Faith and Science

Question 29.

This article reflects on Q 29 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "Why is there no contradiction between faith and science?"

“I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe.” (Saint Augustine)

See also Catechism 159.

1. Common Origin in God

The Compendium states, “there can never be a contradiction between faith and science because both originate in God”.

2. Appearance of Contradiction

So why do there appear to be conflicts between faith and science? There is an opening for such conflict because the truths of the faith need to be expressed in ways that are understandable in different thought-worlds. There is a distinction between the truths affirmed in the dogmas of the Church and the ways they are explained. These explanations can take on different forms depending on the listeners. In a pre-literate, pre-modern society truths would need to be expressed in ways such as story, symbol and law. In an intellectually sophisticated society the truths of the faith may also need to be expressed in more technical and philosophical ways. Otherwise, some will not listen long enough to find out what is really being said.

3. Engagement with Developing Culture

Over the history of the Church there have been difficulties of this kind. In the early Church, the apostles came from a Jewish background, but quickly came into dialogue with Greek culture, with its already developed philosophy. Some of the councils of the church in the first centuries had to develop dogmatic formulas drawing on this philosophical background to express in non-biblical language some of the doctrines about Christ and the Trinity. In more modern times, the interpretation of Scripture has had to take into account historical and critical studies. Prior to that, many passages in Scripture were treated in a more literal way which would now be inadequate with respect to their critical grounding. This does not mean that the people then were simple-minded. It is simply that now we face new questions that they had no way of asking. Much of this new questioning comes from what we can broadly call science, both the natural sciences and the human sciences. New possibilities of systematic inquiry have opened in these fields.

4. Materialism Mistaken for Science

Such science poses no essential problem, but it can become a problem when scientists intermingle philosophical, or even implied theological stances, in their scientific theories, not realising adequately that they have done so. For example, as regards biological evolution, some are able to contain their scientific studies within properly scientific bounds, or at least they have this intention. But others present an intermingling of science and philosophical materialism as if it was simply science. Many scientists simply assume that a reductive materialism is part of the definition of science itself. This attitude does not only occur as an oversight or a lack of education, but is also driven by some who have adopted an ideology hostile to faith and the Church.

There is a strange misconception that is common in our times. It is the idea that faith is something that inhibits reason, leading to a narrowing of inquiry. The truth is the complete opposite. Faith sets reason free to be itself by affirming two things, (1) being is good, and (2) reason can yield true knowledge of being. By contrast a secularist attitude leads to a narrowing of reason, reducing it to merely material and instrumental knowledge, and a denial of the larger reality of what it is to be human. Faith is not 'outside' reason, let alone opposed to it. Faith is in the heart of reason, healing it of its own distortions. The most influential of these distortions in our day is the loss of belief in objective truth. This is not a conclusion based on science, but is a loss of faith in reason itself. Christian faith restores faith in human reason.

5. Engagement with Philosophy

In order to restore faith in reason, the Church insists on a philosophy, and one that gives full scope to reason, but which respects the openness of inquiry. Such openness means that we cannot exclude the question of God, and of the full human reality beyond the material. This should not infringe on science but can help scientists to better articulate the boundaries of their discipline. Scientists need a better education in philosophical foundations, and philosophers need to engage with science to help clarify what kind of boundary it is that distinguishes the scientific and philosophical enterprises.

6. Two-Way Dialogue between Faith and Science

The relationship between faith and science is not one-way. It is not only the Church setting boundaries for science. It is a dialogue, in which science can help the Church clarify its own doctrines. There can be a temptation among some believers to devalue the place of reason. This leads to defects such as fideism, or fundamentalism. In these views, science has no proper autonomy, and nothing to offer except the merely pragmatic. But this accentuates reductive trends already present among some scientists. It also has a reductive effect on religion. It tends to fixate theological development at a particular stage and ‘canonises’ one way of expressing the faith. This rigidity becomes counter-productive, both for mission and for the internal faith of the church. Christians should be, and generally have been, at the forefront of developments in reason, precisely because of the full openness to inquiry inherent in the faith.

There is the further problem that some Christian communities, having separated themselves from the Catholic Church, lose its moderating influence and see dangers to the faith where none need exist. The whole 'science versus evolution' conflict is of this type. It is mainly a problem about the interpretation of Scripture, not about science. Yet in the broader public mind it tars Christianity as a whole with the brush of anti-reason.

7. Inculturation of the Faith

The solution is unity in faith and a thorough inculturation of the faith. The faith must not be something antiquated but something always new. It penetrates to the depths of every venture of reason, accompanying reason to keep it true to itself, to maintain its proper openness. In the process it preserves the freshness and suppleness of the faith. The faith serves science by accompanying it in the truth.

8. Rationalism Opposes Faith

Although this expresses what should happen, in practice people can abandon that dialogue and opt for one side or the other. It is no accident that Christian fundamentalism arose in modern times as a reaction against rationalist developments in Christianity. Without an engagement in the tension of open inquiry, both faith and science become isolated and rigid, opposing each other as extremes, in which each excludes the other. People these days can be very quick to condemn fundamentalism while overlooking the fact that it is a reaction against rationalism, which in our times is the bigger problem, since it is the stance adopted by the most powerful.