The Catholic Church Is the Mother of Modern Science

In civilization after civilization, science has been ‘stillborn’ — but in Christendom, science has flourished and has brought achievements like the James Webb Space Telescope.

This image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 was among the first James Webb Space Telescope photos released by NASA on July 11.
This image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 was among the first James Webb Space Telescope photos released by NASA on July 11. (photo: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI / Public Domain)

“I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. And in the same way the human race came into being.”

So spoke the mother to her son who was about to be martyred for his faith. This passage from the Second Book of Maccabees expresses the fascination with God’s handiwork that the ancient Jews held. Creatio ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing, was introduced into the world consciousness through the Scripture of the Hebrews. The Church Fathers followed this belief, arguing against the Neo-Platonists, who held the world to be a part of God.

The recently launched James Webb Space Telescope has been capturing images of deep space that are even more impressive than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.

One of the earliest concepts of the telescope originated with the 13th-century Franciscan Roger Bacon. In a paper he wrote in 1260, he described the possibility of a magnifying instrument: “A small army may appear a very great one,” and he also prophesied that “man will be able to study the moon and the stars in great detail.” This astounding concept would not be realized until patents and construction of telescopes began in the early 17th century.

When one studies the history of science, it immediately becomes clear that there was something about the Western world that gave rise to modern science. But why is this?

This is a subject that deeply fascinated Benedictine Father Stanley Jaki. Influenced by the pioneering work of physicist and historian of science Pierre Duhem, Jaki devoted his academic life to studying the relationship between faith and science, and more specifically, the rise of science and the involvement of Christianity in the process.

Jaki, through studying the entirety of the history of science, identified what he referred to as “stillborn” moments of science — instances of scientific genius that never resulted in establishing the scientific method as a discipline in a given culture. He found this to be the case in many ancient cultures: Egypt, Babylon, India, China, Greece and the Muslim world.

Jaki’s discovery was that it was the pervasive worldview of these cultures that stifled any development of science.

Ancient Egypt was consumed by animism, the pantheon of gods ruling over all aspects of the world. A lack of significance was attributed to the cosmos due to the perceived changeless and cyclical nature of reality, which prevented any continuous intellectual discipline to take root.

Babylon, a culture enmeshed in mathematics and astronomy, could not separate their gods from the world. Their cosmology involved attributing celestial occurrences to battles of gods — a fantasy that made their concept of “science” too abstract to be sustainable. Investigations into a world that is imagined to be a conflict of chaos and order was doomed to fail.

A pitfall for India was the meaninglessness of life due to the belief that reincarnation would occur for unimaginable eons. Even texts containing scientific truths were plagued with irrational claims resulting from a psychologically damaging Hindu cosmology that would have negative ramifications on secular studies, because it was nearly impossible to derive any meaning from life.

China had Confucianism and Taoism. These philosophies, although differing in defining truth, emphasized truth in relation to the human self. Practitioners were concerned with finding truth within, and the study of nature was deemed incompatible with this process. Concerned with ethics, methodological sciences had no place with these competing worldviews that had man as their focal point.

Greece is known for its impressive advancements in studies of philosophy, physics, mathematics, geometry, astronomy and medicine, yet these accomplishments were short-lived. But the fatal flaw to science having a true “birth” in Greece was the prevalence of a cyclical worldview. Just as with other cultures holding to a cyclical worldview, this mitigated the opportunity for perpetual scientific observation, because purpose was found to be lacking in the world.

The Muslim world did better for a time because they had access to Greek texts, yet ultimately philosophy and reason were rejected by Islamic regimes to make way for the supremacy of Allah and the Quran as the sole explanators for the world. The Quran contradicted philosophy and what appears in nature, so it was reasoned, therefore these disciplines had to be condemned, for the Quran was the ultimate arbiter of truth.

What separated these cultures from the West? It was Christianity.

Benedictine monasteries preserved ancient manuscripts amid barbarians warring for control of the remnants of the Roman Empire. When unified kingdoms finally prospered, promotion of education instilled a love for learning in the Christian West, inevitably resulting in the creation of universities at the turn of the millennium, with one of the oldest being the University of Oxford, established circa 1096. While initially focused on teaching for priests, the freedom of debate allowed by the Scholastic process was prime for the introduction of scientific fields. Acquiring more Greek texts preserved by Arabs aided this process.

Arguably the most salient date that allowed scientific study to formalize was March 7, 1277, when Bishop Stephen Tempier of Paris condemned 219 Aristotelian concepts. This was significant, for the condemnations resulted in freedom from the eternality and purposelessness of creation, propositions that had stifled the growth of science in antiquity. Science could be separated from animistic worldviews, with the distinction between God and creation solidified and the depersonalization of nature promoted.

Educated Medieval Christians could point to Scripture in support of a systematic study of nature. “He has set in order the splendors of his wisdom; he is from all eternity one and the same,” so we read in Sirach, and, “How desirable are all his works, and how sparkling they are to see!” The Book of Wisdom also affirms that God “arranged all things by measure and number and weight,” implying order in the universe that could be studied and quantified.

Recognition of laws of nature was fundamental in the development of science, and it was only among the Christian West that the study of nature became a recognized and respected discipline. Because of this, we now have wonderful advancements in technology, such as the James Webb Space Telescope.

Karin Öberg, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University specializing in astrochemistry, as well as a devout and practicing Catholic, told this writer:

I find it wonderful that as we are building new telescopes to reveal new truths about the universe, we also end up revealing a more beautiful universe than we could see if we use only our eyes. It is as clear of a sign as any that truth and beauty belong together and ultimately have their source in the same creator God.

Öberg has also expressed excitement at what scientific implications may result from the James Webb Space Telescope:

The one JWST image that really stands out for me is the one showing a large group of extremely distant galaxies, lensing the light of even more distant ones [see above]. It is simply amazing that we now have the tools to look back to close to the beginning of our universe. It lets us see anew how grand of a place we inhabit. The universe is really the most wonderful icon of God’s infinity and eternity that I know, and JWST is showing us why.
The aspect of JWST that I am the most excited about is, however, its ability to acquire spectra of exoplanets, as well as of the planet-forming disks that we know surround young stars whose planetary systems are still assembling. These spectra will reveal how often planets form from water-rich material, and perhaps give us a first glimpse of a habitable planet outside of the solar system.
At the end of the day I am just grateful that we have been given such a beautiful universe, and the reason to peer into its hidden truths and beauties.