The National Library of Medicine
When the Danish polymath Niels Stensen offered his final scientific lecture, he returned to his intellectual roots: the study of anatomy. He had discovered three parts of the human body that still bear his name today: Stensen’s duct in the salivary glands, the foramina of Stensen at the roof of the mouth and Stensen’s veins in the eyes. Standing in a dissection theater, ready to present a female cadaver, he encouraged his audience to be drawn beyond discomfort or disgust to a deeper awe and reverence for the human body. The path ahead, he assured them, was a path of beauty, moving from observation to understanding to faith and praise of the Creator, whose wisdom and goodness the structure of the body reflects: “Beautiful is what we see,” he exclaimed, “more beautiful is what we understand; most beautiful of all is what we cannot understand.” The year was 1673.
Not two years later, this convert to Catholicism followed the path of beauty that science had opened to him to the priesthood. Later he became a bishop and would be known to history as Blessed Nicolas Steno. “If he is famous for the discoveries made in the field of anatomy,” Pope St. John Paul II would remark at Steno’s 1988 beatification, “more important is what he shows us with his life choices. . . . Through the ‘science of the heart’ [he] found God, the Creator of all that exists and savior of the world.”
The segments of Steno’s path to God — science, understanding, adoration — are all present within Catholic education today, but the connections between them have become obscure. Guided by his example, I would trace those connections myself, but only after being knocked around by three major events. One was Hurricane Katrina, which upended my life and career as a theologian living in New Orleans. Another was the crisis in science education that was threatening America’s economic future at the start of the new millennium. Third was the crisis of faith that still tears at the religious identity of young American Catholics today. The combined force of these three things set me, a scholar of scriptural interpretation in the Middle Ages, on a journey toward a renewed vision of Catholic education in the 21st century, and with that to the University of Notre Dame.
“Rising Above the Gathering Storm” was the title of a 2005 report to Congress by the national academies of science, engineering and medicine describing the weak state of science and technology education in the United States and proposing a new agenda for educating America’s children. President Barack Obama made this crisis a major theme of his administration, memorably expressed in his 2011 State of the Union address promise to “prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math” — in other words, STEM education from sea to shining sea.
STEM approaches now permeate U.S. education and no less in Catholic schools, where teachers have made great efforts to push past “teaching to the test” and toward “learning science by doing science.” STEM education is integrative, evidence-based and creative, focused on a deep comprehension of how the world works from the Big Bang to the biosphere, and it addresses how we might better and more responsibly harness scientific resources.
Accompanying the STEM movement was a surge of religious disaffiliation among young Catholics, a majority of whom now point to an understanding of the world inspired by science as their chief intellectual obstacle to remaining in the Church. According to a 2014 study by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, 72 percent of young adult American Catholics see faith and science as locked in inherent conflict, and 78 percent of those who have left the faith cite it as a significant reason for disaffiliating from the Church. In a 2016 study, one adolescent interviewee put the matter succinctly: “As I learn more about the world around me and understand things that I once did not, I find the thought of an all-powerful being to be less and less believable.” Another, when asked what would serve as sufficient motivation to return to the Catholic Church, said it would require “replicable, peer-reviewed, conclusive proof that a deity exists and I’m guaranteed a happy afterlife.”
The middle segment of Steno’s path, understanding, seems to many young Catholics to veer entirely away from faith. Of course, the idea of conflict between the Christian faith and science is not new; indeed, it is almost universally assumed in contemporary culture. It is clear that to so many young Catholics, even those who have attended Catholic schools, no other possibility has been suggested — much less robustly proposed.
Superficially, Steno himself could be blamed for this modern assumption of a conflict between science and faith, because it was his own incredible discoveries beyond his roots in human anatomy that indirectly made the idea of such a conflict possible. In 1666, while dissecting the head of a great white shark that had been caught near the Tuscan port city of Livorno, he noticed that its teeth bore a strong resemblance to the so-called tongue-stones common on the Mediterranean island of Malta. He realized the tongue-stones were actually ancient shark teeth, an insight that mystified him because they — along with seashells — were often found on the island’s high cliffs and mountaintops. Unraveling this mystery led him, after much further investigation, to develop a detailed theory of the origin of fossils and of sedimentary rock that was essentially correct but very controversial at the time. Steno’s theory of how geological strata formed would enable people to understand the extensive nature of the history of the Earth and of life, laying the groundwork for another keen observer of the natural world, Charles Darwin, two centuries later to hypothesize evolution over millions of years.
But this new discovery did not disturb Steno’s faith. In fact, his celebrated conversion to Catholicism took place only one year later. Great Catholic thinkers, of which he is undoubtedly one, have perennially applauded the human quest for understanding natural laws and causes, not in order to get God out of the picture but to glorify him. While interpreting the Book of Genesis, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas warned that “in the founding of the first order of nature, we must not look for miraculous divine intervention, but for what is in accordance with nature.” For Aquinas, as for St. Augustine before him, God is not one cause among many. He is the Cause of all causes; the more creatures can do, Augustine thought, the more they show forth the power of God. Closer to our own day, St. John Henry Newman once remarked that he would “go the whole [way] with Darwin” before dispensing with the obvious biological connection between monkeys and men. His witness is not the exception but the rule of the Catholic approach to scientific progress. In short, science and Catholicism are friends, not foes.
To see the friendly unity that can exist between faith and science, we must first distinguish the claims they make, for which a fanciful analogy may be helpful.
Imagine enjoying a sunny afternoon at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, during which you notice a spacecraft landing nearby in an empty field. An alien approaches you and asks about the “noise” coming from the stage. You begin by telling her what the music is called, point out the instruments it involves, even talk a little music theory: harmony, keys, octaves and so on. She soon responds, “Now I understand how the music is played, but not why everyone is so excited about it,” and you realize you haven’t explained why music is composed or performed or what meaning it holds for you and the other fans.
You might then add that people love music because it puts the experience of being human into beautiful sounds: Music is about experiencing life from a new perspective. You might also say it unites the musicians and fans in a common experience: Music is about relationships. You might further reflect that, through poetry and musical artistry, one is drawn out of ordinary life and one’s own experience for a moment: Music is about transcendence.
Like your first explanation of music, science approaches the physical universe according to its intrinsic rules and patterns, telling us how it all works. Like your second explanation, faith approaches the universe according to what the whole system means: why it exists, its role in human happiness, questions about its Creator and his intentions for it. Accordingly, these why questions and how questions, taken together, provide a fuller picture, a deeper understanding, of reality. In the words John Paul II said to a group of university science students in 1986, “The theological teaching of the Bible, like the doctrine of the Church . . . does not seek so much to teach us the how of things, as rather the why of things.”
Catholic education at its best is animated by this insight. According to a pivotal 1977 document from the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, a Catholic school is called to be “a synthesis of faith and culture, reached by integrating all of human knowledge through the subjects taught in the light of the Gospel” — a light that doesn’t alter what it illuminates, but rather shows it in all its glory. But today’s religion teachers find themselves shouldered with the expectation that they focus on doctrine to the detriment of interdisciplinary engagement. In 2007, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops mandated that all religious textbook publishers follow a strict framework pegged to the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The burgeoning STEM movement exposed a major weakness in this strategy, the tendency to teach doctrine divorced from life and thought — a “deskbound theology” in Pope Francis’ phrase, incapable of convincing anyone.
Were it not for being in the destructive path of Hurricane Katrina, and the farsightedness of a Catholic educational leader who reached out to me while my young family and I were still refugees, I probably would have remained a deskbound theologian myself, incapable of embracing Steno’s vision of ever-ascending beauty. One week after we evacuated our flooded suburban New Orleans home, and almost a year before we could return to it, I received a call from Father Bry Shields, the president of McGill-Toolen Catholic High School in Mobile, Alabama, who had heard about me from a member of his faculty, a close friend who knew I was in trouble. The school had just completed a capital campaign titled Scientia pro amore Dei — “Science for the love of God.” They were preparing to break ground on a new science building, with new labs and new curricula. McGill-Toolen was at the vanguard of the STEM revolution.
Yet Shields also recognized that improved scientific literacy would prompt deeper questions from students about God and the universe, Catholic doctrine and scientific discovery. He invited me to develop a one-semester faith and science curriculum to prepare the school’s theology faculty to meet these new expectations. Even as we spoke, the rising floodwaters in New Orleans were threatening the viability of a fall semester at the small Catholic college where I taught, so I accepted his invitation.
Over the ensuing months we considered together where and how this integration might happen at McGill-Toolen. As receptive as the science and theology teachers were to the project, many lacked confidence. No religion teacher at McGill-Toolen had been hired because they knew science, and no science teacher could be expected to have much formal training in theology. Yet we needed enough interdisciplinary understanding and genuine appreciation to foster collaboration among them.
The biggest obstacle was my own perspective — or lack thereof. Much of what I had envisioned for the curriculum was apologetic in nature — a defense of the Catholic faith against the animosity of its cultured despisers, a kind of intellectual judo. The Catholic journalist David Gibson recently observed in these pages that apologetics is not evangelization: “If you’re explaining,” he wrote, “you’re losing.” Defending the faith is how I had been trained in the 1980s and ’90s, the heyday of the apologetics movement. But such an approach would fail to celebrate the richness of scientific discovery, taking a posture that assumed conflict and sought a short-term, costly victory over scientific culture — or at least called a truce with it. We needed instead to rise above controversy and polemics. After all, Steno’s path was not characterized by fear of scientific progress; rather his courageous embrace of it drew him toward the “most Beautiful,” the Absolute Mystery of God.
Providentially, the pope who beatified Steno, John Paul II, supplied the compass we needed to find our way forward.
In the fall of 1987, the Holy Father delivered a keynote address to an international conference hosted by the Vatican Observatory, later published as a letter to its director, the Jesuit astronomer Rev. George V. Coyne. His message was unequivocal: Science and religion must achieve a “relational unity” founded on mutual flourishing, not compromise, for the sake of a better future.
To be authentic, he argued, the dialogue must be free of any insinuation that science is a necessary premise for faith, or that faith is foundational to science: “We are asked to become one. We are not asked to become each other,” he said. Unity was necessary, he asserted, because truth is never served by segregating its sources; authentic wisdom comes from seeing the world in a way that unites many factors in a common vision. “We move towards unity as we move towards meaning in our lives,” he declared.
In 1992, John Paul II called Galileo a ‘more perceptive’ biblical interpreter than the theologians who had opposed him.
This relational unity would serve the purposes of both theology and science, he continued. For theology, reflections on faith “have too often become sterile,” lacking a “dynamic relationship” with science. For science, due to limitations of method and scope, questions of value and meaning require moving beyond science to a wider wisdom. The novelist Walker Percy once wryly observed that science explains everything except one, small detail: “what it means to be a human living in the world who must die.” In dialogue with philosophy and theology, scientists would discover that the fruits of research cannot replace “knowledge of the truly ultimate.” In two memorable sentences the pope summarized the opportunity: “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.”
But whatever benefit the pope saw for scientists, it is clear he wanted theologians to stop merely defending the faith against science and commence a serious, positive engagement with it. Sweeping away the suspicion of some of his predecessors, he posed to theologians a series of hopeful questions with serenity and confidence: Why hasn’t theological reflection on creation engaged contemporary Big Bang cosmology, he asked, and why has the science of evolution been neglected in understanding the human person as the image of God? Wouldn’t our rich Christian hope for eternal life be both tested and served by thinking about it in light of the vastness of the future that we — thanks to contemporary physics — now know stretches before the universe?
Christians would suffer from a refusal to engage science “with depth and nuance or with a shallowness that debases the Gospel and leaves us ashamed before history,” John Paul II warned. Sadly, the data shows that shallowness has too often prevailed over depth and nuance in the formation of young Catholics.
Thanks to the pope’s vision, our efforts at McGill-Toolen became a weeklong seminar in summer 2011, aptly named the Steno Learning Program in Faith and Science. High school science and religion teachers undertook a reading program designed by the expert scientists, theologians and philosophers who led the event. Much time was spent in dialogue, where teachers offered impressions, asked questions and shared some of the difficulties they had encountered in their classrooms: how to teach evolution and the Big Bang alongside the biblical creation accounts; how to infuse anatomy classes with gratitude for the Creator; how to teach an elective on faith and science from a background in physics or chemistry — or religion, for that matter.
The experience became the “vital” interchange between science and theology the pope had called for in his letter. It was vivifying to witness scientists and religion teachers, some of whom had worked in the same building for decades, speak with each other about their subjects for the first time, developing a deepening mutual respect and learning from each other. Prejudices and misunderstandings on both sides surfaced and were gently but firmly dispelled. An unforgettable moment occurred when a moderator invited a science teacher to read aloud the Roman Inquisition’s 1633 condemnation of Galileo, then asked another to share his 1992 vindication by John Paul II, who called the great astronomer a “more perceptive” biblical interpreter than the theologians who had opposed him. The horizon beyond defensiveness, the quintessential vision of Blessed Nicolas Steno and St. John Paul II, began to emerge.
Two other encounters stand out in my memory. “When I signed up for this event,” a religion teacher told me, “I believed that all that evolution stuff was anti-God nonsense and for many years had taught my students to doubt the science. But now I see that it is true, and something our students should know. I now know how to help them see it without losing sight of the greatest truth, the truth about God.”
One science teacher had taught at St. Mary’s Dominican in New Orleans for 35 years. “I am Methodist,” she told the seminar group, “and you all know how much I love this place. But with our emphasis on Catholic identity, I’ve always wondered how I fit in. Now I know: By being the best science teacher I can be, I am already at the heart of our mission.”
Today the model we pioneered at McGill-Toolen has become the centerpiece of the Science & Religion Initiative of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life. The SRI offers summer seminars on campus and conducts professional development days at Catholic high schools across the United States.The work has led me to imagine what might happen if teachers across the major disciplines — social studies, literature, fine arts, mathematics, athletics — were given the same opportunity to be mentored and become mentors in the great work of synthesizing faith and culture, to foster Catholic academic integration across the curriculum, with a common vision that embraces all paths of knowing.
“Beautiful is what we see; more beautiful is what we understand; most beautiful of all is what we cannot understand.” What Steno claimed of anatomy is equally true of all forms of scientific investigation. His exhortation reveals the unique vantage point that a Catholic education can provide students today. A true integration of faith and science can offer STEM competency a motive beyond merely bulwarking America against the “gathering storm” of international economic competition. It might also offer the Church a new generation of leaders who can squarely face the intellectual factors behind religious disaffiliation. In the words of Pope Francis, “When . . . the sciences are taken up into the proclamation of the Gospel . . . water is changed into wine.” But in this modern-day miracle of faith-science dialogue, as Francis’ predecessor John Paul II wisely foretold, it is the proclamation of faith, not the science, that is transformed.
Chris Baglow is director of the Science & Religion Initiative of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life. He is the author of Creation: A Catholic’s Guide to God and the Universe (Ave Maria Press, 2021).