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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Dec 30, 2010)
Here is an interesting question, from a reader named Jonathan:

I just don't get it: We live in a scientific age, yet Catholics are called to obey the teachings of the Church and the Bible whenever they conflict with the teachings of scientists. How can educated people today really hear the message of Divine Mercy you Catholics teach if it is all tied up in knots with biblical and ecclesiastical fundamentalism?

I think when people ask this question, they usually have in mind a particular controversy in which it appeared as if the teachings of the Church and the Bible were at odds with the findings of modern science. For example, they might be thinking of the conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church back in the 17th century over his teaching that the sun (and not the earth) is the center of our planetary system, or they might be thinking of the ongoing controversy between scientists who hold some version of the theory of evolution, and those churches and theologians, mostly from the Evangelical tradition, who believe that these theories contradict the proper interpretation of the Bible. These controversies naturally give rise to the question: "When push comes to shove, which takes precedence for us: the Bible and the Church, or the sure findings of modern science?"

For Catholics who truly understand their faith, however, this question sets up a false dichotomy. It assumes that we have been faced in the past, or might be faced in the future, with a hard choice between the teachings of the Church and the Bible, as clearly established by proper method of interpretation, and the assured and incontrovertible findings of modern science. If the Catholic faith is true, however, no such hard choice will ever truly present itself. If it does, or seems to, then something has clearly gone wrong. After all, if God is the Creator of all things, and the Creator of our powers of reason too, then whatever truths we discover by looking at His creation with the proper use of our philosophical, historical, or scientific reasoning powers cannot possibly contradict the truths that the same God has revealed through Christ and His apostles, the Church He established and the Holy Scriptures He inspired to be written. In other words, scientific research, properly done, and Biblical interpretation, properly done, cannot possibly contradict each other, since God is the author of all truth: the truth of His creation and the truth of His biblical revelation. God would not contradict Himself or mislead us. Faced with a situation in which science and the Bible seem to be in conflict, we must simply say, as the astronauts used to say: "Houston, we've got a problem," and keep exploring both sides of the equation to try to see where the problem lies.

The First Vatican Council back in 1870 put the matter this way:

Although faith is above reason there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason; since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, and cannot deny himself, nor can truth contradict truth. The false appearance of such a contradiction is mainly due, either to the dogmas of faith not having been understood and expounded according the mind of the Church, or to the inventions of opinion having been taken for the verdicts of reason.

In other words, where there appears to be a conflict, either the Scriptures or Church teaching are being incorrectly interpreted, or mere scientific "theories" are being confused with hard scientific fact.

With regard to Scripture, of course, if you have a strictly literal interpretation of every part of the Bible, as some Evangelical Christians do, then you might find yourself believing that the world was created by God in six 24-hour periods (as the Book of Genesis literally seems to claim), and if you take all the dates given in the Old Testament literally, then you also would have to accept that this earth was created in about 4004 B.C. This is going to be impossible to square with the results of modern geology and archaeology. While there is no agreement among scientists on the exact age of the earth, or of the dinosaur fossils found in the earth, estimates of the former usually run in the billions of years, and of the latter in the tens of millions of years range.

To use the Bible in that simplistic way, however, is to ignore the fact that when God inspired the biblical writers to author their works, He guided them to use their own literary genres and conventions to do so, whether that genre was poetry, or myth, or fable, or historical chronicle (or even "gospel," which seems to be a unique genre of literature invented by the early Christians themselves!). The entire Bible communicates God's inspired truth, to be sure (II Tim 3:15-17). But to understand the kind of truth that the biblical writers, guided by God, meant to communicate in each passage or book, we have to pay attention to the kind of literary form in which each part was written. Thus, the first chapters of Genesis may (perhaps) be written in a mythical form, intended to communicate theological truths (such as that God made the whole world and made it orderly and good and made human beings in His image). Perhaps Genesis was never intended to be an historical chronicle or a scientific textbook about human beginnings. On the other hand, the first chapters of Genesis may contain more than one literary form, with mythical and historical genres mixed together. Take either of these options, and it's not likely that you will find that the best interpretation of Genesis contradicts at least some forms of evolutionary theory. This is not because science "trumps" the Bible or Church teaching. Rather, it's because if the Catholic faith is true, then scientific discovery and biblical revelation, properly understood, will not be found to be contradictory after all.

With regard to science, the most important thing to remember is that not all scientific theories can be held to be the sure and certain results of the scientific method. It's all too easy for scientists to claim that they have demonstrated something for sure when, in fact, they are only putting forward a theory that may be superseded by a better theory in the future, when more scientific evidence comes in. That the earth goes around the sun does indeed count as a sure and certain scientific fact, but Christians in Galileo's time can be forgiven for being sceptical about it because Galileo's research was partially based on his theory that the planets and heavenly bodies all must move in perfect circles, which the scientific evidence at the time did not actually support. So, we need to carefully distinguish between hard scientific fact, and more tentative scientific theories. Arguably, some, if not all theories of evolution still fall in the more or less "tentative" category.

Finally, it is a modern myth, I think, that the further we proceed with scientific investigation, the more mysteries of nature we will "solve." Actually, the more mysteries of nature we solve, the more we seem to discover! I remember when I graduated from college, our commencement speaker was a leading American scientist who listed and explained for us many of the new mysteries uncovered by modern research. For example, he said it was a mystery how porpoises can actually swim as fast as they do. He even told us of experiments that show that honeybees can figure out distances by mathematical multiplication! So, you see, science discovers new mysteries in nature all the time!

Moreover, some of the mysteries of the natural universe lie beyond the reach of the scientific method altogether. When Richard Dawkins claims that physicists are on the verge of finding a mathematical formula for explaining everything, remember that he is talking about everything in nature. But why nature generally obeys one mathematical formula rather than some other one, or why nature has a relatively orderly and intelligible design rather than none at all, or, indeed, why is there something — a natural universe — rather than nothing at all, science could never answer such questions. They are questions that ask if there is anything beyond nature, anything supernatural upon which the whole natural universe depends for its existence and order and design. They are questions about God. You could never find out about Him just by experimenting on the physical universe itself! Questions like that are questions of metaphysics, which concerns what lies beyond physics, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught us long ago.

Given the mysteries of the different types of truth communicated in God's Word, the Bible, and given the mysteries of the natural universe God created that science continually uncovers, or cannot even begin to answer, I don't see any real conflicts. With humility, patience, the rigorous use of reason, and lots of prayer, any apparent conflicts between science on the one hand and the Bible and Church teaching on the other will, in time, be worked out. All truth is from God, and Catholics are completely committed to truth, wherever it is to be found.

Surely that is not mindless "fundamentalism," which "educated people today" cannot accept. Rather, as Pope John Paul II once wrote, it is simply our Catholic commitment to using "faith and reason" together as the "two wings" with which we can fly to reach all the truth.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at questions@thedivinemercy.org.