The scientist credited with proposing in the 1930s what came to be known as the “Big Bang theory” of the origin of the universe was Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian physicist and Roman Catholic priest. Alexander Fleming, the inventor of penicillin, shared his faith. More recently, Catholics constitute a good number of Nobel Laureates in Physics, Medicine, and Physiology, including Erwin Schrodinger, John Eccles, and Alexis Carrel. How can the achievements of so many Catholics in science be reconciled with the idea that the Catholic Church opposes scientific knowledge and progress?
One might try to explain such distinguished Catholic scientists as rare individuals who dared to rebel against the institutional Church, which opposes science. However, the Catholic Church as an institution funds, sponsors, and supports scientific research in the Pontifical Academy of Science and in the departments of science found in every Catholic university across the world, including those governed by Roman Catholic bishops, such as The Catholic University of America. This financial and institutional support of science by the Church began at the very birth of science in seventeenth-century Europe and continues today. Even Church buildings themselves were not only used for religious purposes but designed in part to foster scientific knowledge. As Thomas Woods notes:
“Cathedrals in Bologna, Florence, Paris, and Rome were designed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to function as world-class solar observatories. Nowhere in the world were there more precise instruments for the study of the sun. Each such cathedral contained holes through which sunlight could enter and time lines (or meridian lines) on the floor. It was by observing the path traced out by the sunlight on these lines that researchers could obtain accurate measurements of time and predict equinoxes.”
In the words of J. L. Heilbron of the University of California, Berkeley, the “Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and probably, all other institutions.”
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