In 2014, Pope Francis told a group of scientists that both the biblical stories of Genesis and the Big Bang theory are consistent with Catholic faith. Secular media swooned at what seemed revolutionary.
But reporters missed that Catholicism has long understood Scripture and science as different ways of telling the truth.
Many journalists also were unaware that the scientist behind the Big Bang theory was a Belgian priest-physicist, Msgr. Georges Lemaître.
Using math and observation of the skies, Msgr. Lemaître proposed that the universe was originally contained within a dense, hot point. As the so-called “cosmic egg” expanded and cooled, energy became matter and space. The idea has stood up to scientific investigation for 90 years, getting bolstered in 1964 with the discovery of background radiation throughout the cosmos — the afterglow of the Big Bang.
Like all theories, the Big Bang may be replaced if another idea fits the facts better. But for now, it is accepted science that fits with the notion of creation from nothing.
The idea of the Big Bang “vindicates the reasonableness and rationality of Christian understanding of creation,” says Benedictine Brother Louis de Montfort Nguyen, a physician-turned-monk who teaches courses on faith and science at Mount Angel Seminary.
For centuries before the Big Bang theory, scientists thought the universe always had existed. The First Law of Thermodynamics in the mid-19th century posited that energy could be neither created nor destroyed; there was no beginning of the universe and so no need for a creator. The Big Bang obliterated that idea.
Theologians and scientists warn that while the scientific theory and the religious theory can be in harmony, neither proves the other.
“The creation accounts in Genesis are stories of faith and not intended to be science or history as we understand science and history today,” says Father Pat Donoghue, who studied physics and now is pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Southeast Portland. Those who say the Genesis stories describe creation as it happened run the risk of assigning meaning the authors never intended, Father Donoghue says.
At the same time, scientific theories go only so far and can’t explain God, the priest explains: “If the universe can trace its existence to the Big Bang, the Big Bang owes its existence to God.”
Physicists Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss have posited that quantum fluctuations in the primordial gravity field led to the Big Bang. Even if correct, the controversial hypothesis doesn’t explain why there was a primordial gravity field or physical laws to allow it spontaneously to go “bang.”
The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 declared that creation was ex nihilo, or “out of nothing.” It countered the notion that nature always existed or is an ongoing cycle controlled by pagan divine forces. The Lateran teaching established a belief in the beginning of time and order. The Big Bang theory lines up with that, says Father Bill Holtzinger, pastor of St. Anne Parish in Grants Pass and a student of science.
Father Holtzinger is critical of atheistic scientists who will not even explore the idea of a creator. “To do good science,” he says, “you need to be open to the possibility.”
At the same time, those who want to cling to a literal view of Genesis fall outside Catholic tradition. Already in the fourth century, St. Augustine taught that Genesis should be taken figuratively. In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas said no one should stick to an interpretation of Scripture that is proven wrong by facts. Only with the Protestants did biblical literalism become ascendant; Catholicism has tried to resist, teaching that God is the author of nature as well as author of Scripture.
The First Vatican Council in 1870 declared that “there can never be a real conflict between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith is also the God that has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind.”
Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, says the irony of the situation is that it’s the scriptural fundamentalists who seem to lack faith. They want to force science and faith into agreement in all respects right now, not trusting that someday all will be revealed in a unity of truth.
Jesuit Father Paul Maher, another Vatican Observatory scientist, points out scientific fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins who try to dismiss Scripture because a literal interpretation sometimes does not square with current science.
“Both kinds of fundamentalism seem to be driven by a fearful need to have utter certainty and consistency,” Father Maher says.
In 2014, Brother Consolmagno and Father Mueller wrote a chapter on creation science in their book, “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?” In dialogue form, they describe interlocutors — never scientists — who try to get them to choose between the Genesis account and the Big Bang. The two Jesuits won’t bite. Instead, they explain that both Scripture and science offer truth, but from different angles.
Using art as an example, Father Mueller discusses impressionist paintings, made of small dots of color. Seen close up, one can analyze the dots, which are fascinating but chaotic. When the viewer backs up, a coherent image appears.
The idea is this: While science analyzes the dots, religion sees the overall picture. Both views can be true.
Faith is concerned with what is right, good and beautiful, and how it all hangs together. Science is concerned with how the world works, down to its smallest pieces.
“The trick is to get comfortable with the idea of flipping back and forth between two different ways of seeing,” Father Mueller writes. “And the trick, also, is not to panic if one way of seeing omits something that the other includes, or emphasizes something that the other neglects.”
Science, Father Mueller writes, can’t answer why the universe is rational and not chaotic. Creation stories have a go at that, and the answer has to do with goodness and love.
Brother Consolmagno writes that science has challenged only the “how” in Genesis, not the why. Those descriptions of a dome over the flat earth in Genesis come from the way the world looked to humans at the time, not from divine revelation, he argues. Genesis describes the best science of the day, which had been devised by the Babylonians.
But Babylonian creation myths held that the universe came about by mistake, a byproduct of other activities carried out by divine beings. What was new in Genesis was not the shape of creation, but that it had been given shape deliberately in an orderly fashion by a God who was separate from it. That, says Brother Consolmagno, is the big truth of Genesis and endures as its real meaning.