Christianity: Builder of Western Civilization (Part 2 of 4)

The University of Paris, one of the first medieval universities and arguably,
the most prestigious one during the period

To return to part 1 of this series, click here.

IV. Reason and Education

Another contribution of the Christian Church is that it cultivated a high regard for reason in medieval intellectual life and promoted education. To begin our discussion, let us look into the enshrinement of reason in the Middle Ages.

A. The Medieval Enshrinement of Reason

Reason was enshrined at the heart of medieval intellectual life because the Church, as educator of Europe, embraced it.  This acceptance of reason could be traced to early Christian thinkers.  As noted by atheist history writer Tim O’Neill:

Christian thinkers who had been trained in philosophy could see it [(Greek philosophy and learning)]  as something to be embraced.  God, they argued, was a rational intelligence and had created the universe along rational lines.  It made sense, therefore, that humans could and should use reason to understand his creation.  Clement of Alexandria [(150 – 215 AD)]  argued that just as the Jews had been given a divine gift of special religious revelation, so had the Greeks been given a gift of rational analysis.  Both were to be embraced and used.[1]

In addition to this, one of the few areas in which a reasonable number of texts survived after the fall of Rome was logic.  This caused medieval thinkers to pay great attention to this area.  As noted by history writer O’Neill:

One writer has compared the long road back from the intellectual catastrophe of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire on learning in western Europe to people after a nuclear holocaust trying to revive modern science with nothing but a few volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a copy of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.  Scholars in the Eighth or Ninth Centuries had just enough fragments of information to know that they had barely anything at all but not enough to begin reconstructing what had been lost.  What is interesting is what they did with the bits they had – they revered them.  These ancient writers, mostly pagans, were held up as all-knowing authorities and what elements of their works did survive were studied with immense reverence and painstaking scrutiny.  This meant particular attention was paid to one of the few areas in which a reasonable number of works had survived – logic, or “dialectic” as it was known.[2] 

The Church’s acceptance of reason as a tool of discovering the truth about world (in both religious and secular matters), logic being one of the few areas in which a reasonable number of texts had survived after the fall of Rome, and the Church assuming the role of educator of Europe led to reason being enshrined at the heart of medieval intellectual life.

B. The Founding of the University

After the fall of Rome, the initiative for the spread of learning in Europe would be taken up by the Church.  The Church’s monastic and cathedral schools educated Europe and as historian Joseph Lynch notes, these centers of learning “stimulated a change in the quality and quantity of intellectual life”.[3]  A major development, however, would occur in the 13th century, as a new institution would emerge from the Church — the university.[4]  As noted by historian Jacques Verger:

But at the same time, in the field of teaching, the early decades of the thirteenth century were marked by serious mutations and ruptures, which must also be considered.  Of these, the first and most visible was the appearance of an institutional structure which was completely new, without any real precedent and with an exceptional historical destiny: the university”.[5]

This institution developed from the Church’s cathedral schools.  As noted by leading historian Edward Grant:

The cathedral school was an evolutionary step on the path to the formation of the university, which was a wholly new institution that not only transformed the curriculum but also the faculty and its relationship to state and church.[6] 

As historian Lowrie Daly notes, the Church developed the university because it was “the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge”.[7] 

There are a number of aspects that made the university different from its precedent, the cathedral school, and all other previous institutions of higher learning in history.  The university had degrees (i.e.  graduate and post-graduate), courses of study, standardized curriculum, faculties, examinations, and thesis and thesis defense.[8]  The marks of the university we are intimately familiar with today originate from the Middle Ages.

The Church also introduced the concept of “the right to teach” (i.e.  licentia docendi) in its university system.[9]  Those who completed masters degrees were rendered qualified to teach at other universities across Europe.  This resulted in the creation of an international community of scholars, the effectiveness of which was enhanced by the fact that Europe was united under a single faith and shared Latin as a common language.  As noted by historian Hannam:

The shared religion of western Europe, as well as widespread knowledge of Latin, meant that medieval scholars formed a single international intelligentsia that was more closely knit than it has ever been since.[10]

Medieval universities found a great ally in the Pope, who, as one historian put it, “granted, increased, and protected their privileged status in a world of conflicting opinions”.[11]  To give a number of examples, Pope Honorius III sided with scholars at the university Bologna in 1220 against infringements on their liberties.  In 1231, when local diocesan officials encroached on the institutional autonomy of the university of Paris, Pope Gregory IX issued the bull Parens Scientiarum.  This document effectively granted the university of Paris the right of self-government, whereby it could make its own rules regarding courses and studies.[12]  The document also granted the university a separate papal jurisdiction, which freed it from future diocesan interference.  These decisions were historic because for the first time universities would be recognized as legal entities.  As noted by historian Daly, with Parens Scientiarum, the university “appears in legal history as a fully formed intellectual corporation for the advancement and training of scholars”.[13]  In the same document, the pope also sought to establish a just and peaceful environment for the university by granting a privilege known as “cessatio” — the right to suspend lectures and go on a general strike if its members were abused.[14]  On numerous occasions, the pope also intervened to force university authorities to pay professors their salaries.  Pope Boniface VIII, Clement V, Clement VI and Gregory IX all had to take such measures.[15]  Ultimately, on this issue, historian Henri Daniel-Rops comments:

Thanks to the repeated intervention of the papacy, higher education was enabled to extend its boundaries; the Church, in fact, was the matrix that produced the university, the nest whence it took flight.[16]

At medieval universities, students studied the seven liberal arts, along with civil and canon law, natural philosophy (their term for science), medicine and theology.[17] 

When it comes to the study of science at medieval universities, it is worth noting the access to scientific materials these institutions provided students,  and the proportion science took up in the curriculum.  As noted by historian of science Michael Shank:

Between 1150 and 1500 … Europeans had had access to scientific materials than any of their predecessors in earlier cultures, thanks largely to the emergence, rapid growth and naturalistic arts curricula of medieval universities … About 30 percent of the medieval university curriculum covered subjects and texts concerned with the natural world.[18]

Indeed, as historian Hannam notes, the Church “even insisted that science and mathematics should be a compulsory part of the syllabus”.[19]

A map of medieval universities

C. Academic Life

Let us now take a look at the academic life for students at these institutions.

The undergraduate or artist (student of the liberal arts) at a medieval university attended lectures and took part in debates in class.  Masters (professors) typically lectured on an important text, often drawn from classical antiquity.  Alongside these lectures, professors also posed a series of questions in class which were to be resolved through logical argument.[20]  These questions were posed in what was known as “ordinary disputation”.  The master would assign students to argue one or the other side of the question.  When their interaction had ceased, it was up to the master to resolve the question.  The final step in the degree program of medieval universities was an oral examination, wherein a student needed to determine a question by himself to the satisfaction of the faculty.  Before being permitted to take this oral exam, however, the student needed to prove that he was adequately prepared and fit to be evaluated.   

After obtaining an undergraduate degree, the student could begin to look for work or continue his studies to pursue a graduate degree (masters).  In order to obtain a masters degree, a student needed to possess and demonstrate competence within the canon of important works of Western civilization.  Historian Lowrie Daly gives an overview of texts with which the student needed to be familiar:

After his bachelorship, and before he petitioned for his license to teach, the student must have ‘heard at Paris or in another university’ the following Aristotelian works: Physics, On Generation and Corruption, On the Heavens, and the Parva Naturalia; namely, the treatises of Aristotle On Sense and Sensation, On Waking and Sleeping, On Memory and Remembering, On the Length and Shortness of Life.  He must also have heard (or have plans to hear) On the Metaphysics, and have attended lectures on the mathematical books.  [Historian]  Rashdall, when speaking of the Oxford curriculum, gives the following list of works, to be read by the bachelor between the period of his determination and his inception (mastership): books on the liberal arts: in grammar, Priscian; in rhetoric, Aristotle’s Rhetoric (three terms), or the Topics of Boethius (bk.  iv.), or Cicero’s Nova Rhetorica or Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Poetria Virgilii; in logic, Aristotle’s De Interpretatione (three terms) or Boethius’ Topics (bks.  1-3) or the Prior Analytics or Topics (Aristotle); in arithmetic and in music, Boethius; in geometry, Euclid, Alhacen, or Vitellio, Perspectiva; in astronomy, Theorica Planetarum (two terms), or Ptolemy, Almagesta.  In natural philosophy the additional works are: the Physics or On the Heavens (three terms) or On the Properties of the Elements or the Meteorics or On Vegetables and Plants or On the Soul or On Animals or any of the Parva Naturalia; in moral philosophy, the Ethics or Economics or Politics of Aristotle for three terms, and in metaphysics, the Metaphysics for two terms or for three terms if the candidate had not determined.[21]

After familiarizing himself with the specified texts through classes, the prospective Master needed to pass a series of tests and oral examinations.  After doing so, he would obtain his postgraduate degree and was deemed a Master himself, making him eligible to teach at other universities across Europe.

A medieval university class

D. Reason and the Medieval University

It is also worth expounding on the prominence of reason in medieval universities to better appreciate the impressiveness of academic life during this time.

First, it must be pointed out that logic was strongly emphasized in medieval universities.  As leading historian of science Edward Grant comments in his book “God and Reason In the Middle Ages”:

Judging from the various examples and sophisms that I have cited here, one can hardly avoid the conclusion that medieval logic was an extraordinarily difficult subject, although it undoubtedly appears much stranger to modern eyes than it would have to the medieval undergraduates who regularly grappled with it in their logic courses.  Nevertheless one marvels at the fact that logic courses based on syllogisms, fallacies, sophisms, and numerous other subdivisions of medieval logic were taught to all university students in the arts faculties of European universities … The textbooks and treatises that have been preserved, and from which excerpts have been presented here, were well organized, but enormously complex and difficult.  They are a tribute to the masters who wrote them, but even more remarkable is the fact that medieval undergraduates were required to cope with such difficult textsThrough their high-powered logic courses, medieval students were made aware of the subtleties of language and the pitfalls of argumentation.  Thus were the importance and utility of reason given heavy emphasis in a university education.[22]

Grant then goes on to lament how logic is not given its due importance in universities today:

By comparison to the Middle Ages, logic as a formal subject of study in the modern university is of little consequence.  Students are certainly not required to take it and most shun it as too difficult and demanding.  How ironic it is that although we live in an age of triumphant science, a science the very being and existence of which depends on reason and logical thought, there has been a concomitant diminution of the study of logic, the quintessential embodiment of reason.[23] 

Atheist history writer Tim O’Neill also notes how important logic was in medieval education:

A grasp of logic was central to Medieval education.  A student had to master it, via Boethius’ translations of Aristotle and other works, before they could tackle any other subjects.[24]

Second, the prominence of debate and argumentation at medieval universities must also be stressed further.  As history writer O’Neill notes, debate played a key role in determining advancement and prominence within the university system:

The other radical and crucial novelty in the university system was the way advancement and prominence in this system was not gained merely by mastering material from key texts, but by disputation and debate using set rules of formal logic.  Masters and doctors maintained their positions and their reputations (and therefore their incomes from students) by their ability to win debates, often throwing open the floor to all comers.  And brilliant students could rise quickly in reputation and renown by taking on these masters and beating them.[25] 

Debate was so prominent in medieval universities that disputation events were held at these institutions.  As O’Neill notes:

At least twice a year a university would hold a quodlibeta – a multi-day tournament of rigorous logical disputation where anyone could propose and defend any position on any subject at all.  Often highly radical, controversial, paradoxical or even heretical idea were presented [(as long as it was not presented as fact)], and participants had to defend or attack them using logic and reason alone … quodlibeta debates at Medieval universities were such open free-for-alls where all kinds of radical and even heretical ideas could be proposed to see if they stood up to logical analysis.[26]

A discussion on reason in the Middle Ages would not be complete without a look at the scholastics. 

E. The Age of Scholasticism

It is also worth looking at how reason was enshrined in the minds and writings of scholastic philosophers and theologians, most of whom held formal academic posts at universities.  The use of reason among these thinkers is famously exemplified by their use of the “scholastic method”, which was, as historian Hannam put it, an “extremely methodical and carefully organized system that medieval philosophers used to construct rational arguments”.[27] The scholastic tradition dominated the academe during the high and late middle ages (1000 – 1500 AD). As a result, the period can be referred to as “the age of scholasticism”.[28] Historian Woods, commenting on the scholastics says:

The Scholastics, by and large, were committed to the use of reason as an indispensable tool in theological and philosophical study, and to dialectic — the juxtaposition of opposing positions, followed by a resolution of the matter at hand by recourse to both reason and authority — as the method of pursuing issues of intellectual interest.  As the tradition matured, it became common for Scholastic treatises to follow a set pattern: posing a question, considering arguments on both sides, giving the writer’s own view, and answering objections.[29]

In order to develop a better appreciation of the scholastics, let us look into a number of individuals within the tradition. 

St.  Anselm (1033-1109), like other scholastics, used reason to explore philosophical and theological questions.  In his Cur Deus Homo, for example, Anselm examines from a rational point of view why it was appropriate and fitting for God to have become man.[30]  Anselm is also known for developing a rational proof for the existence of God known as the ontological argument, which he lays out in his Proslogion.  This simple and fascinating argument, would be taken up by later thinkers (e.g.  Lebiniz, Godel, Platinga, etc), who would come up with their own formulations of it.  Today, the ontological argument continues to generate significant discussion and interest in philosophical circles.  Anselm, however, differed from most scholastics in that he did not hold a formal academic post at a university.  He served as abbot of the monastery of Bec and later as the archbishop of Canterbury.

Another scholastic would be Peter Lombard (1100-1160), a master at the university of Paris and a later archbishop of the same city.   Lombard’s work, the Sentences, became the central textbook for students of theology for the next five centuries.[31]  The book employed reason in the explanation of theological points.  Historian Woods describes the work as “a systematic exposition of the Catholic faith, including discussion on everything from God’s attributes to such topics as sin, grace, the Incarnation, redemption, the virtues, the sacraments, and the Four Last Things (death, judgement, heaven and hell)”.[32]

A discussion on the scholastics of course would be incomplete without St.  Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest intellects of all time and the prime exponent of the scholastic method.[33]  His magnum opus, the Summae Theologicae, raised and answered thousands of questions in theology and philosophy, ranging from the existence of God, to the justice of war, to whether all vices should be criminalized (St.  Thomas said no).[34]  Aquinas also developed five rational proofs for the existence of God. Commenting on the influence of Aquinas, historian Hannam notes:

Aquinas was made a saint less than 50 years after his death.  He was a humble and devout man, as no one doubts, but he owes his canonisation to his phenomenal works of philosophy and theology.  They have been one of the intellectual bulwarks of Catholicism ever since, to the extent that the Church has awarded him the title of ‘Angelic Doctor’.[35] 

The legacy of the work and thought of Aquinas has resulted in the philosophical school of Thomism, which enjoys a robust tradition of thinkers such as Jacques Maritain, G.E.M.  Anscombe, Bernard Longeran, Alaisdair Mcintyre, John Haldane, Eleonore Stump, Robert P.  George and others.

Ultimately, leading historian Edward Grant comments that rational argument became so prominent among philosophers during the High Middle ages (1000-1250 AD) that the period deserves to be thought of as “the beginning of the ‘Age of Reason’”.[36] The great mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who was a huge admirer of the scholastic tradition, also notes that the period was “preeminently an epoch of orderly thought” and that it was “rationalist through and through”.[37]

St. Thomas Aquinas: Dominican friar, philosopher and theologian
Rome’s Angelicum, the Dominican order’s center of Thomistic theology and philosophy. The pontifical university was founded in 1222 AD.

F.  The Fruits of Reason

The enshrinement of reason at the heart of European intellectual life had profound effects, not only in the fields of philosophy and theology, but in other fields as well.  As historian R.W. Southern states:

The digestion of Aristotle’s logic was the greatest intellectual task of the period from the end of the tenth to the end of the twelfth century.  Under its influence, the method of theological discussion and the form of the presentation of theological speculation underwent a profound change … every department of thought was similarly affected.  The methods of logical arrangement and analysis, and, still more, the habits of thought associated with the study of logic, penetrated the studies of law, politics, grammar and rhetoric, to mention only a few of the fields that were affected.[38] 

The prominence of reason during the Middle Ages would propel the West to excel in the sciences in a historically unprecedented fashion.  As leading historian of science Edward Grant states:

What made it possible for Western Civilization to develop science and the social sciences in a way that no other civilization had ever done before? The answer, I am convinced, lies in a pervasive and deep-seated spirit of inquiry that was a natural consequence of the emphasis on reason that began in the Middle Ages … It was quite natural for scholars immersed in a university environment to employ reason to probe into subject areas that had not been explored before, as well as to discuss possibilities that had not previously been seriously entertained.[39]

When it comes to modern science in particular, the enshrinement of reason at the heart of medieval intellectual life and the emergence of the university were two key factors in its emergement, and these historical occurrences owe their actualization greatly to the Church.  As noted by historians of science James Hannam and Peter Harrison:

Before the edifice of modern science could be built it required the strong foundations that were laid for it in the Middle Ages.  The cornerstone was a widespread acceptance of reason as a valid tool for discovering the truth about our world.  Clearly, this could not happen without the approval of the Church, which at the time was the guardian of almost all intellectual endeavors.[40] 

The medieval universities, which were the chief sites of scientific activity in the later middle ages, were founded and supported by the Catholic Church.[41] 

With that said, let us now look into how else the Church contributed to science.

V. Science

A. The Guidance of Christian Theology

Earlier, we discussed how reason was enshrined at the heart of medieval intellectual life as well as the emergence of the university.  These factors contributed to the emergence of modern science in Europe in the 17th century (the “Scientific Revolution”).  However, we have yet to discuss another important factor to the emergence of modern science in Europe Christian theology, which, unlike the worldviews of many other cultures in times past, was conducive to a confident and quantitative study of the natural world. 

Fr.  Stanley Jaki, O.S.B., was a prizewinning historian of science and a leading contributor in the field.[42]  In his works, Jaki showed how the Christian tradition conceived of God’s creation as rational and orderly, and how this view of creation led Christian thinkers to study the natural world with confidence, and eventually, led them to study it quantitatively (through mathematics) — resulting in the birth of modern science. Jaki provides ample quotes from the Old Testament, examines the scientific attitudes of the early Church fathers (to show the continuity of biblical culture to the Middle Ages) and looks into the contributions of numerous medieval Christian scholars (in both theological understanding and science) to show how the progression towards a breakthrough in scientific thought was guided by divine revelation.[43]

1. The Path Towards Modern Science

In order to provide an idea of how the Christian tradition viewed the natural world as rational and orderly, see the following passages from the Bible (Ish 40:12-16, Prov 8:22-23 and Wis 11:20):

Who was it measured out the waters in his open hand, heaven balanced on his palm, earth’s mass poised on three of his fingers? … No aid, then, had the spirit of the Lord to help him, no counsellor stood by to admonish him.  None other was there to lend his skill; guide to point out the way … Lift up your eyes, and look at the heavens; who was it that made them? Who is it that marshals the full muster of their starry host, calling each one by its name, not one of them missing from the ranks? Such strength, such vigour, such spirit is his.

The Lord made me his when first he went about his work, at the birth of time, before his creation began. … when I was born, the mountains had not yet sunk on their firm foundations, and there were no hills; not yet had he made the earth, or the rivers, or the solid framework of our world.

I was there when he built the heavens, when he fenced in the waters with a vault inviolable, when we fixed the sky overhead, when he and levelled the fountain-springs of the deep.

I was there when he enclosed the sea within its confines, forbidding the waters to transgress their assigned limits, when he poised the foundations of the world.

I was at his side, a master-workman, my delight increasing with each day…

But you [(God)] have set all things in right order by proportion: by measure, by number, and by weight.

Biblical passages such as these indicated that the natural world was rational and orderly. As a result, Christian theology viewed the natural world this way, and since the natural world was rational and orderly, it could be comprehended by human reason. This belief gave medieval scholars confidence to study and understand creation. It led medieval scholars to affirm that nature operates under fixed laws, to carry out the complete “depersonalization of nature” — that is, to believe that there are no divine forces in nature and that God, though He ordained the laws of nature, did not typically interfere in their workings (besides the working of miracles in salvation history), and finally, to study Nature quantitatively, leading to the emergence of modern science.[44]

2. Against Pantheist-Animist Views

In order for medieval scholars to have proceeded along the path towards modern science, they also needed to reject the prevailing but erroneous pantheist-animist views of the day (antiquity into the Middle Ages).

Pantheism identifies God with the universe itself. The pantheistic beliefs of antiquity also came with other beliefs that dampened scientific study or hindered scientific advancement (e.g. belief in the “cosmic treadmill”). Animism is the belief that divine forces organize and animate the natural world. Pantheism and animism comprised how other cultures of antiquity and the Middle Ages viewed the natural world (hence “pantheist-animist”). Pantheist-animist views also influenced the thinking and understanding of the West substantially due to its inheritance of the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition, which subscribed to pantheist-animist views, particularly, the extremely influential works of Aristotle, which held such views. However, the influence of pantheist-animist views on the West would continue to decline due to Christian theology, which conflicted with pantheist-animist views and led medieval scholars away from them, and in other directions.

As Jaki notes, the beginning of Genesis served as a guard against pantheist-animist views. In it, God, who is distinct from the natural world, creates it out of nothing: “And God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light” (Gen 1:3).  Here, a clear distinction is made between Creator and creation. That God is distinct from the natural world is further solidified by the Trinitarian and Incarnational aspects of Christian monotheism.[45] These steered Christian thinkers away from the erroneous pantheist-animist views of their day, and eventually, Christian thinkers would reject pantheist-animist views wholesale.

3. The Stillbirth of Modern Science in Other Cultures

Jaki also examines the “stillbirths” of modern science in other major ancient civilizations (i.e.  Egypt, India, China, Babylon, Greece and Arabia).[46]  When Jaki says “stillbirth” in reference to these cultures, he is not saying that there was no progress or breakthroughs in science in these civilizations.  In fact, Jaki spends a significant amount of space detailing the technological and scientific achievements of each of these civilizations.[47]  When Jaki says “stillbirth”, he is referring to the failure of science in these cultures to “breakthrough” into a universal enterprise of exact physical laws and systems of laws (i.e.  modern science).  The path of development towards modern science in these cultures “died” — reaching a standstill.[48]

The problem with these other civilizations was their theology, which was pantheistic-animistic.[49]  Under such a theology, the cosmos are understood to be driven by divine forces, and not governed by constant natural laws. This theology led one not to see or look for fixed laws in Nature. It also lead one to study nature the wrong way.  Agnostic historian Tom Holland gives an example of this. He highlights the difference between Christian Europe and Confucian China in the 17th century — to show how Christian theology is conducive to modern science, and how China’s pantheistic-animist theology is not.  Holland narrates how Jesuit priests were invited by the Chinese Emperor to improve China’s calendar, and how the Jesuits outclassed the best Chinese scholars in terms of astronomy, a subclass of physics, due to their theological assumptions:

There was no better way to appreciate, perhaps, just how truly distinctive the Christian understanding of natural philosophy [(i.e.  science)] was, just how deeply rooted in the soil of Christendom, then to be a Jesuit in China.  In 1634, the presentation to the Chinese emperor of a telescope had provided Galileo, [its inventor in Europe], with an unexpectedly global seal of approval; but in Beijing there had been no great wave of excitement, no rush by princes and scholars to stare at the craters on the moon, such as there had been in Rome.  “It is better to have no good astronomy than to have Westerners in China.” So Yang Guangxian, a scholar resentful of the Jesuits’ stranglehold on the Bureau of Astronomy, complained …  Correctly, he [(Yang Guangxian)]  had identified the degree to which their ability to make sense of the heavens was rooted in [theological]  assumptions that were exclusive to Christians.  The obsession of the Jesuits with fathoming laws that might govern the cosmos, Yang charged, had led them to neglect what Confucian scholarship had always known to be the proper object of astronomy: divination … The understanding of the cosmos that underpinned the Jesuits’ ability to draw up accurate calendars did not, it seemed, come easily to scholars from a radically different tradition.[50]

 Just as China’s pantheistic-animist theology hindered the emergence of modern science in their civilization, so did the pantheistic-animist theologies of Egypt, India, China, Babylon, Greece and Arabia hinder the emergence of modern science in their civilizations.  In his work, Jaki examines the cases of each of the above cultures in-depth. 

Looking at the list of the above cultures, one may wonder why Arabia is included as having a pantheistic-animist theology when its religion, Islam, is monotheistic.  Although Islam is monotheistic, it is neither Christological or Incarnational.  This left it vulnerable to a monotheism that approached towards pantheism (there was more leeway to adhere to the prevailing pantheistic-animistic views of the day),– and this is what happened.[51] Many Arabian philosophers adopted the works of the Greeks and their pantheistic-animistic worldview, resulting in a conflict with the the teachings of Islam.  Among these philosophers, there was a separation of science and religion that should have been reconciled but was not.  As Stacy Trasancos, a popularizer of Jaki’s work, notes:

Muslim science made notable contributions in areas that had nothing to do with physical laws.  When it came to a study of physical laws of the world, there was a certain inertia owed to the unwillingness to question the Aristotelian animistic worldview, which is why the study of biology advanced but without an underlying increase in the understanding of the physical world.

This lack of understanding of physics is evidenced by Arab alchemy, which came to stand for the study of materials and compounds.  This field of investigation was a combination of ‘mystical and astrological proclivities,’ fundamentally the result of mixing the organismic, eternal cycles of pantheism with the belief that a Creator created the universe.  It was an attempt to reconcile the conflicting views of Aristotelian philosophy and Muslim theology.

The same paradox occurred in astrology.  The astrologers, working with assumptions in conflict with their religion, gave credence to the pagan doctrine of the Great Year, even to the point of believing it could predict the succession of rulers, religions, reigns and physical catastrophes”.

There was, however, also a problem among faithful Muslim scholars (the problem then was twofold). Muslim theology viewed God as so powerful that He does not submit Himself to anything, such as natural laws.[53] Christian theology, on the other hand, was receptive to the notion of God willing to submit Himself to laws because of its belief in covenants. God, having established covenants with His people, bound Himself to behave in a certain way and would remain faithful to His promise. Since God bound Himself to covenants, He could also submit Himself to natural laws. As historian Holland notes:

The Muslim God, basically, for the emergence of science, is too powerful. The Muslim God does not bind Himself with laws. The Muslim God does not have an equivalent of covenants. The assumption among Muslim scholars is that if you drop an apple from a tree its not because there is a law that says that the apple must drop from the tree, its because God is intervening to ensure every time the apple drops from the tree because to say otherwise would be to limit God’s power. So, in a sense, the impetus for Muslim scholars to try and identify universal laws in the way you get with Newtonian physics is simply not there.[54]

For these reasons, Arabia experienced stillbirth with regards to modern science.

In the end, it was Christian theology that led medieval scholars to reject the pantheist-animist views their day and see the natural world as rational and orderly. This led them to pursue scientific study with confidence, since a rational and orderly universe is comprehensible to human reason. It also led them to affirm that the natural world is governed by fixed laws, not divine and finally, capable of being studied quantitatively — leading to the birth of modern science. As historian of science James Hannam notes: 

Christian theology turned out to be uniquely suited to encouraging the study of the natural world.[55]

Medieval depiction of God as Geometer, 13th century illuminated manuscript
In line with the belief of God creating a rational and orderly universe, medieval Christians honored God through geometry in the building of cathedrals, as well as the use of numbers and proportions of special significance. This manuscript of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence reveals the intricate mathematical proportions of the structure. The three bays shown above were also designed to honor the Trinity

B.  The Medieval Proto-Scientific Revolution

Contrary to erroneous perceptions of the Middle Ages, the period was one of excellent scientific progress. As atheist history writer Tim O’Neill notes:

[T]he period from 1000 to 1500 AD actually saw the most impressive flowering of scientific inquiry and discovery since the time of the ancient Greeks, far eclipsing the Roman and Hellenic Eras in every respect.[56] 

In fact, it was during the Middle Ages that the foundations of modern science were laid. Without the advances made by medieval scholars, the Scientific Revolution would never have occurred.

Giving an overview of how the foundations of modern science were laid during the Middle Ages, a large amount of ancient learning flooded back into Western Europe in the 12th century, around the time the first universities were developing.  This large amount of classical learning stemmed from the capture of the Spanish city of Toledo and its great library, which had been under the control of the Arabs since the 8th century.[57]  Once Toledo and its library was captured, knowledge that the Greek-speaking East had benefited from (i.e. the Byzantine and Arab empires) had become accessible to the West.  As historian Hannam notes:

From the early twelfth century onwards, western scholars translated a vast corpus of Greek and Arabic learning into Latin.  Once recovered, these works quickly came to dominate learning throughout Catholic Europe.  The translation movement occurred because western Christians knew that they were missing out on a great deal of knowledge already available to Muslims and Byzantines.[58]

This large amount of learning that flooded back into Europe, and the emergence of the institution that is the university provided a tremendous boost to the intellectual and cultural life of the West. 

Medieval scientists like Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon (who were both priests) laid the underlying scientific principles of observation and repeatable experimentation.[60] 

The discussions and conclusions reached at the cathedral school of Chartres were very important and foundational. As historian Woods notes “practically everyone of the period who made any substantial contribution to the development of science was at one time or another associated with or influenced by Chartres“.[61] At this esteemed institution, Christian scholars were committed to developing explanations based on natural causation — that is, without recourse to supernatural explanation.[62] God, they argued, created and set the laws of nature in their place, allowing them to operate according to their nature and typically did not interfere in their workings (“typically does not”, of course, because God can work and has worked miracles in history). As noted by William of Conches, a scholar at Chartres: “The nature with which He [(God)] endowed His creatures accomplishes a whole scheme of operations, and these too turn to His glory since it is He who created this very nature”.[63] As noted by historian Goldstein, the scholars at Chartres “were consciously striving to launch the evolution of Western science” and undertook several important steps that were needed to achieve that end.[64]

Then, the Church’s Condemnations of 1227 at the university of Paris (which arose due to conflicts with new works of Aristotle from Spain and the university’s theology faculty) and Aquinas’ influential Summa Theologica, caused medieval thinkers to break free from certain Aristotelian errors, and progress further in the field of science. As noted by historian Hannam and history writer Tim O’Neill:

The condemnations and Thomas’s Summa Theologiae had created a framework within which natural philosophers could safely pursue their studies.  The framework …  laid down the principle that God had decreed laws of nature but was not bound by them.  Finally, it stated that Aristotle was sometimes wrong.  The world was not ‘eternal according to reason’ and ‘finite according to faith’.  It was not eternal, full stop.  And if Aristotle could be wrong about something that he regarded as completely certainly certain, that threw his whole philosophy into question.  The way was clear for the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages to move decisively beyond the achievements of the Greeks

[M]edieval thinkers began to notice that there was something seriously amiss with all aspects of Aristotle’s natural philosophy, and not just those parts of it that directly contradicted the Christian faith.  The time had come when medieval scholars could begin their own quest to advance knowledge ….  striking out in new directions that neither the Greeks nor the Arabs ever explored.  Their first breakthrough was to combine the two subjects of mathematics and physics in a way that had not been done before.[65]

The closest the Church came to suppressing science in any way was when, in reaction to some of the ideas being debated in the University of Paris at the height of the rediscovery of Aristotelian learning in the Thirteenth Century, the Faculty of Theology attempted at putting some limits on what could be discussed by the Faculty of Arts.  In 1210, 1270 and again in 1277 the Pope, at the request of the Parisian Theology Faculty, published lists of ideas proposed by Aristotle or implied by his philosophy that were contrary to Christian doctrine and so were forbidden.  What is remarkable about this is, firstly, how little in Aristotle was actually proscribed by these Condemnations.  Secondly, it’s remarkable how ineffective the Condemnations were.  They only applied to Paris, whereas discussion of all these topics continued at Oxford and other universities unaffected.  And, as the fact that they had to be repeated twice indicates, they were widely ignored anyway.  They also had another effect – by arguing that Aristotle was actually wrong on several key points, they stimulated a more critical examination of the Greek philosopher’s work which led to several of his ideas being critically analysed and found to be incorrect (e.g.  the idea that a heavy object falls faster than a lighter one).  In a strange way, the Condemnations failed to suppress science and actually helped to stimulate it.[66]

Jean Buridan, a priest-scientist, also made a critical contribution to science through his concept of impetus, which was the first stepping stone towards Newton’s first law of motion.[67]

The biggest developments in medieval science, however, would arise in the 14th century, from a group of Oxford university scholars who would later be referred to as the “Merton Calculators” — Thomas Bradwardine, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead and John Dumbeldon.  This group of scholars worked on key issues in physics and made the most revolutionary medieval contribution to the field of science — they introduced the use of mathematics as a language to describe the physical world.[68] This insight is captured well in a quote of one of the Calculators, Thomas Bradwadine, a priest-scientist:

[Mathematics]  is the revealer of every genuine truth, for it knows every hidden secret and bears the key to every subtlety of letters.  Whoever, then, has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start that he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom.[69]

The Calculators also overturned the earlier Greek conception of motion by distinguishing kinematics from dynamics (the Merton scholars looked at the persistence of motion via impetus — measurable by material volume and velocity). This effectively laid the foundation for the later key understanding of momentum and helped the Merton Calculators develop the Mean Speed Theorem 200 years before Galileo.[70] As if this was not impressive enough, the Calculators also developed logarithmic functions 300 years before John Napier.[71]  Ultimately, as O’Neill recognizes, these men “laid the foundations for modern physics as we know it”.[72] 

The contributions of Jean Buridan and the Merton Calculators allowed later medieval scholars such as Nicole Oresme and Nicholas of Cusa to develop physics further and begin to apply them to astronomy.[73] The foundation from which modern science was to emerge from was set.  As noted by O’Neill:

The idea that Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton all developed ideas that had no roots in the thinking of the two or three centuries that preceded them is clearly ridiculous, yet this has been the claim of the post-Enlightenment myths about the Middle Ages.  Objective modern research, however, has shown that without the work of people like Grosseteste, Bacon, Occam, the Merton scholars, Oresme and Buridan the “Scientific Revolution” would never had occurred.  That revolution had Medieval foundations.[74]

Chartres Cathedral, the site of the school that contributed so much to science

C. The Church

The Church contributed to science in a number of ways — by inventing and supporting the university, sponsoring the education of Her clergy (many of whom would engage in science) and encouraging and funding the scientific endeavors of her members.[75] When it comes to specific fields, the Church’s contributions to astronomy must be noted, for She was its leading patron for many centuries.  As historian of science Heilbron notes:

The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions.[76]

The scientific contributions of the Church’s members, as a result of missionary work in far-off lands, must also be noted.  As stated by historian of science Lawrence Principe:

But on a broader scale, during the Scientific revolution, Catholic monks, friars, and priests in missions constituted a virtual worldwide web of correspondents and data collectors.  Information on local geography, flora, fauna, mineralogy, and other subjects as well as a wealth of astronomical, meteorological and seismological observations flooded back into Europe from far-flung Catholic missions in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The data and specimens they sent back were channeled into natural-philosophical treatises and studies by Catholics and Protestants alike.  This massive collection of new scientific information was carried out by Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, and, perhaps most of all, Jesuits.[77]

D.  The Priest-Scientist

A great number of priests were also scientists, many of whom made significant contributions to the field. 

St.  Albertus Magnus was a Dominican priest who served a number of important positions within the Church (e.g.  provincial of the German Dominicans and bishop of Regensburg).  He also had a career in academe as a Master at the university of Paris.  Magnus was given the title “the Great” during his lifetime due to, as historian Hannam put it, his “enormous appetite for learning and the sheer size of his output”.[78]  Commenting further, Hannam notes that “his marvellous mind scrutinised everything under the sun, and he questioned and analysed all that he read”.  The standard edition of Magnus’ works fills thirty eight capacious Latin volumes and spans the areas of “physics, logic, metaphysics, biology, psychology and various earth sciences”.[79] After his death, Magnus was named a doctor of the Church. He was given the title “the Universal Doctor”. 

Robert Grosseteste was a priest who served as chancellor to Oxford university and later on, as the bishop of Lincoln.  He produced works in a number of fields — optics, astronomy and a number of earth sciences.  Grosseteste is most known for introducing the notion of controlled experiment.  As noted by history writer Tim O’Neill, Grosseteste “proposed that  scholar[s]  should not only derive universal laws from particulars and then apply laws to particular cases (Aristotle’s “principle of induction”), but they should also use experiment to verify the particulars”.[80] 

Roger Bacon was a Franciscan who taught at Oxford university.  His scholarly range of interests included mathematics, optics, astronomy and the philosophy of science.  Thanks to Bacon’s development of Grosseteste’s ideas, the medieval period possessed the rudiments of the scientific method (Grosseteste and Bacon are considered forerunners of the scientific method). As stated by history writer Tim O’Neill:

Roger Bacon developed this idea [of Grosseteste]  further, proposing a method based on a repeated cycle of observation, hypothesis and experimentation.[81] 

Bacon also identified a number of obstacles to the transition of truth such as uninstructed popular opinion and long-standing but erroneous custom.[82]

Moving past the Middle Ages, another priest-scientist is Bl.  Nicholas Steno.  A Lutheran convert to Catholicism, Steno had quite the career.  He taught as a Master at the University of Padua, served as a court physician to the grand duke of Tuscany, and was appointed later on as the bishop of Titiopolis.  In the field of science, however, Steno secured his reputation in the study of the earth’s strata and fossils, in which he was a pioneer.  Steno is credited for proposing the idea that rocks, fossils, and geological strata told a story about the earth’s history, and that geological study could illuminate that history.[83]  Writers prior to Steno had assumed, with Aristotle, that the earth’s past was fundamentally unintelligible.  As noted by Alan Cutler, a recent biographer of the priest:

Steno was the first to assert that the world’s history might be recoverable from the rocks and to take it upon himself to unravel that history.[84] 

Steno is also credited with “setting down most of the principles of modern geology”.[85]  Of the many insights in Steno’s influential work,  De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis produmus (“Preliminary Discourse to a Dissertation on a Solid Body Naturally Contained Within a Solid”), three have been generally referred to as “Steno’s principles” — superimposition, original horizontality and lateral continuity.[86]

Another priest-scientist, this time, during the period of the Scientific Revolution, was Marin Mersenne — and he played a significant role in it.  Mersenne was a polymath who made a number of contributions to the sciences.  Mersenne is considered the founder of acoustics.  He pioneered “the scientific study of the upper and lower limits of audible frequencies, of harmonics, and of the measurement of the speed of sound, which he showed to be independent of pitch and loudness.”[87]  Furthermore, Mersenne also “established that the intensity of sound, like that of light, is inversely proportional to the distance from its source.”[88]  He also developed three laws in acoustics, describing the relationship between frequency and tension, weight, and length of strings.[89]  Mersenne’s seminal work on acoustics, Harmonie universelle, represented the sum of musical knowledge during his lifetime.  Mersenne also did work on pendulums. He discovered that the frequency of a pendulum is inversely proportional to the square root of its length.  He also discovered the length of a seconds pendulum, and that pendulum swings are not isochronous (against Galileo).[90]  Furthermore, Mersenne’s suggestion to Christiaan Huygens, that the pendulum could be used as a timing device, played a role in inspiring the pendulum clock.[91]  Mersenne also made contributions in terms of scientific study.  His “insistence on the careful specification of experimental procedures, repetition of experiments, publication of the numerical results of actual measurements as distinct from those calculated from theory, and recognition of approximations marked a notable step in the organization of experimental science in the seventeenth century.”[92]  Mersenne also made contributions to the field of mathematics, telescope theory and the study of the motion of falling objects, but if there is one more achievement to point out, it is his role as a terrific facilitator and correspondent of scientific ideas and information.  Mersenne had many contacts in the scientific world and had an exceptional ability to make connections between people and ideas.  In total, Mersenne corresponded with 140 key thinkers throughout Europe (and as far away as Tunisia, Syria, and Constantinople).[93]  His compiled correspondence now fills 12 volumes.  For this reason, Mersenne was called “an architect of the European scientific community”.[94] 

One more example of a priest-scientist is Fr.  George Lemaitre.  Lemaitre was a mathematician, physicist and astronomer.  After receiving the Belgian Cross (an award for military virtue on the battlefield) as an artillery officer in WW1, Lemaitre returned to school to earn a doctorate in mathematics.  After doing so, he turned down academic offers to pursue what he believed to be his calling as a devout Catholic — the priesthood.  After his ordination, Lemaitre went to Massachusetts to study astronomy at Harvard Observatory. Then he went to MIT to earn a doctorate in physics.  After his studies, Lemaitre would assume a professorship at the Catholic University of Louvain and begin a distinguished career in the sciences.  He would, in time, make a discovery that would shake the field of cosmology.  In 1927, Lemaitre proposed his theory of the “primeval atom”, which suggested that the universe was expanding and that it had a beginning in the finite past.[95]  This theory, which would later be dubbed the “Big Bang theory”, would continue to be corroborated by a number of different discoveries in the next several decades, making it one of the most comprehensive and rigorously established theories in contemporary cosmology.  In addition to the Big Bang theory, Leimaitre also found an important inhomogeneous solution of Einstein’s field equations, the Lemaitre-Tolman metric (1933).[96] He was also an early adopter of computers for cosmological calculations (introducing the first computer to Louvain) and was one of the inventors of the Fast Fourier transform algorithm (1958).[97]

There are many more priest-scientists (or monks) who contributed significantly to science.  These include Jean Buridan, Thomas Brawardine, Nicolaus Copernicus, Benedetto Castilli, Pierre Gassendi,  Jean-Framcois Niceron, Vincenzo Coronelli, Ismael Boulliau, Edme Mariotte, Gregor Mendel (Father of Genetics), Jean Picard, Rene Just Hauy, Lazzaro Spallanzani, etc. 

Fr. George Lemaitre with Albert Einstein after Lemaitre’s lecture at the California Institute of Technology in 1933

E. The Jesuits

The Society of Jesus, a priestly order founded in the 16th century by St.  Ignatius of Loyola, contributed so excellently to the field of science that they deserve a section of their own. So impressive are the Jesuits that by the 17th century, just one century after their founding, the order had become as historian Hannam notes: “the leading scientific organization in Europe, publishing thousands of papers and spreading new discoveries around the world”.[98]

The Jesuits hold the honor of being the first to introduce Western science in far-off places such as China and India, doing so in the same century they were founded — the 16th century.[99]  The Jesuits in particular made a great impact in China, which was, at the time, the second most sophisticated civilization in the world after Christian Europe.  As noted by historian Udias, the Jesuits:

[M]ade an enormous effort to translate western mathematical and astronomical works into Chinese and aroused the interest of Chinese scholars in the sciences.  They made very extensive astronomical observation and carried out the first modern cartographic work in China.  They also learned to appreciate the scientific achievements of this ancient culture and made them known in Europe.  Through their correspondence European scientists first learned about Chinese science and culture.[100]

By the 18th century, the Jesuits had accomplished so much in the sciences that historian Wright provides the following list of achievements:

They had contributed to the development of pendulum clocks, pantographs, barometers, reflecting telescopes and microscopes, to scientific fields as various as magnetism, optics and electricity.  They observed, in some cases before anyone else, the coloured bands on Jupiter’s surface, the Andromeda nebula and Saturn’s rings.  They theorised about the circulation of the blood (independently of Harvey), the theoretical possibility of flight, the way the moon effected the tides, and the wave-like nature of light.  Star maps of the southern hemisphere, symbolic logic, flood-control measures on the Po and Adige rivers, introducing plus and minus signs into Italian mathematics—all were typical Jesuit achievements, and scientists as influential as Fermat, Huygens, Leibniz and Newton were not alone in counting Jesuits among their most prized correspondents.[102]

In addition, the Jesuits were also “the single most important contributor to experimental physics in the seventeenth century”, as recognized by historian J.L.  Heilbron.[103]  This achievement is only strengthened by their “detailed studies of other sciences, such as optics, where virtually all-important treatises of the period were written by Jesuits”.[104] Many of the great Jesuit scientists during this period also performed the extremely valuable task of recording their data in massive encyclopedias, which played a significant role in spreading scientific research throughout the scholarly community.[105]  As noted by historian Ashworth:

If scientific collaboration was one of the outgrowths of the scientific revolution the Jesuits deserve a large share of the credit.[106]

The Jesuits also contributed greatly to science through the universities they established. Due to the order’s intense missionary effort to evangelize and promote education, it had established, by 1749, 700+ colleges and universities in Europe and another 100+ in the rest of the world.[107] 

In addition to scientists, the Jesuits boast many top-notch mathematicians, who made a number of important contributions to their discipline.  As historian Woods comments:

When Charles Bossut, one of the first historians of mathematics, compiled a list of the most eminent mathematicians from 900 BC through 1800 AD, 16 of the 303 people he listed were Jesuits.  That figure – amounting to a full 5 percent of the greatest mathematicians over a span of 2700 years [(900 BC – 1800 AD)]  – becomes still more impressive when we recall that the Jesuits existed for only two of those twenty-seven centuries![108]

The Jesuits are also major contributors to the field of seismology (the study of earthquakes).  In fact, they contributed so much to the field that seismology has sometimes been called “the Jesuit science”.[109]   The Jesuits’ involvement in this field has been attributed to the order’s consistent presence in both universities and the scientific community, as well as the desire of its priests to minimize the devastating effects of earthquakes as a service to society.  In 1908, Fr.  Frederick Louis Odenbach came up with an idea that eventually resulted in the Jesuit Seismological Service (JSS).  He noticed that the far-flung system of Jesuit colleges and universities across America had the potential of a network of seismographic stations.  Odenbach worked to actualize this vision and the result was the JSS, which, as stated by scholars Udias and Suauder, was “the first seismological network established of continental scale with uniform instrumentation”.[110]

The marks of the Jesuits in science can also be seen in the names of the moon’s craters, 35 of which are named after Jesuit scientists and mathematicians.[111]

Another notable achievement of the Jesuits is their development of the modern calendar.  The calendar we use today, “the Gregorian calendar”, was developed by Jesuit mathematician and astronomer Christoph Clavius, and enacted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.[112] 

To close this discussion on the Jesuits, let us look at three renowned Jesuit scientists to better appreciate the excellence of this order when it comes to the sciences.

One remarkable Jesuit scientist is Fr.  Giambattista Riccioli.  He is credited with being the first to determine the rate of acceleration of a freely falling body, introducing the current scheme of the moon’s topography (he studied the moon extensively) and for discovering the first double star.[113]  Fr.  Ricciolis’ most notable achievement, however, is his magnum opus, the Almagestum Novum, which is a massive encyclopedia of astronomy.  The text consists of over 1500 pages (approx.  15 x 10 inches) densely packed with text, tables and illustrations.  The work became a standard technical reference book for astronomers all over Europe.[114]  Historian Heilbron described the Almagestum as “a deposit and memorial of energetic and devoted learning”.[115] 

Another Jesuit scientist is Fr.  Roger Boscovich, a terrific polymath who was accomplished in atomic theory, optics, mathematics, astronomy and poetry. He was also elected to prestigious scientific academies across Europe.[116]  Fr. Boscovich is credited with developing the first geometric method for calculating a planet’s orbit based on three observations of its position.[117]  He was also a prolific scholar, publishing 22 scientific dissertations during his lifetime.  Boscovich is most known for his exceptional “Theory of Natural Philosophy”, which was a precursor to atomic theory.[118]  Boscovich’s Theory of Natural Philosophy attracted a great number of admirers in his day.  Historian of science, Lancelot Law Whyte, speaking of Boscovich’s Theory, said that it “gave classical expression to one of the most powerful scientific ideas yet conceived and is unsurpassed for originality in fundamentals, clarity of expression, and precision in its view of structure — hence, its immense influence … [Boscovich’s novel contributions] anticipated the aims, and many of the features of twentieth-century atomic physics.  Nor is this all that stands to the credit of the [Theory].  For it also qualitatively predicted several physical phenomena that have since been observed, such as the penetrability of matter by high-speed particles, and the possibility of states of matter of exceptionally high density”.[119] For these reasons, historian Whyte calls Boscovich “the true creator of fundamental atomic physics as we understand it”.[120]  Another notable achievement of Fr.  Boscovich was his work on St.  Peter’s Basilica (the Church at the Vatican).  In 1742, Pope Benedict XIV (who was himself a great scholar) turned to Fr.  Boscovich for expertise after concerns had arisen that cracks in the dome of the Basilica signaled possible collapse.  In response, Fr.  Boscovich wrote a report recommending five iron rings to be used to circle the cupola.  This recommendation was taken up by the Pope to great success.  Today, Fr.  Boscovich’s report, which investigated the problem in theoretical terms, earned “the reputation of a minor classic in architectural statics”.[121]

One more example of a Jesuit scientist is Fr.  J.B.  Macelwane, who would end up becoming the most distinguished seismologist of the order.  In 1925, Macelwane reorganized and reinvigorated the Jesuit Seismological Service (which is now known as the Jesuit Seismological Association).  A brilliant researcher, he also published the first seismology textbook in America, Introduction to Theoretical Seismology, in 1936.[122]  Macelwane also served as president of the Seismological Society of America and of the American Geophysical Union.  In 1962, the latter organization established a medal in his honor, which is still awarded today to recognize the work of exceptional young geophysicists.

There are many more Jesuit scientists who contributed significantly to science such as Christoph Scheiner, Francesco Grimaldi, Francesco Lana Terzi, Honore Fabri, Athanasius Kircher, Niccolo Cabeo, Gaspar Schott, etc.  As historian of science Ashworth states: “The roll could be extended considerably without great drop-off in quality”.[123]

The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, saved from collapse by Fr. Boscovich
Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica (exterior)

F.  Conclusion on Christianity and Science

In the end, the Church played an indispensable role in the emergence of modern science in the West.  The Church affirmed reason as a way to knowing more about God and his Creation. She educated Europe through her monastic and cathedral schools and ultimately, invented the university, and was a firm ally of it. The Church sponsored the education of Her members, and encouraged and sponsored their scientific endeavors. Her theology also inspired scientific study and guided Christian thinkers to study the world in a quantitative manner.  With the Church playing the leading role in shaping and cultivating Europe’s intellectual life, medieval scholars laid the foundations for modern science.  As historian of science Peter Harrison affirms:

[W]e  might regard this period, [the Middle Ages,] as one that saw Christianity set the agenda for the emergence of modern science.[124]

The Church and her clergy continued to contribute to science during and after the Scientific Revolution.  Overall, Her contributions in the field of science has led historian of science Lawrence Principe to state that “it is clear from the historical record that the Catholic Church has been probably the largest single and longest-term patron of science in history”.[125] Historian of science James Hannam likewise comments that  “the Catholic Church was the leading sponsor of scientific research” until the French Revolution (1789-1799).[126]  Noah Efron, another historian of science, notes that the Church was the leading patron of science for “a crucial millennium”.[127] 

Today, the Church’s interest in and support of the sciences can be seen most prominently in its Pontifical Academy of the Sciences (PAS), a scientific academy that aims to promote the progress of the mathematical, physical and natural sciences.  The academy boasts a member roster of the most respected names in 20th century science such as Alexander Fleming, Ernest Rutherford, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrodinger and others.  The Church also has her own observatory, the Vatican Observatory, which is located in Castel Gandolfo, Italy. 

Young Stephen Hawking at the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences in 1975, his year of induction. In the picture, Pope Paul VI awards him with the Pius XI medal for exceptional promise in the sciences. Hawking would go on to become a longtime member of the academy.
Pope Francis greets Stephen Hawking during an audience with PAS members (2016)
Fr. Emmanuel Carreira operates a telescope at the Vatican Observatory in Castelgandolfo, Italy. Carreira is a man of many talents: physicist, astronomer, patented inventor, painter, photographer and poet.

To proceed to part 3 of this series, click here.


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  2. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  3. Lynch, The Medieval Church: A Brief History, pg. 89
  4. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 47.
  5. Verger, “The Universities and Scholasticism,” in The New Cambridge Medieval History: Volume V c. 1198–c. 1300, pg. 257
  6. Grant, God and Reason in the Middle Ages, pg. 29
  7. Daly,The Medieval University, 1200–1400, pg. 4.
  8. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 47.
  9. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 48
  10. Hannam, God’s Philosophers, How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations for Modern Science, pg. 130
  11. Daly, The Medieval University, 1200–1400, pg. 205
  12. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 50
  13. Daly, The Medieval University, 1200–1400, pg. 22
  14. Daly, The Medieval University, 1200–1400, pg. 168
  15. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 51
  16. Henri Daniel-Rops, Cathedral and Crusade, trans. John Warrington, pg. 308.
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  42. Jaki was very qualified to write on the subject. Not only was he a great historian but he was also a theologian and physicist (he had doctorates in theology and physics). Jaki refined his thoughts on the subject throughout his life but his most comprehensive work on the subject is his “Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe”.
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  54. Cameron Bertuzzi Interview with Tom Holland: Why Science & Secularism Come from Christianity. Retrieved from:
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  63. Goldstein, Dawn of Modern Science: From the Ancient Greeks to the Renaissance, pg. 82
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