A few weeks ago a man I met told me that he grew up in a big Catholic family, but once he started learning more about science as a teenager, he left Christianity behind. He couldn’t reconcile the stories in the Bible, particularly the creation story, with what he was learning in his science classes.
I’ve heard many similar experiences not only in regards to Catholicism, but also to Protestant and Evangelical denominations. In fact, for many years I found myself attracted to Christianity, but in several churches when I asked questions about how to understand the apparent contradictions between the Bible’s creation story and the Big Bang theory, I was told I would need to make a “leap of faith.” In order to accept Christianity, I was going to have to reject modern physics, geology, and biology. While I continued to be intrigued and impressed by Christianity’s assertion and evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, I simply couldn’t make the leap.
When I encountered the Catholic Church’s teaching on creation, faith and science, I was finally able to reconcile how faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and believing in science were actually both possible, and even beautifully compatible.
As Catholics, we believe that the universe is good, and even “very good” as Genesis tells us. We believe that God in His omnipotence is like a great mind who thought and spoke the universe into existence out of nothing. We see the Bible’s account of creation as true, but not literalistically true. Internal evidence within the creation story itself suggests that Genesis is a poetic description of the truth that a good God created us so that He could be in relationship with us and love us. We do not see it as a 3,000+ year old attempt at modern literal scientific explanation. Even the earliest Christians such as St. Irenaeus of Lyons and the great theologian, St. Augustine, knew this and saw no conflict here.
As Catholics we believe that the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God, and that there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. We believe that God created the universe in such a way that it is inherently knowable and can be studied and understood — from the tiniest subatomic particle to the biggest superclusters and the universe as a whole. It was from within the Christian tradition and the presuppositions of Christian theology that the discipline we call science became possible and developed.
I asked the man I was speaking with if he had heard of Father Georges Lemaître, the formulator of the Big Bang theory who was also a Catholic priest. He hadn’t. Unfortunately many, if not most people are not aware that over the centuries the Catholic Church has produced many great scientists and mathematicians, such as Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, a pioneer in computer science who was the first woman from the United States to earn a PhD in computer science. Or they may recognize the names of others including Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Louis Pasteur, Blaise Pascal, Nicolaus Copernicus, or Gregor Mendel but not realize that these men and women were faithful Catholics who saw no conflict between their scientific discoveries and their faith in the God proclaimed by the Catholic Church and the Bible.
The Catholic worldview is that science is not only fascinating and compelling, it is an encounter with God’s creation which should lead us to a greater awe, greater joy, and a greater knowledge of God Himself.
Jessica Barton is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, a former middle school math and science teacher, lactation consultant, and a married mother of 3. She and her family have lived in Corvallis for 6 years. She is a parishioner at St. Mary's in Corvallis and leads a group called Exploring Catholicism for people interested in learning about the Catholic faith.