How many people do you know who can give you a technical description of photosynthesis and quote from Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma? Dr. Stacy Trasancos (stacytrasancos.com) is one such person, accomplished in both science and theology. A native of Texas, Trasancos’s love of nature and insatiable curiosity led her to eventually earn a Ph.D. in chemistry from Penn State University and then to work for DuPont Chemical. Trasancos was led to the Catholic Church and conversion by what she calls an “empirical” method: observation of the order of the world around her and of the effect that a budding faith had on her life. She eventually left her research position to become a stay-at-home mom, and her burgeoning interest in the Catholic Faith led her to earn a Master’s degree in systematic theology from Holy Apostles College & Seminary. She now teaches science courses for Kolbe Academy Online Homeschool Program, teaches a course on “Science in the Light of Faith” at Holy Apostles, and writes regularly about science and faith for various Catholic publications.
Because of her education and her personal journey to and into the Church, Dr. Trasancos is in a unique position to address questions about faith and science. Such questions have been present in Western civilization ever since Thales suggested thunderbolts may have an origin apart from the hand of Zeus, but in our technologically advanced age the second objection to the existence of God raised in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae appears with increasing frequency: that the universe can be explained without God—and many believers find themselves ill-equipped to deal with such questions. Dr. Transancos’s new book Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science (Ave Maria Press, 2016) is intended to serve as a guide for Catholics who desire to engage these issues. Writing as a scientist, a theologian, and a mother, she brings all three perspectives together to “show how a Catholic person works through these questions of faith and science.”
Dr. Trasancos corresponded with CWR recently by email.
CWR: What motivated you to write this book?
Dr. Stacy Trasancos: I wanted to tell other Catholics that science only makes sense in the light of faith. It seems like people are stuck in the defense-mode, trying to refute atheists. If voices in pop culture claim the Church is anti-science, Catholics react, get upset, and argue back. They point to Catholic scientists or Catholic universities in history to prove that the Church is not against science, which is true. But it is time to get out in front and confidently take the lead. Our faith can and should illuminate the entire discussion about what scientific progress means.
CWR: Many of your readers will come to scientific questions from a background formed by faith, but you experienced the reverse: coming to questions of faith from a background informed by science. What was that like?
Dr. Trasancos: Science pointed me to faith. Scientists are supposed to ask questions and find answers. The biggest question of all in science is, “Where did all of this order and beauty come from?” The answer is outside the purview of science, but it is a truth a scientist’s heart longs to behold. Trust me: every scientist either works with his or her back to that great chasm of truth beyond science, or faces it. No one sees the handiwork of God at the level of detail understood by a biologist, chemist, or physicist.
CWR: You write of the role that being a wife and mother played in your conversion, stating, “I may have walked away from a career, but I found a vocation.” What effect did that aspect of your life have on your embracing a life of faith?
Dr. Trasancos: I felt like I spent my life running to finish a race, only to get to DuPont as a senior research chemist and realize I had missed what life is all about. The first time I opened a Catechism, I read the part about children being gifts. Around that time (a lot of other stuff happened too) my husband asked me how I define success. My answer was that the highly complex inorganic-organic composite systems who called me “Mommy” needed more than a chemist. So I left my job at DuPont with a sense of finality. I started reading and studying theology to learn about my new faith (while bearing, nursing, and rocking babies). Now I homeschool our kids and work full-time from home teaching online and writing about faith and science. Ironically, secular culture told me I had to pick between motherhood and a career; the Catholic Church challenged me to find out who I am. My life has never been so exciting as it is now.
CWR: Some religious people, you write, seem to have a hidden fear that science may at some point disprove the existence of God. What would you tell these people to assuage their fears?
Dr. Trasancos: Stop expecting science to fix your doubt. Root out your heart and mind; acknowledge your fears. Pray about them. Unless you have practiced such prudence, you are not ready to understand science in the light of faith. It is kind of like the woman who has deep down, unadmitted doubts about her husband. Instead of addressing them honestly, she analyzes his every act for affirmation to fill the void of uncertainty. Even if much of the time she is convinced he loves her, her peace is threatened. Science is a love affair with Creation, and therefore a love affair with Christ. Love Christ with your whole self. Then you might find that something like bond angles in a water molecule will evoke tears of joy. Few people can imagine how emotional a walk in the woods is for me.
CWR: Science and faith should not be enemies, you write, but partners. “In my opinion, the dialogue is about more than reconciliation; it is about elevation,” you say, quoting Pope St. John Paul II’s remark that faith and reason are the “two wings” which allow the soul to ascend. Why are these two so often seen as opposed to one another?
Dr. Trasancos: When I accepted the gift of faith and began to understand history, philosophy, and theology, it was like riding in an airplane for the first time as a kid. Remember how you spotted your house, and saw the place you had always lived become a speck in a bigger world as the plane rose? Granting assent to the truths of faith was thrilling. I suddenly saw the science I so loved in a much greater landscape of reality. It is breathtaking still to realize that science is the study of the handiwork of God. Science and faith are perceived as opposed to each other because people do not know enough about either (or both) subject(s). You have to be able to appreciate the details in science and, simultaneously, to see a total system of reality in faith, everything interlocked to God.
CWR: You cite a number of Catholic priests and religious who were influential scientists, from the father of the Big Bang, Fr. Georges Lemaitre, to Abbot Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics. What can the example of these men teach us about the relationship between faith and science?
Dr. Trasancos: To be thorough materialists! That’s what. Those great men accomplished insights into the workings of nature because their passion drove them to discovery. I hear a lot of people point out that the Father of the Big Bang was a Catholic priest—and that is good—but I rarely hear people acknowledge that Fr. Lemaitre tried very hard to avoid the scientific conclusion that there was a beginning in time. He wanted the science to demand its own conclusion, on its own merits and with its own methods. He believed that the universe has a beginning in time in faith—just as St. Thomas held, just as the early Church Fathers held, just as the Old Testament people held—but he simultaneously did not need physics to prove a beginning in time for him. He knew physics is an ongoing process, that theories are amended as new generations add new data. That is the right approach. Nolite timere. Gregor Mendel? Well, suffice it to say that had he feared evolution he would not have studied pea plants. Whatever happens in nature, happens. Go figure it out. God made our home for us, and it is filled with treasures at the atomic scale.
CWR: “Both inductive and deductive proofs will not convince a person,” you write, “unless a person is willing to accept the conclusion.” Many people do not realize that doubt is not in the intellect, but in the will. Do you see a lot of sheer unwillingness on the part of those who accept scientism to consider arguments for theism or Christianity? If so, what can be done to open them to new horizons?
Dr. Trasancos: All I know is that I closed my mind because I was ashamed of my sins and afraid of what the truth might demand of me. I do not know why other people reject faith, but the most powerful form of “empirical evidence” (evidence I could experience) for me was seeing how Catholics lived, specifically Catholics, the Sacraments, the prayer, the moral grounding, the faith, hope, and love. Good arguments only get so far. People need to “see” how we live a life of faith. I remember wanting what the Catholics had, that confidence, vision, that united past, present, and future. When I watched people live the faith, I started to think that perhaps I would be okay if I tried it too. I tend to think a smile and an encouraging word do far more to evangelize an atheist than gallons of ink spilt in logical argument. Trust me, a scientist is up to her eyeballs in logic. We thirst for more.
CWR: How important is the work of Fr. Stanley Jaki to you and your approach to this topic?
Dr. Trasancos: Picture this: I am 33. I love chemistry. But I have left a career to raise children. I have become Catholic and open to life. Then boom, I give birth to four baby girls in five years. Then I lose two babies in miscarriage. Then I become pregnant again, and this baby survives. I channel my grief and intellectual boredom into a theology degree online, some sort of personal show of strength to prove I can go on, to find answers about life and death. The very first book I am assigned to read is Fr. Jaki’s Savior of Science. I remember the night I finished it. I was sitting in bed nursing that last newborn (his name is JJ). It was difficult reading because I was ignorant of history and philosophy; Fr. Jaki is not easy to read even if you possess an acumen in those areas. Still, I was determined. When I grasped Fr. Jaki’s thesis that “science was born of Christianity and stillborn in other cultures,” I sat there in bed that night sobbing (probably heightened by hormonal imbalances). Everything changed. Science? You mean it is tied to Christianity like a mother is tied to her child? No wonder I loved science. I was searching for Christ.
I want to tell others about Fr. Jaki’s work now. He is known for his meticulous scholarship, but his work was a labor of love and his overall message is simple. I use the phrase “science in the light of faith” because, to me, that sums up his message. It is a message about Christian confidence in Creation.
CWR: You implore your readers to learn about science, and in several places you give brief but detailed accounts of physical processes and concepts from photosynthesis to quantum theory. How would you respond to readers who might say they don’t have the time or aptitude to dig in to these topics? Why is it important?
Dr. Trasancos: In this day and age, scientific literacy is necessary for evangelization. We live in a moment in history when science is advancing at a faster rate than ever before, faster than ethicists can keep up. We have to get out ahead. We have to peer down the road and predict what is coming so we are ready. For example, scientists are way past questioning whether evolution happens or not; it does, and they are searching for other factors that explain and cause evolution. As a result, they are trying to guide human evolution based on a false idea that there is no soul. When Christians seem stuck at discrediting evolution because they fear it disproves Creation, they are actually being anti-science.
Look, I know adults do not like hearing that they need to learn about science if they never liked something like chemistry or physics. But would we accept the same excuse if an adult said he did not like grammar? Or history? Or math? Maybe. God made us to learn. I did not have a classical education, but as my children study, I enjoy learning the things I should have learned in high school. It makes life exciting. God gave us intellects so we can exercise them our whole lives.
CWR: Your dinner party story at the beginning of Chapter 9 illustrates well how sometimes people of religious and scientific backgrounds can be inhabiting two different mental worlds. For the person of faith trying to learn more about scientific theories, or the empiricist trying to learn more about faith, the temptation could be to compartmentalize: this speaks of one aspect of reality, this of another, and never the two shall meet. How can we better bring those worlds together?
Dr. Trasancos: It is simple. Try to enjoy Creation together. Just as we pray before meals, we thank God for the universe. An atheist does not. Imagine the way we sit down to eat dinner together. There is a formality to it, a respect for the fellow person. Show respect for the nonbelievers in a similar manner, and if they do not show respect for you, do not hang out with them until they find some decorum. If they try to do you harm, do not let them. Neither, chase them down begging for more abuse. Life is too short. Be a Christian longing for salvation. Others will notice.
CWR: The role of chance in certain scientific theories—quantum indeterminacy or random genetic mutations—would seem to be incompatible with an ordered universe created and held in existence by a Creator. How could these two ideas be reconciled?
Dr. Trasancos: We reconcile those ideas all the time. Did you ever see a tree stump and think it was not moving? It is moving a lot at the molecular level as it decomposes. Yet we cannot predict exactly when it will completely decompose. Do we conclude that the tree stump is not created by God? Or take a rain shower. Even if you could draw out a square meter and analyze how drops of rain fall on it for 20 years, you would never be able to walk out in a rain shower and predict exactly where the next raindrop will hit in that small space. The movements of the individual raindrops are totally random to us, indeterminate. Do we still believe water follows created laws of physics? Even down to the atoms? Of course we do. As for evolution, we see a single step of evolution every time we see a baby. We believe God creates children even though we do not know all that goes on at the molecular level as a person grows. So what? We do not know what happens at the molecular level for every detail of evolution either.
Quantum indeterminacy is happening right now in our every breath and heartbeat, in our entire environment. However quantum physicists interpret the quantum realm and whatever biologists discover about evolution, we simply never stop believing God holds everything in existence. As Fr. Jaki often said, in a universe where every last particle and force is governed by created laws of physics, there is no absolute randomness or chance. It is just that we do not understand it all.
People then ask, “How can wave our hand in the air whenever we want?” It is because we have free will, granted by God. Our power to move matter is limited though. We cannot flap our arms and fly or ungrow children, but we can change the course of a great many atoms with every choice. Physical laws accommodate our free will. Free will does not flow from physics; that is backwards. I explain more about what I term the “System of Wills” in the book. It has helped me sort out every faith and science question.
CWR: You warn against people of faith trying to use “God of the gaps” arguments from science to show evidence for God’s existence, arguing that creation as a whole, in its order and its contingency, is the better evidence—“There is order and symmetry in the universe, enough to inspire a person to kneel down and weep for joy”. Is this the weak link in the argument of proponents of “intelligent design” theories?
Dr. Trasancos: I call it the blind spot rather than the weak link. I do not know why Intelligent Design theorists focus on certain aspects of nature, deemed by them as intelligently designed, to the exclusion of the whole of nature. Goodness, the periodic table is intelligently designed! It is the language of matter and energy. Before I converted, I had not heard of Intelligent Design theory. Imagine my consternation upon scaling the intellectual mountain of Catholicism, only to arrive there and hear fellow Christians trying to convince atheists to believe in God by picking and choosing what they think God designed intelligently. I wish they would join me in trying to show people how to see all of nature in the light of faith.