people have asked me questions about the accuracy of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s
portrayal of the Catholic Church in the recent series Cosmos, which is airing on FOX. There is an important adage at the
foundation of logic: “There are far more errors of omission than commission.”
Regrettably Tyson’s presentation of the Catholic Churchand religion in
generalin opposition to science presents serious errors of omission, so much
so as to be incredibly misleading. I will attempt here to fill in a few of the
many intellectual gaps in that oversimplified and lacking account.
The natural sciences, and philosophical
reflection upon them, have been an integral part of the Catholic intellectual
tradition since the time of the Copernican revolution. Indeed, Catholic priests
and clerics played a central role in the development of natural science. For
example, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), the originator of the heliocentric
universe and its mathematical justification, was a minor Catholic cleric. Nicolas Steno (1638-1686), a Catholic
Danish bishop, is acknowledged to be one of the founders of modern stratigraphy
and geology. The Augustinian monk and abbot Gregor
Mendel (1822-1884) is recognized as the founder of modern genetics. Msgr. Georges Lemaître, a Belgian
priest and colleague of Albert Einstein, is acknowledged to be the founder of
contemporary cosmology through his discovery of the Big Bang Theory in 1927. There are many other Catholic clerics
who were integrally involved in the foundation and development of the natural
Some have contended that the Catholic
Church manifested an “antiscientific attitude” during the controversies of
Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei. But those controversies were not about the
veracity of scientific method or its seeming heliocentric conclusion.
With respect to Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), there
is no doubt that he was tried by the Inquisition, and then burned at the stake
for heresy. Though his trial had a horrible outcome, it had very little to do
with Bruno’s beliefs about heliocentrism or scientific method; he was, after
all, following Copernicus, the founder of heliocentrism and a minor cleric in
the Catholic Church. Bruno was a former Dominican priest whose trial centered
on five theological heresies: his pantheism, denial of the Trinity,
denial of the divinity of Christ, denial of transubstantiation, and denial of
the Virgin Birth.
Though an inquisition for theological
matters does not make sense in contemporary democratic societies, it typified
the strong “high group” culture of the 16th century. The idea of “high group culture”
versus “low group culture” is paradigmatic in cultural anthropology. Its
consequences for social and religious thought are worked out well by cultural
anthropologist Mary Douglas in her groundbreaking work, Natural Symbols,
first published in 1970. In brief,
high group cultures (which are not necessarily religious, such as Japan during
the time of the Second World War) prioritize the group over the individual and,
consequently, rely upon a strong authority structure to assure the group’s
cohesiveness and longevity. These cultures subordinate individual rights to
group cohesiveness, and make heresy the worst crime and loyalty the highest
virtue. This makes for a very non-porous culture, which discourages intermarriage,
distrusts strangers, and makes entrance and egress quite difficult. It is not
unusual for insiders to be called “angels” and outsiders to be called “satans.”
Almost every culture begins as
high group, and some culturessuch as some Islamic and Asian culturesare still
high group today. For these cultures, capital punishment is justified to
redress heresy and protect the culture’s cohesiveness and integrity.
The trial of Galileo Galilei must also
be seen and understood within the context of the high group culture of his day.
The Jesuits of the Roman College, a religious order of priests within the
Catholic Church, helped Galileo to confirm mathematically his version of the
heliocentric theory, and considered him to be an esteemed colleague and friend.
That relationship broke down only when Galileo disobeyed Pope Urban VIII about
announcing the heliocentric universe as fact
before adequate astronomical observations could be made to confirm the theory
through a technique called “stellar parallax.” He exacerbated the strained
relationship when he implied that the pope and the Jesuits were “fools” because
of their reservations. As with Bruno, Galileo’s trial, which resulted in his
exile, centered not on heliocentrism and scientific method, but on his
premature proclamation of heliocentrism as factas
well as the violation of his promise to the pope not to publish it as fact
There are hundreds of Catholic priests
and religious who teach in Catholic universities throughout the world. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is dedicated to the progress of the natural sciences and
its philosophical underpinnings. Its membership includes the most respected
names in 20th-century science, many of them Nobel laureates. The Jesuits continue
to run the Vatican
branches outside Rome, on Mount Graham in Arizona and in Southern Chile, and
have made significant discoveries about the universe. In fact, the mission
statement for the Vatican Observatory states, in part:
From Leo XIII’s letter, motu proprio, establishing the Vatican
Observatory in 1891, to show that “the Church and her Pastors are not opposed
to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but that they embrace it,
encourage it, and promote it with the fullest possible dedication”: i.e., to
counteract claims of obscurantism on part of Church.
In sum, the
Catholic Church has never been “anti-science,” but rather creatively
instrumental in the development of astronomy, astrophysics, geology, biology,
genetics, and the mathematical underpinnings of the sciences. I hope this
provides a fuller context for assessing Tyson’s narrow and incomplete portrayal
of this longstanding relationship between science and religion.
Dispute between Galileo and the Catholic Church.” Homiletic & Pastoral
Review, May 1986 (pp 23-51)
and June 1986 (pp 53-59).
Douglas, Mary. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (New York: Routledge,
Livio, Mauricio. “Comments”
Nature (November 10, 2011).
Tammy. “The Expanding Universe Credit to Hubble or Lemaitre?” The Universe Today (November 10, 2011).
Wallace, William. Galileo and His Sources: The Heritage of the Collegio
Romano in Galileo’s Science
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).
Copernicus was a devout Catholic and canon lawyer who took minor orders as a
Catholic cleric, but he did not proceed to ordination as a priest (see Armitage
Though Lemaître was too humble to assert the primacy of his discovery over that
of Edwin Hubble (two years later), Lemaître is widely acknowledged today to be
the true founder of the Big Bang theory, one of the most rigorously established
theories in contemporary physics. The theory has undergone many modifications
since the time of Lemaître (1927), but the general theory of the expanding
universe remains the same (see Livio 2011 and Plotner 2011).
The stellar parallax technique is essential to confirming
the Earth’s movement around the sun, but astronomical observations of distant
stars were not accurate enough to confirm the Earth’s movement relative to the
sun until more than 200 years after Galileo, in 1839, by Friedrich Bessel. The pope and the
Jesuits were justified in asking Galileo not to claim his theory as fact until
this critical astronomical observation had been made. Unfortunately, he chose
not to do so, and the controversy, and breakdown of a longstanding collegial
relationship, began (see Wallace 1984 and DeMarco 1986, pp 23-51 and 53-59).