A new book charts the historical relationship between the Church and science

There was an interesting news item in the Catholic Herald last weekend, in case readers haven’t noticed it: an American Jesuit, Brother Guy Consolmagno, has been appointed director of the Vatican Observatory.

The item goes on to describe his scientific background: he is a planetary scientist, a graduate of MIT, a lecturer at Harvard College Observatory and taught physics and astronomy when serving with the Peace Corps in Kenya. He entered the Society of Jesus in his late 30s.

Last week Pope Francis met staff at the Vatican Observatory and told them, “The Church urgently needs religious who dedicate their lives to being on the very frontiers between faith and human knowledge, faith and modern science.” He emphasised that it was important to let the world know how the Church and its priests “embrace, encourage and promote authentic science.”

Why do I mention this? Partly because I have been reading a stimulating book, The Tiara and the Test Tube: The Popes and Science from the Medieval Period to the Present by Paul Haffner , and partly because on my recent trip to Russia I happened to be shown around an outdoor ethnographic museum by a young chap who had read Richard Dawkins and who explained to me in no uncertain terms that “science” had exploded the superstitious and fantastical notion of “God”. A little learning can be a dangerous thing.

His English was not fluent enough to have a proper discussion but it was clear enough to convey his contempt for religion (and indirectly, for benighted people like myself who, unaccountably, in the face of all the scientific “evidence” produced by the same Dawkins, persisted in religious belief.) I did try to persuade him that there need not be a clash between religious faith and science but it was no good. He struck me as an example, not so much of a post-Communist, atheistic worldview, but of modern rational, western man for whom science has all the answers.

This book, explaining and charting the historical relationship between the Church and science would have been a useful tool, had it been at my disposal at the time. I slightly dislike its title and its cover picture of the papal tiara (Pope Paul VI got rid of this tiara, rightly, as it gives a whiff of triumphalism and power rather than humility and truth), but that aside, it shows, with example after example, how the Church has always encouraged proper scientific research. The Galileo affair – described by St John Paul II as “a tragic mutual incomprehension [which] has been interpreted as the reflection of the fundamental opposition between science and faith” – and the subject of evolution are well covered, as are the achievements of popes such as Gregory XIII who erected the original Vatican Observatory in 1578.

Of particular interest is the opening chapter, which quotes the considerable writings of the late priest-scientist Fr Stanley Jaki, on the subject of the positive relationship between science and Christianity and why scientific knowledge was able to expand and grow in the Christian west and not, despite the achievements of Arabic thinkers such as Averroes and Avicenna, elsewhere in the world, including advanced civilisations such as ancient Greece and China. Jaki’s theory is that the Christian understanding of the Incarnation was an essential safeguard again the (fatalistic) pantheism of the ancient world and a spur to the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Within Islam, although Muslims believed in monotheism, this was insufficient to overcome “cyclical, pantheistic, animistic, organismic and magical elements” in their beliefs. The Koran also overemphasised the divine will in relation to divine rationality.

I do recommend this book, particularly for people who fall unwittingly into arguments with those like my Russian guide, who have read the gospel of Richard Dawkins and take it for Holy Writ.