Several 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 Church—and religion in general—in 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 sciences.
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 cultures—such as some Islamic and Asian cultures—are still high group today. For these cultures, capital punishment is justified to redress heresy and protect the culture’s cohesiveness and integrity.
Low group cultures, in contrast, place priority on the individual over the group. The group is considered no more than the sum of its individual parts. The individual is considered to be an authority unto him/herself, and so authority structure tends to be weak. The culture is quite porous, allowing for intermarriage, welcoming of outsiders, and easy ingress and egress. Though most cultures begin as high group, education (which places value on individual verification and decision) tends to move those cultures to a lower group state. Low group cultures, such as the United States and Europe, have high group subcultures, and in times of war or danger to the culture, can experience significant periods of high group behavior. These cultures make torture and violations of human rights the worst crime, and make authenticity (truth telling) and respect for individual dignity the highest virtues. In these cultures, it would be unintelligible to suggest torture of individuals to redress heresy and to support group cohesiveness.
The 16th-century culture of Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei was decidedly high group—socially, civilly, and religiously. Though many educated groups within these cultures (e.g. humanists and scientists) were breaking away from a high group mentality, it was still predominant. Eventually, low group culture became more prevalent, particularly with the political ideologies and revolution of the 18th century. This brief anthropological typology will, hopefully, help readers better understand how a high group culture, such as 16th-century Europe, could justify an act—the trial and execution of Giordano Bruno—that seems tragic, even incomprehensible, to those of us in a low group culture.
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 fact—as well as the violation of his promise to the pope not to publish it as fact until proven.
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 observatory with 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.
Armitage, Angus. Copernicus, the Founder of Modern Astronomy (New York: Dorset Press, 1990).
DeMarco, Donald. “The 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, 2003).
Hansen, Jens Morten. “On the Origin of Natural History: Steno’s Modern, but Forgotten Philosophy of Science.” In Rosenberg, Gary D. The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (GSM) (Boulder, CO: Geological Society of America, 2009). pp. 159–178.
Henig, Robin Marantz. The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).
Lemaître, Georges. The Primeval Atom (New York: The University Press, 1943).
Livio, Mauricio. “Comments” Nature (November 10, 2011).
Plotner, 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 1990).
 See Hansen 2009.
 See Henig 2000.
 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).
 Douglas 2003.
 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).
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