Scientists Robert Millikan, Father Georges Lemaître and Albert Einstein meet at the California Institute of Technology in January 1933. (Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)
COMMENTARY: Catholics can accept what scientists discover, because we know the truths they truly find can never contradict the truths we know through the Church.
The video popped up on a Facebook group — mostly Evangelicals, with a few Catholics like me that Evangelical friends invited. Good people, serious about their faith, many academics, and believing some very odd things. It reminded me of how useful being a Catholic is, in this case because the Church lets you accept science without tying yourself into knots.
The speaker in the video declares the Big Bang theory “secular” and “naturalistic.” It’s “completely contradictory to the Bible,” he says. The two “really can’t be made compatible at all.” Which would have been news to Msgr. Georges Lemaître, who thought it up.
The Belgian priest, who taught physics at the Catholic University of Louvain, published a paper in 1927 using Einstein’s ideas to argue for an expanding universe. At the time, most astronomers held that the universe was not expanding. That idea didn’t fit their models. Few noticed the priest’s paper. A few years later, astronomers had new evidence for this, people did notice, and his argument completely reset cosmology.
A year or two after that, he argued that if the universe was expanding, it must have started very small at a particular time. That became the Big Bang theory.
The speaker in the very well-produced video is a young-earth seventh-day creationist. The video makes sure you know he has a doctorate in astrophysics. He earned his doctorate for work on the sun, not for studying the origin of the universe, meaning he doesn’t necessarily know any more about that subject than we do.
He certainly knows less about theology than we do. All he knows is what he finds in his Bible. He doesn’t read it through 20 centuries of interpretation by thoughtful people working under the guidance of the Church. It’s him and his Bible and maybe some people he decides to trust. It’s us and St. Augustine and St. Thomas and Msgr. Lemaître and thousands of other experts in the subjects.
People like him believe, against all the evidence, that the earth was created in seven literal days and is only a few thousand years old. They have to believe this because their view of the Bible doesn’t let them accept scientific findings when those findings contradict the “plain meaning” of Scripture. (To be fair, most mainstream Protestants don’t believe this. But they still lack our advantages in properly relating science and Christianity.)
For example, the speaker explains that the “days” of Genesis 1 have to mean days as we have days because the verses speak of the morning and the evening. The Big Bang Theory must be wrong because it begins with the creation of light and Genesis begins with the creation of the world and then light. “We want to let the Bible stand on its own,” he says at the end of the video, after four minutes of making the Bible look useless.
But it’s his difficulty in thinking that’s so interesting. For example, he says that the Big Bang theory tells the story of the future as well as the past. It predicts the heat death of the universe. “The Bible says that God will judge the earth, and then recreate a paradise, a new heavens and a new earth. … That’s quite different than the heat death that the Big Bang teaches.”
As Msgr. Lemaître would have said: No. The end of history as predicted by science isn’t an eschatology. It only says that the universe will end this way if nothing intervenes. If you trip and no one catches you, you will hit the floor, because gravity will pull you down — but someone might save you. God may bring history to an end well before the solar system ends. The Christian can believe in the Big Bang theory and believe that God will be alert enough to wrap things up before everything goes cold.
This poor man doesn’t see this, even though the idea’s so basic to Christianity and “the Bible” he keeps invoking. He may still disbelieve the theory, but he needs better reasons.
The Catholic can accept what scientists find, because we believe they see the truth, and the truths they truly find can never contradict the truths we know through the Church. As Gaudium et Spes put it, science properly carried out “can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.” The First Vatican Council’s Dei Filius explained:
“Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason. The same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind. God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.”
Here’s another Catholic advantage, and it’s a big one. People like the young astrophysicist and his followers think they must have final answers when Scripture and science conflict. Scripture tells them clearly everything they need to know. The Church can sit back serenely and watch as science develops. We don’t believe Scripture tells us things it’s not intended to tell us.
If scientists declared that the earth was in fact only a few thousand years old, fine. If they found it to be 14 billion years old, that’s fine too. The universe isn’t expanding? Cool. It is expanding? Also cool. Neither touches the truths the Church knows and shares with the world. Theologians and apologists may have to adjust a few ideas, but that’s it.
Further, the Church knows that the relation of Christianity and science develops historically, among fallen human beings. It takes time and people make mistakes, claim too much, cheat on the evidence, try to bully the dissenters, pretend to have knowledge they don’t have, and so on. Scientists do this just as much as theologians. Together, they work out the right answer over time. So when a critic says, “Galileo!” the Catholics simply says, “Well, that was embarrassing, but we eventually worked it through, and we’ll try not to do that again.” He doesn’t get flustered. It happens.
The Church has a final advantage in dealing with science. It calls scientists when they overstep their bounds. The secularist may say that evolution proves man isn’t special, that we’re just accidental products of a random process. The Church says no, you can’t say that, because science tells us nothing about who we are. It can’t do that. It doesn’t have the tools to do it. The Church says: However we got here, God made us in his image and the Son of God died for us. Each of us has infinite worth.
That’s the most important thing, vastly more important than the Big Bang. It’s the crucial things the Church knows.
David Mills is editor of Hour of Our Death blog.
He is finishing a book for Sophia Press titled When Catholics Die.