologist
In an age where secular relativism reigns, the Catholic faith needs good apologists to defend her in the public square. Fr. Spitzer holds a doctorate in philosophy and many, many other degrees. Why has this particular scientist been influential? He upholds the Jesuit priest-scientist tradition; showing that the arenas of faith and reason are not opposed to each other. And, during his time as a professor at three Jesuit universities, he had the opportunity to provide a solid, Catholic approach to reason. Finally, he has engaged in the public debate on the topic of faith and reason. In 2010 he participated in a CNN panel discussion on that very topic, alongside prominent atheist-scientists. (15) That same year, he published a book entitled New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy—a work of science, not theology. He also founded the Magis Center of Reason & Faith.
I heard Fr. Spitzer speak years ago, and what I noticed most was his awe. His talks delved into physics and philosophy and tied each back to theology. The cosmological details of the universe are the handwriting of God, fashioning a world for us. The meaning of those details points to a Love far beyond numbers and equations. With Fr. Spitzer’s considerable knowledge in physics and philosophy, all the doctoral level studies, books, and articles he published, he didn’t lose his awe for the Creator of everything that he studied.
The secular argument that the Catholic Church is at odds with science is simply false. The history of the Church and her members attest to that—Bacon, Boscovich, Lemaitre, Hilgers, Spitzer, and countless others. “Methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.” Faith and science have a symbiotic relationship, not an adversarial one. Faith enriches scientific endeavors, and scientific discoveries “invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers.”