Re: [asa] On American Catholics and science

From: David Opderbeck <>
Date: Tue Jul 29 2008 - 13:15:36 EDT

Ted, it seems to me you're over-analyzing this a bit. During the period you
mention, Catholicism in general was subject to discrimination in America for
cultural and religious reasons going back to our Puritan founders, wasn't
it? The Catholic law school where I now teach was founded in the 1950's
because Irish and Italian Catholics were automatically denied admission to
establishment law schools precisely and simply because they were Irish,
Italian, and Catholic. So why should the American scientific establishment
have been any different?

On Tue, Jul 29, 2008 at 11:50 AM, Ted Davis <> wrote:

> 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
> To unsubscribe, send a message to with
> "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.

David W. Opderbeck
Associate Professor of Law
Seton Hall University Law School
Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology
To unsubscribe, send a message to with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Tue Jul 29 13:15:47 2008

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Tue Jul 29 2008 - 13:15:47 EDT