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The Courageous Man Who Saw How Faith Gave Birth to Science
BY DONALD DEMARCO
St. Augustine, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas and
St. Thomas More are living testaments to the compatibility of scholarship and
In the modern era, however, we witness a disjunction between
There are great honors and material rewards for outstanding
scholarship these days, and they can easily go to one’s head.
For this reason, Msgr. George Rutler has opined that it may
be more difficult for a Ph.D. holder to get into heaven than a rich man.
Sanctity requires a great deal of humility. On the other
hand, it is most tempting for the scholar to allow his works and prizes to lead
him in the opposite direction of humility, toward pride.
William F. Buckley Jr., who came to know a wide variety of
interesting people in his time, named Gerhart Niemeyer as the best example he
had ever witnessed of a man who combined the virtues of scholarship with the
virtues of sanctity.
The fact that Niemeyer is not exactly a household word is a
good indication of the relative scarcity of holy scholars that populate the
In the interest of reminding (or introducing) the present
world of a holy scholar who should not be forgotten, let me highlight the life
and works of that most extraordinary example of scholarship wed to sanctity,
Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem was born June 10, 1861, in Paris.
He distinguished himself as one of the most brilliant students ever to attend
the highly prestigious Ecole Normal Supérieure. Of the 800 or so graduates in
France in 1882, he was and remained throughout his years at Ecole, first in his
class in the science department. His doctoral thesis on thermodynamics,
unfortunately, contradicted the position of the chemist Marcelin Berthelot, who
was a powerful figure in the French academic establishment at the time.
Though Duhem’s position was later vindicated, Bertholet
ensured not only that the thesis would be rejected, but that Duhem would never
teach in Paris. Duhem wrote another thesis, of a more mathematical nature, that
three examiners accepted. But his career was permanently hampered as a result
of his clash with Bertholet.
Duhem, ostracized by his own peers, never did teach in
Paris. He spent the last 22 years of his life as a professor of theoretical
physics at a provincial school, the University of Bordeaux. His magnum opus is
his Le Système du monde: les doctrines cosmolologiques de Platon à Copernicus
(The Structure of the World: Teachings on Cosmology from Plato to Copernicus).
The first five volumes — each more than 500 pages in length
— were published in consecutive years, from 1913-1917. Although another five
volumes were ready for publication when Duhem died in 1916, they were not
published until four decades later (1954-59).
The reason for the long delay in publishing the last five
volumes of this masterpiece, which is without parallel in its field, was due to
the strong opposition by influential academics who did not want to consider the
demonstrable fact that modern science cannot be divorced from its religious
In the intervening years between the publication of the
first and second group of five volumes, many studies of medieval science were
conducted — by Anneliese Maier, Marshall Clagett, E. Grant, Alistair Crombie
and others. These studies served to extend and confirm Duhem’s work and add
credibility to his central thesis concerning the continuity between Medieval
and modern science.
As a result of Duhem’s pioneering research and the
contribution by other historians of science, the value of studying medieval
science is now well established and can no longer be dismissed by honest
Templeton Prize winner, Stanley Jaki, who holds doctorates
in both physics as well as theology, has this to say about Duhem’s work: “What
Duhem unearthed among other things from long-buried manuscripts was that
supernatural revelation played a crucial liberating role in putting scientific
speculation on the right track. … It is in this terrifying prospect for secular
humanism, for which science is the redeemer of mankind, that lies the
explanation of that grim and secretive censorship which has worked against
Peter Hodgson, who is university lecturer in nuclear physics
at Oxford University, has this to say about Duhem’s scholarly accomplishment:
“The work of Duhem is of great relevance today, for it shows clearly the
Christian roots of modern science, thus decisively refuting the alleged
incompatibility of science and Christianity still propagated by the secularist
establishment. Science is an integral part of Christian culture, a lesson to be
learned even within the Christian Church.”
Duhem’s study and documentation of the Christian origin of
modern science has been deliberately neglected because it is unwelcome both to
the disciples of the French Enlightenment and those of the Reformation. For
different reasons, they would like to paint the Middle Ages as dark as
Duhem’s work is all the more prodigious when one realizes
that he had no research assistant at his disposal or dictaphones or even
ball-point pens. Furthermore, he often had to use his left hand to hold firm
his trembling right hand.
When he passed away at age 54, he had left to posterity 40
books, 400 articles, and 120 large-size notebooks, each 200 pages long,
containing excerpts from medieval manuscripts.
“On a more personal level,” writes Hodgson, “Duhem is an
example of Christian fortitude in the face of many setbacks and sorrows.”
He lost his wife and second daughter after less than two
years of happy married life. Although his health was never strong and his
workload was demanding, he nevertheless found time to visit and help the poor
and the sick. He was popular with his students and the children of his friends.
A throng of simple folk attended his funeral in his ancestral village of
In a most unusual tribute to Pierre Duhem, Francis Kelly has
produced a biography in verse form of this faithful Catholic, physicist,
mathematician, philosopher and historian that ends with the following words:
“Though he has gone, we feel his wraith
Inspiring us to trust our faith
And, with his courage, life to face
Now in our time and in our place.
And now it’s time to say amen
And end this story of Duhem.”
Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and
seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, where he will be teaching a course, open to
laypeople, on John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” May 5-22.
BY Rep. Henry Hyde
Kennelly and Gaetan: You are known to many Americans for chairing Bill Clinton's impeachment's hearings. In Bill Clinton's final days in office, to avoid being disbarred, he finally admitted having tried to deceive the justice system regarding his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Did you feel vindicated?
I never felt the need to be vindicated. His belated admission that he lied under oath and deceived the court confirmed our judgment that Mr. Clinton deserved impeachment.
Tell us about the impeachment. How was that time for you?
It was the most troubling time in my entire life as a congressman. I have to say, it was the most troubling time of my life.
The committee made every effort and attempt to be fair, but our effort failed in terms of the impression made in the press. Since a two-thirds vote is required for impeachment, there must be substantial democratic participation and a bipartisan conclusion. So I really tried to conduct the Judiciary Committee hearings in a fair, evenhanded way. Our best efforts were misconstrued.
If time could be turned back, would you still recommend that the House of Representatives vote on articles of impeachment against President Clinton, knowing what you now know?
I would do it again because it was our duty. Any matters that evoke the possibility of impeachment need to be publicly debated. In the case of President Clinton, the offenses were there, staring me in the face. We went ahead and did what we perceived to be our duty. It was a time of real stress, real anxiety for everyone involved.
How did you bear the personal attacks against you which came from your opponents during the impeachment process?
That was the most hurtful thing because all you have is your reputation and your family. They tried to ruin my reputation and hurt my family. It should not have been a surprise to me. When people are in trouble, they go on the offense.
In the impeachment vote, as in most votes, there were Catholics on both sides of the issue. How do you explain the lack of political cohesiveness when it comes to Catholic public officials?
We have Catholics all over the map in the U.S. Congress. We have more than our share of “cafeteria Catholics” picking and choosing what to believe, and it's sad.
I just don't know what to say on that score.
The Church has become politicized. The problem is less with Catholicism per se, I think, and more with the nature of our public institutions. The radical separation between church and state leads people to discount their religious beliefs when they are members of a political body.
Was there a specific time when you became aware of your faith, when it became an active part of your life?
No. I never experienced a “rebirth” because I've always had a strong faith with no major ups and downs. In times of real trouble, you feel the incredible power of our faith. I'm 76 years old. I know.
How have you balanced your intense, political life and the demands of being the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee with the quieter, more interior requirements of faith?
You can't dissociate your daily life from your beliefs. We are on earth to attain salvation. In the sense of priorities, you have to put your faith first, which includes a belief in how we ought to conduct ourselves.
My strong faith was the result of my mother who impressed me with her devotion to the Church. Her instruction was reinforced by my education. I had a thorough Catholic education from grammar school through law school, an excellent education.
You married your wife Jeanne Simpson Hyde just after the war and were together for 45 years. Her death in 1992 was difficult for you.
I can say her death made me realize how deep and profound the Catholic faith is. I just put everything in God's hands. Your submission to God's will is a source of strength. In the darkest moments, you can call upon him.
Do you pray?
More than once every day.
The Bush administration has signaled a new philosophy with the announcement that faith-based organizations should receive federal support. What do you think of this initiative?
I think it is belated recognition of the marvelous work faith-based groups are capable of doing.
Will you be able to apply this approach in your new work, in the House Foreign Relations Committee?
Yes. Absolutely. We must give new emphasis to the use of faith-based groups in the distribution of foreign aid. There are many issues in international relations that have a moral aspect: world hunger, poverty, tribal warfare, ethnic cleansing. The list is endless. These and other issues deserve our attention.
What goals are prominent in your political life now?
I don't know that right now I have any intense goals. You take issues as they come along. I have always felt that abortion is a terrible scourge and that God must be terribly disappointed when we have 1.5 million abortions a year and people who should know better look the other way about this form of holocaust. I'd like to minimize the number of abortions.
I believe that we are on the verge of a new form of defense system. At the same time, these computer viruses remind us that being dependent on computers entails risk in itself.
There is no shortage of political problems; my ambition is to deal with them effectively. Another thing that all of us in public life have to do is dispel the suspicion around political figures. There is so much negativity which drives the best people away from politics. I prefer to stress the positive, the good people in government.