St. Thérèse, Getting Scientific

One of the passages in Story of a Soul, the autobiography St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast day is today, that has most struck me is when she recounted coming across the words Jesus spoke to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque: “I want to make you read in the book of life, wherein is contained the science of LOVE.”

This made quite an impact on Thérèse: “The science of Love, ah, yes, this word resounds sweetly in the ear of my soul, and I desire only this science.” Her famous vocation of love was crystallizing.   

Science and love don’t ordinarily seem to go together. Love we tend to associate with feeling, attraction, and passion – not exactly the stuff of science, which goes with reason, empiricism, and progress. But love as science is not an unfounded mystical metaphor or eccentricity.             

I happened to come across St. Thérèse’s passage shortly after reading the Brothers Karamazov, and Dostoevsky – writing around the same time as St. Therese (the late 1800s) – also uses this formulation. In one of the book’s early dialogues, Father Zossima attempts to console a “lady of little faith,” first by advising her not to be frightened at her own faintheartedness in attaining love, and then by pointing out that love in action is harsh compared to love in dreams: “Active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science.”

Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, also wrote that “love is a science, a knowledge, and we lack it.” This is why we need to constantly plead with the Holy Spirit – infunde amorem cordibus, as the beautiful, ancient hymn Veni Creator Spiritus has it – to fill our hearts with love. 

Not long before St. Thérèse’s time, the concept known as positivism, which holds that no sciences exist except those that study the phenomena of the natural world, had begun to gain traction. The great Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, however, wasn’t buying it. In his 1874 book The Crisis of Western Philosophy: Against the Positivists, he dismantled the view put forth by the French philosopher Auguste Comte that humanity was entering into an era in which scientific knowledge alone is fit to replace all other forms of knowledge, such as “primitive” theological knowledge or even philosophical knowledge. These, Comte felt, were merely outdated precursors to an emerging historical phase of strictly “scientific” advance. “Order and Progress” – Comte’s motto (emblazoned on the Brazilian flag, by the way) – would simply follow.

History didn’t quite get that memo. Yet St. Thérèse perceived at age fourteen that the learnéd, despite spending their whole lives in study, would have been astonished to discover that she could understand things they, in all their “knowledge,” could not. Feats of the intellect pale in comparison with acts of the will grounded in love.

         St. Thérèse, doctor of Christian love

Soloviev felt the Western philosophical crisis had resulted from mistakenly elevating (not just unnecessarily pitting) one form of knowledge (reason) above another (faith). He maintained this had begun to emerge even prior to the Enlightenment, which accelerated the promise that science would solve humanity’s perennial problems. The Enlightenment also solidified the idea that science should supersede traditional moral and ethical systems, which could, after all, easily be dismissed as “unscientific.”                                

But that entire moral framework rests upon what Jesus specified as the two greatest commandments: love of God and love of neighbor. We might even say Jesus was speaking “scientifically” – imparting real knowledge – in attesting to the primacy of love.

Dismissing the traditional moral framework does not liberate the self from supposedly arbitrary “rules” but – and this seems generally underappreciated – involves the real danger of the loss of love itself.

Science has enriched our world in important ways. But you don’t have to be a cradle Catholic to perceive that playing the science card – in contemporary bioethical debates, for example – is a manipulative, self-exculpatory means of attempting to secure carte blanche approval for blazing any trail you wish. Soloviev recognized, as too few do today, what was at stake in relegating religious and philosophical knowledge to the periphery where they are not allowed to inform how scientific advances should be interpreted: “Carried to its logical end, the principal of utilitarianism is obviously equivalent to the complete negation of ethics.” Benedict XVI said virtually the exact same thing just last year.

Only the “science of love”, which Benedict described as “the highest form of science,” can protect mankind from the corrosive effects of today’s default (utilitarian) mentality because – as Karol Wojtyla put it in his 1960 book Love and Responsibility – “only love can preclude the use of one person by another.” And only love can extract us from the meaninglessness that scientific materialism has made so widespread.  

Shortly before her death at Auschwitz, Edith Stein wrote a detailed philosophical study of the thought of fellow Carmelite St. John of the Cross, entitled The Science of the Cross, which is the pinnacle of all wisdom. In it, she equated what she called the “science of the saints” with “the truths of the faith” (which never contradict science or reason).

This type of terminology, I think, has the power to arrest the believer and the non-believer alike; it invites us to revisit just what we mean by science – and by love, which John Paul II called “the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.”

The saints all pursue their own diverse vocations of love by following the “scientific” method Jesus counseled: discite a me — “learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” What could be more worth seeking to know than His Sacred Heart – “glowing furnace of charity (love)”?

St. Thérèse, great Doctor of the Church, reminds us in her own “little way” that while not all scientists are saints, all saints are scientists – by virtue of their intimate knowledge of and active engagement with love, the deepest reality of life.

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.