Catholic contributions to science are often overlooked

Jerry Naunheim Jr.

In his recent presentation at Cardinal Rigali Center, Father Robert J. Spitzer talked about "gigantic errors of omission taking place in the traditional media and new media."

"Lots of people are forgetting lots of things," he said, describing them as "errors of omission all over the place" for failing to acknowledge that a Belgian priest, Father Georges Lemaître, formulated the Big Bang Theory, which none other than Albert Einstein said seems to be the best explanation for the beginning of the universe.

According to Father Andrew Pinsent, research director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, traditional media misses the important role of Catholicism in science.

"I wouldn't want to describe a motive for this, but it is strange that really two of the most important theories of modern science -- the Big Bang Theory and genetics -- were both invented by Catholic priests," Father Pinsent said in a recent phone conversation from England. "This is not the impression you get from the media."

In addition to Father Georges Lemaître, Gregor Mende, an Augustinian friar, is considered the "Father of Genetics" and Maria Agnesi was the first woman professor of mathematics. She was appointed by Pope Benedict XIV in 1750, 150 years before the first woman earned a PhD in mathematics in the U.S.

"Most people don't know that," Pinsent said. "History isn't what you think it is; what a lot of people think it is. The relationship is much more subtle and complex than people think."

In academic circles, the Catholic Church's contribution to science is well-known. Not so in broader society.

"At the level of academic research, people are more aware of the history and the contribution of the church to civilization; at the level of the popular media, these things are unknown," Father Pinsent said. "What gets taught in schools is a simple narrative that to have faith you must be somehow anti-reason or anti-science. The history of Western Civilization is a very different story."

To combat this, Father Pinsent has completed a series of posters depicting Catholics Lemaître, Mendel and others, available through the Catholic Truth Society ( He also also written books, produced DVDs and given presentations.

"Another point is that the university system came from Catholic Europe before the Reformation," said Father Pinsent, who counts a doctorate in philosophy from St. Louis University in 2009 among his six advanced degrees. "All of what we have today came out of that, including the fine universities in St. Louis. The very idea of university came from Catholic Medieval Europe."

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