The Catholic Church and Science

lundi 24 mai 2010 ·

In the wake of the recent storm that followed the comments of the archbishop Turcotte of Quebec, I have witnessed comments that went beyond criticizing what Turcotte said. Some have indeed used the occasion to launch a complete attack on Catholicism itself. In fact, the whole situation has turned more into a tribunal of all of the Church previous misdeeds. The main attacks against the Church is that it crushed science, opposed progress in many forms, terrorized individuals into submission and was responsible for the dark ages.

I respectfully disagree! My attempt here is not to wash the Church of its misdeeds but to compel its criticizers to reject the absurd they still cling on too. I personally am an atheist, but contrary to several other atheists, I do not feel hatred for everything religious to the point of not being able to recognize the contributions of the Church (some of whom I have listed below)

  1. First of all, the concept of the "medieval age" is being more and more pushed back in time by historians conceding that the period from 476 AD to 1453 AD was probably not "dark" as some have contended. The period is more commonly defined to the period from the end of the western Roman Empire to the coronation of Charlemagne which was marked by considerable regression on social, political and economic ground. The art historian Kenneth Clark in his superb history of art in the West from the end of the Roman Empire to the contemporary age qualifies this period as the "Great Thaw". Indeed in this period, many books were lost forever. However, we forget that after this period, it is the monasteries of Europe that preserved the remaining books by translating them and copying them. As a matter of fact, every book written before the collapse of the western Roman Empire that survived until 800 AD survived the middle ages because of relentless religious efforts to preserve this knowledge;
  2. It is the Pope that protected the first universities of Europe. Often forgotten is the fact that the difference between imperial-royal charters for universities in medieval Europe were less preferable than papal charters. The Holy See assured that universities were protected and had the ability to fund their research. Without the Catholic Church, there wouldnt be universities like Bologna, Oxford, Paris or Chartres. In these universities, the liberal arts were studied with thoroughness. This laid the foundation of modern reason, they developped the first methodological approach to science. For example, economist Joseph Schumpeter points out that the Scholastic thinkers like Saint Thomas Aquinas actually came the closest to found modern economics a full two hundred years before Adam Smith and to initiate the "marginalist revolution" in economics a full three hundred years before Leon Walras, Stanley Jevons and Carl Menger. One also needs only to look at mathematics to notice that several concepts bear the name of jesuits or benedictines. One can even look at the map of the moon and notice that the efforts of jesuit astronomers made it so that the vast majority of the craters on the moon bear their names. All of these scientific conclusions could not have been attained without a strong dedication to a scientific method. This is noticeable in the works of the 13th century franciscan scholar, Francis Bacon of Oxford University who said "without experiment, nothing can be adequastely known. An argument proves theoretically, but does not give the certitude necessary to remove all doubt; nor will the mind repose in the clear view of truth unless it finds it by way of experiment". We can find similar comments by Aquinas. The fact that we now use the term "Occam's razor" in methodological debates over the number of assumptions needed should be a sufficient indicator since Occam was an english franciscan friar.
  3. Most of the agricultural science progress of the Middle Ages was done in monasteries. Many secrets of trades (blacksmiths for example) were actually researched in monasteries and then given to craftsmen (who sadly went on to form guilds so as to exclude competitors). It is the monastics that developed techniques to make champagne, beer and wine. They dried countless acres of swamps in Germany and France so as to increase arable land. The jesuits also contributed to clockmaking, barometers, microscopes and had discovered magnetism. The jesuits also contributed to the theorization of blood circulization independently of the work of Harvey (who noticed that blood can not flow backwards). They kept magnificient amounts of knowledge relating to surgery and medical science in general.
Anyone who enjoys history as a topic is aware of the significant contribution of the Catholic Church to our current scientific knowledge, yet it has never been emphasized to him because what matters (and rightly matters) is not who invented or discovered what, it is only the conclusion that matter to us. Yet, in history we have to recognize who did what and in this case, we have to recognize the strong contribution of the Church (not just laymen, but friars, monks, priests, bishops, archbishops).

Hence I personally believe that when individuals use any pretext - like the absurd comments of Archbishop Turcotte - to demonize the Church and trump up exagerated claims about it and even to qualify as the main contributor of all that is wrong in this world is ludicrous. Please, if you want to criticize Turcotte on his stupid abortion comments, go right ahead but don't start your own little inquisition to prove that you are an atheist.

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Bryan Breguet est candidat au doctorat en sciences économiques à l’université de Colombie-Britannique. D’origine Suisse, il a passé les cinq dernières années au Québec au cours desquelles il s’est engagé en politique provinciale malgré le fait qu’il ne possédait pas encore la citoyenneté canadienne. Il détient un B.Sc en économie et politique ainsi qu’une maitrise en sciences économiques de l’université de Montréal. Récipiendaire de plusieurs prix d’excellences et bourses, il connaît bien les méthodes quantitatives et leurs applications à la politique.







Vincent Geloso holds a master’s degree in economic history from the London School of Economics, with a focus on business cycles, international development, labor markets in preindustrial Europe and the new institutional economics. His research work examined the economic history of the province of Quebec from 1920 to 1960. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from the Université de Montréal. He has also studied in the United States at the Washington Centre for Academic Seminars and Internships. Mr. Geloso has been an intern for the Prime Minister’s cabinet in Ottawa and for the National Post. He has also been the recipient of a fellowship from the Institute for Humane Studies and an international mobility bursary from the Ministère des Relations internationales du Québec. Currently, he is an economist at the Montreal Economic Institute.

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