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Part I. Reason and Faith: The Catholic View

Chapter III: Catholic Teaching on Revelation and Natural Knowledge


1 We set out to examine three theses held by the Catholic church regarding the relation of reason and faith: first, that there was no disharmony between revelation and reason as such; second, that there was no disharmony between revelation and natural knowledge; third, that the credibility of revelation, as traditionally accepted by the church, can be established by argument. The first thesis we have found it necessary to dismiss as untenable. We turn now to the second.

‘Nulla tamen inquam inter fidem et rationem vera dissensio esse potest’;1 there can be no true disagreement between faith and reason. Professor Gilson, perhaps the most competent of recent apologists, writes: ‘it is necessary to adhere firmly to the principle that, since truth cannot be divided against itself, reason cannot be rational if it is opposed to faith.’2 A standard manual on church teaching tells us: ‘If a truth is certainly revealed by God—and that, through the infallible teaching of the Church, he [the theologian] can always ascertain—then any human conclusion or hypothesis, whether it be philosophical, historical, or scientific, which contradicts it, is most certainly erroneous.’3 But on an issue of such importance it is well to have the highest authority, and here Leo XIII speaks with the same voice as Augustine and the Vatican councils. Concerning possible disputes between the theologian and the scientist, Leo wrote in Providentissimus Deus:

‘If discussion should arise between them, here is the rule also laid down by St Augustine for the theologian:—“Whatsoever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatsoever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is, Catholic faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the slightest hesitation, believe it to be so.”’

‘Between faith and reason there can be no conflict’! One wonders, then, what conflict it was of which President White of Cornell wrote the history in his massive Warfare of Science with Theology. One wonders what the conflict was that filled the nineteenth century with its noisy reverberations. Of course, if one cares to, one can prove by mere definition that no such conflict is possible. One can say that whatever doctrine contradicts church teaching is not true, and therefore not science; hence no conflict. Or one can say that whenever the church ventures to pronounce on a scientific issue it is going outside its province and saying what is no part of faith; hence again no conflict. Anyone who regards this as a solution of the problem is welcome to it. But the issue we are interested in is not a verbal one. It is this: whether what is offered us by the church as revealed, and therefore certainly true, does in fact conflict at any point with what scientific specialists, working in the appropriate field, would hold to be established by the evidence. Let us look at a few of these fields.


2 First, astronomy. Here a name that springs to mind at once is that of Galileo. His famous case is somewhat threadbare now, but it remains important both in history and in theory. The essential facts are as follows. (1) On 26 February 1616, Galileo was commanded ‘in the name of His Holiness the Pope and the whole congregation of the Holy Office’ to abandon the view that the earth moves. (2) On 5 March of that year the congregation of the Index, at the instigation of Pope Paul V, condemned ‘that false Pythagorean doctrine, wholly opposed to sacred scripture, which Nicholas Copernicus [and others] teach as to the mobility of the earth and the immobility of the sun’.4 (3) 1633, at the urgent desire of Pope Urban VIII, Galileo was brought before the inquisition, and under threat of severe punishment, compelled to recant ‘the error and heresy of the movement of the earth’. (4) This condemnation was inscribed in the Index, to which in 1664, a third Pope, Alexander VIII, prefixed a bull Speculatores Domus Israel, signed by himself and binding the proscriptions of the book on all good Catholics. In this bull he condemned ‘all books teaching the movement of the earth and the stability of the sun’. (5) In 1835 this condemnation was at last and silently removed.5

Here is a clear case in which the church, speaking officially, took one view, and science, speaking through the voice of the greatest living scientist, took an opposite one. For centuries Catholic apologists have been trying to explain this opposition away. They have suggested that Galileo was condemned not for his science but for his contumacy and disrespect. They have said that he was condemned not for his astronomy but for an attempt to interpret Scripture as according with his astronomy. They have said that God may have seen fit to test our faith with Scriptural texts difficult of interpretation. Cardinal Newman admitted the conflict, but threw up his hands about it. ‘Scripture… says that the sun moves and the earth is stationary; and science, that the earth moves, and the sun is comparatively at rest. How can we determine which of these opposite statements is the very truth, till we know what motion is?’6 He would no doubt have welcomed Einstein as showing that if one body is moving relatively to another there is a sense in which it is arbitrary which we take as at rest. Even so, Newman might have had trouble in fitting into his moral and astronomical system the sun that stood still for a day over Gibeon, neither body moving relatively to the other. The chief recourse, however, has been to the familiar contention that in condemning Galileo the church did not act in a fully official way.

3 It is not a very convincing defence. In the congregation of the Holy Office that condemned his teaching, Pope Paul himself was apparently present, and the demand for abjuration, made through Cardinal Bellarmine, was made expressly in the Pope's name; the congregation of the Index, which also condemned the view, was commissioned by the same Pope to inquire into the doctrine, and again its verdict was issued with his approval; the sentence of the inquisition in 1633 was sent by a second Pope, Urban, to all Apostolic nuncios ‘to the end that so pernicious a doctrine’ might ‘spread no further’; a third Pope, Alexander, republished the decrees in a book which he ‘confirmed and approved’ both ‘as a whole and in its parts’. The spectacle of a powerful organisation threatening and imprisoning a scientist of the first rank, compelling him to recant, denouncing his teaching throughout Europe as heretical, suppressing books that contained it, excluding it from the schools, and then, when it was proved beyond question to be true, maintaining that the three popes had never meant, in condemning it, to condemn it quite authoritatively is not a pleasant passage in the history of apologetics.

Suppose, however, that this extenuation is accepted; where does that leave the church in its relation with astronomy? Unhappily, in an awkward position still. For whether Paul and Urban and Alexander were speaking infallibly or not, their denial of the earth's motion was either true or untrue. Assume that it was true and that Galileo was really wrong. A major thesis of modern science never stands alone. This thesis about the motion of the earth has implications for the whole of astronomy and indeed the whole of scientific method. If, in spite of the thousands of observations and calculations that have verified the theory, the earth does not rotate on its axis or revolve round the sun, then not only will the map of the universe have to be redrawn, but the very method of gaining truth by observation must be rejected as unreliable; and if reason is as unreliable as this, its use in theology itself must be suspect.

Suppose on the other hand that the condemnation was mistaken and that Galileo was right. Then the church must admit not only that the head of the church and his most responsible official advisers may make grave mistakes about matters they expressly designate as matters of faith; it must also admit that the plain sense of Scripture may be in error. For even if Paul, Urban, and Alexander were mistaken in denying the motion of the earth and the fixity of the sun, they were still surely correct in saying that both doctrines are repeatedly denied in Scripture. ‘He hath made the round world so fast that it cannot be moved’; that denies the first. The sun ‘runneth about from one end of the heavens to the other’; that denies the second; and if these are taken as metaphorical, the sun's halting its motion over Gibeon was certainly no metaphor. Now to admit that Galileo was right would be to admit that such passages were not true. But this would imply that Scripture was untrustworthy, and that would be disaster, since the church has pronounced infallibly that it is inerrant.

Rome has never extricated itself from this dilemma. What it has actually done is to adhere to its principle that the Bible is inerrant, while at the same time dropping its case against modern astronomy. That solves nothing in theory. The Biblical passages are still there, and they still mean what the three popes thought they did. And the earth still moves, as Galileo continued to mutter. The course of the rationalist in this difficulty is straightforward; he says that the Biblical writers were human beings who wrote according to their lights but, knowing little astronomy, made perfectly natural mistakes; further, that to set up their groping opinions as a tribunal by which to judge professional astronomers is to invert the true order of things. The Catholic cannot take this view without sacrilege. As a son of the church, he must bow to an inerrant Scripture. As a citizen of the modern world, he must accept the findings of astronomy. And he is deluding himself if he thinks that he can consistently do both.7

Vatican II was not allowed to forget Galileo. Bishop Eichinger of Strasbourg, after reminding his colleagues of the intellectual deficiencies commonly charged to the church's account—limitation of intellectual interest, an assumption that faith, in virtue of its certainty, could extend that certainty to other fields, ‘a morbid fear of rationalism and the critical spirit’—went on to say:

‘The case of Galileo remains a symbol of all these deficiencies in the history of modern times. Let it not be said too quickly that it is part of ancient history. The condemnation of this man has never been revoked.… It would be an eloquent gesture if the Church, during this year [1964] which marks the fourth centenary of Galileo's birth, would humbly agree to rehabilitate him.’8

The rehabilitation did not come. How indeed could it come without compromising the teaching authority of the church? To rehabilitate Galileo would be to admit that he was right. If he was right, three popes were wrong, not merely on an issue of fact, but on an issue of faith. For either they had misinterpreted to their flock the meaning of Scripture or, if their interpretation was correct, Scripture itself was in error.


4 Turn next to biology. The main generalisation of modern biology is, of course, the theory of evolution. No living biologist of any standing would deny this theory. There are differences about the detail of the process, but there is no difference, I take it, about Darwin's main contention that man's appearance on earth has been a long, slow emergence from animal forms of life, and that these forms have themselves emerged from others still more remote. Is a Roman Catholic free to accept this theory?

It is instructive to consult Catholic manuals on this point. These assure us that the Catholic scientist is at liberty to accept anything that is true. What exactly do such assurances mean? Do they mean that he is free to accept any theory which the evidence before him requires? Or do they mean that in some areas of his inquiry the church is already in possession of the truth, so that regardless of the evidence he may unearth, his conclusions are determined for him in advance? That the position of the church is the latter, not the former, will be evident from an example or two.

The theory of evolution is a theory not only of physical but also of mental evolution. The affinities of animal with human intelligence and the levels of intelligence within the animal world have been studied illuminatingly by Romanes, Lubbock, Hobhouse, Yerkes, Lashley, Köhler, and many more. The Catholic scientist, in approaching these studies, is met by such absolute prohibitions as the following, transcribed from The Teaching of the Catholic Church:

‘For a Catholic there can be no question and no debate about the hypothesis or even the possibility of the development of Adam's spiritual soul from the non-spiritual animating principle or soul of any brute, however highly advanced in the scale of animal perfection. The theory of evolution taken universally, as embracing the development of the first man's soul from some non-human faculty of one of the higher animals, is out of court for the Catholic.…’9

It may be said that while a Catholic cannot believe in the evolution of the soul he can still believe in the evolution of the mind. This is not, I think, logically possible. In the manual just quoted, it is said of the ‘soul or mind’ (the two terms being used as synonyms) that ‘its existence and other powers, such as reasoning and volition,’ are ‘inseparable from its essence’;10 to be a soul is to have certain powers and functions; its character lies in its activities of thinking, feeling, and willing. To deny that the soul evolves is to deny that its powers and functions evolve, and to deny this is to deny that mind evolves. Thus the Catholic is cut off from the belief in evolution in the full sense in which biologists generally accept it.

What alternative to the biologist's view is open to the Catholic scientist? His theory must be (1) that all men have descended from a single pair of progenitors, Adam and Eve, (2) that man's spiritual faculties, instead of evolving with his body, were attached by God to his body at some point in the past, and (3) that God similarly attaches the soul to each man's body at some point in his pre-natal growth. The first point was made clear by Pius XII in his Humani Generis of 1950.

‘For Christ's faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents; since it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the teaching authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which through generation is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.’

On the second point, the special creation of the soul, one gains useful light from the account of evolution given in the New Catholic Encyclopedia of 1967.

‘Man's capacity for culture… must be, at root, spiritual. This spiritual capacity cannot have its origins in primate potentialities or in a purely material substrate. The human spirit must have its origin in the immediate creative act of God’ (V, 682). ‘When the hominid body was so disposed by the natural processes governing the rest of primate development, God created and infused the spirit of man, elevating what was formerly a hominid to the stature of a new, distinct, and unique species’ (ibid., 683).

As for the third point, the acquisition of a soul by each individual body, we are informed that God waits until the foetus achieves ‘human organs for the organic faculties, the operation of which are indispensable for the exercise of reason’. This is believed to be about the end of the third month after conception. ‘It is likely that human animation takes place at this time’ (ibid., 684).

In early editions of the Encyclopedia, even bodily evolution was rejected; ‘there is no evidence in favour of an ascending evolution of organic forms (V, 670). It is clear that the Catholic views on evolution have been slowly adjusting themselves to modern biology. But even in the pronouncement which many Catholics regard as a charter of freedom, Pius XII's Humani Generis, two requirements of belief are laid down for the biologist on theological grounds: evolution does not apply to man's higher faculties, and since we have all inherited original sin from Adam, we must all have descended from Adam. I do not propose to discuss this theological biology, nor is it easy to see how any scientific inquiry could either prove or disprove it. It belongs to a theology that rests not on science but on the church's interpretation of Scripture, and its credibility turns on whether the church's authority is decisive. On that we shall have more to say.

The Catholic biologist has certainly attained more freedom than he had at the beginning of the century. But how free is he? The position that Genesis is inerrant is still required of him; it was laid down at Trent and Vatican I by the church's highest authority; and the Pope's Biblical Commission has insisted that Genesis must be taken as history, not as legend or allegory. It uneasily added, however, that one is not bound to seek in it for scientific exactitude of expression; and in spite of its insistence on historicity and inerrancy, the church has decided that ‘days’ mean ‘moments or impulses of God's creative activity rather than any definite periods of time’. We are informed that ‘With this interpretation, all the objections brought against the Mosaic account of creation from the physical sciences collapse’.11 This seems over-sanguine. What about the order in which the various creatures were created? In Genesis light is created on the first day, but the sources of light, namely the sun, moon, and stars, do not appear till the fourth; on the fifth day fish and birds make their entrance, and on the sixth day reptiles, though biologists know, from the record of the rocks, that reptiles came before birds and fish, not after them. It is evident that a large licence must be granted if inerrancy is to be preserved. The following passage suggests what this is:

‘When it happened that the inspired writer had, incidentally, to touch upon such matters to enforce or illustrate his teaching, to set it in a framework that should make a deeper impression upon his readers, or for some similar reason, he adapted himself to the level of their intelligence, he conformed his phraseology to their common opinions, he took over their current modes of expression.’12

This seems to mean that although the writer, as inspired and inerrant, knew the truth about these matters, he deliberately used language that would convey a false impression to his readers. At times, moreover, he used this deceptive language when there was no point in the deception; there was surely no reason why, if he knew that reptiles preceded fishes, he should have reversed the order of their appearance. This is one of the many places where the Roman church has been caught between the claims of science and of a mythology pronounced inerrant. It can hardly afford to denounce science. It cannot without self-stultification abandon an authoritative pronouncement about an errorless book. So it resorts to the expedient of saying that writers who were presumably in command of the truth set down for no evident reasons statements that they knew would induce false beliefs.

5 It may be said that this elastic exegesis itself gives freedom of movement to the Catholic evolutionist. If he establishes his theories by the evidence, the church will find some way of showing that Genesis never intended to say anything inconsistent with them. As evidence piled up, for example, against the theory of special creation, Catholic scholars began to find the term ‘special creation’ ambiguous, and held that it may not after all exclude the theory ‘that God took one of the higher animals and, by infusing into it a human soul, made it a man’. To be sure, the biologist who adopts this view is yielding unduly to evolutionist pressure, but he can accept it without formal condemnation. Still, if he does, he is at the danger line. He will clearly be passing that line if he questions that Adam and Eve were historical personages, that Adam was made first, or that Eve was made out of Adam.13 Nor can he hold, whatever the evidence, that the race had more than one set of parents.14

Is this scientific freedom? Not if freedom means the privilege of following the evidence in whatever direction it may lead. The demand made on modern science that it should adjust its findings to chronicles twenty-five centuries old, innocent of scientific methods or historical standards, is not notably reasonable to begin with, and those Catholics who have attained distinction in biology—they are not many—have keenly felt the strain. The able biologist St George Mivart, who was a president of the British Association, did remain in the church for many years, but he rebelled increasingly against its restrictions and was excommunicated a few weeks before his death. There are other kinds of pressure, however, than the threat of formal excommunication. There is the refusal of the right to publish, which kept the work on evolution of Teilhard de Chardin out of print as long as he lived. The intellectual atmosphere in which Catholic scientists have been supposed to live is suggested by such statements as the following from the officially approved work I have several times quoted, The Teaching of the Catholic Church. It says about evolution: ‘if we take it as covering all forms of animal life and so embracing the origin of the human body, the positive evidence in favour of it is, at present, so slight and feeble as to be negligible’ (I, 208). Of course many fundamentalist Protestant theologians have taken the same line. But they have not had the support of a hierarchy that could claim ultimacy and unchangeableness for its teaching. It is not surprising that Catholic biologists should have conspicuously dragged their feet.15


6 If we may take one more field, consider the attitude to which the church has committed itself toward modern psychology. With the vast increase in our knowledge of the subconscious and of the multiple forms of mental pathology, the old belief in witchcraft and demon-possession seems like sheer superstition. Most educated Catholics would perhaps agree. It is worth reminding them, therefore, that they are committed in no uncertain terms to both these beliefs by repeated and formal Papal pronouncements which, as dealing with matters of faith, must be deemed authoritative. The church did not fail to note that mandate in Exodus, divinely inspired, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,’ and since witchcraft involved deliberate dealing with the Devil, it was in the eyes of the church a most serious offence. In his bull, Summis Desiderantes of 1484, Innocent VIII noted that witches were swarming through Germany and that they revelled in the blackest of crimes;16 he decreed therefore that they be rooted out. Julius II in 1504 and Adrian VI in 1523 followed with similar bulls. Regarding witchcraft, says Lecky, ‘the Church of Rome proclaimed in every way that was in her power the reality and the continued existence of the crime.… She taught by all her organs that to spare a witch was a direct insult to the Almighty.’17 The Devil and his angels and minions were officially accepted elements of Catholic faith. Aquinas had no doubt about them; he considered that storms and diseases were often the work of the Devil, who could transport witches through the air and transform human beings into animal shapes; and as for demons, they were so earthily real as to be able to have carnal intercourse with witches. Four centuries later the eloquent Bossuet was declaring that ‘a single devil could turn the earth round as easily as we turn a marble’. These beliefs would have mattered less if they had not been accompanied by a sense of religious duty to exterminate the crime of witchcraft. Countless miserable old women were submitted to protracted and pitiless torture before the stake gave them release.

Why recite these ‘old unhappy far-off things’? Could not an equally severe indictment be made of modern Protestantism? The answer would seem to be No. Protestant sects have their own superstitions, but they have often changed articles of their creeds, or abandoned them and ceased to be. The creed of the Catholic church is offered as unchangeable truth. (Not that it has in fact remained the same, as we shall see, but it is bound to maintain that it has.) Once an element has been included in the deposit of faith, it is there to stay. Hence the church, having taken its stand in a succession of authoritative pronouncements from its head, declaring the existence of devil, demons, and witches an integral part of the faith, can only believe in them still. And it does. If the reader doubts where it stands, let him turn to the articles, ‘Devil’, ‘Demoniacs’, ‘Demonology’, and ‘Witchcraft’ in the Catholic Encyclopedia. In all of them he will find, along with enough anthropological discussion to make it clear that the writer is very, very sophisticated, the central unmistakable fact: the church accepts all these things.

Indeed the devil has occupied a conspicuous part in the recent thought of Pope Paul VI. On 17 December 1972, the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano devoted fourteen columns to Satan, which churchmen reported as part of a papal counter-offensive against attempts in the Netherlands and elsewhere to dilute traditional teaching about the devil. It reported that in an address of 5 November the Pope had spoken of this ‘perfidious and astute charmer’ as an actually existing person: ‘We thus know’, he said, ‘that this obscure and disturbing being really exists and that he still operates with treacherous cunning; he is the occult enemy who sows errors and disgrace in human history’. Demonology, the Pope went on, is ‘a very important chapter of Catholic doctrine that ought to be studied again, although this is not being done much today’. A leading article that accompanied the statement complained that since Vatican II ‘a kind of veil of silence has enveloped the Devil,’ and urged priests and theologians to focus attention on him.18

No conflict here with modern psychology and medicine? Where would one look for a section on ‘Demons’ in Osier's Principles and Practice or Freud's General Introduction? President White, who wrote before modern psychopathology had got well under way, quotes a German alienist who peered into the old records about witches: ‘in a most careful study of the original records of their trials by torture, he has often found their answers and recorded conversations exactly like those familiar to him in our modern lunatic asylums, and names some forms of insanity which constantly and unmistakably appear among those who suffered for criminal dealings with the devil.’19 How many psychiatrists of our time would hold that any one of the pitiable women who went to the stake in thousands in the sixteenth century were the consorts of demons, or that the belief in such creatures, then or now, was anything but superstition? The importance of such a belief in the sixteenth century lay in the implacable cruelty which was its natural by-product. Its importance today happily lies not in that terrible quarter, but in the colour it gives to the bitter dictum of T. H. Huxley that ‘ecclesiasticism in science is only unfaithfulness to truth’.


7 It must by now have become apparent that, whatever his concessions to science on particular points, the orthodox Catholic does not and cannot live intellectually in the world accepted by modern science. That world is governed by natural law. The Catholic believes that this law is being continually set aside by miraculous intervention from outside the natural order. Pius XI created at least thirty-one new saints; Pius XII created eight more in seven months; and a condition of accepting a new saint is proof that he has performed at least four miracles. Of these four, two may be wrought after his death with the help of his relics or remains. Such relics have supernatural potency; and since, in every altar in a Catholic church, relics of at least one martyr are supposed to be sealed, the number and variety of these objects is immense, and the possible influence on the course of events portentous. For reasons unknown some relics are far more efficacious than others. By reference to the Catholic Almanac one can find where the more precious and potent of these are to be found. There are pieces of the true cross, for example, in eight European cities; the crown of thorns is at Paris, the sponge at St John Lateran in Rome, the robe at Treves, and part of the winding-sheet at Turin. The house occupied by the Holy Family is at Loreto in Italy, transported there by angels, between 1291 and 1295; to the delight of believers, there was found in it a pattern of the sole of the Virgin's shoe, and two popes offered indulgences to persons who kissed it three times and said Ave Marias over it. At Naples there are great celebrations at the Cathedral in May, September, and December, when its patron saint, Januarius, shows his continued interest by liquefying a vial of his blood, now more than fifteen centuries old. Sometimes saints who are little known spring into belated activity. St Anne, the mother of Mary, is unmentioned in the Bible and unknown otherwise, but at her shrine of St Anne de Beaupré, near Quebec, she began about 1676 a long succession of miraculous cures. Unfortunately the shrine possessed none of her relics, though her body was preserved at Lyons and a second skull at Berne. The shortage was rectified in 1870 when a cardinal presented the shrine with one of her wristbones.

8 Some of the most far-reaching movements in modern Catholicism have originated in alleged appearances of the Virgin, for example the vast pilgrimages to the shrines of Lourdes and Fatima. The apparitions that initiated both these movements were made to children. On 11 February 1858, a fourteen-year-old girl, picking up wood at the mouth of a grotto near Lourdes, France, had a vision of a beautiful lady in white with a blue sash, who invited her to drink at a fountain. There happened to be no fountain at the spot, but scraping away some earth, the girl uncovered a trickle of water which increased into a spring. She reported her experience; her ecclesiastical superiors put grave heads together; and four years later, her bishop declared: ‘We consider that the Immaculate Mary, Mother of God, did actually appear to Bernadette Soubirous.’ At the hundredth anniversary of the event in 1958, after the sale of millions of gallons of the sacred water, wistful visitations by millions of pilgrims, and the expenditure of millions of dollars on a great underground basilica, this church, the largest in Christendom except St Peter's, was consecrated at the spot.

That cures do occur at such places is undeniable. The scientifically minded person who has seen, as I have, the piles of crutches joyously abandoned at St Anne de Beaupré need not deny that among these cases there are genuine and permanent cures. All he cares to deny is the ecclesiastical account of these cures. He finds no good reason to consider them miraculous. He is of the same mind as the committee of the British Medical Council appointed at the suggestion of the Archbishop of Canterbury to investigate the claims of miracles and spiritual healing. This committee of trained medical men reported that it could find no evidence of organic diseases cured solely by supernatural means.20 It admitted, as candor required, that in a ‘very few’ cases cures had been effected that were ‘at present inexplicable on scientific grounds’, but in the light of man's present ignorance of the subtler relations of body and mind, it refused to equate the unexplained with the inexplicable, the merely unknown with the supernatural. That is surely the right course for anyone not committed beforehand to intervention from beyond nature.

The story of Fatima is curously similar to that of Lourdes. On 13 May 1917, near a small country place of that name, about seventy miles north of Lisbon, three illiterate children aged ten, nine, and seven, came home saying they had seen a beautiful lady who ‘looked about fifteen’ and who told them to come back on the same day each month; they would in time see something wonderful. They did so, and more and more of the curious countryfolk came along. On 13 October of that year, rumour and expectation running high, many thousands of them assembled. It was a rainy day. But suddenly there came a rift in the clouds; the sun burst through; it seemed to revolve by fits and starts, and even to draw nearer to the earth. Lucia, the ten-year-old, said she saw Joseph, Mary, the infant Jesus, and ‘Our Lord’, who was dressed in red. The Virgin gave her a message saying that the war would end that day, but that a further horrible war would come unless the world consecrated itself to her immaculate heart. The other children and some of the spectators also were convinced that they had seen super-normal things, but their visions varied widely. The Pope of the time, Benedict XV, and his successor Pius XI seem to have taken no stock in the ‘miracle’, but Pius XII, who had occasional visions himself and was especially devoted to the Virgin, was minded otherwise; he interpreted the Virgin's message as a genuine, divine, and timely warning against communism; and with his aid the village became an important religious centre, with a large basilica and hospital, and extensive sales of curative Fatima water.

The story does not stand up well under scrutiny. The message Lucia received about the war's ending that very day proved false. The message regarding communism seems never to have been received at all; it is not mentioned in any of the early reports, and must have been read back into the message from a later time. The peculiar motions of the sun were not confirmed by any observatory. The two younger children both died in the influenza epidemics of 1919 and 1920, so that Lucia became the main pillar of reliance for the tremendous miracle. And Lucia was a frail reed. She had a history that suggested abnormality; her mother reported that three times before she had seen a ‘sheeted featureless form which approached and then withdrew’;21 she had a somewhat low order of intelligence, and a confused and plastic memory for what she had seen. She retired into a Carmelite nunnery, where at last report she was still living, but under such close guardianship that she could only be interviewed at the authorisation of the Pope himself. The significant fact has come out that not long before her visions her mother had read her an account of the famous appearance of the Virgin, dressed as a beautiful lady, to a boy and girl at La Salette. Combine such antecedents with a childish imagination, an untrained intelligence, and the pressure upon her of the vivid emotion and expectancy of a superstitious countryside, and the stage would seem to be set for the events that followed, without preternatural assistance.22

It will be said that nothing in all this commits the church of necessity to a miracle at Fatima. That is technically true, and no doubt many Catholics who are scientifically inclined regard these incidents and the popular excitement they engender with a wincing distaste. But two comments are called for. First, so far as Catholics do display this attitude, they do so in violation of the will and belief of the head of their church. Pope Paul, at the conclusion of Vatican II, made a deliberate and public point of visiting the shrine of Fatima. In a blaze of publicity and surrounded by ‘nearly a million pilgrims’, he appeared with the one surviving member of the young trio who had seen the wonders, and gave an address emphasising the desire for peace that the Virgin had somehow communicated to them on that rainy day of half a century before.23 Secondly, in studying the relations of the church and science, it would be myopic to look solely at the formal pronouncements of popes and councils. Though we have done that for the most part in the interest of fairness to Rome, it must be remembered that the church consists not only of the few at the top but also of the millions at the bottom. Many of these millions embrace, and are winked at from the top in embracing, a credulity that is clearly at odds with the scientific spirit and the scientific view of nature. ‘The attractiveness of Catholicism as a cult,’ says Dean Inge, ‘depends almost wholly on its frank admission of the miraculous as a matter of daily occurrence.’24 The more versed one is in science, the harder that admission becomes.

If this is true, one would expect the intellectual atmosphere of Catholicism to discourage rather than stimulate devotion to science. This expectation appears to be confirmed by statistical investigation. An American woman psychologist has made an inquiry that bears on the point; she has studied ‘the origins, educations, lives and minds of sixty-four American research scientists selected as the leaders in their fields by committees of their peers’. ‘The most valuable factor in their family backgrounds seems to have been “a home in which learning is valued for its own sake”. Five of the families were Jewish; one was aggressively “free-thinking”; the rest were Protestant. None of the scientists came from a Catholic family.’25 A similar study has been made by Francis Bello, who questioned 107 scientists forty or under, ‘judged by their senior colleagues to be outstanding’. ‘About half were brought up as Protestants; more than one-quarter were Jewish; less than 5% came from Catholic families. At present, nearly three-quarters have no religious affiliation (including all the former Catholics).’26 Such figures can hardly be accounted for except by supposing—what reflection would have suggested in any case—that there is a keenly felt inner tension between scientific and Catholic thought.


9 Where such tension occurs, are we not begging the question if we accept the scientific account as the true one? It must be admitted that nothing we have said about Lourdes or Fatima or the appeal to relics proves that the visions were subjective or the relics impotent. Indeed only one who is logically naive would ever claim to show conclusively in a particular case either that a miracle has occurred or that it has not. To show that it has he would have to show that what is now inexplicable in it is incapable of explanation by any laws at all, and this of course is impossible. Similarly to show that a given event does not involve a miracle would require showing of every one of its component factors, no matter how minute, that it followed by law from some known type of antecedent, and this is again impossible. Seeing this, some Catholic apologists have been inclined to say to the scientist, ‘Neither your position nor mine can be established by mere reason. Each of us must appeal to a general postulate about the constitution of the world. My postulate is that there are two orders, a supernatural and a natural, and that some events show a break-through from the one to the other; your postulate is that the world is a single continuous whole. Neither postulate can be proved. The difference is that while both of us must accept our postulates on faith, I recognise what I am doing and you do not. Indeed the rationalist is as truly appealing to faith as the devotee himself, for the ultimate principles on which reason proceeds are as little capable of proof as any dogma of the faith.’

This is plausible but confused. We may well pause on it for a moment to see where the confusions lie. It is true that the principles on which reason proceeds, such as the laws of logic, are not themselves capable of proof; any attempt to prove the law of contradiction, for example, would presuppose the validity of the law at every step. But it does not follow that such laws are articles of faith in the same sense as the dogmas of a creed. They are compulsory, and the dogmas are not. If a thinker denies a law of logic, his thought is paralysed and cannot move. To deny the law of contradiction, for example, would be to say of propositions generally that their truth does not exclude their falsity, but then we could never say that anything was true rather than false, which means that we could not think at all. The suggestion that such a law of thought is accepted on faith in the same sense as the dogma that the Deity is triune is plainly untrue. The first proposition is necessary because its truth is the condition of all meaningful thought; the second has no such necessity, for even though true it could quite intelligibly be denied. To say that the appeal to reason involves the same appeal to faith as the acceptance of a creed is to use ‘faith’ in quite different senses.

Secondly, even if the two postulates—those of one order and of two—both covered all the facts, they would not do so equally well. The principle of Occam's razor bids us never to multiply entities beyond necessity, always to accept the simpler of two adequate hypotheses. And between one causal order and two, there can be no doubt which is the simpler; the supposition of a single order in which each event is explained by others in the same order is clearly simpler than a double order in which the laws of one are suspended from time to time by incursions from the other. It may be said that here again we are appealing to faith, since the proposition that nature conforms to Occam's razor is itself incapable of proof. This appears to be true. Occam's razor, like the principle of the uniformity of nature (namely, that the same kind of agents, under the same conditions, always act in the same ways), is commonly considered not as a conclusion that has been proved, but as a postulate that experience has progressively confirmed. Still, these postulates are not arbitrary. Though not as plainly undeniable as the law of contradiction, they are principles implicit in the activity of thought, aspects of the ideal that thought as such is seeking to realise. Common sense and science use them, and must use them, continually. The Catholic scientist accepts them as unquestioningly as his colleagues in ninety-nine hundredths of his intellectual work. It is only when he comes to extraordinary cases in which things abandon their familiar behaviour, in which water is reported as turning into wine, or the dead as rising and walking, or portentous apparitions as appearing in field or sky, that he is in the least inclined to abandon the principles on which he relies everywhere else. And because these principles belong to the very idea of explanation and obviously apply over the larger part of his experience, they have the right of way. It would be merely frivolous to discard them for reasons less than overwhelming.


10 Do such reasons ever present themselves? Since it is perhaps impossible to settle this matter a priori,27 one must deal with individual cases as they come and rely on comparative probabilities. Here the simple argument of Hume will surely dispose of the vast majority of alleged miraculous interpositions. When a suspension of natural law is reported, such as the sun's standing still over Gibeon or the Virgin's appearance to the children at Fatima, which explanation is the more probable: that natural law has been set aside or that in the account of the reporter error or deception has entered in? No doubt most Catholic astronomers would agree with their non-Catholic colleagues that, whatever the church says to the contrary, it is far more probable that the writer of Joshua erred than that the earth in fact ceased for some hours to revolve. Nor is the case in principle different with regard to Lucia's report at Fatima. Which is the more probable: on the one hand that a supernatural disembodied woman, changelessly young, should have materialised herself for human eyes in a Portuguese field and offered a forecast of the future of Europe, or that a wrought-up child of ten and certain emotional fellow-devotees should have ‘seen’ what they were predisposed to see? When the issue is baldly stated, there would seem to be little doubt where the greater probability lies.

We may so state the argument, of course, as to reduce the probability of miracle to zero, as Hume has been charged with doing. We may place on the one side a set of psychological laws which we have found to govern the appearance of illusions, and on the other the miraculous suspension of one or more of these laws. We may then settle the case triumphantly against the miracle by saying that governance by law means governance without exception, since laws would be no laws at all if they were subject to violation; we can thus define the miracle out of existence. So put, the argument begs the question. But there is no need to put it so ineptly. We may admit that all the natural laws we know are probable only; we may even admit that it is a matter of probability whether in a given unexplored area there are laws at all, and still the argument has force. Lucia's experience was perhaps unique in some respects, and at the time inexplicable; would that make the appeal to comparative probability irrelevant? Certainly the scientist would not think so. He has confronted many situations in which, as here, some features were inexplicable by the natural causes known to him. In some such cases these features had been confidently laid in the past to bewitchment or demonic possession or the interposition of saints or angels. Range after range of these cases have yielded their perfectly natural though sometimes deeply buried secrets to inquiry. Is it probable that in the present case no such natural causes are to be found? This must be conceded to be possible; the scientist can hardly rule it out a priori. But how likely is it? How plausible would it be, in the face of the overwhelming success of science in bringing to light causes for the unexplained, to say that its long triumphant march has come to a halt with the event now before us, a halt imposed not by our ignorance but by the failure of natural causation itself? Granting that this is not an impossibility, it would certainly be put down by the scientist as improbable in the extreme. And with this we can only agree.


11 We have admitted that the hypothesis is not an impossible one. But even this needs to be said with caution. For just what sort of hypothesis would it be? Suppose that in a given case the supernatural had made an intrusion into the natural order; such an intrusion may be conceived in either of two ways. It may be conceived as itself an event occurring in accordance with law, though not merely natural law, or as an event not governed by law at all.

An ingenious apologist for miracle, Sir Arnold Lunn, has taken the former line. ‘A miracle is just as “lawful”…,’ he writes, ‘as a natural event. Everything which happens, happens in accordance with law but not necessarily in accordance with natural law. The supernatural also has its laws.’28 But how would you go about it, in such a case, to distinguish between the natural and the supernatural? In his definition of ‘miracle’ Sir Arnold Lunn suggests that we can distinguish the two by the fact that where the supernatural is at work natural law is transcended or set aside; a miracle is ‘an event above, or contrary to, or exceeding nature which is explicable only as a direct act of God’.29 But if what appears to exceed or flout a known natural law is itself a lawful occurrence, how are we to know whether it is truly supernatural or due to undiscovered natural laws? Sir Arnold thinks that there is at times so clear a manifestation of trans-natural will or purpose as to leave us in no doubt, just as the communications of other persons, which also break through into the natural order, leave us in no doubt. We will not raise the question whether the ordinary speech and gestures of those around us are really invasions of the natural order from a non-natural or supernatural realm. But suppose we accept the analogy and follow it through. We do take the speech and gestures of others as expressing thoughts and feelings that we cannot directly perceive. Is this hypothesis a fair one? Yes, because we know clearly what it means, and the sort of consequences that would confirm it. We know what affection means, because we have felt it ourselves, and we know roughly what to expect from a person who likes us, so that we can verify our hypothesis in a great variety of ways. Are we in the same position with regard to the hypothesis that the child Lucia's vision was, as Sir Arnold would presumably call it, ‘a direct act of God’?

Unfortunately we are not. We know what affection means in another mind like our own, but we have no clear idea of what it would be like in a mind that was infinite, perfect, and all knowing. The hypothesis that such an affection exists is not definite enough to enlighten us as to how it would act in a particular situation. It may be said that if we cannot conceive the purpose of an infinite mind, we can at least conceive a purpose similar to our own though superior in firmness and extent. But as soon as the hypothesis is made definite enough to enable us to infer and test its consequences, these consequences commonly refute it. Let us see how.

12(1) The consequences of a moral kind that one would naturally infer from the hypothesis of supernatural interposition do not occur. Assume that the Virgin has the power and the will to heal those who appeal to her in trust and reverence, and one can only believe that she would so respond generally to those who came to her in this spirit. But the fact is, of course, that at Lourdes and Fatima she turns the vast majority away. Again, if we suppose her to be just in the ordinary sense, it follows that she would not confine her most important messages and manifestations to subnormal children, but would distribute them with some regard to the understanding, need, or merit of the faithful, or even, since her grace is so bountiful, to those outside the pale. Needless to say, all inferences of this kind are no sooner formed than they are belied by the facts. It may be said that if we knew enough we should see that they are not belied by the facts, that the Virgin has attended to all appeals, neglected none, and indeed dispensed perfect love and justice. That way lies intellectual dishonesty. If, starting from a given hypothesis, one sees that certain consequences follow from it, one cannot, upon finding that they do not follow in fact, revise one's inferences to yield whatever the facts may offer; by that method one can prove or disprove any hypothesis whatever. A hypothesis confirmed by any eventuality is plainly an illegitimate one.

13(2) The intellectual implications of the hypothesis of miracle are likewise as a rule untenable. Assume that in the Fatima case the Virgin did actually speak to the children, and it follows either that she was ignorant or that she deceived them, for they were emphatic that among her disclosures to them was the fact that the war would end that day. So of other such alleged disclosures. The belief of the Roman church is that whenever its head defines dogma for the faithful, a miracle of supernatural guidance occurs. Assume that it does. Then the unhappy conclusion is forced on us, as we have seen, that such guidance has carried its recipients into repeated error and contradiction. Furthermore, if we assume an intelligence solicitous to communicate its truth to eager minds, we should hardly expect it to limit its communications to those of one community, to select its recipients with such apparent arbitrariness, and to muffle its meaning beneath layers of triviality and ambiguity. We cannot, to be sure, dismiss beforehand the hypothesis of a supernatural mind seeking to communicate with our own. But if dealt with at all, it should be taken seriously; its consequences should be thought out and compared with the facts; it should not dissolve into a vague and pious gullibility, ready to swallow as confirmation whatever in fact may happen.

14(3) If a miracle is accepted, the sort of grounds on which it is accepted must be accorded the same weight everywhere. One cannot consistently accept a case of spiritual healing performed by an apostle in the first century, and reject one ascribed to Mrs Eddy in the nineteenth century on precisely similar grounds. If the evidence for the miracles of Christian saints is regarded as decisive, similar evidence for the miracles of Mohammed cannot merely be ignored. Nor can one with intellectual fairness profess interest in the scientific inquiry into the miracles of candidates for sainthood and at the same time dismiss as deluded the attempt of psychical researchers to apply scientific methods to the study of the supernormal. The evidence must be dealt with impartially and objectively.

If this is done, one or other of three attitudes toward miracles seems bound to follow. First, it might be recognised that for many of the miracles claimed by non-Catholic faiths there is evidence at least as conclusive as for many or most Catholic miracles. Suppose these non-Catholic miracles to be accordingly accepted. Since they have been wrought in the interests and under the auspices of other faiths, they offer the same sort of confirmation of these faiths as the Catholic miracles do of the Catholic faith. But to admit this would be to take them as confirming truth conflicting with Catholic truth. Such impartiality would for a Catholic be self-destructive. Secondly, finding this consequence intolerable, the Catholic apologist may insist that the same evidence is conclusive when offered for Catholic miracles and sophistical when offered for others. This is a frank abandonment of rationality in favour of faith. If the non-Catholic then says that he too has faith, and that if faith sanctions exceeding the evidence in one communion it should do so also in others, the Catholic would presumably answer that such sanction could be given not by all faiths, but by the true faith alone. The answer is not calculated to convince those outside the fold. Thirdly, in revulsion against both these views, one may decline to accept any miracle at all except as required by a rational balancing of probabilities. But this is in effect a capitulation to science. It does not mean that one has ruled out miracles absolutely. A given vision or a given cure may conceivably be a break-through of a supernatural will into the order of nature. But it will be so regarded only if this is felt to be more probable than that the event should be the product of any kind of natural causation. And it is to be doubted whether there is any case in human history where scientists would generally admit that the facts point that way.

15 We have been exploring Sir Arnold Lunn's conception of a miracle as a supersession of natural by supernatural law. But there is an alternative conception according to which a miracle, though a suspension of natural law, is not itself an instance of any law at all. The question suggested by such a view is whether a miracle then is a pure accident in the sense of an event that exploded into being causelessly. ‘No,’ is the reply, ‘for God is the cause; he interposes; he sets aside natural law; but neither the volition in his mind nor its action upon the natural world exemplifies any law whatever’. It may be questioned whether this position makes sense. To say that b is caused by a is to say that it follows a in accordance with a law. If an event b followed a today, and tomorrow, in the absence of a, followed with equal readiness from anything else, it would be meaningless to speak of the cause of b. In science the rule of causality is interpreted by the uniformity of nature, which assumes not only that all events have causes, but ‘same cause, same effect’. Cause and effect are connected through their characters; if a produces b, it is in virtue of its character as a; in short, where there is causality there is law. To assert of a given miracle that it was caused, though in accordance with no law, is thus self-contradictory. Some existentialists of the day have maintained indeed that even ordinary events are eruptions of pure inexplicable spontaneity. But no theist so far as I know has attempted to deal with miracles in these terms.

16 It is time to sum up. The thesis under discussion in this chapter has been the Roman contention that between truths of the natural and of the supernatural order there can be no conflict. We have found all too many evidences of an irrepressible conflict of just this kind. Assuming that science supplies our best illustrations of truths of the natural order, we saw that in astronomy, biology, and psychology—to go no further—Rome has committed itself to positions inconsistent with major theses of modern science. Furthermore in its encouragement of popular belief that natural law is continually being set aside by the miraculous interposition of saints, angels, and demons, the efficacy of relics and scapulars, and not infrequent visitations from the Virgin herself, we found an intellectual attitude incompatible with that of science. Revelation as Rome conceives it not only may conflict with natural knowledge; at many points it unhappily does.

  • 1.

    Vatican I, session III, chap. 4. The statement continues: ‘cum idem Deus, qui mysteria revelat et fidem infundit, animo humano rationis lumen indiderit; Deus autem negare seipsum non possit, nec verum vero unquam contradicere.’

  • 2.

    The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas (N.Y., Random House, 1956), 20.

  • 3.

    Canon G. D. Smith, ed., The Teaching of the Catholic Church, I, 36.

  • 4.

    ‘falsam illam doctrinam Pythagoricam, divinaeque scripturae omnino adversantem, de mobilitate terrae et immobilitate solis, quam Nicolaus Copernicus… et Didacus… docent.…’ Mirbt, Quellen, 282.

  • 5.

    The story has often been told, sometimes unscrupulously. I follow two older writers who give it in careful detail: Andrew D. White, in A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (N.Y., Braziller, 1955), I, 130–70, and Salmon, The Infallibility of the Church, 229–52.

  • 6.

    In Sermon XIV of Sermons on the Theory of Religious Belief.

  • 7.

    It is not the Old Testament only that raises difficulties of this kind. For a parallel New Testament example, consider the following: Luke 23:44–5, reports an eclipse of the sun at the time of the crucifixion. These events are reported as occurring at Passover, which itself occurred at the time of the full moon. But modern astronomy tells us that an eclipse at the time of the full moon never does or can occur.

  • 8.

    Henri Fesquet, The Drama of Vatican II (trans. by B. Murchland, N.Y., Random House, 1967), 486. Paul VI has, however, permitted the republication of a life of Galileo by the Rev. Pio Paschini, earlier banned by the Holy Office.

  • 9.

    Smith, ed., op. cit., I, 207. Pope Paul VI, addressing a group of theologians in 1966, said: ‘The theory of evolutionism will not seem to you acceptable whenever it does not accord decisively with the immediate creation by God of each and every human soul, and does not hold decisive the importance that the disobedience of Adam, universal protoparent, has had for the lot of humanity.’ New York Times, 30 Sept. 1966, p. 6.

  • 10.

    Smith, op. cit., I, 92.

  • 11.

    Ibid., 205.

  • 12.

    Ibid., 204.

  • 13.

    Ibid., 206 ff.

  • 14.

    Cf. the encyclical Humani Generis, 1950: ‘Non enim christifideles earn sententiam amplecti possunt… Adam significare multitudinem quamdam protoparentum; cum nequaquam appareat quomodo huiusmodi sententia componi queat cum iis quae fontes revelatae veritatis et acta Magisterii Ecclesiae proponunt de peccato originali, quod procedit ex peccato vere commisso ab uno Adamo, quodque generatione in omnes transfusum, inest unicuique proprium.’

  • 15.

    Pope Pius IX wrote of ‘Darwinism’: ‘A system which is repugnant at once to history, to the tradition of all peoples, to exact science, to observed facts, and even to Reason herself, would seem to need no refutation, did not alienation from God and the leaning toward materialism, due to depravity, eagerly seek a support in all this tissue of fables…’ White, op. cit., I, 75. Fortunately for the church, this was given as a personal opinion, not as a formal pronouncement.

  • 16.

    I add a specimen of his thinking on this head. It has been drawn to his attention, he says, that ‘complures utriusque sexus personae, propriae salutis immemores et a fide catholica deviantes, cum daemonibus, incubis et succubis abuti, ac suis incantationibus, carminibus et coniurationibus aliisque nefandis superstitiosis, sortilegis excessibus, criminibus et delictis, mulierum partus, animalium foetus, terrae fruges, vinearum uvas, et arborum fructus… suffocari et extingui facere et procurare; ipsosque homines, mulieres, iumenta… doloribus et tormentis afficere et excruciare; ac eosdem homines, ne gignere, et mulieres, ne concipere, virosque, ne uxoribus, et mulieres, ne viris actus coniugales reddere valeant, impedire…’ Mirbt, Quellen, 182.

  • 17.

    The Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe (3rd edn, London, Longmans, Green, 1866), I, 8 fn. Lecky's account is detailed. A passage he cites from the French theologian Thiers supports our point: ‘On ne scauroit nier qu'il y ait des magiciens ou des sorciers… sans contredire visiblement les saintes lettres, la tradition sacrée et profane, les lois canoniques et civiles et l'expérience de tous les siècles, et sans rejeter avec impudence l'autorité irrefragable et infaillible de l'Église.…’ Traité des Superstitions (1741), I, 132.

  • 18.

    New York Times, Dec. 18, 1972, p. 9.

  • 19.

    White, op. cit., II, 118.

  • 20.

    New York Times.

  • 21.

    C. C. Martindale, in article ‘Fatima,’ Catholic Encyclopedia, Supplement II (1951), Vol. 18, sec 1.

  • 22.

    An independent inquiry into the facts is reported in Paul Blanshard's Freedom and Catholic Power in Spain and Portugal (Boston, Beacon, 1962), 233 ff.

  • 23.

    New York Times, May 14, 1967.

  • 24.

    Outspoken Essays (London, Longmans, Green, 1919), 164.

  • 25.

    From a review of Anne Roe's The Making of a Scientist, New York Times Book Review, Dec. 20, 1953.

  • 26.

    Time, June 7, 1954.

  • 27.

    I say ‘perhaps’ because I think that some components of the law of causality can be seen to hold a priori. The case is argued in my Reason and Analysis (London, Allen & Unwin, 1962), 466–71.

  • 28.

    Hibbert Journal, April 1950, 241. There is an effective reply to this article by P. H. Nowell-Smith in the same journal for July 1950.

  • 29.

    Ibid., 245.

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