Faith and reason: St. Louis professor gets grant to teach science to future Catholic priests | St. Louis Public Radio

Faith and reason: St. Louis professor gets grant to teach science to future Catholic priests

Oct 18, 2015

A professor at a St. Louis-area Catholic seminary is one of 15 people across the country to win a $10,000 grant to develop science courses for future priests.

Ed Hogan, an associate professor of systematic theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in Shrewsbury, is among the recipients. He is also director of the Pontifical Paul VI institute of Catechetical and Pastoral Studies for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. 

The grants, awarded by the Cardinal Suenens Center at John Carroll University in Cleveland, aim to help better prepare seminarians "to engage the bigger questions of science" so that they can interact in a scientifically and technologically sophisticated world.

The program responds to calls from Pope Francis and earlier Catholic Church statements to bring back a focus on science literacy in training seminarians, according to a news release. The awards are funded by the John Templeton Foundation,a leading organization for the study of theology and science.

Hogan said it is increasingly important for would-be priests to understand basic scientific principles, so they can better reach out to people more familiar with science than with faith.

"For a lot of people today, their first language is contemporary science, so if we want to proclaim the Gospel, we need to learn that language," he said.

But he said priests today also encounter scientific questions when counseling their parishioners, so they need to understand the concepts.

"In terms of science, technology and medicine, when we start to confront language and concepts we haven't learned before, we can tend to draw back because we're afraid of learning something new or we're afraid of something we don't know," he said. "The ability of a priest to listen to questions without fear of drawing back because he doesn't know the technical information is a very important pastoral skill. They're going to know, 'I can learn these technical things,' so when a parishioner comes to them with a question, they won't simply pass it off."

That's why his course will focus on the "challenges and resources that contemporary science brings to the proclamation of the Gospel in the 21st century." In his course "Science and Theology in Dialogue for the New Evangelization," Hogan said he plans to show seminarians how there is a space for faith in understanding the history and philosophy of modern science. He plans to have his students study the works of former scientists whose second careers were in the philosophy or theology of science.

Likewise, he wants to help the future priests examine how current theories on the origins of the universe "open up a space for a reasonable belief in a creator."

"Belief in God not just based on revelation, but what does natural science tell us?" he said. "So, we're going to look at current scientific ideas like the bouncing universe or the Borde, Vilenkin and Guth Theorem— some that challenge the theological notions of creation and design, and some that support the theology."

His course will also take on one of the theories that tends to divide the science-minded from people of faith: evolution. Hogan said he'll have his students explore both the scientific and biblical accounts of creation.

"How can engaging the scientific account of evolution — rather than dismissing or fighting against the scientific account of evolution how can it ground a more adequate theology of suffering?" he asked. "Seminarians as priests have to go there (to) the scientific account of evolution and the biblical account of God dealing with humankind and creation in general and see, 'What are the points of contact there?'"

Those significant points of contact reveal that there "does not need to be a contradiction between faith and science," Hogan said, adding that any appearance of such a contradiction is "false."

He said the history of the Catholic Church is full of theologians who were scientists and scientists who were ministers in the Church. He cites: friar Gregor Mendel, who discovered the basic laws of genetics; Belgian priest Georges Lemaitre, who contributed to the theory of the Big Bang; and contemporary scientist and theologian John Polkinghorne, who gave up his career as a theoretical elementary particle physicist who helped establish the standard model of atomic structure to become an Anglican priest.

"Our basic principle in Catholic theology is that faith is a gift to us from God and reason is a gift to us from God. That the same God who authored the book of Revelation authored the book of nature and he speaks to us both. So when Revelation is rightly understood, and when creation is rightly understood, there can be no conflict there," he said. "If there appears to be a conflict, you haven't understood the one or the other."

But understanding how faith and modern science work together doesn't involve shaping theology to fit, Hogan said. Rather, Hogan said his approach to scientific literacy follows the prescriptions of the second Vatican council, which encouraged "going back to the sources" of the Bible and ancient theologians, as well as a "getting up to date" with advanced scientific principles.

"(This is) not changing our doctrines so they match current presuppositions, but taking all that you've learned from original sources and presenting it in a way that people today can understand," he said.

Hogan said he will spend this upcoming summer preparing for  his grant-funded course, which he will likely teach in the spring 2017 semester. But before then, he and the other grant winners will gather at the Vatican Observatory Research Group (part of the Vatican's scientific research arm) in Tucson, Ariz., at the end of January to share ideas for their courses, network and get input from scientists.