Can a Faithful Catholic Believe in Science?

spider web and dew


In this post, I examine whether I, as a faithful Catholic, and as a scientist who holds that miracles are possible must believe that the Creation account given in Genesis is literally true, without modification, and thereby exclude what science tells us about common descent and cosmology. In a way, it’s the other side of the coin to “Can a scientist believe in miracles”:  Can a faithful Catholic believe in science?

This question is not rhetorical.  The several priests whom I have consulted echo essentially Cardinal Ratzinger’s words from “In the Beginning”, quoted below.  I have also examined closely the sections on Canon Law concerned with doctrine, dogma, and Papal Infallibility (see here, for example).
Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish. Pope St. John Paul II, Letter to Rev. George Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory.


All this arose because a blog post, “God’s Periodic Table…and Evolution,” has drawn flak from those who believe that Genesis 1-3 should be taken literally; which is, effectively, to say that evolution and cosmology are heretical poppycock. One of these critics has used an Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on marriage, Arcanum Divinae, to support this position:

Though revilers of the Christian faith refuse to acknowledge the never-interrupted doctrine of the Church on this subject …. We record what is to all known, and cannot be doubted by any, that God, on the sixth day of creation, having made man from the slime of the earth, and having breathed into his face the breath of life, gave him a companion, whom He miraculously took from the side of Adam when he was locked in sleep.-Leo XIII, Arcanum Divinae

“Mark,” who quoted this, added this comment:

One submits to the authority of the Chair of Peter or one does not. Pope Leo XIII indicates that the above miracle is to be held by all and those that dissent from it are “revilers of the faith”. He enjoyed infallibility or he didn’t. Vatican I and her teaching on infallibility is accepted or it is not.–“Mark”, 

Further, Mark quoted  from the 1909 Biblical Commission instituted by Pope St. Pius X to argue that science cannot be used to exclude the literal historical sense of Genesis:

I: Do the various exegetical systems excogitated and defended under the guise of science to exclude the literal historical sense of the first three chapters of Genesis rest on a solid foundation?
Answer: In the negative.
1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission on Genesis

Must these statements be believed by a faithful Catholic, as for example, the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary must be believed, or do they have a lesser status, such that one must examine them, seek advice, and determine by conscience whether one can hold them to be true?

My first impulse is to say while these documents might constitute part of the Magisterium, statements and actions from Popes later on-Piux XII (Humanae Vitae), St. John Paul II (see below)-are not in accord with such a strict, literal reading of Genesis. For example, Pope St. John Paul II in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences said

Dans son encyclique « Humani Generis » (1950), mon prédécesseur Pie XII avait déjà affirmé qu’il n’y avait pas opposition entre l’évolution et la doctrine de la foi sur l’homme et sur sa vocation, à condition de ne pas perdre de vue quelques points fermes.  Pope St. John Paul II, Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Oct. 1996

My predecessor, Pius XII, has already affirmed in his Encyclical, “Humani Generis” (1950) that there is not opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the fall of man and his vocation provided that certain fixed points are kept in mind.  my translation.

Further, Pope St. John Paul II  convened conferences on Evolutionary Biology, Quantum Cosmology, and Physics, Philosophy and Theology, all dealing with Divine Intervention and the intersection between faith and science. Would he have done so had he believed, as evidently prescribed by Arcanum Divinae and the 1909 Biblical Commission, that Genesis 1-3 was literally true and not to be interpreted in terms of science?

Pope Benedict XVI in his 2008 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences noted:

My predecessors Pope Pius XII and Pope John Paul II noted that there is no opposition between faith’s understanding of creation and the evidence of the empirical sciences.


Creation should be thought of, not according to the model of the craftsman who makes all sorts of objects, but rather in the manner that thought is creative. And at the same time it becomes evident that being-in-movement as a whole (and not just the beginning) is creation… Benedict XVI, in Creation and Evolution: A Conference with Pope Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo

Writing as Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book, “In the Beginning”, a compilation of homilies and addresses on the Old Testament as a forerunner to the New, he said

It says that the Bible is not a natural science textbook, nor does it intend to be such. It is a religious book, and consequently one cannot obtain information about the natural sciences from it[emphasis added] One cannot get from it a scientific explanation of how the world arose; one can only glean religious experience from it. Anything else is an image and a way of describing things whose aim is to make profound realities graspable to human beings. One must distinguish between the form of portrayal and the content that is portrayed. The form would have been chosen from what was understandable at the time.

This echoes what the priests taught 17 years ago in my year-long Scripture class for the Ecclesial Lay Ministry training program of our diocese.   And I would agree with critics that these homilies and messages to Congresses do not have the force of “ex Cathedra” pronouncements or Encyclicals. Nevertheless, it is clear they indicate what recent popes have thought.


When I brought these arguments up, one commentator asked whether I believed that Catholic teaching is dictated by science.The answer is resoundingly, “NO!”  In everything I’ve written, I have stressed the limited domain of science.

If I were to answer “yes”, I would have to assume that science explains everything, that “Naturalism” (or materialism or scientism) is the only explanation  for all things and processes;  in other words, I would accept that the so-called laws of nature are just that, prescriptive, rather than descriptive attempts to give a mathematical picture of some aspects of our world. I would have to assume there is no “veiled reality” in quantum mechanics, and that a physicist who told me “I understand quantum mechanics” is neither a liar nor a fool.
Indeed, it is more the case that my Catholic faith dictates what science I think is valid. I believe that man is endowed by the Holy Spirit with a soul. Accordingly, I do not believe that it will be possible to create true “artificial intelligence”, that is to say, a robot or android such as Star Trek’s Data with conscience and feeling. As I have written in one post, “Did Neanderthals have a soul?“,  I believe that the Creation of man can be explained by the first implantation of a soul into Homo Sapiens (or Homo ???)


And, as I have written before, I believe in miracles, because I believe C.S. Lewis’s proposition that God can feed new events into nature to create what seems to us to be a miracle.  And since the “Laws of Nature” were made by God, certainly He can override them if He so chooses.  These “Laws of Nature”, to repeat, are descriptive, not prescriptive.  They are our attempt to understand and make sense of God’s wonderful creation. God could not and would not make 2 + 2 = 5, but he can curve space so that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle do not add up to 180 degrees.

When I say I believe in miracles-events that don’t conform to a materialistic worldview-I believe in those that are essential to the faith: the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Ascension of Jesus, and those that have empirical evidence: Eucharistic miracles, Healing miracles. (Even though we are not required as Catholics to believe in the last two.)  I believe in the possibility of miracles, but I do not believe in those that are not essential to my faith as a Catholic: Eve formed from Adam’s rib, as one example, or Genesis 1-3 being true literally in every detail.
With Cardinal Ratzinger, I believe that the Old Testament is a religious book, not a science textbook. Is not a God who created the universe from nothing, with a set of natural laws to yield eventually His creation, man, much more wonderful than the creation described in Genesis? As Paul Davies put it:

Design-by-laws is incomparably more intelligent than design-by-miracles.Paul Davies, The Cosmic Jackpot: Why our universe is just right forlife.” p.200)

Yet, my faith in miracles does not contradict my belief that science is a wonderful  tool to understand the world, to help us appreciate the beauty described in Psalm 19A:

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. “(KJV)

 So it is.  God gave us intelligence to help us understand the magnitude and beauty of His Creation.
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3 thoughts on “Can a Faithful Catholic Believe in Science?”

  1. Pingback: How should the Catholic Church interact with Science - Catholic Stand

  2. Pingback: The Catholic Two-front War: Against Scientism and Scriptural Literalism – The American Catholic

  3. Stephen Leininger

    Bob, I believe it is a mistake to make a lump sum, so to speak, characterization of Genesis 1-3. I have no problem with much of these books being open to interpretations that are friendly to evolution. When it comes to Eve’s creation, I believe a more literal interpretation is warranted. While Adam and Eve’s creation is not dogmatic, it is a necessary precursor to the Dogmas of original sin and redemption. On I have posted more than one blog and an atheists page that attempts to show that Eve’s creation is historically accurate. I use both Scripture and science to make my case.

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