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Angels, Demons, and Modern Fantasies about Catholicism

May 15, 2009


Angels, Demons, and Modern Fantasies about Catholicism

By Fr. Robert Barron

As I was coming to the end of Ron Howard’s latest movie, “Angels and Demons,” I felt like shouting out to the screen, “no, no, you’ve got it precisely backward!”  The central theme of the film, based on Dan Brown’s thriller of the same name, is the battle between “science” and Catholicism.  It appears as though an ancient rationalist society, the Illuminati, which had been persecuted by the church in centuries past, is back for revenge.  They’ve kidnapped four cardinals and placed a devastating explosive device under St. Peter’s and they’re threatening, as a conclave gathers to elect a new Pope, to obliterate the Vatican.  To the rescue comes Professor Robert Langdon, a cool agnostic from Harvard, who helps to unravel the mystery after he’s given access to the archives to which the Vatican had heretofore denied him access (presumably for his mischief in the Da Vinci Code!).  As the plot unfolds, and Langdon cleverly uncovers the sinister plot of the scientists, one is tempted to say, “well, for once the bad guys are the rationalists and the victims are the faithful.  Ah but not so fast (spoiler alert).  In fact, we discover, the whole thing has been concocted by the evil camerlengo, an ultimate Vatican insider, who has revived the old tale of the Illuminati and organized the wicked scheme in order to create a scapegoat against which he could engage in heroic struggle and so engineer his own election as Pope!  I swear I’m not making this up. 

Without going into any more of the goofy twists and turns of the story, can you see what prompted my cri de coeur about getting it backward?  In point of fact, it is not Catholicism that feels the need constantly to revive the struggle between science and the faith, but rather secular modernity—and Ron Howard’s movie itself is exhibit A.  There is a stubbornly enduring myth that the “modern” world—especially in its scientific expression—emerged out of a terrible struggle with backward-looking Catholicism.  And thus many avatars of modernity feel the need on a regular basis to bring out the Catholic  church as a scapegoat and punching-bag, as if to re-enact the founding myth.  Of course, the central act in this drama is the story of Galileo’s persecution at the hands of the ignorant and vindictive church, and so Brown and Howard bring the great Renaissance scientist front and center:  Langdon is almost suffocated by wicked Vaticanisti while he diligently researches in the Galileo archive, and at the end of the film, a grateful Cardinal rewards the intrepid scientist with a long-hidden text of the master.  Well. 

Though these facts are well known, and though I’ve rehearsed them before, it appears that they bear repeating.  Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas were early advocates of Aristotelian science; Copernicus, the popularizer of the heliocentric understanding of the solar system, was a priest; Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics and a chief forerunner of Darwin, was a monk; many of the founders of modern science—Newton, Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz—were devoutly religious men; the formulator of the Big Bang theory of cosmic origins was a priest.  Perhaps most importantly, the modern physical sciences emerged precisely in the context of a Christian culture, where the belief in creation and hence in universal intelligibility was taken for granted.  And today, the supposedly sinister and anti-scientific Vatican sponsors a number of observatories and supports societies at its pontifical universities devoted to dialogue with the sciences at the very highest levels.  Despite the tragedy of the Galileo incident, prompted by the ignorance and in some cases ill-will of certain churchmen at the time, Catholicism  is not the enemy of science and feels absolutely no compulsion to define itself over against science as though the two are locked in a kind of zero-sum game.  It is a longstanding conviction of the Church that since God is one and since all truth comes from God, there can finally be no conflict between the truths of revelation and the truths discoverable through the exercise of human reason.  And so the church rejoices in whatever the empirical sciences uncover and expects no conflict between those discoveries and its own faith, rightly interpreted. 

What I found particularly galling about the film is that Robert Langdon not only solves the mystery but also effectively protects the church from itself.  This, of course, is the modern fantasy in full:  “science” emerged from Catholicism after a terrible battle but still has the graciousness and magnaminity to offer its help to its benighted and defeated rival.  Ugh!  Truth be told, the wound caused by the Galileo incident is being constantly picked open, not by the Vatican, but by representatives of secular modernity; the “battle” between religion and science is now pretty much a shadow-boxing affair, radical secularism shaking its fists at a phantom. 

Go see “Angels and Demons” if you like a thriller or you enjoy computer-generated images of the Vatican; but please don’t be taken in by its underlying philosophy.