Field of Science

Jesuits, science, and a pope with a chemistry background

In 1915, an exceptionally bright Italian youngster walked the two miles from his home to the Campo dei Fiori in Rome to hunt for science books in the weekly market fair. His step was determined and his face was grim. His countenance hid the fact that he was trying to recover from a great tragedy, the sudden death of his brother who had been his closest companion. Science would provide respite from his grief.
The Campo dei Fiori was the same place where the 16th century friar Giordano Bruno had been burnt for his heretical beliefs regarding multiple universes and Copernican astronomy. The boy mostly found books on theology and other topics which did not interest him, but tucked away in the heap was a two-volume compendium on physics by a Jesuit priest named Andrea Caraffa. Written in 1840, the volume expounded on all the classical physics that had been known until then. It was better than nothing and the boy bought it with the meager allowance he had saved. Taking it home he devoured it, not even noticing that it had been written in Latin.
Thus was launched Enrico Fermi's momentous career in physics. There is something exceedingly poignant about the fact that Italy's most famous scientific son found his life's bearings in a book written by a member of the Catholic Church, the same institution which three hundred years earlier had sent a scientific heretic to his death in exactly the same location.
Pope Francis might particularly appreciate this story. He has held favorable views on evolution and on the Big Bang and seems to be an ardent environmentalist. He listens to scientists and is open to their views, even when they might not strictly conform to his religious views. The fact that he has a technical degree in chemistry and is a Jesuit might have something to do with his take on science.
Wikipedia has a list of Jesuit scientists going back to the 17th century. The Jesuits were probably the first Christian sect who really emphasized institutions of learning and study. Jesuit scientists delved into topics across the spectrum of science, although astronomers seem to be especially prominent among them. There's Giovanni Zup who discovered the orbital phases of Mercury, Giovanni Saccheri who wrote on Non-Euclidean geometry, Benito Vines who was known as 'Father Hurricane' and Pierre Chardin who was involved in the discovery of Peking Man
But perhaps the most prominent Jesuit scientist is the Belgian priest Georges Lemaitre who in 1927 first came up with the idea for the Big Bang theory through his vision of a "cosmic egg". In doing this Lemaitre went against both Einstein and the Pope; the Pope because he was uncomfortable with Lemaitre's implications for a "first cause" that excluded God, and Einstein because for once his intuition failed him. When Einstein first saw Lemaitre's theory he is said to have said, "Your ideas are correct but your physics is abominable". In this case, quite simply, Lemaitre was correct and Einstein was wrong, no small feat for an obscure "amateur" from a country removed from the mainstream of mid-twentieth century physics.
Among the most prominent recent Jesuits is Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno. Many of these Jesuits studied at prominent universities and later occupied faculty positions themselves. Their contributions to and study of science would be consistent with the Jesuit emphasis on scholarship. In their missionary work Jesuits often took the message of science to people on other continents. For instance it was a Jesuit who helped found the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science. Jesuits also introduced Western astronomy to China during their travels there and in turn brought back original Chinese research back to the West. Most prominently, Jesuits have founded many influential schools and colleges - including Georgetown University and Boston College - which emphasize teaching and research in science. Compared to other members of the Church, Jesuits' record on science is not bad at all.
The long Jesuit association with science demonstrates that it is very much possible for science and religion to co-exist in harmony and for one to inspire the other. Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno sees both science and religion as instruments allowing us to explore the universe and our role in it. Both spark debate and dialogue, and both shed light on human nature and thought. The website of the Jesuit society of the United States says that
"From the early days of the founding of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits have been engaged in various intellectual enterprises. These have included teaching, research, and writing. The Jesuit thrust to "find God in all things" has had the result that these efforts were not solely confined to the more "ecclesiastical" disciplines (like philosophy and theology), but were extended to the more "mundane" or "secular" disciplines. In the areas of science and technology many Jesuits have made, and continue to make, contributions. These contributions range from astronomy and algebra to natural history and geography."

In their quest to "find God in all things" the Jesuits are voicing an opinion similar to what Newton voiced when he said that for him, God was in the essential nature of the universe. For Newton God was the name of the entity that sowed the deep mysteries of the cosmos for us to reap. You don't have to believe in any kind of supernatural God to appreciate how such a view might not just be consistent with scientific inquiry but might even greatly encourage it, obsessively so in Newton's case. Einstein too used God as a metaphor for the mysteries of the universe that could be uncovered through playful inquiry. Einstein and Newton both shared the Jesuits' emphasis on finding their chosen objective in scientific investigation and they both saw scientific inquiry as a great game. It's a view that Consolmagno clearly relishes:

"Doing science is like playing a game with God, playing a puzzle with God. God sets the puzzles and after I can solve one, I can hear him cheering, "Great, that was wonderful, now here's the next one." It's the way I can interact with the Creator. 

Consolmagno seems to have perfectly reconciled his scientific and religious views.

The new Pope is a Jesuit with an appreciation of science, but he is also a human being who has to conform to the opinions of more than a billion of his followers around the world, so it's unlikely that he will turn into an outright atheist or agnostic any time soon. We will have to wait to hear his opinions on the various scientific topics with which the Church has wrested, as well as new ones which confront us today: for instance what does he think about CRISPR and germline gene editing? And what are his view on fusing humans with machines to give rise to an unprecedented form of artificial intelligence?

But whatever the new Pope has to say, I find satisfaction in the fact that a Jesuit with a science background - an intellectual descendant of Andrea Caraffa and Pierre Chardin - is far from the worst that the Church can do when it comes to science.


  1. Just to clarify, Jesuits are not a "Christian sect", which would imply that they can hold different ideas and beliefs from the Catholic Church. The correct term is "Religious Order" meaning that they are recognized by the Catholic Church and as Catholics recognize the Church's and the pope's authority.

    Also, the pope doesn't have to conform with the opinions of its followers. Rather, its the other way around, and only in the case when he speaks about faith and moral issues. The rest is opinable (politics, economics, science, whatever topic comes to mind), and Catholics, exercising their freedom can think what they want.

  2. One of the nice thing about the Catholic Church (as opposed to Baptists and atheist, for example) is that it often says, "We don't know. All we know is that God's word --as written in the Bible, as it is written in our hearts and bodies, and as it is written in the physical universe, cannot contradict itself. If there seems to be a contradiction, then our understanding of one or the other needs correction."
    I don't have many nice words about many Jesuits (they often go off the rails, especially when it comes to teaching), but Br. Consolmagno is one of the most personable, wisest, and articulate Jesuits I know.
    Among other things, his experience in the Peace Corps introduced him to what makes us human (whether Catholic, Pagan, Atheist, or Moslem): We gaze at the stars in wonder.
    And (speaking as an engineer) building a telescope doesn't make that wonder go away.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS