Providentissimus Deus: Scripture and Science

New exciting thing for y'all today! Megan from Only Mildly Mad and I are starting a new semi-official link-up, with papal documents! Here's how it works. At the beginning of each month, we'll pick an encyclical or other papal document that we're going to read, probably from the 19th, 20th, or 21st century (but I wouldn't rule out anything earlier), and then write blog posts on. On the 5th of the month, we'll post our thoughts, which does double duty in letting you all know what encyclical we'll be discussing that month. Then, if you want to go read said encyclical and write your own post on it, you are welcome to (and you're welcome to use the graphic, too). Then please come drop the link to your post in the linky widget below, so everyone can see your obviously brilliant post(s). And if no one else ends up writing posts on said encyclicals, you will still be learning about an encyclical or document per month (and so will we), so it's a win-win-win, pretty much. No one loses here. Please put any questions in the comments, and here I go with the first document (after the linkup)!

You are invited to the Inlinkz link party!

Click here to enter

Our papal document for February is Providentissimus Deus ("On the Study of Holy Scripture") promulgated on November 18, 1893 by Pope Leo XIII, pope from 1878 to 1903.

I thought I'd start with a brief (very brief--it's 25 articles long, so I must of necessity gloss over some bits) summary of the entire encyclical, so you can know what Pope Leo XIII was saying overall, since what I'm going to be talking about is just a small part of the encyclical, and context is always good. If you'd like to read the full encyclical, the full text can be found here.

Summary: The Holy Scriptures are a great Gift from God, "a Letter, written by our heavenly Father, and transmitted by the sacred writers to the human race in its pilgrimage so far from its heavenly country", and they are great in dignity because He composed them, and they are about Him. Thus, the study of scripture must be one of the most important branches of theology.
    This branch of theology should be encouraged to grow both among the priests and the laity, especially those who are gifted academically. This "great arsenal of heavenly arms" should be approached "with...eagerness and reverence." Those who study it should make use of the writings of the Fathers of the Church especially, and most especially St. Thomas Aquinas [as a Dominican-formed student and a budding Thomist, I approve].
    The Catholic Church has a great love of the Holy Scriptures and have used and preserved and defended and studied them for many centuries. Rationalism is a new threat against scriptures, a detestable error which must be met by all Christians, even those not specifically studying Sacred Scripture, and especially by those who are engaged in the physical sciences while retaining a reverence for Sacred Scripture.
    Scripture and Science cannot disagree "as long as each confines [itself] within [its] own lines, and both are careful, as St. Augustine warns us, 'not to make rash assertions, or to assert what is not known as known.'" 
The Scriptures were not intended to elucidate the physical universe, nor is science intended to elucidate the things of God. Truth cannot contradict itself, so if science seems to contradict Scripture, either science is wrong, or the interpretation of Scripture is incorrect. But the Scriptures, as written by God, cannot err, only the human interpreters and translators can. While attempting to reconcile science and the Scriptures, the Catholic interpreter must remember that many things that science has been "sure" about have later been disproved.

We good? M'kay. On to Samantha's Soapbox. XD (Maybe I should start actually calling it that. I get up on it enough, haha.)

You know what secular scientists LOVE to do (at least these days)? They love to take what they know at any given moment and try to use it to "debunk" the Bible. Or Catholicism, or Christianity in general, or whatever it is that they think is contrary to their new ideas. (This can also be code for "getting in the way of their new ideas". Examples redacted because I am talking broadly today, but if you want some...I have some. XD)

But you know what? Science changes regularly. This is something that scientists conveniently forget on a very regular basis. They think that, oh yeah, in the past, we didn't know some things. But now we know Absolutely Everything, or at least enough of Absolutely Everything that on the basis of what we know, we can attack the Bible. 

You know what? Until 1900 (that was 120 years ago, barely an eyeblink on their "scientific time scale"), there was no inkling that Quantum Theory even existed, and it wasn't finalized until 1920. Scientists were extremely happy in their little bubble of Newtonian physics. The theory of relativity and the theory that the speed of light is a constant wasn't postulated until 1905. String theory is even newer, first being postulated in the 60s. Black holes weren't spotted "in the wild" until 1971. These are all radically new ideas, with newer ones coming up all the time, and yet throughout this entire past century, and to a certain extent the one before it (keep in mind, Providentissimus Deus was promulgated in 1893, and this had been a problem for a certain amount of time before that) scientists have been attacking Scripture with what "everyone knows". Except, it turns out that in many cases, what "everyone knew" was wrong. Heck, doctors still don't even know what the appendix does. How's that for perspective? Pope Leo XIII says, "The Catholic interpreter, although he should show that those facts of natural science which investigators affirm to be now quite certain are not contrary to the Scripture rightly explained, must nevertheless always bear in mind, that much has been held and proved as certain has afterwards been called in question and rejected."

In other words, science is never infallible, even though scientists like to think they know everything. As Fr. DD says, "what we really need [in science] is some intellectual humility."

However, Pius XIII holds (as did and do many if not all reputable theologians before and after him) that science and Scripture can and should be reconciled. After all, both are truth, or at least, in science's case, truth-seeking, and "truth cannot contradict truth".

"Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures"

As he points out,

 "the Holy Ghost 'Who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things (that is to say, the essential nature of the things of the visible universe), things in no way profitable unto salvation.' Hence they did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time."

So, the Catholic interpreter doesn't need to make the Scriptures out to be saying Exactly The Things That Science Says, but he or she does need to make sure that it's clear what in the Bible is there doctrinally and what is there in "more or less figurative language" or colloquialism. This requires a clear knowledge both of the teachings of the Church and also of literary genre, honestly. 

For instance, Genesis is epic poetry. It's not trying to "seek or penetrate the secrets of nature", i.e. it's not necessarily literally saying that, for instance, that birds existed before "the beasts of the earth according to their kinds" as Genesis would have it. However, it is doctrinally saying that God made the whole world ex nihilo [out of nothing], that He made it Good, and that He 'spoke' (St. Augustine has a very interesting explication of what that truly means in The Confessions, if you are interested) and things were made. Oh, and also that we truly did have the one pair of first parents. What they called each other may or may not have been "Adam" and "Eve", but they did exist. The distinctions there are quite fine. (And I am not an expert, nor infallible, so if I say anything here that doesn't seem quite right, please let me know in the comments. :))

And interestingly, some of what has been seen just as epic poetry in some interpretations in the past have actually been found to be true in science. Obviously not all of it, but one thing that came up in a book that I was reading in the not-too-distant past, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, noted that for a long time, it was thought that it was impossible for light to be created before the "lights in the firmament of the heavens", but as scientists have delved into the Big Bang theory, they think that oh actually, light may actually have existed before the stars. So. More distinctions to be made, more things to be studied! 

So: point made. Science and Scriptures are not mutually exclusive. In fact, Pope Leo XIII goes on to say that faithful Catholics can and should be scientists.

"Moreover, the bitter tongues of objectors will be silenced, or at least they will not dare to insist so shamelessly that faith is the enemy of science, when they see that scientific men of eminence in their profession show towards faith the most marked honour and respect."

But what happens if it seems like Science and Scripture/the teachings of the Catholic Church are irreparably at odds?  

Back to good ol' Pope Leo XII:

"Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to Catholic faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation believe [the Catholic position] to be so."

If it seems like science is contradicting Scripture, even after "every effort [has been] made to remove it. Judicious theologians and commentators [have been] consulted as to what is the true or most probable meaning of the passage in discussion, and the hostile arguments [have been] carefully weighed." we still have to adhere to scripture and the Catholic Church.  

But, as Pope Leo XIII points out, 

"truth cannot contradict truth, and we may be sure that some mistake has been made either in the interpretation of the sacred words, or in the polemical discussion itself; and if no such mistake can be detected, we must then suspend judgment for the time being."

Judgement must be suspended (while we continue adhering to the doctrine of the Church) for the time being. It's entirely possible that a new scientific discovery will come up that contradicts the old discovery and completely changes the discussion. This has happened several times in history, and there are two examples that I find particularly interesting, only one of which we're going to look at today, because I don't think that making this post 20% longer than it already is a good idea.

That example, from Modern Physics and Ancient Faith again, refers back to Newtonian physics and then Quantum Theory. In the 19th century, scientists looked at Newtonian physics, where objects move in various predictable ways all the time, and where equations can be used to predict what a given object is going to do at all times, and thought, "huh. That should mean that every single physical event on Earth and in the Universe was determined at the beginning of the Universe." This, my friends, was called Determinism, and it has a number of Nasty Consequences, including the denial of Free Will, since there are no choices in Determinism--it's all predetermined. (It's kind of like double predestination/Calvinist predestination, but in the real world and without God. And honestly, even worse. Only scientists. *shakes head*). Chesterton did not approve, and makes so very clear in Orthodoxy.

"The determinists come to bind, not to loose. They may well call their law the “chain” of causation. It is the worst chain that ever fettered a human being. You may use the language of liberty, if you like, about materialistic teaching, but it is obvious that this is just as inapplicable to it as a whole as the same language when applied to a man locked up in a mad-house. You may say, if you like, that the man is free to think himself a poached egg. But it is surely a more massive and important fact that if he is a poached egg he is not free to eat, drink, sleep, walk, or smoke a cigarette. Similarly you may say, if you like, that the bold determinist speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will. But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not free to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish, to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions, to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants, or even to say “thank you” for the mustard."
Chesterton fought the determinists boldly on the grounds of Christian doctrine, and was, in my opinion, quite successful. But the final fall of determinism came, funnily enough, with the arrival of Quantum Theory.

To quote Stephen M. Barr, the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, because I don't know enough about Quantum Theory to explain it properly on my own (I love my life; I realized I needed to reference this book, ran down to the Newman library, grabbed it, referenced it, and then went and put it back): 
"The amazing thing is that [determinism] did fail. Completely against the expectations of the entire scientific world, determinism was overthrown in the 1920s by quantum theory. What quantum theory said was this: even given complete information about the state of a physical system at one time, its later behavior could not, in general, be predicted with certainty. Instead, the laws of physics would only permit one to calculate the relative probabilities of various future outcomes."

And thus, since what happens in a system is not determined solely by the beginning state of the system, there is again room for free will in a scientific worldview. (This issue is given a lot more time--fourteen pages' worth, in fact--in chapter 20 of MP & AF, if you'd like to read up on it further.)

The death of an anti-Catholic scientific doctrine at the hands of science. Is it acceptable to hold a party? Maybe a little happy dance? With the scientists? We're all in this together, guys. 

So, what happens now? Well, there are still things even today on which modern science disagrees with Catholicism. Take, for instance, the theory that we had six first parents or three first parents, or whatever the thing is now. Scientists may think that this is pretty certain now, but they also thought determinism was certain. So, as for me and my house, I we will serve the LORD "suspend judgement", as Pope Leo says, and believe what the Catholic Church teaches, as Sacred Scripture, written by God proclaims, that we have two first parents, and expect that science will figure it out at some point. ;)

So, what do you think? Is this a topic you'd ever thought about? Do you have another good example of the overthrow of an anti-Christian doctrine? Do you have a favorite papal document? Are you excited for this semi-official link-up? :)


  1. Salaam this is AMAZING. I really need to get back to Latin homework and see if I can parse a fee more words before class starts, so no full comment at this time, but this is just amazing. So much better than my scattered notes, lol. Which I say not to be self-deprecating but just to thank you for inspiring me for next month. :)

    1. Thank you so much, Megan! Good luck on your parsing. :) I very much enjoyed your scattered notes, and I look forward to seeing what you come up with next time! (Speaking of. I do need to email you about what we're actually doing next month. XD We'll see when I get around to that.)

    2. (HA I just noticed that autocorrect on my phone decided your name was "Salaam." This is amusing me much too much.)

      (Ooh ooh ooh yes next month! Can we do a JPII letter???)

    3. (Well, I am taking an Islamic Gardens and Architecture class, so...I guess that kind of works? XD)

      (I just emailed you! That sounds like a great idea!)

  2. Megan & Sam: *read the same papal document*
    Megan: WORDS <3 <3 <3
    Sam: SCIENCE <3 <3 <3

    That just pleased me. XD

    Anyway. I think the coolest thing EVER is the way science and Scripture like Job and Genesis line up. COOLEST THING EVER. Like the universe turning out not to be eternal, ex nihilo creation and all that? And determinism being not quite the whole story? And also DID YOU KNOW *geology nerd emerges from her cave* that the fossil record lines up excitingly well with the creation order in Genesis?? I'd have to go look it all up again, but the order of how things are created (if you look at the original Hebrew, and not our sometimes-unavoidably-imprecise English translations) parallels the order things show up in the geological column??? Ahhhhhhh it's just so cool. Scripture literally told us things about origin science that we didn't figure out or guess at till thousands of years later. IT IS SO COOL.

    1. XD I hadn't thought of that, but it is quite amusing! (I am a STEM girl at heart. And in a STEM major technically, according to Bing...)

      I KNOW it's SO CRAZY AND COOL! Did you know that it was a priest who came up with the Big Bang Theory, actually??? That's one of my favorite nerdy-Catholic facts. XD
      Ooh, ooh, I love geology! I'm taking a geo class this semester, and I took one last semester, too. *greets emerging geology nerd*. I had no idea that the fossil record lines up with the creation order in Genesis! Now I need to learn Hebrew...add that to the list. That's. Insane. Scripture did tell us things waaaaay before we figured them out, and it's so AMAZING!


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