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Confidence in the Dialog between Faith and Science

I view with some sympathy – and understand – the wariness with which many young Catholics, and the parents raising them, are taught to view science. After all, the story of the young believer who loses his faith after studying science is one of the common narratives of our age.

The antidote to that outcome, however, appears early in Stacy Trasancos’ engaging new book, Particles of Faith [1], which is being released this week. Though she is careful to explain that she never identified as an atheist (considering herself rather as just “nonreligious”), Dr. Trasancos lived out the common story herself: “In college I majored in biology, and for the first time ever I flatly rejected religion.”

Her book, she writes, is a call to “unwavering confidence in Christ and his Church when we approach the subject of modern science.” And the key word in this key sentence is confidence. She calls for more engagement with science, not less, and more confidence rather than more anxiety. Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Trasancos emphasizes that this sort of confidence means confidence in the magisterium in regard to faith, and confidence in scientists in regard to science.

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The need to emphasize this virtue is well captured in a famous incident that Dr. Trasancos recounts about Georges Lemaître, the Belgian Catholic priest who developed the first form of the “Big Bang” theory. Once the theory began to be supported by the observable evidence, Pope Pius XII gave an address [4] to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, all but identifying the Big Bang with the true event of Creation.

Fr. Lemaître quickly expressed his opposition to such an identification. Trasancos writes that Lemaître rightly insisted that “developing scientific theories [must] be judged on their scientific merits alone and not be used in support of theological conclusions.” The moral of the story is this: even when the sound science looks for all intents and purposes like confirmation of a theological doctrine, the Catholic should be wary about identifying them too closely – not least because later scientific discoveries may upset earlier ones.

And if this is true of a soundly established scientific theory like the Big Bang, how much more so about far more tentative observations and theories?

It might seem odd for this story of reserve to count as a vote for confidence, but that is exactly what it is: a vote for the idea that, for the believer, science and the Magisterium should be allowed full exercise in their own domains, and that we should be cautious in facilely conflating the two.

Examples of this error abound.

On the atheist’s side, they occur when the non-believer falsely concludes that, for example, evidence of evolutionary descent must contradict religious belief in human uniqueness, or that speculation about the Big Bang’s origin as a fluctuation in a quantum background precludes the doctrine that only God can create ex nihilo, e.g., from nothing.

For the believer, they occur when he, for instance, concludes that faith requires belief in a simplistic and overly literal creation story that is quite implausible according to the honest investigations of science.

Confidence is necessary because the polemical nature of the modern science/faith discussion leads us to believe that one or the other must “win.” But a true understanding shows that neither can “win,” in the sense of replacing the proper functions of the other. Each is right in its own field without contradicting the other.

We can only discover this, however, by not succumbing to false dilemmas out of anxiety. Atheists need not think that science’s role is to undermine religion, and believers need not think that science’s role is to prove religious beliefs. As Cardinal Baronio famously said around the time of the Galileo controversies, “The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” In the end, the study of the natural world does indeed reveal the glory of God; but its main role is just to describe the natural world.

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Stacy Trasancos

The last two sections of Dr. Trasancos’ book address specific questions about apparent controversies between science and faith – the Big Bang, evolution, human origins, etc. While her treatment does not offer exhaustive, in-depth explorations of these questions, she does provide a sound introduction to the specific sorts of difficulties the Catholic investigating science and faith with confidence will face at this moment in human history.

In my view, Dr. Transacos lays out the best current thinking on these topics, but she is careful to explain that her answers to several current questions are not definitive, but are rather examples of the kind of “confident” approach she believes is urgently needed today. These are the arguments that, I suspect, will provoke the most discussion among readers.

As they should, since – as Pope John Paul II remarked in Fides et Ratio, the dialogue between faith and reason is unending, and needs to be renewed constantly to take in new discoveries and address new questions. Yet at the same time: “There is thus no reason for competition of any kind between reason and faith: each contains the other, and each has its own scope for action.”

“Respect the real theologians and exegetes,” Dr. Trasancos writes, and shortly after, “Respect the real scientists.” This is the true and unique note in her work – the quiet assurance with which she proceeds to investigate the intersection of religious belief and scientific knowledge, assured that, in the end, though they labor in different vineyards, both are engaged in the sincere pursuit of truth.

Michael Baruzzini is a freelance science writer and editor who writes for Catholic and science publications, including Crisis, First Things, Touchstone, Sky & Telescope, The American Spectator, and elsewhere. He is also the creator of CatholicScience.com, which offers online science curriculum resources for Catholic students.