Bertram Coghill Alan Windle.

The church and science online

. (page 3 of 38)
Online LibraryBertram Coghill Alan WindleThe church and science → online text (page 3 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

death-dealing argument against Christianity. Let us hasten
to add that it may be gratefully admitted that these paeans
of joy seldom, if ever, come from the real luminaries of
science. These, for the most part, if having no belief in
religion, are content, like Sir Ray Lankester in the quota-
tion given above, to express no opinion on the matter, in
a word, to maintain that agnostic position defined and
adopted by Huxley. But the assertion is often made, and
made in such places as to come most prominently under
the notice of " the man in the street," namely, in the pages
of daily and weekly journals.

Let us take the case of Mr. Burke's so-called " radiobes." 1
People who wrote about these seemed to think that if they
were what they were claimed to be — which parenthetically
it may be said they were not — the whole fabric of Chris-
tianity would vanish like a dream. This is only one example
of the ignorant (for we must charitably allow that it is
ignorant) way in which these matters are dealt with, for
if the " radiobes " had been all and more than was claimed
for them, the Catholic position would be exactly what it
was in the time of St. Thomas Aquinas in his controversy
with Avicenna — exactly what it is at this moment — namely,
that if life is spontaneously developed from non-living
material it must be because the Creator infused that
potentiality, under suitable opportunities, into non-living
matter. 2

This, no doubt, is a recent example, yet it may be ad-
mitted that such paeans were far more frequent during the
earlier portion of the last half-century — when the wine of
new discovery had a little got into the heads of some of the
less exacting thinkers — than it is to-day. That time was
one when " cock-sureness " rather than the scientific sceptic-
ism of to-day was the note of the hour. But, nevertheless,
the thing has existed and does exist to some not wholly
inconsiderable extent, and must be taken into consideration

1 These were objects appearing in an organic fluid under the action of
radium. Originally claimed to have a bearing on the origin of life, they
have since been shown to have a purely chemical explanation.

a For a further consideration of this point see Chapter xxx.


when the question of the differences between Religion and
Science are under discussion.

Some explanation of this tendency may unquestionably
be found in the fact that many of these expressions of
opinion are from the pens of journalists " sore gravelled
for matter," and well aware that " The Final Destruction of
Christianity " makes a most attractive " headline." But
beyond this it is true, pitiable though it may be, that there
are people who would be really gratified if it could be made
quite certain that there is no God and no Hereafter. That
this is not the attitude of really thoughtful agnostics is
exemplified by the following quotation from the writings oi
the late Mr. Romanes, during his agnostic days : x " For-
asmuch as I am far from being able to agree with those
who affirm that the twilight doctrine of the new faith is a
desirable substitute for the waning splendour of ' the old,'
I am not ashamed to confess that with this virtual nega-
tion of God the universe to me has lost its soul of love-
liness ; and although from henceforth the precept ' to
work while it is day ' will doubtless but gain an intensified
force from the terribly intensified meaning of the words
that ' the night cometh when no man can work,' yet when
at times I think, as think at times I must, of the appalling
contrast between the hallowed glory of that creed which
once was mine, and the lonely mystery of existence as now
I find it — at such times I shall ever feel it impossible to
avoid the sharpest pang of which my nature is susceptible."

This utterance might and probably would be made by
other reverent minds unable to accept the doctrines of
Christianity ; but there are those others of whom the learned
Fr. Wasmann is thinking when he deplores the fact that
" in many scientific circles there is an absolute theophobia, a
dread of the Creator," 2 as to which he adds, " I can only re-
gret this, because I believe that it is due chiefly to a defective
knowledge of Christian philosophy and theology." However

1 " A Candid Examination of Theism," 1878. It may be noted that
the writer in question returned in later days to a belief in Christianity and
was engaged upon a reply to his earlier work at the time of his death.
This incomplete work has since been published under the title " Thoughts
on Christianity."

2 " The Problem of Evolution," London, Kegan Paul, 1909, p. 47.


this may be, there is the fact, and it has to be reckoned with,
that persons suffering from theophobia and knowing the
Church to be the one strong fortress of belief attack it by all
means fair or foul.

Thus it often occurs that the Church and Science are made
to appear out of harmony with one another by means of
an illegitimate use of some scientific theory of the day :
and if any exception is taken to this on the part of the
Church, then " She is at her old games, trying to stifle
enquiry." There is a further method very adroitly used
by those who desire to discredit the Church and to repre-
sent her as the age-long enemy of science. The prescription
runs somewhat in this way : Take some mediaeval man
of science confronted with some wholly new problem. He
possesses only the knowledge (or ignorance) of his day. As
almost every learned person of the time was a cleric of some
kind or another, and as at any rate he is tolerably certain to
have been a Catholic, it is perfectly obvious that any foolish
though natural mistake which he may have made must
necessarily be due to the blighting influence of Catholicity.
It is as well to conceal from the public that this groper after
knowledge may have stumbled upon some fact or facts in
the course of his gropings which have caused his name " on
fame's eternal bede-roll " to "be filed." But, if this un-
pleasant fact must be made known, then of course the dis-
coveries were made in spite of the disadvantages which he
suffered under from being a Catholic, and would have been
much more fundamental had he not been in terror of what the
Inquisition might do to him. By this means it is possible to
picture a very pretty quarrel between Religion and Science.

Perhaps it may not be amiss to give an instance
of what has just been alluded to. When fossils first
came under the observation of thinking men it is not
wonderful that they should have excited great curiosity
and even greater wonderment as to their nature and origin.
Amongst those men of science who tried to account for
them was one Gabriel Fallopius, a canon of Modena, who
thought, foolishly enough as we now know, that they were
" generated by fermentation in the spots where they were
found " ; or that they had in some cases acquired their


form from " the tumultuous movements of terrestrial
exhalations." The remarks are inept enough, as all will
admit, but can it be credited that it has actually been
claimed that these assertions were made by a dignitary of
the Church — who we must suppose knew what the real
explanation was — for no other purpose than that of deceiv-
ing the unlearned in the interest of his Church !

It does not seem to have occurred to such persons,
nor would they probably allow such a thought to occur
to them, that Fallopius made a very foolish mistake
quite explicable in one whose date was 1523 -1562.
Others, with much less excuse, have also made foolish mis-
takes without thereby forfeiting the name of scientific
authorities. Huxley admittedly fell into a very gross
error over his so-called "Bathybius Haeckelii " ; yet I have
never seen the accusation hurled at his head that he
declared an inorganic object to be organic in order to per-
suade his unlearned audience that it explained the origin of
life. No doubt Fallopius's statements with regard to ' ' tumul-
tuous movements " are vague, but vagueness was a not
unnatural feature of the time. Is their vagueness after all
any greater than the vagueness of Herbert Spencer's state-
ment that " inorganic matter, through successive complica-
tions, gave origin to organic matter" ? " Successive com-
plications " and "tumultuous movements" make a very
pretty pair of nebulous remarks, and there is certainly not
less excuse for Fallopius than there is for Spencer. To
complete the tale, two further points are carefully concealed
from the reader. The first of these is that Fallopius was the
discoverer of certain important things in the science of
Anatomy to which his name is attached — a tube and an
aqueduct (so called) — so that he was not quite the nonentity
that he might be imagined to be. Further, it is still more
carefully kept in the background that the first man to set
science on the track of the truth respecting fossils, was also
a Catholic churchman, and what is more a bishop — also by
the way a distinguished anatomist — whose name is connected
with important discoveries in that subject, but whose greatest
scientific fame it is that he is acclaimed to be the Father of
Modern Geology by all the authorities in that subject. This


was Nicolaus Stensen, whose life extends from 1 638-1 687. *
Of course it is quite clear that when a churchman makes a
foolish blunder it is the Church which is responsible, indeed
he probably made it to bolster up the pretensions of that
organisation. But when the same man makes a valuable
discovery, the Church not only has nothing to do with it —
which is probably quite true — but would have harried him
to death if it could, for having made it. When Dr. Johnson
was asked why he had made a mistake in the definition of
some part of the anatomy of a horse in his Dictionary, his
reply was " Crass ignorance." Crass ignorance, misrepre-
sentation — it is to be feared at times purposeful misrepre-
sentation — are amongst the causes of the disputes, real or
apparent, between Religion and Science.

Finally, in strict fairness, it must be said that the defenders
of Religion are not free from responsibility. In this matter,
indeed, Religion more than once has been in a position in
which she might well have asked to be delivered from her
friends. What is here being alluded to is the often foolish
way in which quite incapable representatives — self-chosen
too — of Religion have often made fatal havoc of their case
by failing to understand their opponent's position, or the
real effect which his theory might have upon religious
dogmas and by endeavouring to confute what they supposed
to be the point at issue by arguments often of an incon-
clusive character and frequently not even ad rem. This is
no more than to say that all defenders of religion are not
infallible, and the same might be said about writers on
science. At any rate there is no doubt that the Church gets
full credit for this kind of defender.

Then, of course, there is the case of Galileo, which never
fails to be cited when this matter of the Church and Science
comes under discussion. This is assumed to have been only
the most prominent instance of a habitual line of conduct
instead of actually being the only case of the kind on record.
It may seem superfluous to say anything more on this point,
but, as several important questions closely connected with

1 An account of his life will be found in the book " Twelve Catholic
Men of Science," published by the Catholic Truth Society (price 2s.). See
also the account of his work in the " Encyclopaedia Britannica," sub
voce Geology.


our subject are involved, it may be permissible to devote a
brief space to a survey of this matter.

Note. — The following passage from a paper by that dis-
tinguished geologist and Catholic A. de Lapparent 1 ("Revue
pratique d'apologetique," 1906, pp. 270-1) shows clearly his
experience of the attitude of the Church to-day towards science.
" In spite of the care which I had taken to keep myself
exclusively on scientific ground, it happened to me once or twice
to be severely taken to task by the sharpshooters of apologetics,
displeased at not finding in my publications any. argument in
favour of particular theses which they had constructed. But
these episodes (which indeed made little commotion) had the
result of displaying the extreme wisdom of the authorities whom
they were attempting to rouse. These supreme judges were not
disturbed. So far they have seen nothing incorrect in the
enunciation (which of course is subject to ulterior rectification)
of theories in which one is satisfied with summarising the facts
which seem established by observation. I feel bound to state that
no one ever felt so free in speech and writings as I myself have
done. Rarely indeed has a professor received more explicit and
continual assurances of a goodwill all the more valued as it
came from high quarters. Without claiming to find herein any
dogmatic confirmation of the views exposed in books of science,
I see in it at least a motive for rendering a special homage to the
wisdom of the Church as well as to her consideration for sincere
opinions which are submitted in advance to her definitive

1 For an account of his life and writings see " Twelve Catholic Men
of Science," referred to on opposite page.



THIS chapter is perhaps somewhat in the nature of a
parenthesis, but in the writer's opinion it is a necessary
parenthesis. It cannot be expected that the general reader
should be intimately familiar with the attitude of the
world towards learning and new discovery in the Middle
Ages, nor can such a reader be expected to make himself
acquainted with the real facts concerning the attitude of
the Church, and especially of the Popes, towards Science
Wherever he finds any allusion to such points in the writings
of non-Catholic authors, even when unbiased against the
Church, he will hardly fail to run up against the oft-
repeated statement that the Church is the deadly enemy of
all science, and that, if she only had the power, she would
once and for all put an end to all learning and all research
into Nature. He reads statements such as these and he
comes to the conclusion — he could hardly perhaps do other-
wise — that the Church really is the enemy of progress.
If he is a good Catholic he probably makes an Act of Faith,
gives a sigh, and goes his way a little discouraged as to
the body to which he belongs. It may perhaps cross his
mind that he has heard, and correctly too, that nearly
every one of the more important and ancient Universities
owes its origin to the Bull of some Pope, and that may give
him pause for a moment. Still the spirit of distrust has
been roused in him — all the more certainly if he has found
the depreciatory statements, as he may quite well do, in
a book written by a man whom he knows to be but little
influenced by anti-religious prejudice.

It is largely in the interests of persons of this kind that



this parenthetic chapter is introduced, and if it does nothing
else than inform them that in the erudite works of Dr.
J. J. Walsh of New York they can find a complete answer
to all these misstatements, it will at least have achieved
the purpose of making it plain that there is an answer, and
a very sufficient answer too, to all these misrepresentations
of the attitude of the Church towards learning of all kinds,
and especially towards that kind of learning which is known
as Science. 1 How have these misrepresentations come to
exist ?

We may leave aside those baser persons who have de-
liberately invented accusations of intolerance : there have
been such, and with them there is no way of dealing except
by showing the utter falsity of their statements. But there
are others, blameworthy though less blameworthy, who
have been content to take their facts secondhand from
writers who do not seem to have taken any particular
trouble to verify the statements to which they have com-
mitted themselves. 2

Let us take one instance of a hoary fable which has from
generation to generation served as an example of the
obscurantist policy of the Popes ; I refer to the oft-repeated
statement that the dissection of human bodies was for-

1 " The Popes and Science " is the first of Dr. Walsh's works which the
reader should apply himself to, and, having done so, he will not require
any persuasion to continue his reading of the remainder of the series.
With respect to Galileo, the reader is advised to consult the late Fr. J.
Gerard's penny pamphlet if he desires a very brief statement of the matter.
If he wishes for fuller information, he will find it in the admirable account,
with full copies of all the documents in connection with the matter,
written by Fr. Ernest R. Hull, s.j., from which most of the facts and
quotations in this chapter are taken. As will be gathered from those
quotations, neither of the above-named writers is desirous of blinking the
unpleasant facts connected with the case under discussion. All of these
books are published by the Catholic Truth Society, which also pub-
lishes a volume, " Twelve Catholic Men of Science," edited by the writer
of these pages, in which a good many answers may be found to the allega-
tions complained of in this and the previous chapter.

2 I might call attention to a recent work by a really distinguished
geologist, Canon Bonney — " The Present Relations of Science and
Religion," London, Robert Scott, 1913 — in which almost the whole of the
chapter on the Catholic Church is based on White's " Warfare of Science,"
which has been so frequently refuted and by none more successfully than
by Dr. Walsh. Bonney's accuracy may be judged from the fact that he
states that Newman's " Essay on Development " was " written to justify
his secession to the Roman Communion 1 "


bidden, and consequently all progress in Medicine and
Surgery put an end to, by the dictates of Rome. Now sup-
posing this to have been true, it might have been charitable
to look upon it as an unfortunate but perhaps excusable
concession to the weaknesses of those unreasonable but very
real persons who even to-day make the task of the human
anatomist so difficult, and must have existed with tenfold
force in the Middle Ages — the objectors to human dissection.
Leaving that consideration on one side, the anatomist who
meets with this statement is surely bound to look upon it
with doubt if he knows anything about the history of his
subject, the nomenclature of which is full of the names
of Italian anatomists of the Middle Ages as, for example,
Fallopius and Stensen, mentioned in the last chapter, or
again as Eustachius and others who actually practised
this alleged-to-be altogether forbidden art in Rome under
the very nose of the Pope, whose body-surgeons they
often were, and further had the audacity to publish their
discoveries in Rome and lay them at the feet of the reigning
Pontiff. Of course there is one explanation of this and only
one possible explanation : there was no such edict against
dissection. Was there anything which might have been
so construed ? I must confess that when I was teaching
Anatomy and came, as I often did, across this story, I set
it aside as the usual anti-Catholic lie, for of course I was
well aware of the numerous papal anatomists and of their
work. But the indefatigable Dr. Walsh went further, for
he took the trouble to burrow into the records until he got
to the bottom of the matter. And what is the explanation
of the story ? Well, it appears that during the Crusades
many of the warriors left directions that if they lost their
lives when away from home, their bodies were to be brought
back to their native places for burial. It is perhaps un-
necessary to point out in any detail how difficult if not
impossible a task this imposed upon the survivors. In
order to lighten it they adopted the barbarous but practical
expedient of dismembering the dead bodies, boiling the
flesh from off the bones and bringing these more portable
portions of the body home for interment. This was what
the Popes forbade under pain of excommunication-—


whether wisely or foolishly matters nothing to the present
argument. That the prohibition has nothing to do with
the practice of ordinary dissection is perfectly clear. 1

Then again there is the individual only too common,
who has neither knowledge nor imagination enough to place
himself in the position of one living in the Middle Ages and
to try to think how he, under those circumstances, would
have confronted any new discovery which was brought
under his notice. Yet in this is to be found practically the
whole explanation of the so-called opposition of the Church
to Science. The whole spirit of the age was necessarily
doubtful of any new thing, and the Church which existed in
that age had many of the prejudices of its period. Being
composed of the men of the age, how could it well be other-
wise ? Let us look at the matter for a few moments from
this point of view.

First of all we have to remember that, unlike our own
time — when everybody expects to find a new discovery each
day in his morning's paper, and when everybody's mind is
consequently in tune for new facts — the attitude of the Middle
Ages was to imagine that the last word had been said on
all matters of knowledge, usually by Aristotle, and to look,
therefore, on all new facts as superfluous, if not annoying.
Doubtless a foolish attitude, but there it was. Further, we
can hardly imagine the extent of the obsession of people's
minds with regard to Aristotle and his authority. As an
example of this the following may be given : 2

A Jesuit Father, Scheiner, who appears to have made the
discovery of sun-spots independently of Galileo, submitted
this discovery to his Provincial, whose response was as
follows : " I have read Aristotle's writings from end to end
many times, and I can assure you that I have nowhere
found anything similar to what you describe. Go, my son,
tranquillize yourself. Be assured that what you take for
spots on the sun are the faults of your glasses, or your

1 The reader will find the matter fully discussed and copies of all the
documents in question in " The Popes and Science," Catholic Truth
Society, 191 1, p. 28 seq.

* The incident is narrated by Fahie, " Galileo, His Life and Work,"
Murray, London, 1903, and quoted by Hull.


eyes." Scheiner was allowed to publish his observations,
but anonymously. 1

The average writer would set all this foolishness down to
the obscurantist policy of the Church, not to speak of the well-
known and double-dyed obscurantism of the Jesuits whom
everybody knows to maintain observatories and laboratories
for no other purpose than of frustrating the progress -of
science. But, as a matter of fact, it was nothing of the kind.
It was the obsession of Aristotle — never yet acclaimed as
a Doctor of the Church — and of Aristotle, not only as the
philosopher but also as the scientist, from whom the
excellent Provincial and nearly all the men of his age

Mr. Hinks 2 points out as a curious fact that " while many
of the principal facts, the rotundity of the earth, the gradual
change in the position of the pole among the stars, were
known to the famous astronomers of antiquity, who were
Greeks, yet the influence of the Greek philosopher Aristotle
was for many centuries sufficient to stifle any spirit of
enquiry into the truths of astronomy. That their teaching
was contrary to Aristotle was enough to condemn Coper-
nicus or Galileo. . . . The first astronomers of Europe had
to work against, not with the support of, whatever remained
in repute of the ancient learning of Greece. At every turn
they were stopped with the objection that Aristotle said so
and so. Now what Aristotle said was founded upon the

1 I give this tale, with the respectable authority for it, as an example
of what is said of the extreme Aristotelomania of the time, as to which,
it may be added, much more of the obloquy belongs to the anti-Scholastic
Averroists and Alexandrians of Padua and Venice than to the much-
abused Scholastics themselves. Perhaps the more correct version of the
Scheiner story is this : He observed sun-spots in 1611, using a helioscope
which he had either invented or perfected. His Provincial (one Busee)

Online LibraryBertram Coghill Alan WindleThe church and science → online text (page 3 of 38)