The Age of Reason and the Catholic Church

By Rev. John Trigilio, Rev. Kenneth Brighenti

The latter half of the 16th century through the middle of the 18th century brought even more changes to the world’s way of thinking — and to the Catholic Church.

Science and religion

Some people believe that Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) was ahead of his time and that the Catholic Church held back science for centuries. Actually, quite the opposite is true. Modern science and the scientific method of experimentation and observation came from Catholic monks, such as St. Albert the Great and Gregor Mendel. Albert, for example, bridged the gap between alchemy and chemistry; otherwise, science wouldn’t have been taught in the medieval universities. The science being taught may have been primitive, but it was still science.

Galileo wasn’t the first person to propose a heliocentric solar system — the idea that the sun is the center of the solar system and the earth is just one of many planets in orbit around it. The Polish monk and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) had already disproved the erroneous Ptolemaic system: the idea that the earth is the center of the universe and the sun and other planets revolve in orbit around it.

Galileo wasn’t arrested, excommunicated, or mistreated for his scientific theory. He was ridiculed, however, because back then his theories lacked overwhelming and conclusive evidence. Only later did advances in astronomy and telescopes bring the needed proof.

To say that Galileo was imprisoned to keep him quiet on his heliocentric ideas is false. He was under house arrest (comfortable, mind you) only because he crossed a line by asserting that the Bible was in error when it said that the sun rose and set. He maintained that the sun was stationary and that the earth moved. His science was correct, but the Church believes his biblical theology was wrong. Those figures of speech — the sun sets and the sun rises or even just sunrise and sunset — are still used today even though everyone believes in a heliocentric, not a geocentric, universe. The Bible contains many types of literature, genres, and forms of speech, such as analogy, metaphor, and simile. Had Galileo stuck to science, he would have been okay, but he chose to publicly attack what the Church believes is the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture. That’s what got him into hot water.

Faith and reason

During the middle of the 18th century, lukewarm attitudes became evident in the French Church. Religious practices and morals were in decline. Then came the view that the Church wasn’t necessary and that the human mind didn’t need any guidance from divine grace. Reason alone was sufficient, and faith was nonsensical. This way of thinking was called rationalism.

Philosophy and empirical science sought truths that the human mind could attain. Theology wasn’t treated as a science but as superstition. The rationalists saw religion as a myth, and they had no respect for divine revelation. The Church taught that revelation was the divine communication of truths that human minds could never achieve — or at least not everyone in the same way. And only faith could embrace revelation.

Yet the Church believed that faith and reason could coexist — because the Church believed that God created both. Catholic theologians didn’t see philosophers or scientists as the enemy. Theologians believed that theological truths known by revelation and accepted on faith didn’t contradict philosophical truths known by reason or scientific truths known by observation and experimentation. Instead, they saw it all as looking at the same universe from different perspectives.

The rationalists were confident in the world, human nature, and its power. Voltaire was the famous philosopher who incorporated rationalist ideas. Through the development of his philosophy, the Enlightenment movement became an anti-Christian war machine. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, another philosopher of the period, claimed that the world could be saved through education instead of Jesus Christ.