The Catholic Tradition and Science

Part II.  The Catholic Tradition and Science

As we saw in Part I of this article [which appeared here in March], the extremely influential 19th-century authors John William Draper and Andrew Dickson 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 certainly 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 of persons, events and texts.  Whereas “sola scriptura” (“Scripture alone”) was the motto of the Protestant Reformation, Draper and White’s new reformation was to be 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.  Whereas 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 even more 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 yes, 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 that Draper and White imagined to exist.

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.” 1  And in White’s view the definition of papal infallibility in 1870 implied 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.” 2  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, thus bringing 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 creation 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 twenty-four 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 twenty-four-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? 3

Our 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 was seen by many at the time as contrary to such scriptural passages as Joshua 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.4

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 certain scriptural passages.5

Our 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 had once been assumed 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.” 6

And yet four years after Newman penned these words, Draper would be claiming 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 … .” 7   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 kind of 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 physical 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.” 9  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.” 10

We have numerous examples of this respect for the integrity of nature in the Middle Ages.  In the early twelfth century, at the beginnings of medieval science, Adelard of Bath wrote his Quaestiones Naturales (or “Questions on Nature”) 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.  Rather than having recourse to a supernatural explanation such as a miracle, Adelard corrected his nephew, insisting upon a clear distinction between divine action and natural cause-effect relationships: “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 objected and pointed out the inadequacy of any explanation from the elements, Adelard remained consistent: “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.”  It did not strike this Catholic natural philosopher as impious to hold out for natural explanations even when it seemed that none could be had.11

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,” he observed, “which opens the world directly to God … , implicitly rejects what is essential to the universe: the unity of order.” 12  He also chastises those who find the idea of human evolution unacceptable:

[I]f man and the ape have… a common ancestor, how would that detract from human dignity?  Why prefer that he came from the mud? … [I]s 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]? 13

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 creatures --- 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, the Church 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 and, more specifically, the Catholic faith.  In this regard, there has not been a more insightful and compelling guide than St. John Paul II. His public 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.14  I will only offer a few extracts, but can recommend a much more sustained analysis given by Jordan Haddad in an article in the Church Life Journal.15

In his letter to Fr. Coyne, 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.  He wrote,

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. In the words of the Pope’s letter,

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 misconception of inherent conflict between science and religion, of warfare between science and theology, is precisely that --- a misconception, one 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.

[Prof. Christopher T. Baglow is a theologian at the University of Notre Dame and the author of the first textbook on science and religion for use in Catholic schools: Faith, Science and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge, 2nd edition  (Midwest Theological Forum, 2019).  He also serves as Liaison on the Executive Board of the Society of Catholic Scientists.]


1… John William Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, Vol. XII, The International Scientific Series (New York: D. Appleton, 1874), vi, 62.

2… Andrew Dickson White, History of the Warfare of Science with Religion, Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton, 1894),  342.

3… St. Augustine, De Genesi ad Litteram 1.10.21; cf. 4.26.43.

4… St. Robert Bellarmine, “Letter to Foscarini” in Galileo Galilei, et al., The Essential Galileo, ed. and trans. by Maurice Finocchiaro (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2008), 147.

5… Bellarmine recognized that no proofs were available, and so decided that the common understanding of passages such as Joshua 10:12-14 had to be adhered to.

6… J. H. Newman, Letter to Pusey, Letters & Diaries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 25.137.

7… Draper, 62.

8… Ibid., 188.

9… St. Augustine, De Trinitate 3.9.16. Cf. De Genesi, 3.9.16; 5.23.45.

10… St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I.67.4 ad 3.

11… Peter E. Hodgson, Science and Belief in the Nuclear Age (Naples, FL: Sapientia, 2005), 21-22.

12… Charles De Koninck, The Cosmos, 235-254, in The Writings of Charles De Koninck, Volume One,

ed. and trans. by Ralph McInerny (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 31.

13… Ibid., 292.

14… John Paul II, Message to the Reverend George V. Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory, 1 June 1988,

15… Jordan A. Haddad, “How Can Modern Science Purify Christianity from Error and Superstition?,” Church Life Journal (McGrath Institute for Church Life, September 12, 2018),