Two weeks ago I wrote about the many young people abandoning Catholic teaching because, in their perspective, Christianity is in conflict with what they’re learning in science class in school. I admit that some Christians face this conflict; but well-informed Catholics don’t. First, the problem.
The cultural image of “what Christians believe” gets us into trouble in at least two ways: First, that popular image is shaped by particular strands of Christianity (especially fundamentalism, of which more in a moment) that are non- or even anti-Catholic. And second, we haven’t done a very good job of teaching young Catholics what Catholics (as distinct from fundamentalist Christians) believe. When young Catholics leave the faith because they think there’s a conflict between our faith and science, they’re deceived. We have to help them, and that means understanding things accurately ourselves.
Do some Christians believe that the world was created about 6,000 years ago? Yes. (This is called “young-earth creationism.”) Do Catholics believe it? No. Do some Christians believe that the Bible is literally the Word of God without any errors down to the last detail? Yes. (This is called a “literalist” interpretation.) Do Catholics believe that? No. Catholics are heirs to a rich intellectual tradition that has wrestled with difficult questions for two millennia; sound bites and slogans can’t capture our faith. And the secular media often, and understandably, get us wrong. (Few news outlets can afford to have on staff reporters and writers who specialize in the “religion” beat; so well-meaning reporters are often out of their depth in reporting on religious matters despite their good intentions.)
So: Fundamentalism. It all starts with an attempt by some conservative Presbyterian theologians in the late 19th and early 20th century to define the “fundamentals” of what they considered Christian belief. They were opposing the discoveries of science (Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859, to take just one famous marker), and to the Biblical research movement called “higher criticism,” that they thought undermined Christian belief. The fundamentalist movement spread, especially among Presbyterians, and by the early 20th century it spread among other Reformed churches as well.
And then came the Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925. High-school teacher John Scopes was recruited to “teach evolution” in his class, in defiance of Tennessee’s law. The trial drew massive national attention; the state won on the law (Scopes was found guilty by the jury in nine minutes and fined $100), but the celebrity defense and the national media made a laughingstock of the prosecution and of the anti-evolution issue. The “fundamentalists” withdrew to the margins of society and to their own institutions (colleges, journals, church congregations, seminaries, etc.)
Until they came roaring back into the mainstream news in the 1970s, led by a takeover of Southern Baptist seminaries and leadership by fundamentalist scholars focused on a literal interpretation of the Bible. This movement is what’s been in the news since then, and has spread widely among other denominations and among “non-denominational,” freelance “churches.”
(There was a parallel argument in Catholic circles about Biblical interpretation, but most lay Catholics were unaware of it; and the matter was settled by Pope Pius XII in 1943 when he affirmed the longstanding Catholic approach to the Scriptures, which can be traced back to the early Fathers’ use of Scripture, and which is opposed to fundamentalist, literalist interpretation.)
In this context it’s interesting (to me, at least, and maybe to young people confused about the Catholic Church’s attitude to science) to look back over the number of Catholic priests who were, in their day, famous scientists. To take a few examples: Roger Bacon (one of the founders of modern scientific method); Georges Lemaitre (first to propose the expanding universe theory); Gregor Mendel (established through experiment many of the laws of heredity, now known as the laws of ”Mendelian inheritance”).
It’s tragic when young people abandon the practice of the Catholic faith for any reason. To do so because of bad information is, if anything, worse. Until next week, peace.