Ever since I read about the re-hashing of the myth of Giovanni Bruno in the reboot of the Cosmos series (and then later watched the actual program) I’ve wondered what a good account of the conflict between modern science and Catholicism would look like. These pop conflict narratives arise all the time (to be seen by millions) and then are patiently and thoroughly exposed as pure nonsense (to be read by thousands), but there is rarely an attempt to articulate where exactly the tension between science and Catholicism arises. There must be some sort of tension here: such dedicated cultivation of these indefensible cock-and-bull stories is a fumbled attempt to speak about something.
Appealing to mere hatred of the Church doesn’t explain enough. Why do other groups not manifest hatred in this way? Modern literature, art, and architecture or even engineering, farming, and economics have all arguably made great advances over the Middle Ages, but none of them feel the need when explaining themselves to appeal to their supposed triumph over the forces of darkness and superstition. Science and Politics alone appeal to this sort of triumph-of-reason view, and the political appeals have largely died off. At any rate, they seem easier to explain as mere economic conflicts between kings and clerics. But is there any real conflict we can point to between “science and religion”?
I have a few ideas. Others to follow.
1.) A disagreement over who persons should look to for relief. As St. Thomas puts it, man knows he is subject to a higher being because of the defects he perceives in himself, and so he must look for another to help. He sees he is weak, prone to sickness, prone to evil, baffled by the universe. But there is a legitimate tension over whether we should look to God or to humanistic reason for what Descartes would call “the relief of man’s estate”.
It is inarguable that we spent centuries trying to cure sickness not by research based medicine but with relics, pilgrimages, and heavenly intercession; that we tried to figure out what drives the world by appeal to animistic and narrative explanation and not any critical analysis; that we weren’t very good at dividing things that were actually verified from what made for a compelling story. William James gives many examples of this in his final lecture in Varieties, and Robert A. Scott gives a thorough and very sympathetic account of the use of relics in Miracle Cures. It’s hard to avoid concluding that the sort of relief that people sought for centuries in religious practice is now the sort of thing we are only comfortable entrusting to science.
Most people simply don’t see the world as a sacramental presence of God, but as a series of interrelated machines for which science supplies the operating manuals. It’s difficult to see how these two visions are compatible visions of the world. At the moment, the sacramental reality has been banished from everywhere except the Liturgy. This was, perhaps, a worthy reform that made, or perhaps it is horrid blasphemy. But it is a clear point of real tension.