by R Jeffrey Grace
One of the most vexing issues facing ministers in the Church is the pastoral impact of the debates raging in our media and schools over the implications of evolution for those of us who believe that God created “the heavens and the earth” which includes human kind. At the heart of this vexation lies a very critical and fundamental issue: The nature of sacred doctrine and how it relates to the disciplines of science. There probably isn’t a better thinker to turn to for this issue than St. Thomas Aquinas. At the very beginning of his Summa Theologica, he lays the foundation for the study of sacred doctrine and its relationship to the rest of the sciences. We will begin with a careful look at Aquinas’ starting point and then see how it might be applied to some scientific issues which have seemed to conflict with sacred doctrine.
Sacred Doctrine and Science
Aquinas begins his consideration of the nature and extent of sacred doctrine by distinguishing 10 points, or 10 questions:
1) Whether it is necessary?
2) Whether it is a science?
3) Whether it is one or many?
4) Whether it is speculative?
5) How it is compared with the other sciences?
6) Whether it is the same as wisdom?
7) Whether God is its subject matter?
8) Whether it is a matter of argument?
9) Whether it rightly employs metaphors?
10) Whether the Sacred Scripture of this doctrine may be expounded in different senses.
Aquinas addresses the doubt that we need sacred doctrine. Sacred doctrine is the science (or rational reflection and discourse) which is based on revelation. Can’t we know all we need to know through the same process by which we know everything else? Why the need for revelation to expand our knowledge? It’s because the knowledge we receive from revelation is of something that is not available to us through the senses, our regular means of attaining knowledge. We cannot come to know God, which is what revelation makes known to us, through the other sciences because we cannot see, hear, smell, taste, or touch God. In fact, Aquinas even goes further and says we cannot know God in his essence. We can only know God through the effects of God. In other words, we can only gain knowledge of God through studying the natural world and discerning God’s effects in the natural world. Even that is not enough for our salvation. Without faith, our knowledge is limited to what we can know through our reason and that will not deliver enough knowledge to us for our salvation. We only see the hand of God in nature after we have gained the knowledge of God’s reality through revelation.
Aquinas notes that there are two kinds of theology, the first being a branch of philosophy which studies the natural world and finds there some trace of God. The second kind of theology is based not upon our experience of the natural world and reflection upon that experience but rather is based upon revelation as it’s starting point.
Sacred doctrine, then, is a science in the sense that it is a rational reflection upon the principles received through revelation. It’s not a science in the sense that the Trinity was discovered as a result of experimentation on something in a laboratory somewhere. The Real Presence isn’t proposed as a scientific theory or law as the result of studying a consecrated host under a microscope to discover it’s properties. The doctrine of the Real Presence is based on Sacred Scripture wherein Jesus declared “This is my body, this is my blood” and sacred doctrine is the science that takes this revelation as it’s principle and proceeds to explain what this means for us who are communicants.
How does this science of sacred doctrine differ from the other sciences? As already mentioned, the object, or thing studied, in sacred doctrine is something beyond the reach of the natural sciences. The natural sciences deal with reality as it is available to us through our senses, yet God is not available to our senses. Since knowledge of God is, in part, beyond the reach of sense experience and reason, God has decided to reveal it to us through sacred scripture and doctrine. Thus our knowledge is completed by sacred scripture so that we may know what is necessary for salvation.
Modern science is that branch of science that Aquinas described as the study of what is available to our sense experience. Through a long and tortuous history, the natural sciences eventually self-limited itself even further to intentionally focus on experience of the senses exclusively and further excluded any non-physical causes in their accounts of how things work. They determined that supernatural explanations were best left to the discipline of theology. This was done so that the focus of their work would not encompass any theological explanations for the phenomenon that they studied. By doing so, they discovered that they were able to arrive at explanations which were much more successful and powerful. The intent was to make themselves effectively agnostic even though many if not all of these scientists still affirmed the reality of God. They intended, however, to say nothing about God, pro or con, in their scientific endeavors.
This is not equivalent to saying there is no such thing as God. The problematic statements coming from some scientists who believe their work as a scientist proves there is no God are actually based upon ignorance. They have simply forgotten, whether by choice or not is an open question, that science intentionally restricted their field of inquiry. They’ve become mesmerized by their own self-imposed limits and have come to believe that since their work has excluded God as an explanation this therefore means that there is no such thing as God. Unfortunately, there is a plethora of people in the world that are without faith and are all to eager to have their lack of faith affirmed by “science.”
The point to take away from this is simply that when you hear a scientist make a statement to the effect that “Science has proven that God does not exist” then you can rest assured that this scientist doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of a reality that has been excluded from their field of study. If you ask around enough, you will find that most scientists are well aware of the fact that science has absolutely nothing to say about God, let alone whether there is a God or not. St. Thomas was very insistent on the point that sacred doctrine and science do not conflict. If there appeared to be a conflict it was due to a misreading of sacred scripture or an error in science. So how do we account for what is probably the most infamous example of what seems to be a conflict between science and sacred doctrine: the Galileo Affair? It might be worthwhile now to take these principles from St. Thomas and take a look at Galileo.
The Church and the Cosmological Revolution
To place the conflict between Galileo and the Church into context, recall that the accepted view of the world and the cosmos at that time was of an orderly hierarchy of sorts, where the earth sat at the middle of it all. As one ascended into the heavens one encountered perfect spheres within which the heavenly bodies were embedded. God was located beyond the outermost sphere. This realm where God was located was a realm of pure perfection and as you descended from this realm you became further removed from perfection, until the lowest realm, the material realm, was reached. That is where we were located on Earth.
This hierarchical view of the cosmos was understood to be reflected within the hierarchical structure of our society, where the Church was at the top followed by the rulers and on down to the lowly plebes of the land. As far as they could see, the Church leaders understood that once this cosmological model was shattered, it left the Church in the very unfortunate position of no longer reflecting the way things are structured. It would lose its status as the highest institution and its authority would be undermined.
It’s easy to look at what happened with Galileo and come to the conclusion that the Church is anti-science, but nothing could be further from the truth. The problem that the Church had with Galileo, and in fact the problems that arise in our time between science and religion, are driven by a pastoral concern rather than an opposition to science. At that time, to admit that the Church was wrong about the cosmos would have been devastating to all Christian believers. For them to say that the cosmos was not structured with the earth in the center was tantamount to saying that God did not exist. No one in our day and age expects the Catholic Church to make statements or claims that are scientific in nature. We don’t turn to the Church to hear an explanation of the theory of gravity for instance. But in Galileo’s time, people weren’t accustomed to the concept that while science and religion both make statements of truth, the truths being proclaimed flow from two different ways of describing the world we live in.
The problem for the Church then, as well as for some theologians now, is the discernment of the methods used and the nature of the knowledge gained by those methods and how those methods produce certain knowledge that is special to each discipline yet say something true about our world. If we take the Thomistic principles discussed earlier and apply them here, we can conclude that the theologian today has to resist the impulse to denounce a scientific theory simply for the reason that it conflicts with their theological model, and the scientist has to resist the temptation to claim that a finding of science invalidates a tenet of faith or doctrine. Neither one can really make such a claim because by doing so they are taking conclusions reached by their particular method and are attempting to address issues that require a different method. For example, a scientist will develop a theory of evolution and then proclaim that this theory invalidates a creator God. A scientist really has no grounds for such a claim, because such a claim is theological, not scientific. To reach such a conclusion the scientist would have to use a theological method to articulate a theological statement rather than try and make a theological conclusion from a scientific method. We need to avoid trying to make theological statements based on the scientific method and also from making scientific statements based on the theological method.
This is a pastoral concern, and one which the Church was really intent on when it strove to keep Galileo from undermining the faith of many who simply were not theologically equipped to understand the revolution in cosmology. It remains a pastoral concern for ministers in the present and a good grasp of the Thomistic principles discussed here will serve this mission well, in my opinion.