THE CATHOLIC KNIGHT: Recently, I stumbled across an Internet article that attempted to connect the political supporters of Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign to modern geocentrists - people who still believe the earth is the center of the universe and everything revolves around it. I was amused to find myself featured as one of the alleged geocentrists. I wrote to the author and explained this simply was not the case, and that in fact, as a practicing Roman Catholic I not only subscribe to heliocentrism (the theory that the earth obits the sun), but I am also a believer in the Big Bang theory. The author apologized and promptly removed his article from the Internet.
While I am still uncertain as to why the author came to this conclusion, it did bring my attention to a common misunderstanding that is very prevalent in the modern world. It's the misunderstanding that Christianity, in particular Catholicism, is at odds with science, and has a long history of attempting to suppress scientific advances.
I cannot argue with the fact that some Christians have historically attempted to do just that. The early 20th Century controversy concerning evolutionary theory, showcased in the Scopes Monkey Trial, is one such example. However, to be fair, it should be pointed out that such examples are the exception to the norm. In fact, not only do Christians usually accept scientific discoveries, but more than quite often, they support and defend them. This is especially true of the largest Christian establishment - the Roman Catholic Church. I dealt with this topic in more detail in the entry entitled Christianity & Science - Part 1. It should be pointed out that the biggest opponents of evolutionary theory are not Roman Catholics, but rather Evangelical Protestants, which actually make up only a small minority of Christians worldwide. They're just a tiny fraction of Christianity. Even then, it would be unfair to lump all Evangelicals together on this. There is difference of opinion even among them.
Most Roman Catholics, who have studied a minimal amount of biology, generally accept the basic premise behind the theory of macro-evolution. In 1996, Pope John Paul II even called it "more than just a hypothesis." But at the same time, this doesn't mean Catholics have rejected their theological beliefs that God created all things, and that man was made in the image of God. Rather, Catholics have been forced to reexamine their interpretation of Scriptures, and in doing so, have come to an even deeper and more profound understanding of them. To Catholics anyway, the first few chapters of Genesis are more relevant today than when they were taken literally. Because now, these verses are understood to convey moral and spiritual truths that surpass a literal interpretation, and consequently have more of an impact on a personal level.
It is not my intention here to delve into the debate on biological evolution, and how that relates to the book of Genesis. To me, the topic is irrelevant, because the Bible was not designed to be a scientific textbook, and something else has already proved there was more than enough time for God to use this method of creating the design for human bodies. By this "something else" I mean the truths revealed to us by the heavens. It is the science concerning the heavens that I wish to focus on here, because in doing so I believe a lot of misunderstanding about the Catholic Church, and her relation to scientific discovery, can be corrected.
Our story actually begins a couple thousand years ago with the origin of astronomy which at that time was deeply entangled with astrology. The model of the universe was a lot smaller then. It consisted of the basic components of our solar system; sun, moon, five visible planets and the stars. The model proposed by Aristotle, and later modified by Ptolemy, placed the earth at the center of the universe. It's important to point out that neither Aristotle nor Ptolemy were Christians. They were Greek philosophers of Pagan origin. Their astronomical error of placing earth at the center of the universe was a common one that anyone could make. From the vantage point of earth, using only the naked eye, it is perfectly understandable why people would come up with this point of view. However, it's important to point out that the geocentrist (earth centered universe) model is a remnant of the ancient Pagan world, created long before Christianity became a major religion. While it is true that many Christians initially defended this Pagan model of the universe, it is not true to suppose that Christians invented it.
In 1543 AD, some two-thousand years after the origin of the geocentrist model, a Catholic priest by the name of Nicholaus Copernicus published a book entitled De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). In it he proposed a stunning new idea. Ptolemy accounted for the complex movement of the planets through an elaborate set of mathematical calculations that accurately predicted their motion, but did nothing to explain them in a rational way. Copernicus found that by placing the sun in the center of the model, and putting the earth in the position of the third planet away from the sun, all the strange motions of planets were instantly eliminated. All celestial bodies then moved in perfect circular motion around the sun. The theory of heliocentricity (sun centered universe) was born. The book was dedicated to Pope Paul III, and was received well by the Vatican. The book caused only mild controversy throughout Europe at the time, and provoked no fierce sermons about contradicting Holy Scripture. Naturally there were a few who objected, and this is to be expected in the course of scientific research. Without debate, there can be no development of understanding. The heliocentric model was eventually adopted by the majority of Jesuit scholars, and taught as theory in Catholic universities throughout Europe.
Galileo's main contribution to Copernicus' heliocentric model was his observations made by telescope, which confirmed Copernicus' theory by observational experiment. This effectively elevated the heliocentric theory to scientific law. Galileo became a fierce advocate of the heliocentric model. He published his findings in 1610 and then took his telescope to the Jesuit Collegio Romano (Jesuit College in Rome) for demonstration in 1611. His findings were well received, and Galileo was made an official member of the Accademia deiLincei (literally the "Academy of the Lynxes" a.k.a. "Lincean Academy"), a prestigious pontifical school of science. Galileo's troubles did not come about until 1616 when Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino admonished Galileo not to teach heliocentrism after a religious opponent by the name of Father Tommaso Caccini denounced it as heresy. Now this is where politics enters the Galileo controversy. Heliocentrism was already being taught as theory, by Jesuit priests no less, throughout Catholic universities all over Europe. Galileo's only contribution to the heliocentric model was his supporting evidence based on telescopic observations. This made Galileo a strong proponent of Copernicus' theory, and in the post-Reformation world of Europe, that caused some to worry that Galileo might inadvertently start another Protestant uprising against the Catholic Church. Catholic clergymen, by in large, taught a mostly literal interpretation of the Bible at that time. (Protestant clergymen did too.) It was only the highly educated clergy of that time period, the Jesuits, who embraced novel scientific concepts like heliocentrism. In other words, there was a learning curve in Europe at that time, and Galileo (along with the Jesuits) were way ahead of it. Some Catholic clergy feared anything that seemed to contradict the literal interpretation of the Bible. (Ironically, some Protestant clergy felt the same way.) Because of this, Galileo's strong push of Copernicus' heliocentric theory frightened some clergymen, but ironically it was Galileo's interpretation of Scripture, not his scientific beliefs, that got him into trouble. When his opponents questioned him in writing about the Scripture passages that seem to support the geocentric theory of a fixed earth, Galileo responded (quite correctly I might add) with the Augustinian position that one's interpretation of Scripture should always be reconsidered when observations of nature seem to contradict it. This theological assertion was used against Galileo, and the accusation was made that Galileo was trying to preach religion though he was not an ordained clergyman. In other words, Galileo's opponents set him up for a legal trap. At that time, it was illegal for non-clergy to preach religious doctrine. In 1616 Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino initially tried to calm the brewing storm, acting on directives from the Inquisition, by throwing Galileo's opponents a bone. This was done by admonishing Galileo not to teach the heliocentric theory as scientific fact anymore, but the admonition did not prevent Galileo from discussing heliocentrism hypothetically, and no such admonition was given to the Jesuits, who largely supported Galileo's findings and were free to teach them all they wanted. For the next several years Galileo stayed clear of controversy. But in 1623 a fellow astronomer, and friend of Galileo (Cardinal Barberini), was elected Pope Urban VIII. Though a geocentrist himself, he opposed the admonition of Galileo in 1616 and personally encouraged Galileo to return to the subject and write a treatise defending his heliocentric findings. Pope Urban VIII hoped to rehabilitate Galileo's reputation in the academic field, and give him the opportunity of scientific vindication. Pope Urban VIII personally asked Galileo to give arguments for and against heliocentrism in the book, and to be careful not to advocate heliocentrism as scientific fact. He also requested that his own views of geocentrism be included in Galileo's book. Unfortunately, only the latter of those requests was fulfilled by Galileo, and the way in which he did it became the central reason behind the Galileo controversy. The book, entitled "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems" was a literary masterpiece for it's time. It was published in 1632. In it, Galileo structured the text as a debate between a heliocentrist and a geocentrist. The latter was named Simplicius (meaning "simpleton"), and casted as a fool who frequently trapped himself by his own arguments. Most historians agree that Galileo did not do this out of malice. He was also an entertaining author who dazzled his readers with his literary style. It is quite probable that Galileo was trying to write a masterpiece that would keep his readers entertained while he simultaneously educated them. But this method, combined with the fact that he pushed heliocentrism as scientific fact again, became Galileo's undoing. The pope (Galileo's friend) was a geocentrist, and the irreverent writing style of the book made him look like an idiot. This came at a time when the Catholic Church was still reeling from the Protestant Reformation. The pope's defenders immediately went into action, and Galileo was tried on suspicion of heresy. His book was banned, and Galileo was ordered to be imprisoned. It is suspected that Pope Urban VIII was the one responsible for having his sentence commuted to house arrest. He remained under house arrest (in his own home) for the remainder of his life. Contrary to popular urban legend, the Galileo controversy is a political one, not a scientific one. Galileo was tried and condemned for what was perceived to be an attack on the pope, along with an attempt to preach scientific theory as theological truth. The Catholic Church never officially condemned Copernicus' theory of heliocentricity. It did condemn one of Galileo's statements that the sun is the center of the universe. On that point, the Catholic Church was actually right. Scientific discovery would later prove that the universe is much bigger than the solar system, and that the sun is actually orbiting the galaxy, and our galaxy itself is far from the center of the universe. The Galileo controversy should be understood as a tragedy in the realm of politics - not science. It's an example of what happens when people get paranoid and act based on such irrational fears. For years, both Protestants and Secularists have used the Galileo controversy to mock the Catholic Church as an opponent of heliocentrism. Such mockers fail to understand the history of the theory itself. Heliocentricity was actually invented by a Catholic priest named Nicholaus Copernicus more than half a century BEFORE the Galileo controversy. The Catholic Church always allowed the teaching of heliocentricity as a scientific theory before, during and after the Galileo controversy. Finally, the Galileo controversy was a political tragedy centered around Galileo himself, mainly because the poor fellow didn't exercise the good sense to distance himself from theology and inadvertently made out the pope to look like a fool in a time when the Catholic Church was highly defensive.
Three centuries after the Galileo controversy, and exactly 388 years after Copernicus published his book on heliocentricity, another Catholic priest published his own scientific theory about the formation of the universe. His mathematical calculations rocked the scientific community. His name was Monsignor Georges Henri Joseph Éduard Lemaître, or just Monsignor Lemaître for short. Lemaître derived what became known as Hubble's Law in his 1927 paper, two years before Hubble, but thanks to the American media machine, Edwin Hubble got the credit. But Lemaître took Hubble's discovery of an expanding universe a step further. He concluded that an initial "creation-like" event must have occurred in the distant past, when all space-time, energy and matter began in a "cosmic egg" as he called it, smaller than the tiniest atom. This is the "Big Bang theory" as we know it today, and this is why Lemaître is credited with its discovery. Albert Einstein first dismissed the theory, telling Lemaître that his mathematics were sound but his physics were an abomination. Later, after Hubble's discovery was published, Einstein endorsed Lemaître's theory, helping both the theory and priest get fast recognition. Einstein's initial skepticism was due to the theory sounding too much like the Christian dogma of creation, and Einstein (like many physicists of the time) preferred to think of the universe as static and eternal - having always existed. Lemaître's "Big Bang theory" was well received by the Vatican, and in fact Pope Pius XII publicly endorsed it, claiming that science had finally proved what the Scriptures have been telling us all along. Lemaître was embarrassed by this, and wrote to the pope asking him to stop. In actuality, the pope was right, but perhaps more than he thought. The theories of the cosmic singularity (first cause) hadn't been fully developed yet, and wouldn't be until physicist Stephen Hawking tackled the phenomenon of black holes in the last decades of the 20th century. The cosmic singularity, otherwise known is the first cause of the universe, and the final state of the universe in the distant future, is defined as the event when all the laws of physics, space-time and matter break down into a single force stretching from eternity to eternity. It is the point at which our understanding of physics meets God. The theories of Big Bang and cosmic singularity are now commonly accepted by the scientific community, and insofar as scientific theories go, they are fully embraced as such by the Catholic Church.
Two of the most important scientific theories of the modern age (heliocentricity and the expanding universe) were discovered by Catholic priests. Both theories were embraced by the Catholic Church. The controversy surrounding Galileo had more to do with post-Reformation politics than Copernicus' heliocentric theory. Not only did the Catholic Church, for the most part, embrace scientific discovery, but in many cases it was the supporting influence behind those discoveries in the first place.
Toward the beginning of this long entry, I stated that "something else" has convinced me that there was more than enough "time" for God to use the evolutionary processes surmised by Charles Darwin to form the bodies of human beings. That "something else" I mentioned was none other than the Big Bang theory, in which we now know the universe is approximately 13.4 to 13.7 billion years old, according to our measurement of time, which according to Einstein is all relative. The final "proof" for me is the speed of light itself, what Einstein regarded as the only cosmological constant. Light travels at about 186,000 miles per second. The nearest galaxy, Andromeda, is approximately 2.5 million light-years away. That means it took 2.5 million years (according to our measure of time) for the light from Andromeda to reach our telescopes. We can see Andromeda, so we know the universe has been around for at least 2.5 million years, the amount of time it took for the light to reach our telescopes. For that matter, however, we can see many more galaxies as well, all of them much further away than Andromeda.
Regarding the seemingly random events of the universe, and the amazingly complex result of the conditions for life on planet earth, Einstein once asked if God played dice. Based on Lemaître's discovery of the Big Bang, it would appear that God does play dice. If you're a Christian however, you know the dice are loaded. God is perfectly content to let random events control the fate of the universe he created, provided of course, that those random events conform to his sovereign will.
It's official. The Catholic Knight is retired. I'm hanging up the helmet and passing the torch. There will be no more articles, no more commentaries, no more calls to action. THIS BLOG IS CLOSED. I've spent a very long time thinking about this, I believe the time has come, and is a bit overdue. I want to thank my readers for everything, but most especially for your encouragement and your willingness to go out there and fight the good fight. So, that being the case, I've spend the last several weeks looking for bloggers who are fairly active, and best represent something akin to the way I think and what I believe. I recommend the following blogs for my readers to bookmark and check on regularly. Pick one as your favourite, or pick them all. They are all great.....