The Catholic Two-front War: Against Scientism and Scriptural Literalism

Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish. Pope St. John Paul II,”Letter to Rev. George Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory.”


Originally this post was to be about a three-year old article on Smithsonian.com,”The Pope [Pope Francis] would like you to believe in evolution and the Big Bang.”   This article was the taking-off point for a Stations of the Cross podcast by Fr. Shannon Collins, who adheres to a strictly literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, against evolution and cosmology (the Big Bang).  Before arguing against Fr. Collins, I want to point out that the Smithsonian article itself had several errors of commission and omission:

  1. It conflated evolution–the common descent of living things–with the neo-Darwinian model for evolution; there are eminent scientists and philosophers, atheists or agnostics, who accept evolution but reject the neo-Darwinian model for how it works, so accepting or rejecting Darwin is not to be correlated with religious belief;
  2. The article ignored Pope St. John Paul II’s incisive statement on evolution “My predecessor, Pius XII, has already affirmed in his Encyclical, “Humani Generis” (1950) that there is not opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the fall of man and his vocation provided that certain fixed points are kept in mind.”  Pope St. John Paul II, Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Oct. 1996 (my translation from the French).
  3. The distinction between evolution of a physical body and the implantation of an immortal soul done only by God, was ignored;  this distinction was pointed out by Pope St. John Paul II and is discussed in one of my posts,
    Did Neanderthals have a soul?

Now the title above speaks of a two front war–one front against scientism, those who propose science or “naturalism” as an explanation of everything and as a basis for atheism; the other against Catholics who say that Genesis 1 is the literally true in all details, six days of creation, Eve from Adam’s rib, etc. Since I’ve written many posts against scientism (see here, here, here, here, and here), I’ll not repeat those arguments.

What I will attempt below is to refute  what Fr. Collins had to say about cosmology and evolution.   Why do I believe this refutation is important?  As a recent article in Our Sunday Visitor pointed out, one of the main reasons young Catholics are leaving the Church is that they believe that science contradicts Catholic teaching.  This belief is not true, and those who propose a literal interpretation of Scripture do not gain reverts or converts to the Church,  but only strengthen this false proposition of naturalistic atheism, that you can’t believe what science has to say about the world and be a believing Catholic.

Against a Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2

If we believe that Genesis 1 is literally true in everything it says, then we must believe that the universe, despite cosmological and geological evidence to the contrary, was created in six days; we must also believe that Adam was created literally from dust, that the first woman, Eve, was created from his rib, and that the order of creation of animals was given as in Genesis 1 and 2, even though these two accounts are contradictory.

We must also, if we believe Genesis 1 to be literally true and go to the original Hebrew, believe that the Catholic doctrine of Creatio ex Nihilo contradicts Scripture.  One translation of Genesis 1 gives “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters’.”   The term “formless void” in Hebrew is “Tohu Bohu” or “Tohu va-Bohu”, which a Hebrew scholar (a scholar in Hebrew–this guy was a retired Irish-American physician) has said is better translated as “topsy-turvy” or “chaos.”   And the translation mentions “waters,” which is not “nothing.”   Actually the “chaos” or “formless void” description is in better accord with the materialist proposal for pre-Big Bang:  a sea of virtual quantum fluctuations.

Moreover, the notion of Creatio ex Nihilo is first given in the Old Testament in 2 Maccabees 7:28 and in the New Testament in Hebrews 11:3.   The first Christian writer to promote the doctrine of Creatio ex Nihilo was Theophilus of Antioch in the late 2nd Century.  It was St. Augustine who developed arguments about time and Creatio ex Nihilo, that time could have begun with creation, which is a view remarkably in accord with much of modern cosmology.

“…no time passed before the world, because no creature was made by whose course it might pass.“–St. Augustine, “City of God,” book 11, ch.4.

For a more detailed account of the history of the doctrine Creatio ex Nihilo and the translation of Genesis 1,  see here and here.   My general point is that the sense of the original Hebrew in Genesis has been altered and modified in various translations to fit with that doctrine Creatio ex Nihilo; and I must emphasize that I truly believe this doctrine.  I also should emphasize that I interpret Genesis to say that God created the universe and man, and found this creation “good” (“tov”).

Fr. Collins’ case against evolution and cosmology

I don’t believe that Fr. Collins made a good case against evolution and the Big Bang in his podcast.  Let me again make the distinction between evolution, common descent from one species, and the Darwinian model for evolution.  The same distinction was made by  Pope St. John Paul II in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:

“And to tell the truth, rather than speaking about the theory of evolution, it is more accurate to speak of the theories of evolution. The use of the plural is required here—in part because of the diversity of explanations regarding the mechanism of evolution…” 

First, Fr. Collins argued that evolution was inconsistent with philosophical principles set forth by Aristotle and Aquinas.   Of course not all that Aristotle proposed was valid–his theories of gravity and kinetics have been superseded by physics going back to Galileo.    Moreover, the Dominican scholars, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP; Fr. George Brent, OP; Br. Thomas Davenport, OP; and Fr. James Ku, OP, have given a convincing account of the Thomistic support for evolution.

Second, Fr. Collins says that evolution is not supported by paleontology–there are no fossil records of transitional forms.  This is not true.  While there are gaps in the fossil record for such transitional forms, there are some found–see here, for examples.   Moreover, the  existence of early forms without later in dated fossil records is in itself evidence for the development of species: that in rocks dated a billion or more years ago there was evidence of bacterial forms, but no higher species, that in eras when reptiles and dinosaurs were the dominant species, there was no fossil record of developed mammals, etc.  (By the way, Fr. Collins made a serious error by saying that cave drawings of early man showed dinosaurs–they did not, the drawings were of mammoths).  Finally, Fr. Collins did not address one of the most important pieces of evidence for common descent, evolution:  the phylogenetic tree  that show sequence of genetic similarities and differences correlating with species evolution.

At the end of his talk, Fr. Collins evaded a question that asked his opinion about cosmological evidence for a universe some 14 billion years old.   His response that a universe had to be that old to allow for evolution and since evolution was not true, this age for the universe was not so did not say why the physical evidence was incorrect.

Final Thoughts

I have written in other posts about this: “Can a faithful Catholic believe in science?” and “God’s Periodic Table and Evolution.” In those articles and this one I argue, along with Pope St. John Paul II, that man is carried to truth on the two wings of faith and reason.   I cannot undertake that cognitive dissonance in which I believe that science tells us the truth about the world on Mondays through Saturdays and Scripture an entirely different story on Sundays;  to put it more succintly in the word of Pope St. John Paul II: “Truth cannot contradict Truth”.    God is not a prankster who plants evidence that would mislead us from a story of Creation given in Genesis that has to be taken as literally true.   The two stories from science and Revelation are the same: “The heavens declare the Glory of God” (Psalm 19A).


Why Catholics should know about science

Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.Pope St. John Paul II, Letter to Rev. George Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory. 

My evangelizing mission as a Catholic (even though a Converso) and a physicist, is to refute the claims of atheists (including prominent scientists) that science denies the teaching of the Catholic Church.   In many articles, adult education classes, and an ebook, “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth,”  I have argued that nothing science truly tells us about the world conflicts with Catholic teaching.   But I’ve found in the adult education classes and comments on the articles, that I’m not only preaching to the choir, but that those who should receive the message don’t really understand what science is all about, so the message is in a foreign language as far as they’re concerned.

Accordingly, I’m thinking of rewriting the ebook to include material that will help Catholic innumerates (and I’m not trying to be snide here; my wife is one of those) understand what science is all about–how it’s done and what its limits of truth are.  In short, I want to provide a text on basic science–physics, molecular biology, statistics–that will give the needed base for Catholics to assess critically the claims of atheistic science and to refute them for their children and friends.

I’ve given more details about this in a post for the Catholic Writers Guild, which has drawn some interesting and encouraging comments.   However, I still have some doubts about whether at 87.7 years I have the focus and the energy to carry this enterprise to a conclusion.   As the Kurt Weill song goes, “But it’s a long, long while from May to December…and I haven’t got time for the waiting game.”   If I do this book, it’s no more blogging, science-fiction or Midsomer Murders (or very little).

So, dear reader, do you think this is a worthwhile enterprise?   If such a book were published, would you buy it?

Many thanks.


Scientists and Catholic Prolife Advocates Call for Reform of Pontifical Academy of Sciences

A statement by prominent Catholic scientists and prolife advocates has been released that calls for a reform of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (hat tip to William (“Matt”) Briggs, one of the signers of the statement).   Here’s a link to the statement.   I’ll quote from the “Conclusions” section:


29. The Catholic Church exists for the salvation of souls. She has a long history of sponsoring and conducting scientific research, education, and human advancement. The Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Sciences are useful institutions and provide a valuable forum for dialog with the Church about the latest and most advanced findings on difficult and challenging issues as well as knowledge of exciting discoveries.

30. Since the time immediately after her foundation by Christ, the Church has always described Herself as “… one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic …” In secular terms, this is manifested as a worldwide, unified, yet multicultural institution that professes and teaches a common Faith. These are attractive characteristics for those wishing to leverage global issues or effect change on a global scale.

31. The world faces a number of serious challenges from issues relating to the environment. Resolving these challenges and providing the conditions for human life to thrive is both an issue of scientific, technical, and social/economic expertise and a matter of human capacity, will, and morality. Secular efforts to address such challenges always face the question of the moral and ethical guidance to be followed, and indeed the ever-present temptation to suspend moral and ethical principles in pursuit of quick results for what is perceived to be a larger good. Even programs aimed at addressing humanitarian needs can contain unjust, ineffective, or morally unacceptable elements. Globally organized programs of human development and environmental protection or management have been particularly prone to this problem.

32. A chronic problem in the operation of the academies recently has become acute. The Pontifical Academies, in their focus on issues of global environmental challenges and human development, have been importing secularist values, perspectives, and philosophies into their documents and statements, making it appear as if the Church was morally uncertain and is holding open different views on core teachings at the heart of Gospel teaching on matters of grave importance.  The Church cannot accept, especially implicitly, that humanity can contracept and abort its way to a healthy environment, economy, or society.[emphasis added]

33. The problem is not the secularist scientists or economists of the Pontifical Academies as much as it is the Church supervision of the Academies. The membership of the Academies do not offer moral expertise. Yet the leadership of the Pontifical Academies consistently engages in selective invitation of experts who are leading advocates of morally problematic approaches, and provides a privileged forum for their views, which inevitably carries an implied endorsement by the Church. This pattern confuses Catholic lay faithful and those who observe the Church from the outside, and needs to be reformed before a virtual counter magisterium is set up under the sponsorship the Church Herself.

 34. By contrast, the Catholic Church, by Her very nature, must always fulfill Her unique role as a protector of innocent human life. The Church did so, against the consensus of the international scientific, technical, and policy elites of the day, in the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development. In our time, Church leaders face the same temptation to remain silent on matters related to population control in order to preserve the good opinion of scientific, technical, and economic cultures that generally hold the Church’s mission in low regard. If this were to happen, Church leaders would then place human dignity and freedom at risk, most especially regard for the value of unrepeatable, individual human persons.”

I have written in posts on my own blog that the Church should not meddle in, i.e. make judgments about, science.  (See “Galileo Redux: When should the Church meddle in science?”  )    Climate change and population control are not issues on which the Holy Father and the members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences are qualified judges, nor were the Cardinals on Galileo’s advocacy that the earth circled the sun.

Let me conclude with an apt quotation from the Book of Wisdom:13, verses 1-9 (Douay-Rheims American Version):

 ¹But all men are vain, in whom there is not the knowledge of God: and who by these good things that are seen, could not understand him that is, neither by attending to the works have acknowledged who was the workman:

But have imagined either the fire, or the wind, or the swift air, or the circle of the stars, or the great water, or the sun and moon, to be the gods that rule the world.

With whose beauty, if they, being delighted, took them to be gods: let them know how much the Lord of them is more beautiful than they: for the first author of beauty made all those things.

Or if they admired their power and their effects, let them understand by them, that he that made them, is mightier than they:

For by the greatness of the beauty, and of the creature, the creator of them may be seen, so as to be known thereby.

But yet as to these they are less to be blamed. For they perhaps err, seeking God, and desirous to find him.

For being conversant among his works, they search: and they are persuaded that the things are good which are seen.

But then again they are not to be pardoned.

For if they were able to know so much as to make a judgment of the world: how did they not more easily find out the Lord thereof?


The featured image (from Wikimedia Commons) is of Abbe LeMaitre, the priest who formulated “The Big Bang” theory of cosmic evolution.


Sunrise, Sunset–Circadian Rhythms and a Nobel Prize

Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly flow the days
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers
Blossoming even as we gaze

Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears”
“Sunrise, Sunset”, Fiddler on the Roof.

A well-deserved Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology was awarded today (October 3rd, 2017) to Jeffrey Hall, Michael Roshbash and Michael Young for their research on how our biological clock works—how we know to go to sleep and to rise with a new day.

Their research was conducted on fruit flies—easily accessible, but with enough common to all animal life that generalizations could be made. (I recall my undergraduate days at Caltech in the genetics lab, retrieving etherized fruit-flies to determine their dominant and recessive characteristics.) They found that there was a gene present that encoded a protein, a protein that accumulates during sleep and degrades during the day, thus acting as a clock to establish the “circadian rhythm” for all animal life on this planet.

Rather than giving a detailed account of their research (see the press release announcing the award) I would like to use this as a springboard to comment on God’s Providence and evolution. One of the anthropic coincidences, the unlikely events that enable carbon based life to exist, is the rotation of the earth, the alternation of night and day that enables climate, a life supporting temperature to be present. And to accommodate to that, there is a cycle for life.

Could life exist and not follow that cycle? There’s a wonderful science fiction trilogy by Nancy Kress, Beggars in Spain, about genetically modified humans who don’t need to sleep and become supermen. But is that possible? Isn’t sleep, “that knits up the raveled sleave of care”, a gift from God? I’ve wondered, do angels sleep, will we sleep in heaven, or will the fact of time be swept away by eternity, so that sleep and circadian rhythms become irrelevant?

Well, I hope I will  find the answer to that question in heaven.


Who speaks for science?

“We should not have people in office who do not believe in facts and truths and modern science…”–Leonard DiCaprio, Address at Yale University.

I have a better idea.   Rather than actors (who didn’t graduate high school, but did get a GED) pontificate about science, let’s require tests in basic science– the history of science, philosophy of science, and what science is all about–for all celebrities and politicians who choose to speak about science.   If they don’t pass, they shut up.

What say you, dear reader?


Hello, my name is Bob, and I’m a climate change denier.

Pope Francis, in an interview to the press (9/11/17) opined that “Humanity will ‘go down’ if it does not address climate change”.   Now, despite the title of this post, I don’t deny that climate changes.   It has changed and will change.  There was the Medieval Warm Period, when the Viking colonized Greenland, and there have been glacial and inter-glacial changes.    I will deny that man-made production of CO2 has much to do with such climate change, and I’ve justified that in a number of blog posts (see here, for example), as have other scientists.

What concerns me is that the Church, in the person of the Vicar of Christ,  takes a  position on unsettled science;  and, despite some of Pope Francis’s statements–the verdict, in terms of model predictions being empirically justified, is not proven at all.

Let me go to a different case, where the science was more established.   Abbe LeMaitre (and the Russian mathematician Friedmann) had shown that Einstein’s General Relativity Field equation yielded  a time dependent solution with a singularity at the beginning of time, t=0, an expanding universe.  And lo, and behold, the galactic red shift relations shown by Hubble were in accord with that expanding universe.    And thus we knew about the “Big Bang”.    Supposedly Pope Pius XII wanted to use this science as evidence for the doctrine,  Creatio ex Nihilo, but was dissuaded from doing so by Abbe LeMaitre, who argued that science changes but faith does not.  (The incident is discussed in much greater detail here.)

My point is that the Church is not competent to judge whether science is good or bad, and science can not say whether Doctrine or Dogma are true or false.  The Church can certainly weigh in on the morality of  applications of science–for example, Designer Babies, fetal cell research–but it can’t and shouldn’t make judgments on what science is true and what is not.