[asa] On American Catholics and science

From: Ted Davis <TDavis@messiah.edu>
Date: Tue Jul 29 2008 - 11:50:02 EDT

In the period I've been studying for the past few years, namely ca. 1900 to
1935, it was common to find leading American scientists who regarded
Catholicism as inherently anti-scientific, even backward. Ditto for some
leading Protestant clergy who were "scientifically informed." It's hard to
figure out exactly why, but my sense is that all of the following were
factors.

(1) The Eucharist, as Mike Gene notes

(2) The Galileo affair. Vatican archives were opened up around 1870 (that
might be the exact year, but it's close enough), and that generation of
scholars was looking for excuses to blame the Roman church entirely for this
episode, overlooking anything that Galileo did to contribute to his downfall
(he was no choir boy).

(3) The rise of Neo-Thomism, and the official claim of Papal inerrancy
(also 1870).

(4) Catholic opposition to eugenics (bless 'em), despite a few priests who
were initially enthusiastic. Eugenics was real, genuine science in the
early 20th century, so Catholic opposition was seen in some quarters as
ignorant obscurantism.

(5) The fact that, of all major religious groups in this country, Catholics
were the least likely to be numbered among the "elite" of American
scientists. There weren't many Catholic scientists generally, in this
country at that point, but virtually none who had that coveted "star" next
to their name in "American Men of Science," the standard biographical
listing then. (I mean that "star" thing literally--if an elite committee
regarded you as good enough to be in their club, they put an asterisk next
to your entry. This persisted until the 1940s.) This information is not
anecdotal; it emerges from some formal studies at the time. Catholics had
not yet really mainstreamed themselves in our nation--remember, we didn't
even have a Catholic president until JFK, even though we'd had several who
weren't Trinitarian Christians. Many were recent immigrants, but even the
old-line families tended to favor the Catholic colleges and universities,
which in those days were pretty separatist in attitude and often neo-Thomist
in their philosophical approach to science. I don't want to be too hard on
Thomas here--it's hard to find a greater mind in the 13th century--but
modern science wasn't built on a scholastic base.

Ted

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Received on Tue Jul 29 11:50:59 2008

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