Are Catholics Afraid to Question?

In a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, “Planets, Priests and a Persistent Myth,” Stephen Barr and Dermon Mullan, both professors of physics at the University of Delaware, have tried to dispel a myth that, as the article’s sub-title puts it: “The Catholic Church and scientific discovery are utterly incompatible, right? History disagrees.” What was disappointing, although not altogether surprising, was the bigoted and largely ignorant character of some of the comments.

“Last week NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, after a voyage of about eight years, captured incredible video of two bright spots on Ceres,” wrote one gentleman. “The scientists who made that journey possible, I’m betting the vast majority of them are normal people, aka atheists. Here in the 21st century scientists have no time for religious fantasies.”

“Normal people.” You know, people who aren’t Catholics or Protestants, Muslims, Jews, or Hindus. Change that statement to any of the last three and see how that sounds. Normal people: you know, people who are aren’t Jews.” How does that strike you? Like the words of an ignorant bigot?

This man has bought into an old Enlightenment “myth” about the disappearance of religion in the face of the onslaught of science. The only problem is, sociological studies repeatedly show that there’s no data to back up that claim. People don’t lose their faith because of science. More often, faith simply fades away because people prefer shopping, making money, and living a comfortable middle-class life to lives of virtue and self-sacrifice.

Another gentleman objected to Barr and Mullan’s attempt to show that Catholicism and scientific discovery are compatible by claiming that, while “a key element of science is asking questions. . .this, of course, is the opposite of the way things are in religion.” “The Catholic Church, in particular,” he adds, “is terrified of people asking questions.”

Really? Then what about Thomas Aquinas’s repeated assertions (echoing the philosopher Aristotle) that human beings by nature desire to know the truth – especially the truth about the highest things? What about Pope John Paul II’s repeated insistence in his encyclical Fides et Ratio and elsewhere that humans are distinguished precisely as beings who ask questions about the most important things?

It used to be assumed that you had to know something about the topic you were addressing – especially if it was another group of people – before you could make a reasonable comment about it, otherwise, you were merely spouting ignorance. Are these two men really glorifying “science” when their comments are so at odds with the subject-matter on which they presume to comment? Or are they merely anti-Catholic bigots akin to those who complain about “what Jews do” or “how black people are,” when they really know nothing about either group?

Cal Tech, 1933: Fr. Georges LeMaitre and  Dr. Albert Einstein [Bettmann/CORBIS]
A Catholic and a Jew, both of whom revolutionized physics: Fr. Georges Lemaître and Dr. Albert Einstein at Cal Tech in1933 [Bettmann/CORBIS]
How can Catholics dispel this kind of bigotry? The way one counteracts any kind of bigotry is with the truth. Catholics pose no danger to natural science because Catholics do not deny (rather they vigorously affirm) the existence and importance of natural causes in the universe because they know that God can (and usually does) work in and through natural causes; that grace does not violate nature but perfects it; and that the truths of faith and the truths of reason cannot contradict because they both have the same Creator God as their ultimate Author.

As for asking questions, the Church is not at all “afraid” of them; indeed, it rather specializes in them. What the Church doesn’t do, however, is restrict the field of questioning artificially, which is a troubling characteristic of many modern materialists.

John Paul II in his encyclical Fides et Ratio affirms the crucial important of human beings asking “the fundamental questions” of life – questions such as: Who am I? Where am I from? Where am I going? What is the meaning and purpose of life? These are questions, says the Pope, “which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives.” They are also questions that, often enough, many people, especially in the modern world, tend to shy away from.

One reason for this particular resistance is that modern natural science gave up long ago on any discussion of final causes. One can make a lot of progress in the mechanics of natural science by avoiding questions about “why.”

The problem arises when people forget that such questions were methodologically excluded from consideration at an earlier date and then resent it when someone tries to reintroduce them. Thus they often don’t notice that they’ve reinterpreted all “why” and “should” questions in terms of “how.”

If someone asks: “Why do human beings love?” the answer is simply: “Here is how the brain circuitry works.” Or if someone asks: “Why are you torturing those prisoners?,” the answer is nothing more than: “Here is how water boarding works and here is the legal mechanism we used in advance.” Those answers may not be “wrong” answers as far as they go, but they’re also not exactly answers to the questions asked.

There are some people who say, “Ask me anything.” They’ll freely tell you all sorts of things about their lives: various divorces, drunken partying, sexual encounters, etc. But ask them: “Why do you live the way you do?” and you’ll find that “Ask me anything” didn’t really mean anything. It meant you can ask them anything about what they do, but not question why they do it.

So who really is afraid of questions, especially the most fundamental sorts of questions – questions about the meaning and purpose of life? Catholics? Or modern materialists who question everything but themselves, and who know much about many things and very little about the odd, wondrous creature doing the questioning?

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.