I am happy to welcome once again Dr. Kate Bulinski of Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky as a guest blogger for Sacred Space Astronomy. She took part in the Society of Catholic Scientists meeting this past June (at which the V.O.’s Maria Elena Monzani gave a presentation), and here she offers some reflections on her experience there. Her remarks also fit well for the current Season of Creation (September 1 through October 4).
By Dr. Kate Bulinski (August 4, 2023):
For much of my career as a paleontologist and a Catholic, I was of the opinion that science and faith should not mix in the professional realm; that beliefs involving the role of God as the ultimate cause, or the special creation of the soul were the realm of theology and philosophy and best left out of scientific discourse. This kind of separation is often referred to as the “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” coined by the paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould (whose work I admire greatly). I still think this to a large extent; that secular scientific conferences should be constrained to the material realm and that inserting questions concerning the supernatural into the practice of secular science is a recipe for undermining scientific methodology. Questions concerning faith and religion are not generally suited to be “tested” in a scientific sense but rather explored through methods of philosophical and theological inquiry. Inserting God into places where science is not settled or does not yet have answers is sometimes referred to as the “God of the Gaps” and this practice has a way of undermining explorations of both science and faith.
To cite a twentieth-century example, Georges Lemaître, the famous Belgian priest, theoretical physicist, and so-called “Father of the Big Bang theory” expressed reservations when his scientific discoveries were appropriated to explain the metaphysical. Famously, Pope Pius XII attributed the Big Bang to the original creation event, which in effect was an attempt to demonstrate concordance between science and scripture concerning creation. Lemaître, as the story goes, requested a meeting with the Pope to discuss this, and provided clarification regarding the extent to which the science can actually claim evidence pointing to an ultimate act of creation. This episode is a wonderful example of how science and faith can enter into dialogue and provide corrections that point towards a clearer understanding of Truth. It’s completely possible that what we understand to be the “Big Bang” was a creative act caused by God; however, claiming this would be overstating what the science can demonstrate. As St. Pope John Paul stated in a frequently quoted letter to the former director of the Vatican Observatory, Fr. George Coyne, S.J., “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”
All that said, within a Catholic worldview, we do consider science and faith as two ways of knowing, and in that sense they can and should be integrated into a more holistic view of our ultimate reality. In yet another well-known quote from St. Pope John Paul II, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”
As a scientist and a Catholic, while I internally was able to integrate science and faith into my own belief system, it wasn’t always clear to me how to reconcile that with my more public role as a professional scientist working within a secular framework. Catholic paleontologists do not have the equivalent of the Vatican Observatory in which to explore the intersection of science and faith as it relates to the origin and evolution of life, theological implications of extinction, or questions of human origins.
This summer, I attended the annual meeting of the Society of Catholic Scientists (SCS) for the first time. This society was founded in 2016, to “foster fellowship among Catholic Scientists and to witness to the harmony of faith and reason.” The SCS began offering conferences in 2017 that created a new avenue for Catholic scientists to explore the integration of scientific and theological questions in a way that is not available in the secular realm.
I’ve been a member of the SCS since 2017 but was not able to attend one of their conferences in-person until now. This was the first time I’ve ever seen scholarly posters and presentations that seamlessly integrated faith and science in a way that brought legitimacy to this avenue of inquiry. I saw talks on topics like “Human Origins and Our Evolving Understanding of Humanness” or “The Origin of Life on Earth: How the Tree of Life is Rooted in Matter” or provocatively: “Does Artificial Intelligence Need the Gospel?” I had the opportunity to present as well, with a poster titled “Critical Conversations: Science and Faith in the Undergraduate Classroom” which discussed a class I taught for first year honors students last year.
Topics like these would not be accepted for presentation at a secular science conference, or if they were, it would certainly ruffle some feathers. Yet, topics exploring the intersection of science and faith are worthy of exploration and bring new understanding to both scientific inquiry and theological questions. Gathering Catholic scientists together from across the country (and actually, internationally) provided this incredible opportunity to dig deep into questions of ethics, epistemology, and meaning as it applied to scientific topics, something which I believe is most worthwhile.
I still affirm the need for purely secular scientific spaces when exploring questions that are purely material in nature but am overjoyed to also belong to this community of scientists of faith.