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The Catholic Church and Science

June 22, AD2017

Many people erroneously believe that the dark ages were caused by the Catholic Church and its hatred of science/love of superstition, and its dominant control of the mind of man during what has been called the “medieval” or “dark ages.”  But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, just the opposite is true.

The Barbarians

Ancient Rome was the center of culture, science, logic, and reasoning during its heyday, but all of that came to a screeching halt in 410 AD, when the Visigoths sacked Rome, and the Roman Empire came to an end.  The Visigoths, along with the Barbarians, the Vandals, the Franks, and the Huns, were what we would call today “barbarians,” and they were not into learning science, math, philosophy, and architecture. They were interested in conquering and destroying civilizations, the very epitome of “raping and pillaging.”   After destroying the intelligentsia and the libraries of Europe, the Catholic Church, and specifically the monasteries of St. Benedict (the Father of Europe) befriended the conquerors, converted a lot of them to the Catholic Church, and then took up the task of re-educating Europe. The monasteries hid a lot of books that would have been otherwise burned.

One of the greatest of these converted leaders was a Frank, named Charlemagne, who died in 814 AD.  Charlemagne was a member of the Carolingian family, and it was he who first encouraged churches to add schools next to every church. It was Charlemagne who promoted the copying of manuscripts from generation to generation, and to save them from destruction in numerous libraries.  Thanks to his efforts, modern man in the 21st century still has some of these historical documents.  Over the course of centuries, little by little, the ever-present Catholic Church re-educated Europe and preserved science from extinction.  This period is known as the Carolingian Renaissance, which lasted until Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, died in 840 AD.  Roman sciences that were preserved and taught to the masses consisted of music, geometry, astronomy, basic math, logic, rhetoric, and grammar.  The Germans were taught Latin by one Carolingian monk, named Alcuin, and this allowed the German people to become familiar with the Roman classics from centuries before.  An Abbot named Fredegese invented what is known as Carolingian Miniscule, which is punctuation standardization – the inclusion of spaces between words,  capital letters, commas, apostrophes, and periods after sentences.  Before Fredegese came up with this idea, reading foreign manuscripts was next to impossible.   Hardly anyone today has heard of this Abbot of St. Martin’s Abbey, but his idea changed forever the way we read and write.

Combine Science with Faith

The Carolingian Renaissance which ended in the 9th Century cured a lot of the lost learning that occurred from the Visigoth sacking of Rome. But in the next two centuries, more barbarian invasions were on the way – namely, the Vikings, the Magyars, and the Muslims. So once again the task of hiding volumes of the Bible and great literature in monastery basements and then reeducating the conquerors fell to the Catholic Church. And then once again in the 13th Century, Ghengis Khan and the Mongols invaded Europe and sacked and pillaged.   Real students of European History will come to the realization that the dark ages weren’t caused by the Catholic Church pushing theology over science,  but rather from all of the barbaric invasions of  Europe.  And each and every time one of these invasions occurred, the task of re-education of the next generation AND the barbarians fell to the Catholic Church and their monks and monasteries.  Pope Sylvester II, who died in 1003 AD, once said, “The just man lives by faith, but it is good that he should combine science with his faith.”

The Monasteries

So what was a monastery, and why were they the cradle of civilization in Europe?  Monasteries were usually located in out of the way places in the countryside, for the solitude of the monks. They had to become self-sufficient with agriculture.  As a result, the monks learned how to dam rivers, how to reclaim lost swampland by draining the swamp and turning it into farmland for their crops, and how to redirect the flow of rivers for hydropower for their millwheels.  And they didn’t only raise traditional crops like corn, but they also became experts in beekeeping for honey (and for pollinating their crops), brewing beer, and raising fruit so that they could make their own sacramental wine.  That champagne we all drink for New Year’s Eve was invented by a monk named Dom Perignon at St. Peter’s Abbey.  The monks also learned how to locate springs, and how to store water for future droughts.  All of these techniques learned and perfected by the monks soon became the norm for agriculture everywhere.

The monks also were early ranchers as well, perfecting cattle breeding so that the best beef and traits of each particular breed could be combined with others.  The monks also invented clocks, and one, invented by a 14th-century monk named Peter Lightfoot, is still in existence today in London.    In the 16th century, King Henry VIII ordered the Catholic monasteries shut down in England, which delayed the Industrial Revolution by at least a century. We know this because evidence has been found in some of these decimated monasteries that the monks had furnaces which were beginning to extract iron from raw ore.  Cast iron was the primary material used in the Industrial Revolution.

Catholic Charity and Education

The times of these barbarian invasions of Europe was also a time of kill or be killed.  One shining light in all of this blood spilling was the Catholic Church and its charity. The Church built hospitals for the indigent and provided free medical care for millions of sick people, even enemies who wanted them dead.  This charitable work is the precursor of all of the organizations today who help the poor and sick.

In the 12th century, the Catholic Church invented the University. Today there are universities everywhere, but back then, there were none.  Oxford University was one of the first, and each university had to have a Papal Charter in order to operate. Oxford got its charter in 1254 AD.  The universities founded by the Catholic Church initially specialized in liberal arts, civil law, philosophy, medicine, and theology.  Later on came engineering and science.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII invented the Gregorian Calendar, which we still use today. The old Julian Calendar invented by Julius Caesar was very inaccurate. Pope Gregory’s calendar was proven accurate and is still in use today. The implementation of the Gregorian calendar caused Julian date Thursday, 4 October 1582, to be immediately followed by Gregorian date Friday, 15 October 1582 on the next day.

Galileo

There is more to Galileo than meets the eye. For starters, the Pope loved his heliocentric theories and welcomed him with open arms. But what got Galileo into trouble was that he was preaching Copernicus’ theory from the century before as a fact, and told the Church that they would have to reinterpret scripture accordingly (causing him to cross over into theology).  The Catholic Church was the National Science Foundation of its day, and it did not want unproven theories taught as fact. The Church told Galileo that he could continue to teach Copernicus’ theory of heliocentricism (the theory that the earth revolves around the sun) as a theory only. At first, he agreed, and all was well. But years later, in 1632, he reneged on his promise and taught it as fact in his treatise called “Dialogue on the Great World Systems,” before it had ever been proven.  Final proof for heliocentricism did not occur until 1838, over 200 years later. Galileo also taught that the tides were caused by the earth’s rotation, which is false (they are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon) AND that the earth’s orbit around the sun is a perfect circle (in fact, it is elliptical). The Church prevented Galileo from teaching and placed him under house arrest in a VERY nice chateau.

Other Catholic Scientists

  • The layman Louis Pasteur, who invented the process called pasteurization;
  • The Franciscan Roger Bacon, who is the father of the modern scientific method;
  • St. Albert the Great, who was the first to publish many scientific articles on the logic and reason behind scientific creation;
  • Father Nicholas Steno, who is the father of modern geology;
  • The Jesuits, who were studying astronomy and earthquake science  for centuries;
  • Father Riccioli, who discovered the rate of acceleration of a freely falling object;
  • Father Grimaldi, a Jesuit who discovered the diffraction of light;
  • Fr. Boscovich, an 18th century Jesuit who calculated a formula to determine a planet’s orbit and who is known as the father of atomic physics;
  • Father Gregor Mendel, who is the discoverer of genetics;
  • Father George Lemaitre, who came up with the idea of the Big Bang theory, and who explained it all to none other than Albert Einstein, who agreed with it.

These Catholic scientists were so successful because they knew that since God designed everything,  it could, therefore, be discovered by man, because of our logic and reasoning. Randomness in creation became less of an issue for scientists who recognized  God’s hand in it all, and who were constantly thinking, “Well, since this IS, then THIS must follow.”  A simple look at the design of the human genome which was recently mapped out proves that the DNA code had to have a master programmer, as it is so logical and sequential, just like the very computer code that is running the software on your computer Operating System.

Cathedrals and Art

The Catholic Church Cathedrals in Europe were even used for science. Holes in the walls of the cathedrals and lines on the floor (meridians) were regularly used for solar research. The exact timing of the two solstices and the two equinoxes were determined from these Catholic Cathedrals.  Cassini even determined from using the Cathedrals that the earth’s orbit was elliptical around the sun, rather than circular as Galileo had once taught.

The Catholic Church also led the way in art and architecture. A visit to any Catholic Church today reveals beautiful stained glass windows. In the medieval times, few people could read, so the church used artwork and stained glass to portray Bible stories. The Gothic architecture of the old cathedrals is awe-inspiring, to say the least.  From the outside, many Catholic Churches look dark and plain, but once inside, the beauty of the sun streaming through the windows and the architecture make the Church come alive.  An important point to remember for all of the people who say that the Church should sell all of its artwork – Europe has been invaded and pillaged many times, by barbarians who would just as soon blow up art as look at it. Europe has been through two world wars, where Nazis stole artwork and where many museums were bombed and the artwork destroyed.  The Vatican has kept many pieces of artwork safe through the centuries.

The Bible

And of course, the greatest contribution to the world that the Catholic Church has given is sacred scripture. Pope Damasus I at the Council of Rome in 382 AD came up with the canon of scripture with all 73 books in it, which is still used today. St. Jerome translated the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts into the vernacular of the day, Latin, so that everyone who could read in the modern world of that day would be able to read it.  And when the Catholic inventor Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press, the very first book printed was the Gutenberg Catholic Bible, which is still in existence today with ALL 73 books in it, from 382 AD.

So the next time someone says that the Dark Ages were caused by the Catholic Church, please explain to them how wrong they are.

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About the Author:

Retired engineer from Texas, because the cowboy thing on the ranch growing up didn't work out. Actually rode the Vomit Comet at NASA in Houston once, being totally weightless for 20 minutes! Married with two kids and Vinnie the Wonder Dog. I love the Church and what it stands for. Without the sacraments, I am nothing.

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  • DLink

    It may be helpful, when confronted by those who accuse the Church of being anti-science, to point out that differences of scientific opinion are quite common even today. Probably the most notable are the divisions among those supporting string theory and those on the side of quantum physics. If one expects unanimity in these matters, pretty soon all that will be accomplished is stagnation.

  • Docent

    Missing from the other Catholic Scientists list is the late, great Fr. Stanley Jaki (1924 – 2009) who wrote many books and defended the Church and objective science for about a half century or so with superior scholarship at the highest level. Possessor of PhDs in Physics and Theology, Fr. Jaki was a brilliant man who wrote such wonderful works such as “Cosmos and Creator,” “God and the Cosmologists,” “The Road of Science and the Ways to God,” “The Savior of Science,” “Is There a Universe?,” “The Limits of a Limitless Science and Other Essays,” “Questions on Science and Religion,” and many others, all of which are exceedingly valuable. Most can still be found online at Amazon and other sites, including a site devoted to spreading Fr. Jaki’s works known as Real View Books. Fr. Jaki’s scholarship also includes excellent historical references that help set the record straight.

  • Micha_Elyi

    After destroying the intelligentsia and the libraries of Europe, the
    Catholic Church, and specifically the monasteries of St. Benedict (the
    Father of Europe) befriended the conquerors…

    So you’re saying the Catholic Church destroyed the intelligentsia and the libraries of Europe then befriended some conquerors? Maybe the sentence needs a bit of editing and polishing, eh?

  • Mark McCann

    Great article, Ray! I’ve often experienced prejudice from Protestants who believe that the Catholic Church was fine until Constantine and then was on a path of steadily growing corruption until Luther came along and saved Christianity. I think it is an incredible testimony to the Catholic Church that, despite the constant threats from invasions, disease, and internal corruption, it managed to make the advances in science and study and contributed to the rise of society during the “dark” times. I want to save this article. It is so informative! Thank you for your work!

    • Ray Sullivan

      Thanks Mark – Click on the link at the end of the article, and order the book from Amazon..Great reading…Peace – Ray

    • Guy McClung

      Fine article, Ray. Once you get to the limits of human scientific knowledge, you can say there is mystery, nothing, or meaninglessness. Whichever you say, you are then saying what you believe, not anything that science can prove or disprove. Guy McClung

    • Micha_Elyi

      To Protestants I point out that Jesus left us a Church, not a book. This messes with the heads of the “Bible alone” types. I tell ’em that if they like the Bible, hug a Catholic ’cause it’s our book. To the atheists who think science* has all the answers I point out that Christians, in particular medieval Catholic Christians, invented science. This messes with the heads of atheists. I tell ’em that if they like science, to hug a Catholic ’cause our priests and deacons invented it.

      There is no reason for any Catholic to be afraid of honest science like so many Protestants are. Atheists say, “Boo, science!” and expect us to scatter. Surprise them, don’t be afraid of science.

      * most accurately, “science” means any organized body of knowledge but in today’s common speech the word “science” has had its meaning narrowed to mean modern empirical science and that’s the science that medieval Catholics invented