Up Front and Personal

Scientific Debate Is Not New for the Church

by Father Eugene Hemrick

Recently, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said the pope should “leave science to the scientists.” His sentiment is echoed by those who deny climate change and contend that the Church should stay out of the debate – following the release of “Laudato Si’” and the conversation that the pope’s encyclical letter on the environment has generated.

Before dismissing the Church and its role in science, those who deny climate change need to study history, and they will see that Catholic scientists have radically changed the world. Some of them include Nicolaus Copernicus, Gregor Mendel and Roger Bacon.

Mendel is an excellent example of the Church’s contribution to science. He is known in scientific circles as the founder of the modern science of genetics. Almost anyone who has taken a biology or science class probably has heard of his pea plant experiments. They helped establish the rules of heredity. What they probably don’t know or remember is that he was an Augustinian friar.

You may not know this, but Holy Cross Father Julius A. Nieuwland discovered synthetic rubber while at the University of Notre Dame. He studied at The Catholic University of America, where he also made some discoveries. We must wonder about other science students at Catholic universities throughout the world who have made discoveries over the centuries and whose contributions make life better for everyone.

Yet throughout Church history, some Catholics and Church authorities have contended that involvement in science and other areas of society should be secondary with the church’s main emphasis on theology.

This sentiment also was apparent when Catholics marched to protest racial injustice in the U.S. and were seen as diverting attention away from the Church’s main mission.

I can still remember a friend who was a priest and was shot while marching in Alabama to end segregation. He returned home only to be shunned as a renegade by some priests and parishioners. They said he was involved in what they considered “nonpriestly work.”

Fortunately, this sentiment is waning as the Church broadens the understanding of social justice.

A stickier point regarding the encyclical – which focuses on ecology and our duties as Christians – is that giant conglomerates and politicians are trying to downplay or attack what’s being discussed in the encyclical. How much of this resistance is about economics and political clout? Are some so steeped in entitlement to power that they are threatened by this document?

Encyclicals raise prudent questions aimed at producing greater knowledge. We can only hope we will see this as a result of Pope Francis’ encyclical.

Father Hemrick is a priest of the Diocese of Joliet, Ill. He works for the U.S. Bishops’ Conference in Washington, D.C., and writes a syndicated column for Catholic New Service.