Catholics and Darwin, and Zahm, oh my!

The correlation between science and religion has certainly been a contested matter throughout history, and continues today. Many of us are all too familiar with the Scientific Revolution and Galileo Galilei, the seventeenth-century Italian astronomer who defied the Roman Catholic Church in his endorsement of a sun-centered solar system. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, an age of reason and new thought, succeeded the period of unprecedented scientific discovery, and swiftly challenged Church doctrine. In the nineteenth century, science continued its advancement in various fields as the Industrial Revolution started to take hold of several metropolitan cities around the world. Specifically, the latter part of the nineteenth century holds a crucial moment in the clash between scientific development and religion.

Charles Darwin, the nineteenth-century English naturalist, conceptualized a theory on human development that furthered complications with the Church: evolution, or Darwinism. His notion on natural selection and its implications caused a commotion in the Church over the spiritual and physical development of the human. The onset of Darwin’s theory sparked outrage within Catholic communities in the United States, and ignited the formation of two ideologically-different factions: the progressives and the conservatives. In R. Scott Appleby’s essay “Exposing Darwin’s ‘Hidden Agenda,'” the former was composed of some bishops and priests, and attempted to open the American Catholic sphere to scientific developments and other doctrinal differences; their forward-thinking movement was sometimes dubbed “Americanism.” The conservatives, however, were spearheaded by several American Catholic prelates who disavowed the idea of human evolution, calling it a mockery of God’s power and creationism. Though the progressives seemed to be out of accordance with Catholic dogma, their movement received praise from Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) who advocated for a more tolerant approach to science.


Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

The final years of the nineteenth century proved to be a pivotal moment for the Catholic-Darwin relationship. Father John Augustine Zahm, a University of Notre Dame scientist and priest in the Congregation of Holy Cross, sought to find a meaningful correlation between religion and science in the 1890s. Though he believed that Catholic doctrine was the “divine truth,” and outweighed scientific principles, Zahm maintained that he was inconclusive on Darwin’s theory of evolution. He insisted that an evolution based on God’s role in the creation of the human form was a possible ideological answer to the conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and the scientific community. It was unnecessary for the Catholic teaching on creation and the scientific theories of evolution to counter each other, Zahm affirmed. In 1896 the priest-scientist published Evolution and Dogma, his attempt to demonstrate the coexistence of religion and science in historical and contemporary perspectives.


Father John A. Zahm, CSC

During his clashes with Pope Urban VIII and the Holy See, Galileo proposed “the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” His words are evocative of Catholicism’s relationship with the sciences today. Before entering the Society of Jesus as a novitiate, Pope Francis briefly studied chemistry at a technology institute in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His experience laid the groundwork for his innovative encyclical Laudato si, where he describes the ailing condition of the environment and calls for the fruitful dialogue between religion and science. Pope Francis’s concern for the poor and the marginalized, especially those felt precluded by the Church, translate into his worries for the Earth. His desire to see respectful and constructive relations between religion and science is traced to Father Zahm’s argument for a cohesive bond connecting the two differing ideologies.


A satirical take on the environmentally-conscious pope.

Thanks for reading!




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