Apollo 11’s Giant Leap Began With Medieval Catholic Steps

The legs of science began to walk in Catholicism in the Middle Ages, allowed man to leap in 1969, and can carry us to new heights in the future.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moon, July 21, 1969
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moon, July 21, 1969 (photo: Neil A. Armstrong / NASA)

On July 20, 1969, the first human set foot on the moon, an event that was “a small step for (a) man, but a giant leap for mankind.”

This leap was made possible by the training and strengthening of a particular set of legs that belongs to mankind: science. On these legs man first learned to walk in a setting that most people today think hostile to scientific development: the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. The legs of science are not the only legs we have; indeed, these legs are tightly bound up with our other means of perambulation: philosophy, religion, and mathematics, all of which were given new power in the context of Catholicism.

Unfortunately, it is a modern-day insult to call something medieval, a stab at the barbarism of some idea or practice. It would not surprise me if a similar sense of condescension became attached to the term Catholic, but the association could not be further from the truth.

Historian of science Thomas Kuhn wrote that, in the Middle Ages, “the Church began to support a learned tradition as abstract, subtle and rigorous as any the world has known.” The fact is that the Church in the Middle Ages is responsible for so many of the good things we take for granted in our culture today: universities, public education, hospitals, and the letter “J.”

When someone earns a college or university degree or receives care in a hospital, we ought to call them medieval. It was in the context of the university that science learned to walk for the first time, but not on its own.

Chemistry professor and historian of science Lawrence Principe makes clear that the contribution of scholasticism is invaluable to the good beginnings of science.

Medieval cathedral schools set up a systematic way of training the human mind, asking clear questions, and investigating and developing fields of inquiry. Disagreement and argumentation were developed into a veritable art form. Logic and reason undergirded all formation of opinion.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the contributions of the scholastic method to the development of scientific inquiry,” said Principe in his course on the history of science. This method was even celebrated and immortalized in the facade of the Cathedral of Chartres in the 12th century.

Ten centuries of Catholic philosophy and theology had developed a couple of fundamental ideas: First, human reason is a good thing, a gift from God. Second, the world is ordered by God “according to measure and number and weight” (Wisdom 11:20), a phrase often quoted in the Middle Ages.

Indeed, Albert Einstein has commented that “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” An intelligent Creator has created an ordered and intelligible world, and the intellect of man can unearth that intelligibility. These two ideas are, of course, also foundational for philosophy, science’s twin. Without these firm convictions, science cannot begin to walk alone.

Mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Faith in the possibility of science ... is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.” If humans did not have an abstract intellect and the world were not ordered and intelligible, no man ever would have come close to the moon. Indeed, without either of those things, man would never have existed in the first place, an absence that would certainly preclude any human steps — large or small, literal or metaphorical — let alone any athletic feats of running or leaping.

It was for this reason that, even in celebrated ancient societies like the Greeks, Romans, and Chinese, science failed to make a good start.

Philosopher and historian of science, Father Stanley Jaki, refers to these failures as the “stillbirths” of science. These other cultures, despite their discoveries and the other groundwork they laid, lacked the groundwork laid by Catholicism.

Lawrence Principe said that monotheism, “does, in a sense, undergird some of our principle of science, and what I mean by that is this: that if we conceive of the world as governed serenely by a single, omnipotent god who created everything that exists, then that presumes that there is a constancy, a stability to nature, allowing us to talk about natural laws, for example, and that causes always produce the same effects and that sort of thing. A capricious world that has Olympian gods quarreling and constantly intervening in the running of the world in arguing with each other is inimical to the ideas of the stability of nature that’s essential for natural science.”

The legs of science began to walk in Catholicism in the Middle Ages, allowed man to leap in 1969, and can carry us to new heights in the future.

In all of this, we find the very thing that got us started in the first place: wonder. Wonder is what makes us start asking questions. It is the realization that we don’t know, and we long to “get into” reality. Wonder is that first seed of science, philosophy, theology and mathematics. It drives us ever onwards, beyond even the natural world, toward the Source of reality: God himself, whose “invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made” (Romans 1:20).

Indeed, the heavens declare the glory of God, but we shouldn’t stop at the heavens.

If we consider the arts, what present philosophers can rival Plato, Aquinas, or Aristotle?

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Clockwise from top left: Christ is adored in downtown Indianapolis July 20; Bishop Andrew Cozzens blesses the faithful with the Blessed Sacrament from the Indiana War Memorial July 20; the Host is elevated at Mass and adored at Lucas Oil Stadium on Day 2 of the NEC.

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