Ten Catholic scientists and inventors everyone should know

Meet devout popes, priests, friars, and laymen who invented everything from the mechanical clock to the Braille alphabet to the radio.

Left to right: Augustinian friar and biologist Gregor Mendel; Pope Sylvester, II (in blue) as depicted in the 'Gospels of Otto III'; French Catholic pro-life paediatrician and geneticist Jerome Lejeune. (Images: Wikipedia)

July 22nd marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Gregor Mendel, the Austrian Augustinian friar known as the father of genetics. While the dominant narrative in the West since the Enlightenment has been that religion is obscurantist and hostile to science, until the twentieth century, it was in the Christian West where the most important scientific discoveries took place. Indeed, Europe’s (and the world’s) oldest and most prestigious universities – in Bologna, Oxford, Paris – began as Church institutions.

Here is a list — by no means exhaustive — of ten Catholic scientists and inventors whose discoveries have revolutionized our lives.

1). Pope Sylvester II (946-1003)

Here’s a factoid to impress the guests at your next cocktail party: the mechanical clock was invented by a pope. Before his election as pope in 999, the Frenchman Gerbert of Aurillac was a Benedictine monk who went to Spain, then under Arab domination, to study mathematics. There, he learned the Hindu-Arabic digits. Later, Gerbert introduced the decimal system and reintroduced the forgotten abacus to Europe. In 996, he constructed the first pendulum-driven clock for a tower in Magdeburg, Germany.

Apart from his mathematical and mechanical accomplishments, Sylvester II also contributed to the moral renewal of the priesthood, campaigning against concubinage and the selling of ecclesiastical offices, widespread practices among the clergy in his time. In his view, a priest should set a moral example to his flock.

The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) wrote that religion “helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them. These two services [of religion] I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others.”

Russell’s statement reveals embarrassing (or willful?) ignorance and prejudice. In the narrow field of the measurement of time, where Russell recognizes religion’s sole positive achievements, the significance of Sylvester II’s invention of the clock is arguably at least as important as that of the priests in ancient Egypt.

Meanwhile, what Pope John Paul II said of his predecessor, the scholar-pope Sylvester II, applies to each of the faith-filled men of science on this list:

[Pope Sylvester II] reminds us that intelligence is a marvelous gift from the Creator. His intellectual and spiritual attitude is a call to the pastors and the faithful of the present age: go in search of the truth; find inner strength in prayer; be concerned for the moral search and serve mankind.

2). Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543)

Like Leonardo da Vinci, Nicolaus Copernicus was a true Renaissance man, a many-gifted polymath. He was a noted economist, mathematician, physician, Church canon, and diplomat, but he is best known for his contributions to astronomy. In his famous work De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (“On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres”), Copernicus debunked the dominant Ptolemaic model according to which the earth was at the center of our galaxy; instead, Copernicus correctly pointed out that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun.

Copernicus worked as a canon at various churches. His uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, was the Bishop of Warmia and defended Poland and the Baltics against the Teutonic Order, an order of hospitaller knights founded during the Crusades who routinely violated the Fifth Commandment in converting pagans to Christianity. Copernicus dedicated De revolutionibus orbium coelestium to Pope Paul III. Jan Matejko’s famous painting Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God, beautifully depicts Copernicus’ dual role as a man of faith and science.

3). Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)

It might seem provocative to add Galileo to this list. After all, the Florentine astronomer was sentenced to house arrest by the Inquisition for insisting on the heliocentric model. Arguably, no other historical event is used to illustrate the alleged incompatibility of science and religion more than his trial.

As Protestantism spread across Europe, Pope Paul III instituted the Roman Inquisition to protect the faithful from error. Paul III himself accepted the Copernican model. However, Jesuit astronomers would convince later popes that it was erroneous. Indeed, science would confirm the heliocentric model only in 1729. In 1616, the Inquisition declared the notions that the sun is at the center of our galaxy and that the earth revolves around it to be “foolish and absurd” and demanded that Galileo not teach the heliocentric model publicly. The Florentine consented, but he did not keep his promise. Eventually, the Inquisition found him guilty of heresy and sentenced him to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.

To be sure, Galileo’s house arrest was in a gilded cage, as he was allowed to reside in his villa, one of the most opulent in all Florence, with his servants. However, he was unfairly mistreated by the Church for declaring what science would prove true. It was only in 1992 when John Paul II, who on many occasions publicly apologized for the sins of the people of the Church across the centuries, rehabilitated Galileo. (The background and complexity of Galileo’s case is examined in detail in Galileo Revisited: The Galileo Affair in Context by Dom Paschal Scotti.)

4). André-Marie Ampère (1775-1836)

The amp, the base unit of electrical current, was named after André-Marie Ampère, one of the fathers of electromagnetism. This French scientist discovered that a wire carrying an electric current can attract or repel another current-carrying wire, thus generating a magnetic field. This paved the way for the later discovery of electromagnetic radiation, which made possible inventions that we now take for granted, including the radio, microwave, and X-rays.

Ampère was a devout Catholic. While studying at the Sorbonne, the scholar Frédéric Ozanam, later beatified, was going through a period of doubt. One day, he wandered into a parish church in a Paris slum where he unexpectedly saw none other than André-Marie Ampère, one of the most famous scientists of the time, on his knees praying.

“Professor, I see you believe in prayer,” Ozanam said.

“Everyone has to pray,” Ampère replied. This was a turning point in Ozanam’s conversion.

5). Louis Braille (1809-1852)

Fiddling around with tools in his father’s tannery, the three-year-old Louis Braille accidentally stabbed his eye with an awl. This led to an infection, which eventually spread to both eyes and left him completely blind.

Being blind before the invention of the Braille alphabet made learning extremely difficult. Books written for the blind at the time consisted of clumsy, bulky raised letters. Yet Louis Braille excelled in his studies and, at the age of ten, went to Paris to study at one of the world’s first schools for blind children. He wanted to make the alphabet for the blind easier and more accessible, and so he created a system based around raised dots, inspired by a similar secret system of communication used for communication between troops on the front. Braille’s alphabet was mostly completed when he was just fifteen.

A devout Catholic, Braille loved liturgical music and earned his living as an organ player at churches all over France.

6). Gregor Mendel (1822-1884)

Gregor Mendel was born to a poor peasant family in Heinzendorf bei Odrau, presently Hynčice in the Czech Republic. While Mendel was motivated to join the monastic life in part to escape the grinding poverty of his youth, Father Clemens Richter, OSA, his great-great-grand-nephew and a fellow Augustinian friar, writes that his famous relative did have a sincere religious faith:

Mendel was deeply rooted in his Christian faith, and he passionately tried to convey his conviction and experience to others at any given occasion. Testimony of this attitude is shown in various outlines of sermons that are still preserved.

Initially, Mendel experimented with the principles of heredity on mice. But his prior was disgusted by the notion of studying the copulation of animals, so Mendel switched to pea plants. After many long hours spent on crossbreeding them, Mendel came up with the basic principles of the inheritance of recessive and dominant alleles, which are now illustrated in probably every single high school biology textbook. Later, Mendel would become the prior of his abbey.

Mendel presented a paper on inheritance at a meeting of the National History Society of Brno in 1865, six years after Charles Darwin had published his On the Origin of Species. Darwin was aware neither of the paper nor of the notion of genes, yet evolutionary science does not make sense without genetics. Mendel was ignored by the scientific community in his life, and his work gained recognition only sixteen years after his death.

7). Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)

Very few nineteenth-century scientists left such a lasting impact on our world as Louis Pasteur. He is considered the inventor of vaccines (such as for rabies), which in the twentieth century would prove critical in eliminating many other diseases. Thanks to the polio vaccine, for instance, poliomyelitis is all but obsolete except for in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pasteur also discovered pasteurization, the process by which germs are eliminated from food and can therefore be preserved for longer. He is one of the discoverers of germ theory of disease, by which physicians understand the mechanisms of the contraction of maladies.

According to an oft-told story (I recall hearing it during a priest’s sermon at one Mass years ago), Pasteur was praying the rosary on the train one day. His neighbor in the compartment, unaware of his interlocutor’s identity, criticized the old man for believing such superstition and said he would like to mail him some books disproving the existence of God. Pasteur told the youth to send him these materials to his address and pulled a business card out of his coat pocket. The young man was stunned that he had arrogantly lectured one of the true greats of science. Epic fail.

I do not know if this story is authentic or apocryphal, but it illustrates Louis Pasteur’s ardent faith well.

8). Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937)

Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the radio and the winner of the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics, was born to an Italian aristocrat and his Irish Protestant wife. Although baptized a Catholic, he had been raised an Anglican; he received the sacrament of confirmation in the Catholic Church so he could marry his wife, Maria Cristina Bezzi-Scali. It was then that he became a zealous Catholic.

Another Catholic played a key role in Marconi’s invention of the radio: Thomas Edison informed Marconi of the experiments of Father Jozef Murgaš, a Slovak priest living in Pennsylvania, who contributed to the wireless transmission of the human voice.

In 1931, Marconi set up Vatican Radio for Pope Pius XI; this was the first radio station that was used to preach the Good News. One year later, he invented a short-wave radio telephone to facilitate communications between the Vatican and the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, an early predecessor to the cellular phone.

Unfortunately, there is a dark side to Marconi. He was a member of the Fascist Party, and growing evidence suggests he supported Mussolini’s anti-Jewish policies. Yet despite these obvious flaws, Marconi was a perfect example of a scientist who used his discovery for the good of the Church.

9) Georges Lemaître (1894-1966)

A few years ago, I was strolling through a park and overheard two teenaged girls talking. “I’m not sure if I believe in God or the Big Bang,” one said to the other.

I regret not interrupting their conversation and pointing out that the Big Bang theory had been formulated by Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest from Belgium and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Louvain.

Before Lemaître, not all physicists believed the universe had a definite beginning. However, he argued that it had expanded from a “primeval atom.” While the notion of a specific point marking the beginning of existence was consistent with the account of Creation proposed by Judaism and Christianity, Lemaître believed that the Big Bang theory contradicted neither theism nor atheism.

Lemaître applied Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity to cosmology. The priest was among the first scientists to propose that the universe is expanding, a view initially rejected by Einstein himself; he was nominated for the Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry. In 1960, Pope John XXIII gave him the honorary title of Monsignor.

10) Jérôme Lejeune (1926-1994)

In today’s West, there is a growing inconsistent tendency to, on the one hand, promote the greater inclusion and empowerment of people with physical and intellectual disabilities but, on the other, to lobby for their widespread killing in the womb. In Iceland, for example, nearly 100 percent of unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome during neonatal testing are aborted.

The French geneticist and pediatrician Jérôme Lejeune compassionately worked with children with disabilities. In 1958, he discovered that Down syndrome is caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21. Previously, scientists had believed that Down syndrome was caused by syphilis, alcohol abuse by the mother, or genes of Asian origin (hence the now-archaic terms “Mongolism” and “Mongoloid”).

In the 1960s and 1970s, Lejeune vocally opposed the legalization of abortion in France and many other Western countries. He wrote: “One cannot protect another from misfortune by committing a crime. And killing a child is murder. You cannot bring relief to one person by killing another.” Lejeune bitterly (but accurately) noted that his pro-life advocacy would prevent him from winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Lejeune was a long-time friend of Pope John Paul II, who as the Archbishop of Krakow invited him to give lectures. During his 1997 visit to France for World Youth Day, the Polish pope prayed at the French scientist’s tomb.

Currently, Lejeune’s cause for beatification has advanced. Last year, Pope Francis declared him Venerable, meaning that he will be officially recognized as blessed once a miracle through his intercession is approved.


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About Filip Mazurczak 68 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a historian, translator, and journalist. His writing has appeared in First Things, the St. Austin Review, the European Conservative, the National Catholic Register, and many others.

14 Comments

  1. God imbuing men with awareness that benefits mankind. A person devoted to God may accomplish much.

    Proverbs 1:7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

    Romans 11:33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

    Proverbs 2:6 For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;

  2. The challenge for the Christian scientist is to balance the knowledge that all of creation comes from, and is sustained, by the hand of God, while proceeding with scientific research as if all phenomena in the universe have a physical explanation. These two perspectives aren’t incompatible.

  3. The Catholic Church is the smart religion. It seems we have spent the last fifty years or so trying to make it the opposite

  4. His father and father-in-law were Orthodox priests. Nikola Tesla invented the electric clock. (He didn’t patent it.) He inadvertently X-rayed Mark Twain shortly before X-rays were discovered by a German professor. He sent samples of these to Röntgen in Germany. Marconi employed 18 of Tesla’s patents without his permission while “inventing” the radio. He then tried to sue the United States for using his invention during WWI, so the United States government revoked Marconi’s patent and gave the patent to Nikola Tesla. This information is derived from A MAN OUT OF TIME, by Margaret Cheney. One book concerning America’s greatest inventors doesn’t even mention Tesla. Robotics, remote control, the Tesla coil, alternating current, and so forth. Tesla.

  5. Nikola Tesla first invented wireless electricity. He demonstrated that in St. Louis in 1892 before a conference of electrical engineers.

  6. If I had even a penny every time somebody botches the Big Bang theory of Fr. Lemaître, I’d be a multi-millionaire.

    For starters, Lemaître’s primeval radioactive atom was proposed by him as something that may have existed/evolved for perhaps 60 billion years prior to the beginning of the expansion phase of the universe, but nowhere does Lemaître claim that the explosion of the primeval atom known as the Big Bang is the beginning of the universe as many wrong-headed people continue to insist is what the Big Bang is.

    In fact, Lemaître himself appears to have corrected Pope Pius XII in the early 1950s when the Pontiff slipped into one time making a bogus connection between the Big Bang and the “first moment” of creation during a particular address, but after meeting with Lemaître, the Holy Father never again made such a false statement.

    As a firm believer in creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) and the fact that science is incapable of measuring an absolute beginning of creatio ex nihilo, Fr. Lemaître never claimed that his scientific theory proved or even strongly suggested or hinted at creation taking place at a specific point in time as that would be absurd.

    Moreover, the author’s statement “While the notion of a specific point marking the beginning of existence was consistent with the account of Creation proposed by Judaism and Christianity, Lemaître believed that the Big Bang theory contradicted neither theism nor atheism” is essentially incoherent for the reasons already set forth regarding the impossibility of measuring a so-called specific starting point. Moreover, since theism and atheism have nothing to do with the science of the Big Bang, the claim that Lemaître did not find anything in the Big Bang contradicting either theism or atheism is a big fat Duh!

    • That a Big Bang occurred X billion years ago is accepted by most physicists, but the physical phenomena, time, space, early “plasma”–whatever that was, accompanying the event are even more speculative. Lemaître didn’t have all the answers, nor do modern physicists. In my view, Lemaître’s genius was formulating the Big Idea. Good article and good conversation!

      • TMD:

        The Big Bang itself is not the problem. The problem, as previously pointed out, is equating the Big Bang with the absolute beginning and/or creation of the universe, which Lemaître never claimed and rightly so. Also, there may have indeed been some material/physical realities prior to the Big Bang as Lemaître himself speculated was the case.

        Too many religious-oriented people look in vain for science to do what it cannot do, and that is pronounce on metaphysics, which is the key to creatio ex nihilo of the universe. The Big Bang is simply the universe-altering physical event that very likely took place some 13.8 billion years ago (the discovery of cosmic background radiation around 1964/65 adds significant support to the theory since such radiation was predicted would be part of such an event as proposed by Lemaître), and it is what brought about the observable expansion of the universe; not the universe’s creation.

        • Good insights, DV, Filip, and all. I love such conversations. We human creatures may consider the Big Bang to be the creation event since the subsequent chain of events (albeit LENGTHY from our perspective) produced a universe in which humans could exist. But creation as defined by God–who can guess? If the dimension of time was coincident with the Big Bang, perhaps that’s as good a milestone as any for mere creatures.

          • Sorry, TMD. We may Not as mere humans consider the Big Bang to be the creation event because it was no such thing, and there may have been a material/physical form of the universe for millions or billions of years prior to the Big Bang that was even more important than the Big Bang itself in the way the universe unfolded. Such a possible earlier state simply cannot be examined at this point due to our scientific limitations that prevent examining anything prior to some 380,000 years Post Big Bang. We can’t even see the actual Big Bang itself because of this current limitation, and part of the reason for wrongly equating the Big Bang with the first moment of creation comes from the unscientific arrogance of scientists who assume that this limitation in observation means nothing physical could precede the Big Bang, so it “must be the first moment of the creation of the universe.”

            Moreover, what has taken place since the Big Bang did not produce a universe in which humans can exist, because only God produced such a universe. Again, the Big Bang is that event in the history of the Universe created out of nothing that began the expansion of the galaxies that make up the universe.

            Next, your “creation as defined by God – who can guess?” is not something we have to guess about, nor should we. It has been definitively revealed that God created ex-nihilo – out of nothing – and so guessing or speculating about this definitive teaching is unwise and probably sinful as well. Note the following:

            “We believe that God needs no pre-existent thing or any help in order to create, nor is creation any sort of necessary emanation from the divine substance. God creates freely ‘out of nothing;’
            ‘If God had drawn the world from preexistent matter, what
            would be so extraordinary in that? A human artisan makes
            from a given material whatever he wants, while God shows
            his power by starting from nothing to make all he wants.'”

            —Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 296

            With respect to time, note that this is simply a measurement of motion, not a specific dimension in and of itself, and since it is indeed quite possible that the material/physical universe existed prior to the Big Bang, then motion was involved in such a state and measuring it via time also applies. When you suggest that the beginning of time is or may be coincident with the Big Bang, you are not seriously entertaining the very real possibility of the universe existing prior to the Big Bang, and you are indeed falling into the trap of wrongly equating the Big Bang with creatio ex nihilo whether you understand it or not.

          • DV, I am pleased to hear from someone who has all the answers about what occurred billions of years ago and where the rest of us are wrong or sinners.

  7. It’s a shame the inventor of the first calculator and computer language, father of fluid dynamics, major contributor to thermodynamics, and innovator in vector geometry, Blaise Pascal was not mentioned.

  8. When people can’t find anything bad to say about Italian Fascism, they bring up anti-antisemitism. In fact, the so-called “racial laws” of 1938 were not racial. There were several discriminating factors (Yes! They used the discrimination in a good sense!) by which the laws did not apply even if one was of Jewish descent.
    The Fascist movement, before becoming a regime, was more anti-catholic than anti-Semitic. In fact, many Jews supported Mussolini in his rise to power.

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