Contrary to what the secular media and pop culture say, a competition or even a conflict between modern science and the Catholic faith doesn’t exist.
“In our culture, there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the relationship between faith and science,” said Chris Baglow, professor at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. “The Church has excellent guidance to give us on how to appreciate the harmony between them. She doesn’t replace one with the other. Instead, she brings them into dialogue.”
To demonstrate the harmony of the two disciplines to Catholic high-school science and religion faculty, Baglow developed the Steno Learning Program in Faith and Science.
Sponsored by the Pope Benedict XVI Institute for Faith, Ethics and Science of McGill-Toolen Catholic High School in Mobile, Ala., and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, the program’s mission statement states that the program seeks to “educate science and religion teachers from Catholic high schools throughout the U.S. regarding the relationship that exists between the Catholic faith and scientific inquiry/discovery from historical, philosophical and theological perspectives.”
The seminar has been offered the past few summers. The program takes place this year June 16-22 at St. Joseph Seminary College in Covington, La. (Interested teachers can apply online; the deadline is March 1. For more information, visit the website.)
The program is named for Blessed Nicholas Steno (also known as Niels Stensen), who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988 (his feast day is Dec. 5).
Modern science is indebted to Blessed Steno, who lived in the 1600s, for his significant contribution to four branches of science: anatomy, paleontology, geology and crystallography. He is known for his work on heart and muscle structure, brain anatomy and embryology. Four parts of the body are named after him, including Stensen’s duct, Stensen’s gland, Stensen’s vein and Stensen’s foramina. In addition, he was the first person to hypothesize seriously that the history of the world could be recovered from the layers of the earth, making him the founder of the science called stratigraphy.
Blessed Steno converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism after witnessing a Corpus Christi procession in Italy. He became a priest, and then, shortly afterwards, he was elevated to bishop.
In his life and career, he embodied the relationship between faith and science.
“He ended his last public lecture as a scientist with the following aphorism: ‘Beautiful is what we see; more beautiful is what we comprehend; most beautiful of all is what we do not comprehend’ — namely, the absolute mystery of God,” said Baglow.
The chaplain for this year’s program is Father Peter Stravinskas, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation and the editor of The Catholic Response Magazine.
“As a lifelong teacher, I have always been concerned that our students realize that there is no conflict between science and theology,” said Father Stravinskas. “As a matter of fact, one serves the other. For example, the Church’s position on abortion is bolstered on the findings of modern science. If practitioners of both disciplines are seeking the truth, then they’re going to come to the same conclusions.”
What About Galileo?
One of the main goals of the program is to set the record straight on the Galileo affair. Included in the reading requirements is the book The Essential Galileo, which includes original writing from Galileo as well as the notes from his trials before the Inquisition.
“There is an amazing moment when I have one of the science teachers read Galileo’s condemnation out loud and then ask the group to respond to what they’ve heard,” said Baglow. “Then the same teacher reads out loud the words of John Paul II, who said, ‘Galileo, a sincere believer, showed himself to be more perceptive in this regard than the theologians who opposed him.’ It becomes clear that Galileo is the exception and not the rule in the relationship between faith and science.”
Seminar participants also read and discuss Modern Physics and Ancient Faith by Stephen Barr, Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved by Matt Rossano and the writings of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, among other works.
Now in its third year, the program has gained enthusiastic praise.
Jeremy Reuther, director of campus ministry at Jesuit High School in New Orleans, attended the program in 2011. He said the program helped him to better address the nuances in the relationship between faith and science, particularly in regards to creation, biological evolution and interpreting Scripture.
“It made me more competent at putting together a lesson plan that speaks to the questions students have,” Reuther explained.
Brother John Bayer, a theology teacher at Cistercian Preparatory School in Irving, Texas, attended the seminar last year, which he found to be “a stimulating, inspirational and informative seminar about one of the most important catechetical issues of our time … to help … colleagues and students tap into the rich and fruitful ‘dialogue’ between science and theology that is taking place right now in the Catholic Church.”
He added, “Personally, I profited immensely both as a teacher and as a Catholic, and I know from the conversations taking place amongst my colleagues that my school has profited as well.”
Benedict XVI’s Perspective
Pope Benedict XVI has discussed faith and science during his pontificate. In his Nov. 21, 2012, general audience, he noted: “Faith and reason are meant to work together in opening the human mind to God’s truth. By its nature, faith seeks understanding, while the mind’s search for truth finds inspiration, guidance and fulfillment in the encounter with God’s revealed word.
“Far from being in conflict, faith and science go hand in hand in the service of man’s moral advancement and his wise stewardship of creation. The Gospel message of our salvation in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, offers us a true humanism, a ‘grammar’ by which we come to understand the mystery of man and the universe. In this Year of Faith, may we open our minds more fully to the light of God’s truth, which reveals the grandeur of our human dignity and vocation.”
Said Baglow, “This kind of harmony and the ability of science to stimulate theological reflection, as well as the ability of faith to keep science from becoming closed in upon itself and to avoid trying to answer all of the great questions about life and the universe — this is what the SLP is all about.”
Lori Chaplin writes from Idaho.