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Teaching children it isn’t “religion vs. science”, but “religion and science”

Brilliant! 25 Catholic Scientists, Mathematicians, and Supersmart People should be a required supplemental text in every science class in every Catholic school.

(Image: paulinestore.com)

A new book took me back to my high school science days and reminded me about a very distressing study from five years ago.

I was never very fond of science but did reasonably well – until chemistry in junior year under the rigorous demands of Sr. Mary Jordan. Sr. Jordan was a brilliant young teacher whose only fault was that she thought that everyone had both the interest and ability of Lavoisier, which was her launching pad for the course. I resented the class because it was the first time in my academic career that I actually had to study. The first marking period offered me another first – my first “C”. All these years later, I am still amazed at my “moxie” in approaching Sr. Jordan, “innocently” asking if the “C” in chemistry might have been a mistake. “Yes, Mr. Stravinskas,” came the swift retort, “it should have been a ‘D’ but I didn’t want to ruin your chances to be enrolled in the National Honor Society. However, the charity is only for this quarter, so buckle down.” The “buckling down” enabled me to earn (and really, earn) a “B” for the rest of the year.

When course selection for senior year came around, I studiously avoided physics, opting for typing instead. Our indomitable guidance counselor, Sr. Francis Rita, called me to her office, wondering if I had filled in the wrong box. “No, Sister, I don’t like science.” “You’re in the honors track and should be taking physics. Besides, typing is for girls!” Going home, I begged my mother to intervene; with great reluctance, she agreed (only the second time in thirteen years to go against the decision of a nun). Sister was as emphatic with my mother as with me, but my mother finally wore her down with the line: “Sister, Peter is entering the seminary next year; he’ll have more use for typing as a priest than physics.” Sister acquiesced.

With such anecdotes, the reader would be quite justified in learning that my attitude toward science changed dramatically through my time as a high school teacher and administrator. Which leads to the study reported on in 2016 by Matt Hadro on Catholic News Agency; the headline summarizes it clearly and painfully: “Why Catholics are leaving the faith by age 10 — and what parents can do about it.” Dr. Mark Gray, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), guided the study which revealed the epidemic of apostasy among the youngest Catholics. According to Dr. Gray, most of these young “apostates” (and the word is not an exaggeration because they truly eschew all religious faith) find it impossible to reconcile what they are learning in science classes with Christianity.

Dr. Gray reports that “nearly two-thirds of those surveyed (63%) said they stopped being Catholic between the ages of 10 and 17. Another 23 percent say they left the Faith before the age of 10.” Nor should this be viewed as some kind of adolescent rebellion, for “only 13 percent said they were ever likely to return to the Catholic Church.”

While I consider the survey results truly distressing, I must say that I am not surprised at them B except perhaps for the youthfulness of the apostasy. However, there is also a bit of very good news in the report: Only 19% of the fallen-aways ever attended a Catholic elementary school, and fewer than 8% attended a Catholic high school. Putting it more starkly, 81% of the young apostates are the products of public elementary schools, while 92% of them come from public high schools.

Why am I not surprised? How could it be otherwise? The government schools are hotbeds of anti-religion B and have been for decades. Not only is religion generally ignored (thus making an institutional statement of its irrelevance), but when discussed, in all too many places it is pilloried as the cause of ignorance and war.

The book that grabbed my attention and interest? Brilliant! 25 Catholic Scientists, Mathematicians, and Supersmart People by David Michael Warren (attractively illustrated by Jaclyn Warrant) and published by the Daughters of St. Paul, in cooperation with the Word on Fire Institute. The target audience is elementary school children (but high schoolers wouldn’t be insulted by it). Each “supersmart” Catholic is presented in two or three pages in engaging prose, with no special pleading; the author simply lets the facts speak for themselves. A helpful Foreword by Dr. Christopher Baglow, director of the Science and Religion Initiative at Notre Dame University, sets the tone for the endeavor. We are treated to some of the usual personalities: St. Hildegard of Bingen; St. Albert the Great; Louis Pasteur; Louis Braille; Monsignor Georges Lemaitre. Lesser-knowns, like Blessed Nicholas Steno and Dr. Jerome Lejeune, also provide delightful reading. A very useful glossary rounds out the text.

This book should be a required supplemental text in every science class in every Catholic school. My only disappointment was that Galileo was not included. I am sure that the rationale for the omission was the controverted nature of the “Galileo Affair.” That said, I am equally sure that the author could have treated the matter with objectivity and honesty; not having Galileo is a gaping hole, suggesting that the predominant narrative is historically accurate (of late, many writers have done a credible job of presenting the full story).

Returning to the “distressing” study of five years ago. The data is clear that only a tiny minority of Catholic school alumni have forsaken Catholicism in their early years. Why is that the case? I can share several anecdotes which put flesh and blood on the assertion that, in our schools, faith and reason are friends and that religion and science are never perceived as enemies. As I have visited schools around the country to assist them in developing their “Catholicity quotient,” here are examples of what I have witnessed.

In an elementary school, as the children are introduced to astronomy, they likewise study how stars feature in Sacred Scripture and pray the several psalms that deal with them.

At the entrance to the science wing of a school, a life-size chart lists all the Catholic scientists in history (many of whom were clerics).

In an opening lecture on the scientific method, the teacher (not a Catholic!) explored with the class the various ways of “knowing” or “coming to the truth.” The students identified modes of knowledge coming from theology, philosophy, art, music, love B and science. The teacher then reminded them that all these taken together bring one to the truth and that no one alone can fulfill the task.

Some years ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a week-long seminar hosted by Dr. Christopher Baglow. That workshop brought together 25 pairs of religion and science teachers from Catholic high schools across the country as an occasion for practitioners of both disciplines to engage each other in conversation B and then to return to their schools to institutionalize their fledgling efforts. I should also mention that no Catholic school should lack Dr. Baglow’s wonderful synthesizing text on this topic: Faith, Science and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge (published by Midwest Theological Forum).

As an advanced biology class completed a unit on genetics, the teacher distributed Donum Vitae, the 1987 document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on “respect for human life in its origins and on the dignity of procreation.” Students entered into the discussion with intelligence and interest.

After a chapter on fetology, a class was led to see that the Church’s abhorrence for abortion was grounded in sound, modern science.

In a junior high class on evolution, the teacher skillfully wove into her presentation the various theories of evolution, the biblical data, and magisterial applications.

Now, I am sure that some readers will say, “That’s nice, Father, but not all Catholic schools are doing that.

Let me respond in this way:

1. No, that is certainly true. However, it is happening with sufficient frequency that the data informs us that the hemorrhaging of Catholic youth from the Church over the science-religion conflict is not occurring in serious numbers among Catholic school students.

2. The scenarios I have depicted can be replicated in any Catholic school that wants to do so.

3. These scenarios cannot ever take place in any government school at any time.

Although I am delighted with Brilliant!, I am also glad that I took typing, instead of physics.


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 248 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.

7 Comments

  1. Sometimes there’s also the testimony of scientists who are not Christians. In a better moment, here’s what Darwin once said about “creation”: “I feel most deeply that this whole question of Creation is too profound for human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton! Let each man hope and believe what he can.”

    And, late in life here’s Darwin’s well-known confession of his own narrowness:

    “This curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My MIND seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the ATROPHY of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.

    “A man with a mind more highly organized or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered. . . . The loss of these tastes is a LOSS of happiness, and may possibly be INJURIOUS to the INTELLECT, and more probably to the MORAL CHARACTER, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature. . . . My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; and therefore I could never have succeeded with metaphysics or mathematics [CAPS added]” (Sir Francis Darwin, ed., “Charles Darwin’s Autobiography,” Henry Schuman, 1950).

    At the risk of being accused of salesmanship, I point to my own book—“A Generation Abandoned” (Hamilton Books, 2017). The concluding three chapters deal lightly with the modernday substitute religions [!] of Darwin-ism, Technocracy, and the Richard Dawkins mindset.
    https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2018/03/29/a-generation-abandoned-why-whatever-is-not-enough/

  2. My college Physics III for Engineers professor who was a Christian said it all on the first day of class, “This is the last section of Calculus based Physics, for many of you engineering, math and science majors and I will teach the last subjects of what we think we know about the physical universe; that is as far as the best minds on the planet utilizing solid empirical, mathematical and theoretical science data can tell us…which means that tomorrow someone maybe even one of you could also prove that’s all wrong.” He looked like Groucho Marx and would do this funny smile, roll his eyes, flex his eye brows and moustache and look off to the side into the distance just like Groucho, (I am so glad I never had to predict flux using vector calculus ever again). I have found in the 35 years hence that Science is a great tool, especially for making other tools and while it can explain infinity it cannot explain eternity.

  3. Video (4 min. 44 sec.) Seek & Find Series: Faith & Science with Fr. Barrow

    Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence installed Father Barrow as pastor of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus parish in Pawtucket, RI on Sunday, August 29, 2021.

    I strongly suspect that most of the people who believe there is a conflict between science and religion have no idea what distinguishes science from non-science or, as it is sometimes put, why Albert Einstein was a scientist, and Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx were quacks.

  4. As a physicist and former atheist, who came to faith when I realized that all physical phenomena reflected the fingerprint of an intelligent creator, not to mention that a capacity for self-sacrifice in my personal life belied a material accounting for my being, I do not believe that science poses much of a threat to a cultivation of faith. My youthful rejection came about from observing the buffoonery of religious leaders tripping all over each other rushing to the head of the line to announce their willing obsequious concessions to the forces of religion hatred, a torrent that has never lost its momentum in the last half century. The world has much to teach the Church, but the Church has nothing to teach the world, as the modernists buffoons would have it.

    I was a pro-life atheist in the seventies, personally friendly with luminaries like the late Nat Hentoff, but I had the misfortune of encountering Catholics who breathlessly tried to assure me that I was wasting my passion, that even the Catholic Church was “thinking about” dropping its “outdated” opposition to abortion.

    God is the great dramatist who eventually sets paths of learning for all of us. Eventually I met saintly Catholics and the rest is my spiritual history. But little has changed in the history of human vanity and how Catholics misrepresent the faith from laity to high prelates. Characteristic of our unending crisis is Pope Francis lecturing the young to listen to atheists, that they have a lot to learn from atheists. And he is not talking about learning to avoid fallacious thought from their foolishness.

    This sort of ecclesial vanity at the highest level is merely the logical result of the momentous “spirit of Vatican II,” the same “spirit” that gave us a spit in the face of God defiant attitude towards thinking of ourselves as sinners and encouraged us to worship no other God but ourselves, a message reinforced in our schools, in our catechetics, in episodes provided by morally depraved adult scandals, without apologies, and frequently during our abusive liturgies. Why should any young person want a religion when even science fiction movies provide the better “entertainment” they are told to expect from religion. When the young, by their divinely endowed nature, desire the bread of truth, we’ve given them stones.

  5. Mr. Baker, as a fellow physicist and Catholic, I compliment you on your remarks about the supposed conflict between science and religion, as well as your views on the pathetic response of the Church on this matter.

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