If there were ever a person who was born to referee a science-versus-religion debate, it was George Lemaître—physicist, cosmologist, engineer, philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, confidant of geniuses, colleague of Einstein, formulator of the most widely accepted theory about the origin of the universe.
And Catholic priest.
One of the giants of 20th century science, whose original findings continue to be validated and expanded by new cosmological discoveries, Monsignor George Lemaître was a Belgian diocesan priest whose rigorous scientific work profoundly changed the way humans view the observable universe. But he also was a man thoroughly grounded in his faith who saw no conflicts or contradictions between his relentless pursuit of scientific truth and his priestly vocation and committed Christian beliefs.
Today Lemaître is remembered and revered as the “father of the Big Bang,” the theory that holds that the universe can be traced back to what Lemaître called a single “primeval atom” that exploded into an ever-expanding collection of galaxies some 13.8 billion years ago, and continues to expand.
This was heady stuff in 1927, the sort of sophisticated science that was not necessarily expected to originate with the work of a quiet Catholic priest. It was the age of Albert Einstein, and Einstein’s contention that the universe was finite and static was generally accepted as unassailable. Still, scientists, including Lemaître, were using Einstein’s own Theory of General Relativity as a touchstone for new equations that were challenging the static universe model.
Lemaître had all the intellectual tools, and more, to bring to the table. He was ordained after serving as a highly decorated artillery officer in the Belgian army in World War I. He earned a graduate degree in astronomy from the University of Cambridge in England and spent a year at the Harvard College Observatory before earning his doctorate in physics at MIT. He taught for most of his career at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium (where a number of current priests of the Diocese of Orange did graduate studies). Late in life he served as the President of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences from 1960 until his death in 1966.
Wrestling with Einstein’s relativity mathematics, Lemaître found they did not support the static universe model. Edwin Hubble, using the world’s largest telescope of the time at Mt. Wilson in California, supported the idea of an expanding universe through direct observation. The combination of Lemaître’s theory and Hubble’s observations were enough to persuade Einstein to change his mind about the expanding universe model.
In a speech he delivered for the Aquinas Medal presentation at the University of Dallas in 2014, Father Robert Spitzer, S.J., the President of the Magis Institute of Reason and Faith, said that “when Einstein and Lemaître co-presented at a conference at Mt. Wilson in 1933, Einstein reputedly said, ‘This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.’ Since that time, Lemaître’s theory has been confirmed in a variety of different ways, making it one of the most comprehensive and rigorously established theories in contemporary cosmology.”
The reaction of the Church to Lemaître’s paradigm-changing theory at the time of its publication was perhaps unexpected in some quarters: Pope Pius XII said that the Big Bang and the Catholic concept of creation were compatible, and he embraced it as scientific validation of the existence of God.
Which did not sit well with Lemaître. The brilliant priest was a firm believer in what one writer called “the separation of church and lab.” He drew a distinction between the beginning of the universe and creation (allowing for God’s eternal nature) and found no conflict between science and religion. Lemaître said that the Bible’s authors were “illuminated…on the question of salvation” and that “the idea that because they were right in their doctrine of immortality and salvation they must also be right on all other subjects is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding of why the Bible was given at all.”
This view was underscored in an encyclical written by Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu (Inspired by the Holy Spirit), in which the pontiff wrote that “Catholics should not take the Bible literally,” says Father Robert. “Because the Bible is not meant to be a scientific account or description of nature, but rather the proper function of the Bible is to be a source of doctrines of salvation. Essentially, the message of Divino Afflante Spiritu is, ‘Let science be science and let the Bible be the Bible.’ Let them do their proper functions. Don’t make the biblical author be a scientist, because he wasn’t one.”
The Catholic view of Scripture, says Father Robert, holds that the Bible was not simply dictated directly from God to its authors word for word, but rather “our view of inspiration is the cooperative view, which means that God is inspiring a human author who uses human categories, who is influenced by his culture, the way he conceives of nature, but essentially he’s still a product of his culture, his way of viewing nature and the categories he uses to understand things. So we have to be careful about separating out what belongs to that author’s culture and his view of nature versus what belongs to our culture and view of nature, and then separate out what is of lasting salvific significance. We can’t expect the human author, writing in 500 B.C., to give a scientific or mathematical explanation of the physical universe. It’s a ridiculous thing if you believe in the cooperative view of inspiration.”
The cooperative view, says Father Robert, allows for a hand-in-glove relationship between science and faith informed by reason—which was Lemaître’s bread and butter. It also allows for the rejoicing in the scientific community a year ago when a team of scientists, using a telescope at the South Pole known as BICEP2—Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization 2—found for the first time direct evidence of gravitational waves. The waves are essentially ripples in space-time—produced in the universe’s first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second—that are considered to be the first tremors of the Big Bang, and further confirmation of Einstein’s and Lemaître’s theories.
Such piggybacking on solid original foundational science doesn’t surprise Father Robert.
“It’s no accident,” he says, that Lemaître and other scientist/clerics such as Copernicus, Gregor Mendel and Nicolas Steno made their world-changing discoveries.
“The reason is that there was no fear of reason,” he says. “We’ve always believed as Catholics in the confluence of faith and reason. And so it’s not like we’re poking at a hornet’s nest [when we push the boundaries of science], we’re poking at the sister discipline of faith. And that’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do.