“For most of its history, the Catholic Church rejected scientific findings that conflicted with its doctrine.” I work for the Vatican astronomical observatory, and last year when a correspondent for a major news organization did a story about the observatory, the editors felt the need to preface the story with this statement. Some people are just fixated on the idea that the Church rejects science.
St. Thomas Aquinas could take them into account, using astronomy and Genesis as an example.
In Genesis, God says, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky,” and we hear that “God made the two great lights.” [the sun and moon]… and made the stars.” If these bodies were all lights in a dome, they would all be at the same distance from the Earth. The sun and moon, which appear to be the largest celestial lights, would also be the most large in physical volume.
But by the 2nd century, astronomers such as the Greek-Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy had determined that the sun is more distant than the moon and the stars even more distant. Ptolemy said that the stars were so far away that the Earth was a tiny dot in comparison. For stars to appear as they do in the sky, but be so far away, meant they had to be much larger in bulk than the moon.
Ptolemy’s arguments were convincing to Christian writers. They did not reject science. For example, St. Severus Boethius mentions that the Earth is a point, and mentions Ptolemy by name, in his Consolation of Philosophy which he wrote around 525. St. Augustine, the 5th century African bishop who had even more influential in the Christian world than Boethius, he commented that the stars are very large in his book “On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis”.
St. Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century Italian theologian who has been as influential as St. Augustine, also considered the question of the size of the stars. In his book “Summa Theologica”, question 70, which talks about the fourth day of creation, he notes that “as the astronomers say, there are many stars greater than the moon. Therefore, only the sun and the moon are not correctly described as the two great lights.” To this he answers: “the two lights are called great, not so much in terms of their dimensions as in their influence and power. Because even if the stars have more volume than the moon. … as far as the senses are concerned, their apparent size is greater”.
Aquinas did not reject science. Using the principle that one true thing cannot contradict another, he interpreted Genesis as a description of the heavens as they appear to us, not as a description of the absolute size of the moon.
But this kind of interpretation was never to be used lightly. Galileo argued that the Earth revolved around the sun; thus, the Bible verses that describe the sun as moving describe things as they appear to us. Church leaders such as Cardinals St. Robert Bellarmine and Carlo Conti told Galileo that yes, an interpretation can be made, but, as Conti said, “this way of interpreting must not be admitted without great necessity.” The question was, did the scientific evidence require it? Was there a need? Church officials who considered Darwin’s theory of evolution in the late 19th century used the same logic.
Science changes. The development of new instruments such as the Webb telescope guarantees this. Conversely, the principle that one truth cannot contradict another is timeless. Without some caution, we would be reinterpreting Scripture again and again in light of this or that scientific idea that has not stood the test of time. Saint Thomas Aquinas could say that prudence and respect for Scripture are hardly a rejection of science.
Chris Graney, parishioner of the church of St. Louis Bertrand, is part of the staff of the Vatican Observatory, www.vaticanobservatory.org.