Church reveals a spirit of inquiry

TONY PROCTOR (Letters, October 7) appears to believe that a Catholic ethos in schools tends to stunt high performance in mathematics, science and technology and that more generally it is inimical to a true spirit of educational inquiry.

This is odd when one considers it was faith in the essential rationality, order and intelligibility of the universe which led to the birth of science in the Christian west.

The depersonalisation of nature that occurred with Christianity was also essential to the birth of science and explains why this birth happened in a specifically Christian milieu.

Mr Proctor should further bear in mind that it was the Catholic Church which created the concept of the university and which in fact founded the great universities across Europe.

As science historian Edward Grant put it: “What made possible for western civilisation to develop science and the social sciences in a way that no other civilisation had ever done before? The answer, I am convinced, lies in a pervasive and deep-seated spirit of inquiry that began in the Middle Ages. With the exception of revealed truths, reason was enthroned in medieval universities as the ultimate arbiter for most intellectual arguments and controversies.”

A cursory examination of history illustrates the enormous contribution churchmen and Catholics generally have made to science. Another science historian, Thomas Goldstein, says: “Thierry will probably be recognised as one of the true founders of Western science”. Thierry was chancellor of the cathedral school of Chartres in the 1140s.

Another medieval Oxford Franciscan, living just a century later, Roger Bacon, anticipated the modern scientific method centuries in advance. Fr Nicolaus Steno laid down most of the principles for modern geology.

Fr Roger Boscovich is frequently considered to be the father of modern atomic theory.

The father of Egyptology was Fr Athanasius Kircher.

When Bossut, a mathematics historian, compiled a list of preeminent mathematicians from ancient times to the beginning of the 19th century, 16 of the people he listed were Jesuits. Members of that order also dominated the science of seismology.

These examples merely touch on the enormous contribution churchmen have made to science and mathematics.

Needless to say, many lay Catholics have also been great scientists and mathematicians, figures such as Copernicus, Pascal, Pasteur, etc.

I hope the examples I’ve given help to dispel some of the Mr Proctor’s fears.

Michael O’Driscoll

Menloe House



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