As I have grown in my appreciation of science, there are key people who have both assisted and inspired me to embrace the study of the world around us. In a field that is made up primarily of men, I deeply appreciate the influence that brilliant women of science have had upon my intellectual growth. There are many I could reference, but three stand out in particular. The first is Dr. Anne Geraghty, a former colleague of mine when I taught at Regis High School whose specialty is molecular biology. Our discussions on matters of faith and science helped me see clearly the problems with Intelligent Design and assisted me to rediscover the intellectual tradition of Catholicism that embraces science on its own terms. The second is one of our contributors to The Catholic Astronomer, Dr. Brenda Frye, astronomer at the Steward Observatory and Professor of Physics at the University of Arizona. When I attended the first Faith and Astronomy Workshop (FAW), I greatly enjoyed Dr. Frye’s presentation on gravitational telescoping, sharing with us images from the Hubble Space Telescope to demonstrate this phenomena. Gravitational telescoping is a phenomena in which gravity is bending the light of distant celestial objects and reflecting their image in different parts of the night sky, at differ stages of the object’s evolution. It is often said that the night sky is like a history book, presenting the heavens not as they are, but as they were depending on their distance from us. Gravitational telescoping provides a history book within a history book as scientists can now study the life of a galaxy in new ways because of this phenomena. As someone whose interest in astronomy was fueled by images from the Hubble Space Telescope and deep space objects, Dr. Frye’s presentation stood out as one of the more memorable moments of FAW for me on a personal level. Lastly, I have been inspired by an up and coming woman of science, one of my parishioners at St. Joseph Parish who is a student at MIT. As I pray for her and listened to her dreams about being part of the exploration of objects beyond Pluto, I can’t help but wonder, “Who will she inspire someday?”
Similar to my appreciation of women of science, I can also point to countless women who have assisted and inspired me to understand the Church both as a priest and a layman. In an environment of male only priesthood, my years of ministry have affirmed that collaboration with faith-filled women is essential in the life of the Church so that the full breadth of the Mystical Body of Christ can be expressed. Whether it be universal figures such as Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa of Calcutta or in women I have worked with in my daily ministry, I marvel at the examples of faith these women have been for me and how they have shaped my approach to ministry. I have also been blessed with friends, parishioners, and students who have invited me to join them on their walk with Jesus Christ. When faith is found and shared, it not only assists the person I walk with, but also assists me. An example of this would be when one of my former students, Megan (Geraghty) Lobos, wrote a piece for the USCCB on the challenges of international relationships. When I read this piece for the first time, my mind went back to conversations Megan and I had about her journey with Juan. These memories provided not only a moment of nostalgic pride, but also gratitude on how their journey shaped my approach to priestly ministry. These experiences have led me to see the lay people I work with as extensions of my priestly ministry. Without their work and dedication, I would not be able to accomplish that which God has called me to do: Care for God’s people and invite them into a life of holiness.
As I reflect on these influential women in my life and ministry, I am reminded of Papal calls to uphold the dignity of women in the Church and the modern world. St. John Paul II, in his World Day of Peace address from 1995, reflected on how a world that accepts and promotes the contributions of women improves society and promotes the cause of peace.
When women are able fully to share their gifts with the whole community, the very way in which society understands and organizes itself is improved, and comes to reflect in a better way the substantial unity of the human family. Here we see the most important condition for the consolidation of authentic peace. The growing presence of women in social, economic and political life at the local, national and international levels is thus a very positive development. Women have a full right to become actively involved in all areas of public life, and this right must be affirmed and guaranteed, also, where necessary, through appropriate legislation. (John Paul II, World Day of Peace – Women: Teachers of Peace)
Pope Francis has shared similar sentiments about the need to reflect upon the indispensable role of women in the Church, promoting their dignity globally, and finding new ways for women to be involved in Church leadership. Often, these calls bring forth great optimism for the Church’s future, but can also lead to deep frustration, feeling that the Church is not doing enough for women. In either case, it becomes clear that the dignity of women in the Church is an ongoing pastoral need to address regardless of country of origin, economic status, or state of life.
In light of these reflections and in the spirit of this blog, I can’t help but think that the Church could do more to encourage women to be involved in the natural sciences, exploring the mutual pursuit of truth that faith and science have as we come to appreciate God’s creation. In 2016, the Vatican hosted an event entitled “Voices of Faith,” encouraging women to share their stories of how their leadership has helped strengthen the Church. Could there be an opportunity to invite and encourage women in the sciences to reflect theologically on their life as a Catholic and a scientist?
The Catholic Astronomer has already reflected upon the group of Nuns who helped the Vatican Observatory catalogue over 480,000 stars. Their names are Sisters Emilia Ponzoni, Regina Colombo, Concetta Finardi and Luigia Pinceri. Long before these Religious assisted the Vatican Observatory, other women of faith and science broke monumental barriers for their time. A woman of great influence who is often identified as a Catholic woman of science is Saint Hildegard von Bingen, Doctor of the Church, who lived in the 11th and 12th centuries. Saint Hildegard was identified as a polymath, meaning someone who has a broad spectrum of intellectual expertise, displaying brilliance in many fields of study. Saint Hildegard was known as a mystic, astronomer, philosopher, physician, and musician. Saint Hildegard developed a theory of the origin and structure of the universe, but it was more of a mystical vision based on the medieval worldview of her day and her periodic visions. Nevertheless, we can still affirm and uphold her brilliance, remembering that her intellectual pursuits were shaped by the times she lived in, just as our understanding of the world is shaped by the times we live in. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI offered a beautiful reflection on the life of Saint Hildegard when she was declared a Doctor of the Church. Here is a section of that reflection, focusing upon Saint Hildegard’s view of creation and the Trinity.
Hildegard asks herself and us the fundamental question, whether it is possible to know God: This is theology’s principal task. Her answer is completely positive: through faith, as through a door, the human person is able to approach this knowledge. God, however, always retains his veil of mystery and incomprehensibility. He makes himself understandable in creation but, creation itself is not fully understood when detached from God. Indeed, nature considered in itself provides only pieces of information which often become an occasion for error and abuse. Faith, therefore, is also necessary in the natural cognitive process, for otherwise knowledge would remain limited, unsatisfactory and misleading.
Creation is an act of love by which the world can emerge from nothingness. Hence, through the whole range of creatures, divine love flows as a river. Of all creatures God loves man in a special way and confers upon him an extraordinary dignity, giving him that glory which the rebellious angels lost. The human race may thus be counted as the tenth choir of the angelic hierarchy. Indeed human beings are able to know God in himself, that is, his one nature in the Trinity of Persons. Hildegard approached the mystery of the Blessed Trinity along the lines proposed by Saint Augustine. By analogy with his own structure as a rational being, man is able to have an image at least of the inner life of God. Nevertheless, it is solely in the economy of the Incarnation and human life of the Son of God that this mystery becomes accessible to human faith and knowledge. The holy and ineffable Trinity in supreme Unity was hidden from those in the service of the ancient law. But in the new law of grace it was revealed to all who had been freed from slavery. The Trinity was revealed in a special way in the Cross of the Son. (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Apostolic Letter proclaiming Hildegard of Bingen, professed nun of the Order of Saint Benedict, a Doctor of the Universal Church. Section of paragraph 4)
Another interesting study is the role Pope Benedict XIV played during the enlightenment, leading to the promotion of women scientists and mathematicians at the University of Bologna. In the wake of Elena Piscopia (1646-1684), the first woman to receive a Doctorate in Europe, Laura Bassi (1711-1778) was the second woman to receive a Doctorate and the first to officially teach at a European University. What is even more amazing is that Laura Bassi began teaching at the University of Bologna at the age of 20. Bassi was know for her understanding of Newtonian physics, experimental physics, and electricity. Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, who later became Pope Benedict XIV, recognized the intellectual talent of Bassi and became one of her biggest supporters. The future Pope encouraging her not only to study the emerging science of the times, but wanted Bassi to participate in public lectures to be a symbol for the city of Bologna. Bassi was eventually appointed to Pope Benedict XIV’s group of 25 intellectual elites called the Benedettini whose goal was to stimulate new scientific research in Bologna. In light of these accomplishments, Laura Bassi is a historic figure not only for the Catholic Church, but for all people as she broke barriers for women in professional education and the sciences. (A nice summary of Laura Bassi’s life can be found online in the text Women in Science.)
One of the aspects of Laura Bassi’s life I deeply appreciate from the perspective of a diocesan priest is Pope Benedict XIV’s encouragement of her to pursue science as a lay woman in the Church. At one level, this encouragement of God given gifts can be seen as a simple gesture. However, if we, as clergy, are to take Pope Francis’ call seriously to elevate the dignity of women, we need to be attentive to the gifts God has given to those around us and actively encourage those gifts to be explored and shared for the good of the Church and the world. This ministerial temperament seeks to affirm the gifts of women not only because of their gender, but because they are indispensable voices and contributors to the ongoing pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. To mute certain voices from this pursuit hinders the advancement of the Economy of God or the unfolding of God’s work of salvation. Tension will remain around certain questions, like priestly ordination, but these tensions should not and cannot be used as justification to exclude women from participation in leadership roles in the Church where it is possible. The Scriptural grounding for this comes from St. Paul, describing the Mystical Body of Christ as analogous to the human body. Each part of the body is unique and distinct, but, in order for the body to act as it should, all the members must act in concert as one. If we try to make the body “all ear” or “all eye,” then the body cannot function as it should. Therefore, sincere reflection needs to be given about the social structures of the Church and society to ensure that each part of the Mystical Body is able to embrace its unique role so the Church may be fully alive in Christ.
Spiritual Exercise: Pray that God continues to call forth the gifts and talents of women to bless and enrich the Church. Together, may all of us, women and men, walk together on our common pilgrimage of faith. In this journey, may we value the voices of all who God has inspired to help build up the Church, enlivened by the diversity and unity of the Mystical Body of Christ.