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Four conversations on science and religion

by Augustinus


My call to science, I am sure, came to me when I was just a boy. My heart and interests lay more in the realm of the stars, the forests, the mountains, the ocean, the rocks and fields of my youth than in the human realm around me. My earliest memory is of me at about 4 or 5 years coming out of a building situated at the top of one of the highest hills in Fitchburg, MA (my hometown) holding the hand of my mother and looking up to see first, my breath condensed into very fine white particles of ice, (for it was coldest winter) and then, as my breath cleared, spread out all around and above me, a vast plenitude of stars which covered the whole night sky in such  profligate beauty that I was left breathless with amazement. They seemed to billow out of the nothingness into a glorious and ravishing display of mystery. It was my first glimpse of the unimaginable number and excess of wonders which pour ceaselessly into the abundance of the world around me, the things that I was later to discover science was dedicated to cataloging, appreciating and understanding. That vision has never entirely left me and it has fueled a long term commitment to the scientific study of the natural world and its mysteries.

I spent the rest of my childhood sitting on the rooftops of the houses we lived in and peering at the night sky through the primitive telescopes my family obtained for me, and dreaming of one day getting closer to those celestial objects. In my teenage years however, my interests turned inward. Stilled awed by the cosmos and the science that could unlock its mysteries, I now felt a more pressing need to grasp something of the meaning of that vast cosmos and my place in it.  Not finding any answers in my astronomy books I turned to religion and philosophy.

I have always been both attracted to, and repulsed by the religious realm. I am attracted to religion because of its ability to produce saints, cultures, and communities, but I am repulsed by its addiction to groupthink, sanctimony, arbitrary moral codes, superstitious thinking, infantilization of its adherents, its “mercy” posturing, its out-group stigmatizations, and its fueling of violent conflicts all over the world. But when I was a teenager I was just looking for answers and religion seemed to promise something more than a vast and indifferent cosmos.

I soon was introduced to my family’s parish priest. He was a burly, chain smoking, wily intellectual guy, with wispy hair, black bushy eyebrows and eyes that lit up whenever he was allowed to speak of the virtues and gifts of others. He was the first person that I met with whom I could have a serious and extended conversation about the role of science and religion in my life and in the world at large. Fr Gothing lived to talk and he could talk about anything including science, philosophy, politics, history, and, of course God. For Gothing there was no conflict between science and religion. He often told me that any faith that could not be intellectually challenged is mere superstition and not genuine faith. Faith had to be rooted in truth and we reach truth through reason and through love. He insisted that revelation was consistent with reason, but a form of reason that was itself rooted in the whole man, heart, mind and soul. Science was a vocation– a call from God who demands you answer that call by developing your intellectual talents to the full. “You follow science” Gothing claimed, “and it will bring you to God”.

So it was a priest who first convinced me to answer that call to science I had experienced when just a kid. But religion in the meantime had ignited a kind of burning and insatiable thirst in me for its truths, as it demanded the whole of me; not just my intellect, heart or soul but all of me. That demand for total commitment was characteristic of both utterly destructive cults and whatever was best and beautiful in the human enterprise so I wanted to taste it. An indifferent or timid response to life seemed unthinkable to me-not after I had learned something of the staggering vastness and beauty of the cosmos and the equally perplexing mysteries of the people around me.  But how should one respond to the mystery exactly? With awe? Thanksgiving? Wonder? Puzzlement? Love? Gratitude? Resentment? Hatred? Terror? Inquiry? Any of these was better than indifference or timidity.

I chose sustained inquiry. I began to read more widely within the philosophies and cosmologies that religion offered. But the deeper I read the more absurdities I encountered and despite my thirst for religious truths my scientific commitments told me there were few to be found here. Throughout my college years I struggled intensely with these two passions of mine …science and religion-never fully reconciling them but often coming close to ditching religion altogether as the patently absurd option in my life.

Imagine my surprise then, when the next great conversation I had on science and religion was with an atheist who convinced me to continue my religious quest. This interlocutor was a famous mathematician who urged me to continue both my religious quest and my scientific work by combining the two. A scientific inquiry into religious phenomena would uncover its truths if any were to be found and expose its absurdities if they were really there. At the time I was a newly minted Ph.D. casting around for a set of topics to pursue that would not only interest me but would allow for a significant contribution from someone with the set of skills I had.

Mr Mathematician was a slender man, with wire-rim glasses and a hyper-rational style when speaking. He virtually never became emotional but always spoke calmly, logically and intimately, as if he only wanted you to hear what he was saying. He had a tremendous command of facts from contemporary history, politics, and philosophy.  If I challenged him on one of his claims in these areas he would pause, tip his head back and appear to do a search through his prodigious memory banks for the relevant information. Then, having completed the search would tip his head back down again, look at me and matter-of-factly say “No, I was correct.” He routinely quoted from memory whole paragraphs from historian’s monographs, newspaper articles and technical reports. During our meetings we would walk down Mass Ave in Cambridge then through Kendall square and over the salt and pepper bridge crossing the Charles River then up the river on the Boston side and back over the river via the Mass Ave bridge, talking incessantly all the way.

I once asked him “Do you believe in God?”  He replied “All of us only provisionally “believe” in anything. We have to rely on free unrestricted rational inquiry to get anywhere near the truth on anything and when we do build up a little knowledge here and there it is always only provisional knowledge, valid only until further inquiry verifies it or requires revision.” “Fair enough,” I replied. “It sounds like you recommend humility in pursuit of science and truth.” Nodding his head he said “Yeah, of course, given the mysteries we face.” “Is religion helpful in that project of unrestricted free enquiry?” I asked. Pausing and looking out over the Charles River he considered his words and then said:  “To the extent it protects people from arbitrary power, then yes but when it itself, which all too often happens, prevents free inquiry then it is just one more force promoting servility. Still, religion needs to be studied like every other human faculty. There is so much we do not know.”

He spoke of religion’s myriad incarnations down through history; from its bloody sacrificial monstrosities among the Aztecs, to its extravagant displays of sacrificial love among the catholic saints who defended the defenseless poor under attack from both right and left wing dictatorships in Latin America. Listening to his multidimensional take on religion, I began to see religion as a phantasmagoria of cultural excesses, a kind of generative cultural dynamo that was forever churning out rituals, pageantries, dogmas, gods, goddesses, dances, basilicas, temples, fanfares, taboos, silences and pilgrimages.

I began to see that religion’s claims, dogma’s and rituals are not merely negative or costly absurdities. Instead, they manifestly possess the power to send their adherents into everything from the most depraved lunacies up to the most sublime of contemplative states where one encounters the true, the good and the beautiful. Unlike democracy, religion isn’t interested in creating mere mediocrities. Instead it prefers monstrous sinners, grotesque impostors, febrile and apocalyptical madmen and extraordinary saints. How could I as a budding scientist not want to study that?

After my conversations with this extraordinary man, I began to use scientific techniques to study religion itself in hopes of either burying the religious option for myself once and for all, or of creating a kind of personal reconciliation between my scientific commitments and the burning need I felt to encounter God face to face.

After 20 years of investigation into religion I cannot report that I have come any closer to reconciling my religious quest with my scientific work. While I think it is fair to say that I have inched the natural understanding of religion a little further, I have concluded that all religions are ultimately dead ends. They can take you so far and then no further. I do not consider Roman Catholicism a religion as it contains ultimate truth and is not designed to confer mere gnosis on its adherents. It promises nothing less than salvation but that is a story for another time.

I recently have had a third conversation on science and religion with a man who is a professional religious philosopher …and who unlike most academics I meet these days has somehow managed to preserve a traditional religious outlook while simultaneously penning the most abstruse analytic tomes on the question of God and religious experience I have seen. He is a tall, bearded guy with a bald head, fierce eyes and an easy going and engaging demeanor. He’s a heavy pipe smoker, with yellowed teeth, and a speech style drenched in nicotinic-studded, multi-syllabic subordinate clauses.

I told him that I thought the most accurate description of the human religious scene was Borges’ “Library of Babel” wherein a group of mad librarians frantically attempt to find some pattern in the avalanche of randomly constructed texts in an otherwise infinite library that leads nowhere and goes nowhere.

“All you religious philosophers are doing is charting imagined patterns where none exist in the randomly arranged stacks of gibberish that surround us on all sides of the library.”

Whereupon he replied: “Recall, however that Borges’ library was generated by a simple combinatorial rule, the recombination of every possible mix of the 26 letter alphabet into books and thus any book that ever could be written with that alphabet was written and was stored in the library. So there is a book in that library that contains your entire life story, from beginning to end and every possible variation of that life story.”

I pounced: “But doesn’t that near infinite library with my life story all laid out in excruciating detail in trillions of books therefore rule out the possibility of any fundamental science or of a loving creator God? After all if a loving rational God exists why would he write out every possible outcome of my life beforehand? Do I really have free will if all of the possible actions that I will ever perform, all the good and all the evil I will ever do is already known and written out in minute detail in a set of books stored and ready to be read in a near infinite portion of the near infinite great Library of Babel?”

“No not in the least!” he replied. “Two facts about the library prove God’s existence and that He is a loving God. First, once again note that the library is generated by a very simple combinatorial rule and thus it is intrinsically knowable by organisms like us who have minds that can use reason. And second, note that we who are trapped or find ourselves within the library can discover that combinatorial rule and thus unlock the secrets of the library. I do not see in the library just seas of gibberish but there is also an infinite garden of delights waiting to be discovered. And don’t forget that within the library there is a book that tells the story of how you unlocked the secrets of your own heart and found indestructible peace. Why can’t we seek out those books that god has provided for us within the library”

“Well, for starters, (I replied somewhat impatiently) that good and gracious God of yours buried those wonderful books within a near infinite sea of books of horror, gibberish, rubbish and misery so that the good books are near impossible for us to find or access. And even if we could find them how does the existence of these books outweigh the existence of all of the books where my life story is drenched in suffering, evil, misery and horror?”

“That is a question whose final answer will only be revealed when God brings an end to the world and library itself. But reason suggests that the two (the good and the bad books) cancel one another out and we are left with what is; reality, which is neither wholly good nor wholly evil, but is definitely not just another book in the library and therein lies a clue to the meaning of the library itself.”

Unconvinced by these arguments, I changed the subject and asked him point blank: “How do you do it? How do you reconcile your faith in God with reason and science?” Then he replied:

“You have to do it personally. You have to verify for yourself, personally that God is a reality, a personal, living being.”

But how? I cried. “By inviting Him in. You have to ask him into relationship with you. He will not appear without your invitation.” When I replied that I had tried that before and experienced nothing, he pulled reflectively on his pipe, blowed out a few rings of aromatic smoke and replied “Well try again. Don’t give up! A good scientist chases the truth. He does not give up.”

“Look”, he said “religion and certainly God, cannot be grasped by the mind alone, unless we enlarge our conception of what is meant by the term: “mind”. We need an enlarged conception of reason and of science if we are going to grasp the world’s or even religion’s capacities for good and evil. We have to use that form of reason that can not only discover the combinatorial rule that generates the Library of Babel, but that can allow us to find the books that really matter for us. As numerous of my colleagues, the religious philosophers have pointed out, religion is a matter of the heart, as well as reason. This is not some sentimental appeal to emotion or a flight from reason or the scientific method. Rather it is giving reason or Mind—and religion their due.

You can verify for yourself whether reason involves neutral computations on inert clumps or matter or instead is a kind of discovery and valuation process. Think for a moment about what you have learned about the universe. Science reveals an enormously large universe and a potentially infinite set of large universes like the Library of Babel. We are inured to the wonder these facts should evoke in us. Our world is just a little speck of dust when considered from the point of view of space-say, a satellite orbiting the earth. An astronaut circling the earth, cannot see any people down there on the earth. Alls he or she sees are oceans and continents. But, the earth itself, of course is just a speck of dust from the point of view of the boundaries of the solar system. Even the sun, only 8 minutes (in light years) away from the earth dwarfs the earth into nothingness. But the sun itself is just a speck of dust from the point of view of the boundaries of our local sector of our galaxy. But our sector of the galaxy is very, very small compared to the size of the galaxy itself. And how noticeable am I from the point of view of the galaxy itself? But wait again, our galaxy is just a speck of dust from the point of view of another galaxy or cluster of galaxies perhaps thousands of light years away. But there is a real possibility that this gigantic universe, (that contains me as only a speck of dust, on a speck of dust-so small that I am vanishingly small) may be only one of a huge number of such universes!

Size is one thing, essence is another. I am truly just a speck of dust-at least in terms of size. But what about my essence? The fact that I can stand apart from this gigantic universe, from this massive Library of Babel and evaluate it objectively, suggests that my essence, my reason is a powerful faculty not reducible to the Library, the universe or its constituents. If my reason or consciousness can stand outside the entire cosmos and evaluate its size and composition both morally and scientifically, then Reason or Mind cannot be a purely mechanical process. Instead it can judge whether it itself is a mechanical process. It can stand apart from “it”, observe it, evaluate it and then judge whether “it” is the same or different from some other “it”—therefore it cannot be reduced to “it”.   Mind can also judge the value of things in the cosmos and whether or not they are good. In that sense it stands in judgment of the cosmos—this small puny human speck of dust can condemn the universe as worthless if he wishes. He can reject as gibberish any book found in the great library and this rejection in favor of meaning will matter infinitely for him and his loved ones. Finally reason or mind can reflect on itself; it is (uncannily) aware that it is aware. Thus, science and reason must involve passion, heart, valuation and judgment-not mere tabulation, cataloging, computation or contemplation. When we approach the world, the Library or even religion and science with this enlarged conception of reason what do we find?  We find a universe composed not merely of randomly arranged shelves of gibberish, but of “persons” as well. We find those disembodied (and fully embodied!) agents that the naturalists despise but that the religions universally celebrate. Persons can evaluate any given portion of the library as meaningful or as gibberish and therefore they are different from any possible book that can appear in the library.”

I grew impatient with his claims and tried to steer the conversation back to my personal religion and science concerns. “OK, I am different from any book that has been written about me and that is contained in the library….but how does this information get me any closer to God?”

He replied “Only you and God can answer that and when you invite God in he will actually show up.”

“And if and when he shows up what then? I asked sarcastically.” “Then…he’ll answer you… everything will seem the same but be different. Listen to Pascal’s first encounter with God (At this point he set aside his pipe and pulled out of his wallet a scrap of paper that he apparently carried around with him): “…joy…silent, quiet, deep, indestructible, searing and exultant, joy and happiness…he felt his heart blazing up within him…he felt the Lord there with him, the sacred one whose heart too was blazing- the two of them silent with eyes of fire and peace and beatitude. He leapt up and ran out into the street with prayer on his lips and with gratitude in his heart. Yes he had seen it now and nothing would ever be the same.”

“Sounds like gibberish to me…” I replied but thanked him for the conversation.

I am back in my hometown with my 6 year old daughter. I take her to see the old family house way up there on the hill. I show her where I played as a boy of 4-6 years old. Strangers living there now. We knock. No answer. We turn and walk into the darkness of the night and the frigid dark air. We breathe in and out the fresh cold air, she follows her breath as it drifts up and dissolves into the freezing night sky, and then she exclaims… “Papa look! She is pointing up into the night sky and with wonder in her voice says “Look at them Papa!” I just nod, smile and lift her up on my shoulders so she can drink in the beauty and mystery that awaits her.



What happened in the 1960s?

By Augustinus

The West fell in the 1960s. This is both good and bad. To the extent that the Church is the West and the West is the Church the fall of the 1960s has meant that the church has been in crisis since then. Westerners, as a consequence, have been lost spiritually since then. On the other hand the Church never was only Europe and the West. Europe and the West kept the Church alive during the first 1500 years of the faith and then helped to spread the faith throughout the world. In the beginning the faith was strong in the near east-even outside of the Roman Empire. But Islam virtually, but not entirely, wiped out the eastern Church. After the schism between the orthodox and Roman rites Christianity flowered in the West and then spread globally with the rise of the West. that rise was due mainly to science and technology. The West developed science and technology and the rest of the world did not. In any case, between 1500 and 1800 westerners spread the faith to the new world and parts of Asia and Africa. thus, the church was no longer identified only with Europe. Islam was in decline, the Asian religions like Buddhism and Hinduism were stagnant like the cultures they inhabited and everywhere Europe and Christianity were in the ascendant. But then the 20th century dawned and with it the great European-centered World wars that lasted for some 50 years and tore Europe apart. The great bloodletting, and the resultant annihilation in the space of a minute of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the domination now of Russia and the eastern European countries by totalitarian and atheistic communism and finally the horrors of the holocaust led the best Europeans to stop and think about what went wrong!

Part of that great reflection on what went wrong was Vatican II which was convened after the period of the World wars. The children of the parents who fought in the world wars defined themselves in opposition to everything that they believed created the world wars. You cannot go through a conflagration that violently slaughtered some 50 million people without some period of penance and conversion. The 1960s was a period of violent repudiation of what went before and that was its healthy element. But it threw the baby out with the bathwater. it failed to do its homework on what exactly went wrong.

The 1960s was an attempt to identify what went wrong but it was a failed attempt. Vatican II did not attempt to identify what went wrong but it divined the need of the faithful to attempt to open up to a world in need and pain and disorientation. That was the positive element in Vatican II. It was a pastoral council seeking to engage the world now prostrated by the world wars.

But who was trying to understand what went wrong? Some religious philosophers and theologians tried. The Jewish philosophers tended toward the view that God had absented himself from humanity. The protestant theologians did the same. Orthodox theologians fell silent under the heel of the Soviets and Roman Catholic theologians through up a wild range of theories–none of them at all convincing as most of them settled on the evil is a mystery meme.

Secular philosophers and scholars also tried to figure out what went wrong and each of them identified one piece of the elephant…imperial competition for markets; growth of science and technology, population and demographic trends, ethnic tensions and so forth.

The fact that the world wars began and centered in Europe suggests that the rise of science and technology had something to do with it. My own feeling is that science and technology has made huge population increases possible. the world went from several hundred million in 1800 to 6 billion just two centuries later. These huge rises in population numbers place wild demands on fallible, scared, opportunistic political actors and governments who then make stupid decisions and pull the world into irrational wars.

Science is the great disruptor and the Church still refuses to come to terms with it.


To save the West

By Augustinus

As Europe, North America and South America breezily jettison the Christian foundations of their political orders the “west” such as it is, spirals into further decline. To save the West you need to look to the Church for a rennaissance …but the Church itself, as in past epochs, is in crisis. What therefore is to be done?

Renew the church and you will save the West. So how do we renew the Church? As everyone knows, everyone has an opinion about how to do that. Some want to continue down the route of Vatican II and “liberalize” the Church even further (e.g. Gary Wills and Hans Kung, Richard Rohr and the National catholic Reporter folks etc). Some want to reverse Vatican II’s “reforms” (the traditionalists).  Some want to accept Vatican II’s reforms but then stabilize the ship by interpreting Vatican II documents conservatively (Popes John Paul and Benedict and some prominent “theocons” like George Weigel and the folks at First Things etc).

I do not agree with any of these positions.

Its not about Vatican II. like every other ecumenical council down through the ages this council did some bad things and some good things. I have posted on Vatican II previously so won’t go into that issue here. There is always going to be debate about development of practices, doctrine and church. There always has been such debate and always will be. The cause of the crisis in the church today is not about Vatican II or development of doctrine (understanding the so-called “sexual revolution” including feminism, gay marriage and so forth) or development of practices (such as Latin vs Novus Ordo rite etc)….though, of course, these issues are important. My point is that these issues are NOT the source of the crisis in the Church–they are symptoms.

What then is the source of the crisis in the Church today? If we could pinpoint that source we would also gain a deeper understanding of the crisis of the West more generally. In my opinion the source of the crisis is partially found in what the 19th century Popes called “modernism”. It is a heresy much like the ancient heresy of Arius. The Arian heresy claimed whole countries, most of the eastern Church, most of Northern Europe, most political leaders. It took centuries to defeat.

While the 19th century Popes were onto something when they decried modernism they left out the most crucial task for the Church then and NOW: How do come to grips with the rise of science. Modernism is so potent a force because it claims that it is allied with science. To solve the modernist crisis the church needs to embrace science and become a leader in the scientific enterprise–just as it was in the days of the Church Father and in the middle ages.

Review of Storck’s “From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond”

By Augustinus

Review of Thomas Storck’s “From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond: The long jagged trail to a postmodern void.” Angelico Press, Kettering OH, 2015.

Thomas Storck is a familiar name among hard identity Catholics. He has served as a contributing editor for Caelum et Terra from 1991 until the magazine closed in 1996 and the New Oxford Review from 1996 to 2006. Since 1998 he has been a member of the editorial board of The Chesterton Review. He is the author of three previous books, The Catholic Milieu (Christendom Press, 1987), Foundations of a Catholic Political Order (Four Faces Press, 1998) and Christendom and the West (Four Faces Press, 2000). The current book, under review here,”From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond” is a collection of previously published essays written for various Catholic journals over many years up to about 2015. You can read many of his excellent essays at www.thomasstorck.org

Any Catholic concerned about the current Church crisis should read Storck. In Storck you will find insights into everything from why Christendom has declined in Europe and then throughout the world; what happened at Vatican II, how Catholics should think of America; how to evaluate the 60s; Catholic social teaching, what to think of the catholic intellectual rennaissance of the early 20th century, the nature of modernity and post-modernity, the role of Church vis a vis culture, philosophy of history, political theory and what the relation should be between church and state. He is an astute observer of the political world and has a discerning eye for long term historical trends.

In “From Christendom…” we get essays on all these topics and so it is a must read for any Catholic seeking to rebuild the church and the surrounding decadent culture. In what follows I will summarize what I took away from reading these essays. My “take” on Storck’s ideas will necessarily over simplify his positions. The reader is advised to read Storck directly. But I need to summarize his positions and some of his insights so that the reader can gauge my critique of those positions. In fact I agree with most of what Storck says but will disagree on some key and very fundamental claims he makes concerning the root of the problem and the solution to the crisis.

So lets begin with Storck’s insights or claims: Storck agrees with many Catholic intellectuals who claim that the root source of modernity and the unremitting hostility to the Church in the modern period lies in nominalism or the idea of late medieval philosophers that universals do not exist, only particulars exist. If there are no universals, then there are no standards against which we can compare particulars. The loss of standards leads inevitably to a loss of intellectual rigor and ultimate truths. Similarly, if individuals or particulars or instances are the only realities then individuals should be free and unconstrained. The nominalists also overly valorized the will of God putting it before God’s other attributes (such as his logos). God’s will and power according to the nominalists has no limits—he is utterly unconstrained. This idea had the effect of portraying God as arbitrary and absolutely free. Freedom understood as no barriers became the primary value for an emerging modernity at the waning of the middle ages and the birth of the renaissance and enlightenment.

The nominalist rejection of standards and universals and its elevation of freedom as the primary characteristic of God had the effect of severing the link between reason and faith that the Church had labored to build over many centuries via the syntheses of Athens and Jerusalem by the early Church Fathers and in the work of Thomas Aquinas in the high middle ages.

Once reason was severed from faith a Luther could claim that faith was primary and that only scripture contained God’s word—not the logos inherent in reality. Sola scriptura meant that scriptures were interpreted not by the church but by the individual conscience and thus the individual conscience  (not the mystical body of Christ) was the route to God. Protestantism was born and largely facilitated the cultural conditions for modernity.

i will return to a critique of these claims below.

What should Catholics think of Church and state and America according to Storck? Storck sides with Aquinas who takes the common sense approach that some combination of monarchy, democracy and republicanism is probably best. Storck sees these elements in the American polity but argues America and every other political system needs to be guided by the Church. He holds up the 1922 Irish constitution as an example of a Church guided democratic republic with a strong executive. That Irish constitution outlawed divorce and abortion, explicitly placed itself under God’s protection, provided absolute protections for religious liberty and so forth.

In America the church, according to Storck never really influenced American government. The New Deal coalition was the height of Church influence on America as catholics were key to the coalition. It gave us all the presidents from FDR to Nixon and enacted a pro Vatican and Catholic policy internationally and all the great social legislation domestically…from social security to civil rights to environmental protections—all consistent with catholic social doctrine according to Storck. The peak of the New Deal influence culturally came in the 1950s. The New Deal coalition ended when the other groups in the coalition accepted abortion legislation in the early 70s. The catholics then gravitated to the republicans but the republicans were never effective defenders of catholic positions. Today Catholics are not included in any stable political coalition in America. the Church’s social positions on some issues such as immigration and the environment are “leftist” while its cultural positions are “rightist” and its international positions unclassifiable on a right left spectrum.

Storck takes his philosophy of history from the Bible seeing the incarnation as the key event in world history. He takes the line in revelation that the apostasy of the gentiles will signal the beginning of the end of history. He sees modernity as this beginning of the end of history.

Storck says that in order to reverse the decline in Church influence and to rebuild Christendom we need to recall Pope Leo XII political and social teachings. There is NO INHERENT RIGHT to error. Only the church can preserve a polity from error so the Church has a right and duty to be the preeminent leader in a culture and polity. That does not mean we have to have a theocracy as Islam proposes. But it does mean that we need to work for political conditions that obtained in countries such as the 1922 Ireland before its recent apostasy; Spain before its apostasy, the Latin American countries before their apostasy and so forth to serve as models.

There is much else in Storck’s essays than these few remarks convey. I strongly recommend this book to every concerned catholic. It is a must read in order to think clearly about the current crisis.

Now what are my criticisms of Storck? I do not agree with Storck and the many other Catholic intellectuals who argue that nominalism was the source of the intellectual errors of modernity. This vastly overstates nominalisms influence. While Protestantism and many of the modernist philosophers share some nominalist assumptions, it is just not accurate to think that nominalism shaped their entire philosophies or even major portions of their philosophies.

The sources of modernity are complex. I think Storck is on firmer ground when he argues that severance of the link between faith and reason was characteristic of Protestantism and Protestantism was the major cultural force that ushered in modernity.

When science came on the scene during later stages of the renaissance and the beginning stages of the reformation it encountered a Christendom that either exalted irrationality (Protestantism) or could present only a hackneyed version of Aristotle’s philosophy as a guide to investigation of reality. Science, in short, found no partner among official Christian circles when it was struggling to be born.

The enmity between science and Christendom was briefly relaxed when the Jesuit order emerged in the 1500s and produced some of the best scientists in the world. The counter-reformation church had re-seized the cultural leadership during this period but it was not to last. The Jesuits were suppressed by the Pope (under pressure from despotic monarchies) in 1750 right when the enlightenment was emerging. With the Jesuits out of the picture secular intellectuals in alliance with scientists (who had previously aligned with the Jesuits) now took center stage and they have yet to be challenged for cultural leadership.

In short, Storck, like most other Catholic intellectuals has not yet grappled with science as key to modernity. For the Church to recover its cultural leadership its needs to assimilate science and it needs to produce the best scientists in the world….just as it did with the early Jesuits.



The triumph and tragedy of Vatican II

by Augustinus

Conservatives and liberals are united in their claims that the crisis of the modern church can be traced back to Vatican Council II. Conservatives claim that the crisis is due to the fact that some people in the church hijacked council documents and read them as justification for wholesale jettisoning of numerous revered catholic traditions, while liberals claim that the crisis is due to the fact that the true intent of the council fathers was thwarted by the papacies of Paul, John Paul and Benedict.

It is now 50 years since Vatican Council II closed its proceedings so now is as good a time as any to take, partial, stock of its contributions and failings. I think it has to be said that the opening to ecumenical dialog with non-Roman Catholic Christians and churches as well as other religions entirely was a major accomplishment. The step away from any traces of anti-semitism was a good thing. The apparent endorsement of democracy (as long as it is understood that sovereignty cannot rest in the “people” considered en masse…a “chosen” and schooled people maybe but not the undifferentiated mass or horde) likewise was and is a good thing. The endorsement, more implicit than explicit, of the philosophy of personalism was also a major accomplishment as it put authentic individuality on the modern international political map. John Paul II later made the endorsement of personalism more explicit. Likewise there was also an implicit endorsement of a more profound philosophy of history—one consistent with holy scripture—namely that history was not mere decline from some past golden age. Instead there was decline but also expectation of fulfillment in the Parousia. Therefore history had to be going somewhere—it was not a merely random process. Progressive improvement was possible as the great enlightenment philosophers had argued. Unlike these philosophes however the church wisely retained its sense that it is a sojourner through history-not completely at home in any one epoch. All epochs are relativized compared to the coming fulfillment. Another accomplishment of Vatican II was that it supported the efforts to make Catholics engage Holy Scripture on a daily basis…it opened up the riches of scripture to lay Catholics like never before–a trend we have to thank our Protestant brothers and sisters for it seems to me. And finally Vatican II opened the eyes of all to the plain fact that catholicism was no longer a European religion–it was now a global religion. Europe’s commitment to the Church has been decaying and Asia and Africa have been discovering the faith and that is where, (Asia and Africa along with the US), the future of Catholicism lies.  So all of these things—the opening to dialog with other religions, the end to mere denigration of Judaism and thus a better understanding of the nature of post-Christian Rabbinic Judaism, the opening to learning and dialog with other world religions, endorsement of rightly understood forms of democracy, the endorsement of personalism, the new appreciate of scripture and the acknowledgement that catholicism is now a global religion etc were all great accomplishments.

But there were three great failures at Vatican II it seems to me. One was the adoption of the vernacular rite with the priest facing the congregation at the expense of the old Latin rite. Why we cannot have both the vernacular and the rite with the sacred language Latin (or Greek) is beyond me. A second failure of the council concerns human sexuality. It simply failed to address the issue probably because it would have forced the church to confront a whole host of issues it did not wish discussed including homosexuality amongst its priests and in the curia; women’s ordination, birth control and abortion. Paul VI’s post council encyclical against contraception was in my view a mistake. The peadophile scandals in church and the resultant attempts at cover-up underscore the urgent need for open theologically informed discussion of all matters pertaining to sex including the so-called sexual revolution, same sex attraction and marriage, celibacy, women’s ordination, contraception and the meaning of sex beyond its procreative function more generally. But I do not wish to discuss those issues here. Instead I want to discuss the third major failure of the council—the failure to make a definitive statement about the church and science.

The sorry history of the catholic church’s relation to science is too well known to recount here. It is tragic that the council did not take up that sad history and chart a better course and relationship with science but it did not seize the moment. In my view a huge source of the crisis in the church today is its pathetically poor theology of science. Most theologians including especially catholic theologians simply have no theology of science. The honorable exceptions have not been too successful in their efforts.

But a moment’s reflection demonstrates that the church will not be able to perform its duties in the modern world well unless it has a very highly developed theology of science. That is because such a theology would be foundational for all other theological topics.

To its credit one of the documents of Vatican II (Gaudium et Spes, 15) makes this clear when it says: “Man judges rightly that by his intellect he surpasses the material universe, for he shares in the light of the divine mind. By relentlessly employing his talents through the ages he has indeed made progress in the practical sciences and in technology and the liberal arts. In our times he has won superlative victories, especially in his probing of the material world and in subjecting it to himself. Still he has always searched for more penetrating truths, and finds them. For his intelligence is not confined to observable data alone, but can with genuine certitude attain to reality itself as knowable, though in consequence of sin that certitude is partly obscured and weakened.”

To say that my ‘intelligence is not confined to observable data alone, but can with genuine certitude attain to reality itself as knowable’ is to say what the Church has always held that reason and faith do not contradict one another and that reason in its most developed form (i.e. science) must be a foundational source for theological work.

But in what way is science a foundational source for theology? Can we say that scientists are inspired by the Holy Spirit when they do their work? With respect to scripture most theologians endorse the incoherent view that neither the individual, nor the community can be the loci of inspiration. The individual cannot be the focus of inspiration because most books of the canon were and are amalgams of several writers or compilations of long and anonymous oral traditions. Same with scientific tradition, and the scientists working within those traditions. A scientist always builds on the work of others even when he or she is tackling some new subject not previously investigated by others. In that case the scientist borrows paradigms and tools from other disciplines and imports these into the new area in order to begin to probe its mysteries. Similarly with respect to scared scripture, the ‘communities’ or associated traditions could not be the foci of inspiration because they do not exist in any material form to receive inspiration. Again it must be the same with scientific communities and traditions: they are not the loci for inspiration. Instead inspiration is always the experience of a lone individual working within and often against a community. This was true of the scriptural writers and it is certainly true of scientific workers.

To inspire an individual whether he is a scientist or prophet, God does not suspend the free will or intellectual faculties of the individual. Respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual rules out mechanical/instrumental views of inspiration where the author is merely an instrument of the spirit’s Will or where the individual merely takes dictation from the Spirit. The motto in science is that scientific breakthroughs are 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Insight comes to those who are ‘prepared’ to receive it. Inspiration is the product of two wills and two Minds: God and individual. It can never be the product of a group or a community. Instead God illuminates the Mind of the individual to the extent that the individual cooperates with such illumination. Of course in special cases God can and will illuminate a Mind regardless of the readiness of the individual to receive such illumination. But even in these cases God does it in such a way as to not harm the individual or to violate the individual’s freedom. When that illumination reaches a certain level of intensity and the individual translates that illumination into service for others then that individual is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

By the criteria of inspiration summarized above we can say that some scientists are inspired when they do their work and that therefore scientific knowledge should be treated as a foundational element for Catholic theology. Again that conclusion is consistent with the treatment of the relation of faith and reason by the council fathers in Gaudium et Spes and by more recent Papal encyclicals such as Fides et Ratio by John Paul II. In Section Two paragraph 57 of Gaudium et Spes the Council Fathers based themselves on other foundational elements of theology such as previous councils and reinforced this teaching on faith and reason by solemnly proclaiming: “This Sacred Synod, therefore, recalling the teaching of the first Vatican Council, declares that there are “two orders of knowledge” which are distinct, namely faith and reason; and that the Church does not forbid that “the human arts and disciplines use their own principles and their proper method, each in its own domain”; therefore “acknowledging this just liberty,” this Sacred Synod affirms the legitimate autonomy of human culture and especially of the sciences…All this supposes that, within the limits of morality and the common utility, man can freely search for the truth, express his opinion and publish it; that he can practice any art he chooses; that finally, he can avail himself of true information concerning events of a public nature.

To say that there are two orders of knowledge—faith and reason—and that these orders are autonomous but not opposed to on another is to say also that each can inform the other and that the book of nature must inform theology. It cannot be otherwise as to do theology while ignoring the physical nature of Man is to invite Gnostic style errors into our theological reflections. Men are not angels. Instead we are created in the image of God and thus possess reason and freedom and these capacities establish a dignity that requires a linking up to theology and sacred doctrine. As Gaudium et Spes (12) put it “For Sacred Scripture teaches that man was created “to the image of God,” is capable of knowing and loving his Creator, and was appointed by Him as master of all earthly creatures(1) that he might subdue them and use them to God’s glory.(2) “What is man that you should care for him? You have made him little less than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, putting all things under his feet” (Ps. 8:5-7).” Note here that the Council Fathers based their assessment of the nature of man on the foundational element of holy scripture but they could have equally well have derived man’s capacity for ‘knowing’ the truth from that other foundational element of catholic theology: the sciences.

Despite these magnificent endorsements of the scientific enterprise that one finds in Guadium et Spes we do not find an explicit discussion in any of the Vatican II council documents of the potential contributions of science to theology and church. This despite the fact that the Council was considered to be pastoral in nature. For example the council Fathers announced at the beginning of Gaudium et Spes that they wished to address themselves to the world in order to tell the world how the Church sees man’s predicament, man’s condition and man’s path to salvation. The sciences should have been discussed as part of that picture as they enter crucially into man’s predicament, man’s condition and the common effort to improve man’s condition.

That Vatican II missed the chance to integrate the natural sciences and theology is confirmed by perusal of the 15 other official council documents. There is a brief mention of the need to include science in the education of a catholic mind in Gravissimum Educationis, the declaration on Christian education. In paragraph 10 on catholic colleges and universities, the Fathers write: “The Church is concerned also with schools of a higher level, especially colleges and universities. In those schools dependent on her she intends that by their very constitution individual subjects be pursued according to their own principles, method, and liberty of scientific inquiry, in such a way that an ever deeper understanding in these fields may be obtained and that, as questions that are new and current are raised and investigations carefully made according to the example of the doctors of the Church and especially of St. Thomas Aquinas, there may be a deeper realization of the harmony of faith and science. Thus there is accomplished a public, enduring and pervasive influence of the Christian mind in the furtherance of culture and the students of these institutions are molded into men truly outstanding in their training, ready to undertake weighty responsibilities in society and witness to the faith in the world.”

A little further in this section of Gravissimum Educationis 10, the fathers argue that “Since science advances by means of the investigations peculiar to higher scientific studies, special attention should be given in Catholic universities and colleges to institutes that serve primarily the development of scientific research.” Note however that while these brief mentions of science reinforce the traditional teaching of the Church that there is a harmony between faith and reason, there is absolutely no reflection on the implications for theology and for the church of that fundamental truth. Nowhere do the fathers appear to treat science as a foundational element for Catholic theology-despite the fact that the early church Fathers did so, the mediaeval Fathers did so, and the renaissance and Tridentine fathers did so.

Science is mentioned in one other Vatican II document but not in a positive way. In Apostolicam Actuositatem-the decree on the apostolate of the laity, the fathers missed another chance to discuss science as a vocation. To treat science as a vocation, as an apostolate, is absolutely crucial to bringing in more scientists to the church. Most scientists in fact see their work as a calling. These are men and women who have a devotion to truth as revealed in the book of nature and the talent to pursue that truth. If there is a harmony between faith and reason these scientists have a right and duty to expect to come to the beginings of revealed truth if they faithfully pursue the path of reason. Catholic faithful with vocations to science however are not addressed in Apostolicam Actuositatem. Instead the council fathers in Apostolicam Actuositatem 7 warn of the dangers associated with deformations of the scientific vocation: In the course of history, the use of temporal things has been marred by serious vices. Affected by original sin, men have frequently fallen into many errors concerning the true God, the nature of man, and the principles of the moral law. This has led to the corruption of morals and human institutions and not rarely to contempt for the human person himself. In our own time, moreover, those who have trusted excessively in the progress of the natural sciences and the technical arts have fallen into an idolatry of temporal things and have become their slaves rather than their masters.” While it is certainly of utmost importance to warn against the dangers of slavish dependence on science and technology, this statement leaves out the enormous contributions science has made to human welfare (thus concretely fulfilling the explicit charge of the council fathers for the apostolates to serve suffering humanity). And again this document on the apostolates of the laity says absolutely nothing of the scientific vocation-never mind of the relation of that vocation to Catholic theology.

Despite the ringing endorsements of reason as integral to the theological enterprise that we find in Gaudium et Spes that claim is nowhere followed up on in any of the other council documents. None of the contributions of science to the issue of the Liturgies of the Church are found in Lumen Gentium (on the mystery of the Church), Sacrosanctum Concilium, (on reform of the Roman rites) and Orientalium Ecclesiarum (on the Eastern rites). It is clear that the science of ritual and of liturgies in particular just did not enter the consciousness of the Council Fathers. These latter three documents are centered on reflections on the nature of the central Christian rites such as the Eucharist. It is reasonable then to ask: In our human attempts to receive, comprehend and faithfully perform the great rite given to us by the savior does it not behoove us to consult the relevant sciences? There is after all a science of ritual and a psychology of ritual and so forth. Are the results of these scienecs relevant to an understanding of and performance of the Eucharist? Clearly the council fathers did not think so as they nowhere discuss empirical studies of ritual.

Nevertheless their own statements on the central rite of the Church make it clear that they should have brought in scientific findings on ritual in order to deepen the Church’s capacity to receive, perform and pass on the revelation entrusted to them. Take for example Sacrosanctum Concilium’s proclamations on the sacred liturgy. In the opening pargraph1the council fathers declared that “This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church. The Council therefore sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy.”

All of these are eminently practical, pastoral aims. The fathers could have been immensely helped by consultation with experts on ritual. Some of the reforms suggested by the fathers have been interpreted by subsequent generations to de-emphasize the sacrificial language and theology traditionally associated with the Eucharist and instead emphasize the rites associated with the communal meal of the early Christian communities. This move has created decades of conflict in the church as some have seen the de-emphasis on sacrificial aspects of the mass as a move toward Protestantism and a decreased awareness of sin and the need for the atonement. The theology of the atonement itself has since come under severe attack. But much of this conflict might have been avoided if the council fathers had used distinctions in the scientific literature on ritual that allowed one to distinguish an array or variety of ritual forms each associated with varying functions. The ritual of blood sacrifice for example is associated in most cultures with purification and then communion with the deity, while rituals of communal meals are most often associated with celebration and thanksgiving. Clearly the catholic mass contains a variety of ritual forms and theological discussions of these ritual forms in counciliar documents might have forestalled deformations in the reform of the liturgy and then the ‘reform of the reform’.

The council fathers seem to have approached this strategy of distinguishing among ritual forms in some areas of the document. In paragraph 6 and 7 the council fathers wrote: “His purpose also was that they might accomplish the work of salvation which they had proclaimed, by means of sacrifice and sacraments, around which the entire liturgical life revolves. Thus by baptism men are plunged into the paschal mystery of Christ: they die with Him, are buried with Him, and rise with Him [16]; they receive the spirit of adoption as sons “in which we cry: Abba, Father” ( Rom. 8 :15), and thus become true adorers whom the Father seeks [17]. In like manner, as often as they eat the supper of the Lord they proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes [18]. For that reason, on the very day of Pentecost, when the Church appeared before the world, “those who received the word” of Peter “were baptized.” And “they continued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles and in the communion of the breaking of bread and in prayers . . . praising God and being in favor with all the people” (Acts 2:41-47). 7. To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross” [20], but especially under the Eucharistic species.”

It is clear that in these passages the fathers distinguish between baptismal rites and other sacraments and further distinguish rites within the mass itself. For example there is the sacrifice of Christ with Christ himself as the priest offering the divine victim and then there is the ‘eating the supper’ which functions to ‘proclaim the death of the Lord…”

But nowhere is the dearth of scientific knowledge concerning ritual performance more detrimental than when the council fathers make the claim in paragraph 11 (nowhere supported by facts as far as I could tell from study of the documents and its footnotes) to the effect that: “But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain.” So far so good. The faithful should not receive the Eucharist in a state of sin or in a state of community discord as St Paul argued. But then the fathers go on to argue in paragraph 14 that this means that the faithful must actively participate in the mass! “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.”

Note that the fathers in pursuing the aim that is ‘to be considered before all else’ do not base their argument on those foundational elements of catholic theology such as sacred tradition or past councils because this would imply that all those generations of past faithful catholics who supposedly did not actively participate in the mass were somehow deficient! Note too that they authors of this document base their argument on the claim that participation by the people at the mass is demanded “…by the very nature of the liturgy”. This is an empirical claim is it not? What in the liturgy demands the verbal participation of the faithful? It is not clear. Literalist interpreted these pronouncements to mean that the faithful must verbally participate throughout the mass. But of course there are many ways to participate at mass and verbal participation is probably the least praiseworthy. Nor does the scientific literature on ritual form support verbal participation as conducive to piety or religious sentiment. Rapaport (1999) in his monumental comparative study of ritual forms emphasizes the fact that the most powerful forms are acts done by the deity to the people and the response by the people is reverential awe and that when this primary religious feeling of awe breaks down so does the surrounding culture.

The church fathers themselves emphasize this primary religious fact in Lumen Gentium-yet they seem not to see links between the church as primary, awesome mystery and the liturgy as primary awesome mystery. In paragraph 39 the fathers proclaim: “The Church, whose mystery is being set forth by this Sacred Synod, is believed to be indefectibly holy. Indeed Christ, the Son of God, who with the Father and the Spirit is praised as “uniquely holy,” (1*) loved the Church as His bride, delivering Himself up for her. He did this that He might sanctify her.(214) He united her to Himself as His own body and brought it to perfection by the gift of the Holy Spirit for God’s glory. Therefore in the Church, everyone whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness, according to the saying of the Apostle: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification”; And in paragraph 48: “The Church, to which we are all called in Christ Jesus, and in which we acquire sanctity through the grace of God, will attain its full perfection only in the glory of heaven, when there will come the time of the restoration of all things.(237) At that time the human race as well as the entire world, which is intimately related to man and attains to its end through him, will be perfectly reestablished in Christ.(238) Christ, having been lifted up from the earth has drawn all to Himself.(239).

These sentiments are deeply mysterious, revealed divine truths. They cannot be better appreciated by verbal participation in the mass. They must be mediated upon-especially when receiving the Eucharist. In Orientalium Ecclesiarum the council fathers state their high esteem for the ancient rites of the eastern churches. It should be noted that participation by the people in these ancient rites is muted at best and that instead mysteries like the transfiguration are celebrated and mediated upon. People understand that they are participating with Christ in a sacrifice-they are not there to talk-they are there to kneel.

In summary, I have discussed Vatican II council documents in terms of the relation between science and catholic theology. I would like to make the argument that science be construed as one of the foundational elements of catholic theology—equal in dignity to tradition and the writings of the doctors of the church-though not equal in dignity to holy scripture. Nor should science or scientists take precedence over the magisterium. Instead I have argued something more modest—that science should inform catholic theology more than it presently does and that it should be considered a foundational element for catholic theology. If we can consider the arts as foundational then we can surely do so for science as well. I have shown that Gaudium et Spes in particular appears to support parts of my argument-though it must be admitted that the other council documents do not. The fathers never argued against using science to inform theology. It appears that that thought was simply not on their radar screens during Vatican II. At some point the church and catholic theology in particular must explicitly come to terms with science. Pope John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio went some way in that direction but the language in the encyclical was largely philosophical rather than scientific so more is needed. Gaudium et Spes was an advance but it was never followed up upon. In its failure to address science Vatican II failed to “modernize” the church in the only way modernization could make sense. Science is about the only valuable thing the modern world has given humanity. Most (not all) other cultural innovations are disasters and signs of decadence.


Nichols, Aidan, O.P. (1991). The Shape of Catholic Theology: An Introduction to Its Sources, Principles, and History. Collegeville, Minnesota, Liturgical Press.


Rapaport, R. (1999). Ritual and religion in the making of humanity. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University press.


Vatican II. And Trouve, M. L. (1998). The Sixteen Documents of Vatican II (Ecclesial Classics)

NY: Pauline Books & Media.


Acknowledgement: This piece is excerpted and modified from a longer work by Augustinus submitted to St Joseph’s College in 2012