Catholic Frogs

By Jean L. Bertelsen Pond

The noted endocrinologist, John Cortelyou, President of De Paul University in Chicago, was elected secretary of a newly founded organization for Roman Catholic scientists. He promptly set about disbanding the group. Cortelyou, whose specialty is the study of endocrine glands in amphibian animals, explained his actions thus: "There are no Catholic frogs."{1}

A rebuttal of this article is found at A Frog with No Legs.

In 1609 Galileo Galilei made for himself a telescope, having heard of the invention of such an instrument by the Dutch. The telescope revealed several things (e.g., the moons of Jupiter, and sunspots) that could not be easily reconciled to the earth-centered universe of Ptolemy with its perfect and changeless heavens. The Ptolemaic system, supposedly based on Aristotelian physics, was nevertheless fiercely defended by university colleagues of Galileo, and a heated argument began.

Copernicus had proposed that the earth rotates around the sun, rather than the Ptolemaic opposite, and the Copernican theory was now supported by Galileo's observations. In 1610 or 1611, a pamphlet, Contro il moto della Terra--against the motion of the earth--was published by Ludovico delle Colombe. It was clearly aimed at Galileo, without mentioning him by name, and included a variety of practical demonstrations of the impossibility of the earth's rotation (How could birds keep up with the rapid movement? If a cannon is fired first due east, then due west, why is there no difference in the distance traveled by the two cannonballs?). The author ended by quoting supporting passages from Scripture, including 1 Chronicles 16:30: ". . . the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved."

Galileo shot back a reply, delle Colombe and others answered in turn, and the dispute became increasingly bitter. Eventually, the defenders of Ptolemy turned to the Church for new ammunition. The Catholic Church had been reluctant to become involved in the controversy, but could no longer avoid it when (in 1615) a book on sunspots by Galileo was denounced to the Inquisitor in Florence. The following censure (quoted here only in part) was the result:

Wednesday, February 14, 1616
      The proposition that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from its place is absurd and false philosophically and formally heretical, because it is expressly contrary to the Holy Scripture.
      The proposition that the Earth is not the center of the world and immovable but that it moves, and also with a diurnal motion, is equally absurd and false philosophically and theologically considered at least erroneous in faith.{2}

Misjudging the forces he had stirred up, or perhaps putting too much faith in his friendship with Pope Urban VIII, Galileo continued the teaching of his ideas. In 1632 he published Dialogues concerning the two Principal Systems of the World, a defense of Copernican theory. The Church was forced to respond. In 1633, Galileo (seventy years old and in poor health) was summonsed to the Inquisition in Rome and forced to recant.

Of course, Galileo's trial was not the end. In the actual, gradual denouement of the conflict, he was proven correct, and the Church forced to back down.{3} The Church lost, not because scientific and secular enterprises became more powerful in ensuing years, or because the Catholic hierarchy lost influence, or indeed for any reason requiring sophisticated historical analysis.

The Church lost because the earth rotates around the sun.

...the Holy Office allowed itself to make the error against which Galileo and St. Augustine had warned their readers. It set up as a matter of faith a proposition of natural science. No more dangerous thing can be done, whether by Church or dictator, for demonstrable truths will demonstrate themselves, and in a few years the authority may find itself in a position from which there is no escape but retreat.{4}

Today, more than three hundred years later, the Inquisition is over, yet new conflicts continue to arise between science and faith. Recently notable is the argument over the origin and development of life on earth. Darwinian evolution--a major organizing principle within biology, a concept that gives coherence to the whole, unwieldy lot of biologies--can be found debated on the op-ed page of your local newspaper.

Specifically, the first chapter of Genesis is held by some to be at odds with various concepts of modern science, from the (approximately) fifteen-billion-year-old universe of physics and cosmology to the biologist's evolutionary theory of the origin of species--including the human species.

Interpretations of Genesis vary and so do the degrees of difficulty that different groups find in reconciling the Bible and science. Some would accept most everything that seems well understood or proven from physics to biology and bring God in only in special instances or when our understanding gets hazy. This "God of the gaps," for example, might have allowed evolution to proceed undirected for most of earth's time, only stepping in periodically to create, say, the very first cell, or each major new group of organisms, or Homo sapiens.

Others take a more limited view of how Genesis is to be read. There are now "young earth creationists" (who believe that the earth can be only thousands of years old) and "old earth creationists" (who accept evidence from physics that the earth is billions of years old, but discount organic evolution). Both groups claim to interpret Genesis literally and sometimes seem to argue more with each other than with anyone else.{5}

The debate over "evolution vs. creation" (an extremely biased phrase that I much dislike--I prefer to speak of evolution and creation, or better yet, to use Hoimar von Ditfurth's "evolution as creation"{6}) has become heated. Many people feel qualified and compelled to express their thoughts on the controversy, and I anticipate no early resolution to the argument. Colleagues teaching at public institutions can be forgiven if they want to avoid the subject entirely, but for the Christian teacher at a church-related college (especially, perhaps, for teachers of biology) avoidance may be impossible.

If all truth is God's truth how can science ever be in conflict with faith? What are the problems and issues here for the Christian educator?

I suggest that the first problem is one of definition.

"I should like balls infinitely better," [she said], "if they were carried on in a different manner... It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day."
"Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say; but it would not be near so much like a ball."
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Creationists have tried to present their evolutionist detractors as narrow-minded and unwilling to see both sides of an issue. Evolution is one theory to explain the origin and development of life on earth, they say, and creation is another. Why not teach both? Particularly in those cases where the debate has reached into public secondary education, appeals are made to the American love of fair play:

In public schools, both evolution and creation should be taught as equally as possible, since there are children of taxpayers representing both viewpoints in the classes.{7}

The teaching of evolution is equated with all manner of modern horrors{8}, and a struggle--some essential incompatibility--between science and faith in implied.

But the definition of science is no mystery. Science deals with testable explanations of natural phenomena. By definition, it does not admit the supernatural and cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Science simply has nothing to say about God. Therefore, the supposed incompatibility between science and faith is a fiction, based on a basic misunderstanding of the purview of science.

I suggest that college teachers of science need to clearly state (as often as necessary) what science is and what it is not. Students must understand that the definition of science is straightforward, workable, and widely accepted. God does not figure into scientific explanations, by definition, making "science," as practiced, simply a misnomer.{9}

At their best, theories which include the "God of the gaps" can be used to raise questions concerning the adequacy of strictly scientific explanations. Questions about adequacy are valid and important (what is truth?) and students in any science can profit from an informed understanding of what makes a good scientific hypothesis. Courses in the philosophy or history of science can appropriately deal with this subject at more length.

At its worst (and the worst can, perhaps, be found in the works of the Institute for Creation Research and other "young earth" creationists) creationism is little better than "lying for Jesus"--a mishmash of distortions, omissions, and half-truths. Michael Ruse writes:

There are degrees of being wrong. The Creationists are at the bottom of the scale. They pull every trick in the book to justify their position. Indeed, at times, they verge right over into the downright dishonest. Scientific Creationism is not just wrong; it is ludicrously implausible. It is a grotesque parody of human thought, and a downright misuse of human intelligence. In short, to the Believer, it is an insult to God.{10}

Preston Cloud has even suggested that scientific creationism might be "a new inquisition brewing."{11}

There are enormous benefits to be realized from an approach in which a straightforward definition of science is strictly applied. The student whose God is not employed filling in gaps in current science will not be disturbed when those gaps are otherwise eliminated.

Logic demands that if I assume that life is inexplicable and turn this into proof for the presence of God, then I must allow the use of explicability as a criterion for his absence.{12}

In addition, no longer can the pronouncements of well-known and successful scientists concerning religious faith ("Modern science has proved God does not exist." "Science has shown God is unnecessary," etc.) be any threat. When scientific waters are kept clear, students can see these pronouncements for what they are: expressions of a personal worldview, out of the Famous Scientist's field of expertise, and thus given no weight by that expertise.

Think you...that a drop of water, which to the vulgar eye is but a drop of water, loses anything in the eye of the physicist, who knows that its elements are held together by a force which, if suddenly liberated, would produce a flash of lightning? ...The truth is, that those who have never entered upon scientific pursuits know not at tithe of the poetry by which they are surrounded.{13}

The greatest loss in the chipping away of science by pseudo-science is the loss of wonder. The Creation is a marvelous place. If you spend most of your efforts staking out gaps for God, or testing each new bit of data for religious acceptability, you will never have the chance to look at it for yourself. In my own experience, a deeper understanding of scientific processes has always led to a deepening of my faith. If all truth is God's truth, how could it be otherwise?

Properly done, science is an intensely humbling experience. Properly done, an element of childlike delight remains in its discoveries. This can be experienced in any laboratory in the world: the unexpected and elegant result brings joy and laughter.

Creation "science" eliminates these elements of humility and joy, substituting the demand that human scientific understanding correspond to our human understanding of the words of the Bible. God is required to act in Creation the way our interpretations say He should.

For example, if science advances a convincing explanation for the origin of first life from the ancient "primordial soup," why should this be a problem for Christians? It is only our own previous notions that are diminished by such mechanistic explanations. Think back to 1609. Were Galileo's discoveries a threat to God?

Similarly, if science indicates (as it seems to, very clearly) that man is closely related to the great apes, why should this be a concern? On what basis would we refuse to accept this relationship, this tie to the rest of Creation? Do we demand from God that our species' arrival on planet earth occurred in a particular manner?

I suggest that it is presumptuous to claim any precise understanding of where and how God has acted in Creation. Consider the practical consequences alone of such a claim. We set ourselves up--as did the Catholic Church in the time of Galileo--for one setback after another, as new discoveries belie old beliefs. Science is unpredictable. It also tends to be self-correcting, and good explanations have a strength and life of their own.

Other consequences of our presumption go beyond the practical. The universe is God's creation and science is its study. On this basis alone, a strong background in science should be an integral and valued part of a Christian liberal arts education. Bad science is a turning away from truth. It has no place in our institutions.

Let us teach science, boldly, without apology. By our example we can encourage our students in a joyful humility towards the Creation, eschewing all demands that demonstrable facts of nature conform to human interpretations of the Bible. We can be content with our best science--our best understanding, as we see it (even through a glass darkly) of the Creation around us. This Creation is what God has done. Let us avoid placing restrictions on how.

Science has pushed the deist's God further and further away, and at the moment when it seemed as if he would be thrust out altogether, Darwinism appeared, and, under the disguise of a foe, did the work of a friend. It has conferred upon philosophy and religion an inestimable benefit, by showing us that we may choose between two alternatives. Either God is everywhere present in nature, or he is nowhere.{14}
Aubrey Moore, an Oxford clergyman, writing in 1889


{1} Quoted in The Scientist (H. Margenau and D. Bergamini, eds., (New York: Time, Inc., 1964). p. 15.

{2} This translation of the censure is taken from Giorgio de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo (New York: Time, Inc., 1962). pp. 129, 332.

{3} The prohibition of the Dialogues concerning the two Principal Systems of the World was lifted by the Catholic Church in 1822. (An edition with only minor revisions had been permitted by Pope Benedict XIV in 1744.) In 1979, John Paul II made a statement acknowledging the error of the Church, and in 1984 the Vatican published all archival documents relating to Galileo's trial.

{4} F. Sherwood Taylor, Galileo and the Freedom of Thought (London: Watts, 1938).

{5} For an exposition of young-earth creationist views, see Henry M. Morris, Scientific Creationism (San Diego: Creation-Life Publishers, 1974). Morris includes a bibliography (pp. 257-60) of creationist literature. For the old-earth creationist viewpoint, see Hugh Ross, The Fingerprint of God, second edition (Orange, CA: Promise Publishing Company, 1991).

{6} Hoimar von Ditfurth, The Origins of Life: Evolution as Creation (English translation; San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1982).

{7} Morris, Scientific Creationism, p. 14.

{8} "Evolution is the root of atheism, of communism, nazism, behaviorism, racism, economic imperialism, anarchism, and all manner of anti-Christian systems of belief and practice." Quotation from Henry M. Morris, The Remarkable Birth of Planet Earth (San Diego: Creation-Life Publishers, 1972), p. 75.

{9} The lack of science in scientific creationism was the subject of a lawsuit against Arkansas' 1981 "Balanced Treatment Act" (Act 590). In a widely quoted judgment, Federal Judge William R. Overton ruled that creationism failed to meet the essential characteristics of science. The full text of Act 590 and Overton's decision can be found in But Is It Science? [Michael Ruse, ed. (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988)].

{10} Michael Ruse, Darwinism Defended (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1982), p.303. For other critical treatments of creationism, see Philip Kitcher, Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1982); Ashley Montagu, ed., Science and Creationism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984); David B. Wilson, ed., Did the Devil Make Darwin Do It? (Ames, IA: The Iowa State University Press, 1983).

{11} Preston Cloud, "'Scientific Creationism'--A New Inquisition Brewing?" (Reprinted in Philip Appleman, ed., 2nd edition, Darwin (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1979), pp. 368-82.

{12} Holimar von Ditfurth, The Origins of Life, 105.

{13} Herbert Spencer, quoted in H. Margenau and D. Bergamini, eds., The Scientist (New York: Time, Inc., 1964), p. 16.

{14} Quoted in Vernon Blackmore, Evolution: The Great Debate (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1989), p. 186.

Copyright 1999 Jean L. Bertelsen Pond, Adjunct Instructor of Biology, Whitworth College. Used by permission of the author.