On a recent episode of The Late Show, host Stephen Colbert and frequent visitor Neil deGrasse Tyson joked about the astronomical insignificance of New Year’s Day.
Before long, Tyson was talking about the role the Catholic Church played in creating the calendar as we know it. “The world’s calendar is the Gregorian calendar after Pope Gregory,” Tyson explains. “Put that into place in 1582, because the previous Julian calendar was messing up in the year. It was off by ten days. And the pope said, ‘We got to fix this…’ There’s a Vatican Observatory to this day. At the time, before telescopes were invented, these Jesuit priests were put into the service of figuring out why the calendar was shifting in the year.”
Colbert, known for his openness about his Catholic faith, then asks Tyson if it’s true that a Catholic priest formulated the Big Bang Theory. “Yes,” Tyson responds. “Georges Lemaître. Using Einstein’s equations … he deduces that the history of the universe must’ve started with a bang. So Catholics have been in there in multiple places.”
This little exchange might have seemed uninteresting in another era, but not today. The rise in the new atheism and Biblical literalism have made it a commonplace that science and religion are in conflict, and young people are absorbing the idea as axiomatic. In her recent book iGen, about the least religious generation in U.S. history, Dr. Jean Twenge quotes one young person as saying: “I knew from church that I couldn’t believe in both science and God, so that was it. I didn’t believe in God anymore.”
That may be true in some churches, but not the Catholic Church—and it’s worth repeating just as often as the opportunity allows. In Catholicism, belief in science and God are compatible. In fact, Tyson and Colbert’s conversation is a glaring reminder that many Catholic priests and believers have been leading scientists themselves. There are theological and historical reasons for this, but the bottom line is this: Catholicism is a science-friendly religion, and it’s enshrined in the Catholic Catechism.
Even at the peak of the new atheism and its mockery of all things religious in the 2000s, one man seemed to draw the respect and attention of people like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher: Fr. George Coyne, a priest and astrophysicist who ran the Vatican Observatory outside of Tucson. His very existence was a challenge to the view that religion “poisons” rational, scientific thinking. Like Drummond at the end of Inherit the Wind, who marched out of the courtroom with both the Bible and On the Origin of Species in his hands, Coyne represented an intriguing third option outside of the fray.
The new atheists have largely faded, and affable agnostics like Tyson have filled the vacuum. He may not be an unwavering fan of religion (the first episode of his TV series Comsos painted 16th-century Catholic clerics as anti-science), but he is committed first and foremost to advancing knowledge, not denigrating religion. This is a welcome turn of events, one that has resulted in more positive encounters like the one with Colbert.
And they really only scratched the surface. Catholic scientists were not only behind the formation of the calendar and the formulation of the Big Bang Theory: they were behind groundbreaking discoveries about the size of the earth (Fr. Jean-Félix Picard), pasteurization (Louis Pasteur), and genetics (Gregor Mendel). In fact, one of the first people to correctly explain rainbows was a 13th-century Dominican friar! There’s Roger Bacon, Pascal, Descartes—the list goes on and on. The Church’s unfortunate treatment of Galileo (whether the actual events, or the mythical spin on the events lodged in our collective consciousness) was, at worst, a brief spat in a long and respectful friendship. And Copernicus and Galileo, let’s not forget, were both Catholics themselves.
At the end of the interview Colbert asks what “mystery” of the universe keeps Tyson up at night. His response reveals a deep humility about the observable universe. In the future, dark energy will render the universe so large that all of the galaxies—the source of “everything we know about the history of the universe”—will be “ripped” from view. Then he wonders: was some previous chapter of the universe ripped away from us? “Here we are touching the elephant, not knowing that in fact there’s an elephant standing there. Or maybe there’s the shadow of the elephant and the elephant has been moved. We don’t know what we don’t know.”
The shadow side of the material universe—past, present, and future—is baffling indeed. But what we do know is this: when it comes to putting the tools of observation and the light of reason to good use, science has an ally in the Catholic Church.