CHICAGO — “Origins,” the first conference of the Society of Catholic Scientists, gave more than 100 participants the opportunity to learn about everything from the birth of stars to the beginnings of human language and to reflect on how their faith and work inform each other.
But perhaps the most important benefit of the conference and the fledgling society that sponsored it was the chance for Catholic scientists to connect with one another as they met April 21-23.
Darlene Douglas, a teacher at Willows Academy in Des Plaines, Illinois, who has a doctorate in genetics from the University of Chicago, said she left science as a career after it became too difficult to find labs in which she could work without violating Catholic ethics about working with human embryonic stem cells or cell lines derived from aborted fetuses.
“During my studies, I met with a lot of pushback to my faith,” Douglas said, adding that one of her ethics professors told students that it was impossible to believe in both God and evolution.
That is not the position of the Catholic Church, but many scientists who are not Catholic do not know that.
Part of the problem, said Stephen Barr, society president, is that Catholic scientists often are not aware of how many of their peers share their faith.
Barr, director of the Bartol Research Institute at the University of Delaware, founded the society with Jonathan Lundine, director of the Cornell University Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, after both concluded that it would be a good thing for the science community and for the church.
“I had several motivations for forming such an organization,” Barr said. “Many Catholics in science — especially students and young scientists — feel isolated because they do not realize how many other scientists share their faith. That is because most religious scientists are quiet about their faith. This sense of isolation can be demoralizing.”
The conference was co-sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute, which was founded 20 years ago by Catholic scholars at the University of Chicago to bring together Catholic thinkers across academic disciplines.
Thomas Levergood, institute executive director, said he learned about plans for the society when Barr spoke at a Lumen Christi event in 2015, and the institute offered its support.
“It helps make Catholic scientists visible,” Levergood said. “Intellectually, there’s no conflict between Catholicism and science. There’s actually a lot of synergy between them.”
Catholics have made huge contributions in the sciences, from Father Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian who founded the modern science of genetics, to Belgian Msgr. George Lemaitre, who first proposed the theory of an expanding universe and the Big Bang.
However, because some strains of Christianity reject some of what humanity has learned from science, Levergood said, there is a perception in scientific circles that science and religion are incompatible.
“It’s existed as a kind of prejudice. Within the culture, and within scientific circles,” he said.
“This is part of the myth that science and religion are incompatible and have historically been at war,” Barr said. “This myth has led many young Catholics to lose their faith, as several recent studies have shown. We want to show the world that there are large numbers of devout Catholic scientists, including ones of great eminence in their fields.”
The society has met great enthusiasm, Barr said. He and Lundine were surprised by how easy it was to find members for the society’s seven-member board.
After securing the sponsorship of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s participation as bishop adviser, the group started taking applications for membership. It is open only to professional scientists and university-level students studying for a career in the physical and natural sciences.
By mid-April, after being in operation for less than a year, it had 350 members, Barr said.
Karin Oberg, an astrochemist and associate professor of astronomy at Harvard University, spoke at the conference on how planets are formed, how many planets outside the solar system might be habitable for life and how people might go about finding them.
But she also reflected on what that means spiritually.
“If God describes himself through his creation, what does it mean if God’s creation is full of habitable worlds?” she said. The thought that the stars people see could each center a solar system with its own habitable worlds makes the night sky seem less cold, she said, and “something that’s a bit more cozy.”