Science vs. Faith: a False Dichotomy

OntheWay_Bishop Johnston“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”
– Pope St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio: On the Relationship Between Faith and Reason

On a recent evening, I attended a presentation by Drs. Pilar Calva and Mercedes Wilson at Arrupe Hall on the campus of Rockhurst University. They are internationally known, and presented on the benefits of Natural Family Planning from the perspective of medical science. Dr. Calva is accomplished in her profession, having studied with the renowned French geneticist, Dr. Jerome LeJeune, who discovered the genetic abnormality, Trisomy 21, which causes Down Syndrome in children. They travel internationally, have served on important consultative bodies for the Vatican, worked with both Saints John Paul II and Teresa of Calcutta, and teach countless people, primarily in poorer countries, how to responsibly space children without resorting to the harmful chemicals in contraceptives promoted by the pharmaceutical industry and some countries. Their method is often referred to as the “Family of the Americas” model and has proven to be easy to learn and quite successful.

What I was most eager to hear from their presentation was their approach to this issue from the perspective of medical science. Most are aware of the Catholic Church’s teaching on artificial contraception. It is typically presented from a faith and morals approach, if discussed at all. While this is effective if done well, many still struggle to understand why using artificial contraception is contrary to the moral law and harmful. While mentioning the Church’s teaching, the presenters made their case primarily from science, and what Dr. Calva often referred to as the “truth of science.”

The evening was an example of a great need today: to show that science and faith are not opposed or mutually exclusive, but instead work together in the quest to know the truth. Certainly, there are things that science cannot study or explain, primarily because they are not material. Science also cannot analyze God, because God is not a “thing.” Nevertheless, science seeks to understand the created world, to know the truth. In doing so, it takes a path that parallels that of faith, and points to the same destination.

Often, the exact opposite is suggested: that faith and reason (science) are enemies and incompatible. Reasonable people, it is suggested, have no room for faith, which is presented as wishful thinking, arcane, or akin to a fairy tale.

That this false dichotomy between science and faith should be a serious concern was made clear in a recent study by the University of Notre Dame Center for the Study of Religion and Society. Beginning in the early 2000s, they randomly selected more than 3,000 U.S. teenagers, and over the next decade surveyed them three more times, most recently in 2013. In their study, they sought to see how these “emerging adults” retained or lost their religious identity, and for those who lost that identity, to determine the primary reasons. For the Catholics in the study, among the six primary factors for those who lost their religious identity was this: Former Catholics tend to describe religious faith as illogical or unscientific. This claim that faith is unreasonable is promoted by many in popular culture, among atheists, and unfortunately among some in the field of science.

What is needed are more people in the field of science and medicine to follow the lead of Drs. Calva and Wilson to competently show how science complements and even confirms matters of faith and morals. Dr. Calva mentioned that when she began her studies as a graduate student with Dr. LeJeune, her faith was not at the forefront of her life. It was through her studies and work with Dr. LeJeune that science, combined with Dr. LeJeune’s example of holiness, illuminated and confirmed her faith.

We live in an era in which science is seen for many as the final authority on what is to be believed. The wisest scientists and doctors, like the greatest theologians, are reduced to a reverent humility, knowing that they seek to know that which cannot be fully known, but Him whose truth, goodness and beauty are reflected in all that exists.


March 28, 2017
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph