NEW HAVEN – The life of Saint Albert the Great illustrates that faith and science not only can co-exist, but complement one another.
Archbishop Leonard P. Blair spoke about Catholic identity in education and its relationship to science at a luncheon Nov. 12 at Albertus Magnus College that was attended by 250 students, faculty and friends.
The archbishop delivered the St. Albert the Great Lecture during events marking St. Albert Week and the conclusion of activities celebrating the college’s 90th anniversary.
He also expressed appreciation to Dr. Julia McNamara, who will retire in June after serving for 34 years as president of the Catholic college, which was founded in 1925 by the Dominican Sisters of the Springs, now the Dominican Sisters of Peace.
Saint Albert’s “life and work are testimony to the fact that there is no opposition between faith and science,” said Archbishop Blair. “The pursuit of each … contributes to and fosters respect for the integrity of facts and the scientific rigor on the one hand, and a belief, thirst and love for God on the other.”
He noted that among scientific advances made by Catholics are Belgian Catholic priest and physicist Georges Lemaître’s Big Bang theory; Catholic clergy’s development of the modern calendar in the 16th century; the mapping of the moon; discovery of sunspots and diffraction; and numerous other individual contributions by Catholics to anatomy, geology, biology and even acoustics.
“What Albert the Great and all these others represent, not only for the church but for Western civilization, has never been more timely than today,” he said, when surveys show that six in 10 adults believe that science and religion are at odds with each other.
“This is a situation that would have been unintelligible to Saint Albert the Great, nor is it a view that is shared by the church today,” he said.
Among popes weighing in on faith and science, he said, are Pope Benedict XVI, who stated, “Intellect and faith are not foreign or antagonistic to divine revelation,” but rather are “prerequisites for understanding its meaning, for receiving its authentic message, for approaching the threshold of the mystery.”
Quoting Pope Benedict, the archbishop said, “If science is a valuable ally of faith in our understanding of God’s plan for the universe,” then “faith also directs scientific progress towards the good and truth of mankind, remaining faithful to that original plan.”
Echoing those words today, he noted, is Pope Francis, who said that the church is in urgent need of people who dedicate their lives to being on the frontiers between faith and human learning, faith and modern science.
Turning to the role of Catholic colleges and universities, Archbishop Blair observed, “These institutions are meant to provide an academically excellent education in the context of the Catholic faith, and in an environment of Catholic life.”
He noted that Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990, reaffirmed some of the essential elements of a Catholic college or university.
Pope Benedict, he noted, got to the heart of the matter when he said, during a visit to the United States, “A university or school’s Catholic identity is a question of conviction.… Are we ready to commit our entire self, intellect and will, mind and heart, to God? Do we accept the truth Christ reveals?”
The archbishop conceded, “I know truth is a thorny question today. We live under what has been called the tyranny of relativism.”
He recalled that the late Cardinal Francis George wrote that the “fault line” of Western culture is “that we’ve been willing to sacrifice objective truth in order to save subjective freedom, understood particularly as freedom of choice by an autonomous self.”
The result is that “we wind up dismissing faith as a source of truth because we think that nothing can give us the full truth,” he said. “The human intellect has lost confidence in its ability to know unchangeable truth.”
Although in the 19th century “the church insisted that faith is not irrational,” said Archbishop Blair, today “she’s saying that faith needs to rescue reason from its own self-inflicted wound of skepticism.”
The search for answers to today’s great questions and challenges, he stated, “is precisely the conviction of Catholic faith that enables the Catholic institution like Albertus Magnus to make a distinctive and essential contribution.”
He noted that given today’s explosion of information and its compartmentalization, the “Catholic faith seeks to determine the relative place and meaning of each of the various disciplines within the context of a Catholic Christian vision of the human person and in a world that is enlightened by the Gospel” with “faith in Christ … as the center of creation and of human history.
“This includes Catholic teachings regarding the priority of the ethical over the technical, the primacy of the personal over things and the superiority of the spirit over matter,” he said.
A second characteristic of Catholic identity, said Archbishop Blair, is an environment of Catholic life in a Catholic university or college.
“A student coming onto the campus should recognize, and I can see that they certainly do here at Albertus Magnus, that there is an institutional commitment to Catholic faith, thought and values,” he said. “The students find themselves embraced in a context that speaks of a specific vision of life and encourages them to a way of life that is demonstrative of Catholic faith and morals. A college or university always has an evangelizing mission.”