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Scientist and Saint: Blessed Niels Stensen (1638-1686)

Having made several notable discoveries in the field of anatomy before he was thirty, Stenson entered the Catholic Church, was ordained a priest and made a bishop, and then spent the rest of his short life serving the mission territory of the region north of Germany.

A portrait of Niels Stensen as bishop; right: The cover of Stensen's final book, on geology, not long after he became Catholic. (Images: Wikipedia)

For many people today, the controversy over the Catholic Church’s treatment of Galileo Galilei has only one lesson: faith and science are incompatible. After all, according to this argument, consider how the Church treated a brilliant scientist with innovative ideas in the seventeenth century. How can faith in Jesus Christ coexist with the quest for scientific truth?

Setting aside a discussion of the Galileo affair itself,1 another brilliant seventeenth-century scientist can help us gain some perspective on the relationship between faith and science. And this scientist, unlike Galileo, was recognized by both friends and enemies for his holiness.

Niels Stensen2 was born into a Lutheran family in 1638 in Copenhagen, Denmark. He studied at the University of Copenhagen at the age of nineteen, but afterwards he traveled to the Netherlands to further his studies of his favorite subject: anatomy. During this time, Stensen learned from—and studied with—some of the best scientists of the day.

Stensen’s careful observations of anatomy over the next several years led him to make so many discoveries that it’s not surprising that various parts of the body were later named after him. Students of anatomy are now taught how to identify Stensen veins, Stensen’s foramen, and (one of his first discoveries) Stensen’s duct. As a result of his studies, he proposed multiple conclusions that were contrary to common assumptions of the day. He discovered the circulation of blood in the human body. He disagreed with the theory that tears were produced by the brain. He claimed that the heart was simply a muscle. And he was right.

His insatiable curiosity led him into the fields now known as paleontology, crystallography, geology, and stratigraphy. After studying the head of a large shark, he recognized the connection between the teeth he found in the shark’s head and the “tongue stones” found in rock formations. How could the teeth of a fish end up in solid rock? Although Stensen was not the first person to recognize that the fossils found in rocks came from living organisms, he is credited with discovering some of the foundational principles of the science of stratigraphy. Stensen’s conclusions about layers, or strata, found in rocks paved the way for later theories about deposition, erosion, and other concepts that can be found even in children’s science textbooks today.

Stensen held many important positions, such as a professor of anatomy and physician to a duke, as he traveled and worked all over Europe. But all that changed when he decided to change his faith.

Stensen had had doubts about the Lutheran faith when he was still living in the Netherlands. Over the years, he took his doubts and questions to, among other people, a Jesuit priest. While in Italy, he also witnessed a Eucharistic procession on the streets of Livorno, which sparked even more questions in his mind about the Catholic faith. Although the process took years, his doubts finally led to a certainty; in 1667, he entered the Catholic Church.

At the time, he was only twenty-nine years old and was widely known for his scientific achievements. But becoming a Catholic cut him off from many career paths. For example, although his native Denmark wanted him back, he was not allowed to be officially named a professor in that country because he was a Catholic; he had to be given a different title instead. He also apparently experienced the subtle and not-so-subtle persecution of Catholics living in Protestant countries, a persecution which was particularly common at the time.

But that did not appear to bother him. Stensen simply transferred the energy he had poured into the physical sciences into his new passion: God and theology. In 1675, he became a Catholic priest. Two years later, he was nominated to become a bishop. Stensen served as an auxiliary bishop and an apostolic vicar for the rest of his life in an area that was considered mission territory for Catholics at the time: the region north of Germany.

Stensen did not treat his ordination to the priesthood or the episcopacy as a mere intellectual pastime. Instead, he took his role as shepherd very seriously. He lived a self-disciplined and simple personal life. He wrote several books on asceticism and theology. He generously served the poor, literally giving the clothes off his back to those in need.

Many of the rich and powerful in the world, those who had fawned over his scientific brilliance in the past, now mocked him over his tawdry clothes and penitential way of life. To them, it was inexplicable that anyone should choose the Catholic Church and self-imposed poverty over a more profitable religious allegiance and scientific honors. Why choose hard work and hiddenness over fame and fortune? But that choice, after all, is simply the same old choice of God versus mammon, a choice which our Lord Himself warned us about.3 Stensen died at the age of forty-eight, worn out by years of giving everything to others.

But that is precisely why Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1988 and why the Church now calls this man Blessed Niels Stensen. Blessed Niels knew that his years of searching for truth—both scientific and theological—were all part of the mission to which God had called him. Many of his theories, initially controversial and hotly debated, have since become common knowledge.

Science and faith are not incompatible. The study of the natural world and the study of God are just as compatible in the world today as they were in the seventeenth century. Men like Blessed Niels show us that it will always be controversial to seek God and follow His truth wherever it leads, but it is also exactly what we are all called to do.

• Related at CWR: “Revisiting and understanding the ‘Galileo Affair’: An interview with Dom Paschal Scotti” (Nov 16, 2017)

Endnotes:

1 Dom Paschal Scotti’s Galileo Revisited: The Galileo Affair in Context (Ignatius Press, 2017), among other books, provides much needed context to the Galileo affair.

2 His name is variously spelled Nicolaus Steno or Niels Steensen.

3 Matt 6:24, Luke 16:13


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About Dawn Beutner 60 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of the upcoming book The Leaven of the Saints: Bringing Christ into a Fallen World, as well as Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year from Ignatius Press. She blogs at dawnbeutner.com.

5 Comments

  1. Theology in the form of Calculus 1-3, Differential Equations, Physics 1 & 2, Thermodynamics, Vector Statics and Dynamics, Material Science, etc. – per the engineering training I received mixed with various leisure readings of Theology and Philosophy helped me arrive at one conclusion: Jesus Christ is the Son of God. More than any other saint I cherish the teachings of St. Augustine for not feeling guilty to doubt.

  2. Over one hundred years ago, God revealed Himself to atheist scientists, the Church and the world, through the electron double slit experiment.

    Dr. Quantum Explains Double Slit Experiment
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Q4_nl0ICao

    Neils Bohr, “It is meaningless to assign Reality to the universe in the absence of observation; in the intervals between measurement, quantum systems truly exist as a fuzzy mixture of all possible properties.”

    The Great Bohr-Einstein Debate
    https://youtu.be/tafGL02EUOA

    Subatomic particles have the ability to go back in physical time, even billions of years back into physical time, to ‘wave collapse’ into a physical particle, with a specific property, in a specific place, in a specific molecule, in a specific star. Then when a conscious observer, man, on earth, is not looking at the star, the star, and the past of the star, no longer exists and there is only a wave of all possibilities again.

    How the Quantum Eraser Rewrites the Past | Space Time | PBS Digital Studios
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ORLN_KwAgs&t=32s

    From the present, subatomic particles can go back in physical time to make up multiple different Realities for multiple different conscious observers. There is no such thing as ‘objective reality’ because subatomic particles can go back in physical time, even billions of years back in physical time, to make multiple different realities, for multiple different observers, to occur in the present.

    Physicists have long suspected that quantum mechanics allows two observers to experience different, conflicting realities. Now they’ve performed the first experiment that proves it.
    https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/03/12/136684/a-quantum-experiment-suggests-theres-no-such-thing-as-objective-reality/

    In the 1970s all science majors had to first take a course on how the universe still exists when man is not looking at it. This is because science is no longer running on what the proven scientific data tells us, which is the Neils Bohr truth, but instead, on Albert Einstein’s scientism, “I’d like to think the moon was there even when I wasn’t looking at it”, ‘Realism’ philosophy.

    The universe not existing when Adam is not looking at it, is Creationism. A universe which puts itself together from the present, even billions of years into the past coming into existence when Adamkind looks at it, this is Creationism. God creating Eve with her own reality which only collapses into a common reality with Adam’s reality, even billions of years into the past, from the present, this is Creationism.

    Atheist scientists suppress factual proven scientific data that, at least allows for, explaining God’s tremendous Power in Creation? Proven science is actually on the side of Christian Creationists. Many Christians are wrongfully being led astray from God by atheist scientists.

    • “subatomic particles can go back in physical time to make up multiple different Realities for multiple different conscious observers.”
      Prove it.

  3. This seems like an interesting article, albeit I do not fully understand it.

    To me there exists physical realities even if they are constantly changing depending on perspective. But I also consider spiritual realities which are in addition to the physical universe.

5 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Scientist and Saint: Blessed Niels Stensen (1638-1686) | Franciscan Sisters of St Joseph (FSJ) , Asumbi Sisters Kenya
  2. Scientist and Saint: Blessed Niels Stensen (1638-1686) | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers
  3. Нільс Стенсен: анатом, конвертит, єпископ і блаженний | CREDO
  4. Scientist and Saint: Blessed Niels Stensen (1638-1686) – Catholic World Report – The Old Roman
  5. Scientifique et Saint : Le bienheureux Nicolas Sténon (1638-1686)

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