How Should the Catholic Church Interact with Science?
Part II: The Medieval Church


NOTE:  The featured image, “Ballistik,” by Johann Petrejus (1547), is of the ballistic trajectory given by Buridan’s theory of impetus (momentum).

A century elapsed between the condemnations pronounced by Etienne Tempier (1277) and the editing of the “Traité du Ciel et du Monde” by Oresme (1377) and, within that time, all the essential principles of Aristotle’s physics were undermined, and the great controlling ideas of modern science formulated.
—Pierre Duhem. “History of Physics before Einstein “. Shamrock Eden Publishing. Kindle Edition.


In this second piece of this series, I discuss how the Catholic Church has fostered science in the past, Also, I want to emphasize the following point:  I am not trying to use science to justify faith.  Rather the converse;  to quote St. Anselm (and St. Augustine):  “Credo ut intelligam (I believe so that I can understand).”  Here’s the first part, a historical assessment of the Church and science. I’ve followed Pierre Duhem and Stacy Trasancos in this account and Essay 1 in my web-book, Truth Cannot Contradict Truth. Here’s the story.

Science was born: the Edicts of Paris, 1277
Some (perhaps many) atheists and materialists would say that science arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, fully mature,  like Botticelli’s Venus rising from the ocean.   According to them, it arose then because Europe had shaken off the limiting bonds of Catholic doctrine.

Pierre Duhem’s historical studies of science show that this is not so. Rather, Duhem dates the birth of science as 1277, the year the Bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, condemned a number of errors from astrology and from the Peripatetic philosophers (those following Aristotle).    The condemned articles contended that the earth could not move, that worlds other than earth could not exist, that empty space (a vacuum) was impossible, and proposed principles of motion that were shown later to be false.

Bishop Tempier condemned the articles, not because of scientific errors, but because they apparently limited God’s power.   Once these Peripatetic dicta were declared non-binding, scholars—almost all of the clerics—were able to explore new ways to explain the world around us, ways that would grow into the scientific method.

For cosmology—the science of the earth’s place in the universe—to come about, the following errors had to be corrected:

•That the earth could not move;
•That the earth was at the center of the universe;
•That different physical laws apply to the earth and to the planets;
•Aristotle’s theory of gravity.

According to Aristotle, gravity manifested itself in the following ways:  heavy elements wanted to move to the center of the earth; the heavier the element (the more massive), the faster it would move; the lighter elements, air and fire, would move away from the center of the earth.

For dynamics—the science of motion—to move forward the following error had to be corrected:

[Aristotle] held that the projectile was moved by the fluid medium, whether air or water,  through which it passed and this, by virtue of the vibration brought about in the fluid at the moment of throwing, and spread through it [the vibration through the medium].”  
–Pierre Duhem, “History of Physics before Einstein

When Aristotle’s ideas were no longer regarded as the Ten Commandments of science, cosmology and dynamics could then develop into science as we know it today.

The development of cosmology culminated in the Copernican Revolution, the idea that the earth was no longer the center of the universe but revolved around the sun.   But there was much work preliminary to that—the notion did not spring full-blown to Copernicus. To explore this history in-depth, please read Duhem’s “History of Physics before Einstein” (linked above).


Even though Pierre Duhem regarded the Edicts of Paris as marking the birth of science, there were important contributions before that time. Listed below are a few of those who started up the engine of science—you’ll note that several of them lived before 1277 and that all were all clerics. A more complete history of the advances in mathematics, astronomy and physics achieved during the Medieval Ages is given in Pierre Duhem’s masterwork linked above.

Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, (1175-1253) introduced a principle fundamental to the practice of science: from particular observations, a general law can be derived; then this law can be tested by additional observations of particulars—“resolution and composition”,

Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great), (1200-1280) is the patron saint of scientists.  He was the teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas and made important contributions in zoology, mineralogy in addition to his important work in theology and philosophy.

William of Ockham (1285-1350) introduced one of the prime principles of science, “Ockham’s Razor”. This states that one does not multiply hypotheses needlessly to explain a phenomenon. In other words, the simplest explanation that fully explains is the best.

Jean Buridan (1300-1358) is probably more renowned for his analogy, “Buridan’s Ass”, than for his seminal contributions to the physics of motion: the idea of impetus (what we now call “momentum”) and inertia. Contrary to Aristotle, he maintained that a body would continue moving unless slowed down by friction, such as air resistance. He argued that a thrown body was set into motion by the arm of the thrower and that the “impetus” of the moving body depended on how heavy it was (its mass) and its speed of motion. These were ideas taken up later by Galileo and Newton.

Nicolas Oresme (1322-1382) was eminent (as were most Medieval Scholastics) in many fields—astronomy, mathematics, physics, philosophy and theology. He anticipated Galileo by almost a hundred years in proving the mean speed theorem geometrically: the distance covered under uniform acceleration is given by multiplying the average speed by the time.

And then came Galileo Galilei, who many call the “Father of Science” as we know it.  However, I want to emphasize that there was a continuity of development from the 13th century to Galileo.  Although his pioneering development of the experimental method to confirm mathematically expressed theoretical ideas laid the foundations for modern science, science did not spring fully new from Galileo’s work.  He built on the work of his predecessors.

In the years since Galileo there have been many Catholic priests who have been scientists; see here for a complete list.  Two whose work changed the course of science were Gregor Mendel and Georges LeMaitre. Mendel founded the science of genetics and LeMaitre modern cosmology.


Why did this development of physics and cosmology occur begin and grow in Medieval Christendom, but not in the ancient Hellenistic worlds or other civilizations?    Excellent answers have been given in some detail by Fr. Stanley Jaki and Dr. Stacy Trasancos, but I want to add my own opinion.

•First, there was a world view, founded on Judaeo-Christian theology, that God was good and created a universe that was good and meant to be intelligible to mankind.
•Second, as Pierre Duhem pointed out, the Medieval scholars were freed in 1277 from erroneous restrictions they would have had to follow if Aristotle’s principles were to be a compulsory base for theories.
•Third, in the earliest part of this growth, they were priests;   this meant that they had time to do scholarly work (as do academics today) and did not have to worry about earning a living from non-scholarly pursuits.
•Fourth, perhaps underlaying all the above, those in the Church were highly motivated to learn—to relate the world around them to that which Revelation and Faith had given them to believe. The term “scholastic” for these Medieval priests was apt indeed.


In the third article of this series, I’ll focus on Pope St. John Paul II’s Rapprochement with science, as a model of how the Church should interact with science.

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4 thoughts on “How Should the Catholic Church Interact with Science? <br>Part II: The Medieval Church”

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