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Can a scientist be Catholic? A Conversion Story

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Is there an oxymoron lurking in the phrase “Catholic Scientist?” No. A physicist tells how he found his faith.

“It is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” – Hebrews 10:31

Since I am the pet physicist at our parish, a few weeks ago our Deacon kindly gave me a news clipping about a meeting of the Society of Catholic Scientists (SCS) recently held in Chicago.  Being a member of SCS, I had known about the meeting, but had been sadly unable to attend.

But something struck me after reading the article: why should a meeting of scientists who happen to be Roman Catholics be remarkable enough for such coverage? Is there an oxymoron lurking in the phrase “Catholic Scientist?”

The answer is “no,” and I’ll get to that, but first let me offer a bit of biographical background. Despite having two rabbis as great-grandparents, I grew up a secular Jew. I did believe, in my fashion, in a Creator – my teenage passion was astronomy, and in visiting the local planetarium — and constructing a six-inch reflecting telescope — I realized instinctively the words of Psalm 19, “The Heavens declare the glory of God.” Working with the US Forest Service in Yosemite during one college summer, I would lie beneath the big trees, filled with awe at the Creator’s work.

It was not my Jewish background that kept me from pursuing a more personal faith in God; rather, the stumbling block was my belief that science could explain everything one needed to know about the world. I regarded the universe with awe and wonder — as possibly the creation of a deity, but such a deity would not be a living God.

At this time, I wasn’t concerned with the philosophy of science—why it worked, what were its limits.  I was almost selfishly devoted to my work, and was certain that if there were things not yet explained by science – like love and morality – they soon would be.

Later in my adulthood, things happened that moved me to seek support outside of my work. Through the fortunate intervention of the Holy Spirit, I was prompted to read Who Moved the Stone, by Frank Morison.  Reading his account of the days leading up to Christ’s crucifixion and some days later, it seemed to me that an impartial jury exposed to his arguments would find that the biblical accounts of the Resurrection were true beyond a reasonable doubt.

What struck me even more was that this New Testament bunch of uneducated yahoos – fishermen, tax collectors, women – had managed to out-talk Greek philosophers and Judaic scholars and thereby to spread the Christian faith through the Roman world, undergoing hardship, pain and death in so doing. Surely they must have been inspired by encounters with the risen Jesus, and the inner voice of the Holy Spirit.

It also occurred to me that if the Gospel account of the Resurrection was worthy of belief, then the rest followed, in particular the words of Jesus giving the keys of the Kingdom to Peter, thus founding the Catholic Church. Accordingly, the Christian religion to which I would convert should be Roman Catholic.

I must emphasize that this whole process of realization and conversion was one of rational decision making; there were no visions or voices – just “Top Down to Jesus.”  I decided to become a Catholic, knowing my cradle-Catholic wife would be delighted and my scientist friends would be appalled and dismayed. I could imagine the gossip: “What’s happened to old Bob?”  “Has he gone bonkers in his old age?” “If he isn’t doing research anymore, maybe he has to do religion, to occupy his mind.” 

Nevertheless, I went to my wife’s priest and told him, “I want to become a Catholic.”

There are categories in my new belief system, so – getting back to that question of oxymorons – I want to break this question into parts: What must a Catholic scientist believe?

Belief in a creating God.

As I have said, even as an agnostic teenager, I allowed that whatever created the world certainly did a wonderful thing. There are probably many scientists who have felt similarly. Not every scientist believes that abstract quantities from equations—gravity, quantum fluctuations—were the agencies of creation. I think it’s likely that many scientists, if they think about God at all, have the same notion as did Einstein:  “Der Alte,” a creating but impersonal God.

Belief in a personal God.

During the several years before my conversion I slowly came to believe that there had to be a personal God, one who cared for us.  Otherwise the world made no sense.

Now, conversion for me was not a sharply defined, discontinuous process:  before conversion, an agnostic; after conversion full belief in all the dogmas and doctrines of the Church.  How did my faith grow and become transformed?

Belief in Jesus Christ and Catholic dogma

During my RCIA days, when I was being catechized before being baptized at the Easter Vigil, I expressed doubts about some dogmas of the Church, particularly that most fundamental one, the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. As a physicist, I found it hard to understand how the molecules representing the wafer and the wine could be transformed into molecules constituting flesh and blood.  And at that time I did not know what was meant by the Aristotelian concepts, “substance” and “accidents.” The wise old priest, Fr. McA, who was catechizing me, asked, “Do you believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and His Virgin Birth?”

I said, “Of course. That’s why I’m becoming a Catholic.”

He said, “If you can believe in two miracles, why not more?”

That answer made a lot of sense to me, but finally my faith in the reality of the Eucharist came about not via intellectual engagement, but through music. Several weeks after Fr. McA had advised me about miracles, the parish held a 40 Hours Devotion, and I and the other catechumens were invited to participate in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

And there it happened. As the monstrance was carried in during the procession,Tantum Ergo was intoned, and I read these words: “Præstet fides supplementum, Sensuum defectui.”

Enough of my high school Latin remained, and I understood: “Faith will supplement the deficiency of the senses.”

There it was. My eyes filled with tears as I realized that the wafer before me was indeed the Body of Christ – a mystery beyond science and philosophy. My faith.

Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote great works of theology and philosophy, but perhaps his hymns have been his most effective evangelization, reaching and teaching the greatest number of people.

As time went on I have come to imagine my Catholic faith as a tree, deeply lodged in the bedrock of faith; the soil is the belief in the Triune Godhead that nourishes my Catholic faith, and it is the dogma and doctrines of that faith that draws it all to me – the roots of my religious belief.

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