When it comes the Catholic Church and science all we tend to hear about is the Galileo affair. St. John Paul II apologized for various aspects the Church’s handling of Galileo, but it is a lot more complicated than post-modern scientists like to let on. Galileo is a way for Rationalists to assault faith. It is to paint the Church as anti-science and superstitious. To be sure, there are some Christians who are anti-science, who have accepted a false concordism. That is not the Catholic Church’s position. In fact, the Church has its own scientific wing, namely the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which not only welcomes the work of Catholics, but people of many faiths, including atheists. For now let’s abandon this tired narrative and look at 11 groundbreaking Catholic scientists, many of whom were priests.*
1. Copernicus (1473–1543)
Remember Copernicus?! The Catholic priest who practiced medicine and then went into astronomy developing heliocentrism. He discovered that the earth is not the center of the universe, not even of this solar system. He is believed to have entered the priesthood later in life. His contributions to astronomy revolutionized the field and the world.
2. Albertus Magnus, O.P. (before 1200 – 1280)
What’s a list of major intellectual achievements without a Dominican or two on the list?! Fr. Albertus Magnus is the patron saint of the natural sciences and a Doctor of the Church because of his great work in in physics, logic, metaphysics, biology, and psychology.
3. Georges Lemaître (1894–1966)
Belgian priest and father of the Big Bang Theory. Fr. Lemaitre was a contemporary of, and based his work on Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Lemaitre also spent time serving as the Director of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
4. Gregor Mendel (1822-1884)
Gregor Mendel was an Augustinian Friar who was the founder of the modern science of genetics. Yep! The study of genetics was started by a Catholic priest. If you have taken a science class and had to learn the terms “recessive” and “dominant” it is thanks to Fr. Mendel.
5. Giuseppe Mercalli (1850–1914)
Priest, volcanologist, and director of the Vesuvius Observatory who is best remembered today for his Mercalli scale for measuring earthquakes which is still in use. Yes, the scientific inquiry of Catholics knows no bounds, even volcanoes and earthquakes have been studied.
6. William of Ockham (c. 1288 – c. 1348)
Have you heard of Ockham’s Razor? He is the Franciscan Scholastic who wrote significant works on logic, physics, and theology; known for Ockham’s Razor. Yet, another Catholic priest’s whose work had a huge impact on the natural sciences.
7. Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598–1671)
Jesuit astronomer who authored Almagestum novum, an influential encyclopedia of astronomy. He was the first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a freely falling body; created a selenograph with Father Grimaldi who now adorns the entrance at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. Catholic priests remembered at the Smithsonian!
8. Francesco Maria Grimaldi (1618 – 1663)
There are a lot of Jesuit priest-scientists! Fr. Grimaldi was an Italian Jesuit priest, mathematician and physicist who taught at the Jesuit college in Bologna. A crater on the moon is named Grimaldi after him.
9. Nicolas Steno (1638-1686)
Nicholas Steno made great strides in anatomy and geology. He eventually became a Catholic Bishop. Various parts of the body are named after him: Stensen’s duct, Stensen’s gland, Stensen’s vein, and Stensen’s foramina. He is also the founder of the study of fossils.
10. George V. Coyne, S.J. (born January 19, 1933)
How about somebody current? Fr. Coyne is a Jesuit priest, astronomer, and former director of the Vatican Observatory and head of the observatory’s research group which is based at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. Since January 2012, he has served as McDevitt Chair of Religious Philosophy at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY.
11. Fr. Stanley Jaki (1914-2009)
Fr. Jaki was a Hungarian Benedictine priest and Distinguished Professor of Physics at Seton Hall University, New Jersey. He most notably taught that science developed out of Christianity and he bridged the divide in the manufactured division between science and faith. You can read about his teaching in the book Science Was Born of Christianity by Stacy Trasancos.
One of the best ways to become more acquainted with the Catholic Church’s position on science and faith, is to read the encyclical Humani Generis as well as Fides et Ratio.
The next time someone accuses the Church of being anti-science, be sure to share the great scientific advances that have occurred throughout history thanks to Catholic scientists, including a great many who were priests. SCIENCE!!!!