The reality of the Church's relationship with science is far from that portrayed by Catholicism's lazy-minded, secularist detractors. In fact, it could be argued that the Catholic Church is the one that has constantly been reason and science's best advocate - as Pope Benedict XVI recently said, quoting a medieval Byzantine Emperor, "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos is contrary to the nature of God." It is also true to say that some of the world's greatest scientists, including Galileo himself, have often been active members of the Church. In fact, here is a list of some of those Catholics, most of whom were priests, who have made enormous contributions to the world of science: -
The last of these men in my small list, Mgr Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître (17 July 1894 – 20 June 1966), was probably one of the most, if not the most, important physicists of the 20th century - far greater than Einstein or Hawking, both of whose theories seem inadequate in comparison with his. Yet, sadly, we hear very little about this man, who first came up with the theory of the Big Bang - probably the most important scientific idea since Darwin's theories of Evolution. It seems that the modern world is uncomfortable with the fact a Belgian Catholic priest was also one of its greatest astronomers, mathematicians and physicists. Fr Georges Lemaître, who taught at the Catholic University of Louvain, is a massive stumbling block to those who suffer from the delusion that science and religious faith cannot (or should not) be compatible. Neither the fundamentalists of atheism nor the followers of false religions - which, by their very nature tend to be irrational - want to accept that, as Pope Benedict XVI recently taught, "there is friendship between science and faith, and that scientists can, through their vocation to study nature, follow an authentic and absorbing path of sanctity."
Mgr Georges Lemaître was the first proposer what became known as the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, which he called his "hypothesis of the primeval atom" - [the term "Big Bang" was later coined by Fred Hoyle, in an apparent attempt at sarcasm, as he was bitterly opposed to the theory]. By proposing his theory (or hypothesis), Lemaître opened himself up to ridicule and harassment from the (mainly atheistic) scientific community of the time. Of course, secularists and some of those scientists who place absolute faith in human reason and deny the existence of God don't like to be seen as "heretic hunters" (for they prefer to project such irrational behaviour onto Catholics). But, the case of Fr Lemaître is a classic example of how some scientists can reject advances in knowledge that clash with their own personal world-view. By the 1920's, when Lemaître first proposed his "hypothesis of the primeval atom", many atheistic scientists had rather smugly developed the idea that the universe is eternal - without a beginning, or a "moment of creation". So, they recoiled with terror and disdain when they discovered that a Catholic priest, who happened to be a superior mathematician and physicist, was proposing that the cosmos began like "a burst of fireworks" in which galaxies, like burning embers, spread out in a growing sphere from the center of the explosion.
Catholic Education), "When Georges Lemaître was born in Charleroi, Belgium, most scientists thought that the universe was infinite in age and constant in its general appearance. The work of Isaac Newton and James C. Maxwell suggested an eternal universe. When Albert Einstein first published his theory of relativity in 1916, it seemed to confirm that the universe had gone on forever, stable and unchanging." So, when the young Lemaître began revising the theory of relativity as a graduate student in astronomy at the University of Cambridge, spending 1923/4 at St Edmund's House (now St Edmund's College), he knew that his conclusions - that the universe was expanding, and therefore must have had a beginning - would rock the scientific world.
After leaving Cambridge and returning to his native Belgium, Fr Georges Lemaître became a part-time lecturer at the Catholic University of Louvain. It was soon after taking up this post that he published his theory of an expanding universe in the 1927 Annales de la Société Scientifique de Bruxelles (Annals of the Scientific Society of Brussels). He chose as the title of his article, "A homogeneous Universe of constant mass and growing radius accounting for the radial velocity of extragalactic nebulae". The paper had little impact, as few astronomers outside Belgium took any notice of the journal. However, Lemaître was able to present his findings to Albert Einstein at a conference in Brussels later on that year. Einstein's initial response, though, seemed slightly patronising, as he told the young priest, "Your calculations are correct, but your grasp of physics is abominable!" As Midbon writes, "It was Einstein's own grasp of physics, however, that soon came under fire."
By 1930, and after Edwin Hubble's observations of far off galaxies seemed to confirm that they were in fact moving further away, it seemed that Lemaître's hypothesis was beginning to gain some support. Even so, whilst Hubble and his colleague, Sir Arthur Eddington, realised that the priest had bridged the gap between concrete observation and the theory of relativity, neither seemed able to accept that the universe had a beginning. Writing in a 1930 issue of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Arthur Eddington described Georges Lemaître's 1927 article in Annales de la Société Scientifique de Bruxelles as a "brilliant solution" to the problems currently facing cosmology. Within a few months, though, Eddington wrote another article in the journal Nature (March, 1931) calling Lemaître's hypothesis that the universe had a physical beginning "repugnant" - not the words of an objective or dispassionate man! It was around this time that Fr Georges Lemaître attended a conference in London on spirituality and cosmology. It was at this event that he explicitly proposed that the universe had expanded from an initial point, a theory he called the "Primeval Atom" or the "the Cosmic Egg exploding at the moment of the creation theory" - which, it must be said, isn't as as catchy as the "Big Bang theory"!
In 1933, though, whilst Lemaître was jointly touring California with Einstein for a series of seminars, he detailed his theory of the exploding cosmic egg. After this particular lecture, Einstein stood up, applauded, and said, "This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened." Later on in the same year, Georges Lemaître wrote another article for the Annales de la Société Scientifique de Bruxelles, in which he expanded upon his work, so that it became what we would now understand to be the Big Bang theory. This led to international fame and his ideas were widely circulated in the press. He was inducted as a member of the Royal Academy of Belgium and he also received - after being proposed by Albert Einstein, Charles de la Vallée-Poussin and Alexandre de Hemptinne - the Francqui Prize, the highest Belgian scientific honour, which was awarded by King Léopold III. In 1935, Fr Lemaître was installed as a Canon of Malines Cathedral, whilst Pope Pius XI made him a member of Pontifical Academy of Sciences one year later. He became the President of the Pontifical Academy in 1960, at which time Pope John XXIII made him a prelate of honour, or "Monsignor". In 1953, Lemaître was also awarded the Royal Astronomical Society's very first Eddington Medal.
Needless to say, despite the accolades, a large part of the scientific community, especially in the more secular parts of the world - such as Britain - continued to oppose Lemaître's hypothesis. And, as I mentioned above, some even began to ridicule his idea by cynically referring to it as the "Big Bang". One of the main centres of resistance to Fr Georges Lemaître's scientifically rational theory was Cambridge. There were two reasons why the cosmologists at Cambridge University seemed to recoil at Lemaître's proposition - namely the fact that they happened to prefer the "steady state" theory and also because they appeared determined to hold onto the atheistic "eternal universe" concept. However, a significant breakthrough confirming Lemaître's "cosmic egg" (Big Bang) theory occurred in 1964. In that year, whilst trying to fix a radio telescope at the Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, some astrophysicists came across a constant microwave interference. This interference was what we now know to be cosmic background radiation, which is a result (or an echo) of the Big Bang. In other words, the men who were fixing their telescopes in New Jersey, and who later won the Nobel Prize for their work, had accidentally discovered observable proof to confirm Mgr Georges Lemaître's theory that the universe had a beginning, an explosive and unique point in time when it came into being.
In 1966, soon after being told the good news that his theory had been given such credence through the discovery of background radiation, Mgr George Lemaître died. His ideas, though, continue to shine their light in the fields of cosmology, physics and mathematics. His spirituality and witness to the ultimate logic of Catholicism also continue to inspire many. Most scientists, and most human beings, now believe that there was a time when the universe came into being - a "day without yesterday" as Georges Lemaître rather whimsically put it. However, the debate continues amongst scientists as to how the cosmos began, even if people of faith - and especially Catholics - know that all things were created by God the Father, through and for Our Lord Jesus Christ.
[Images: 1 Fr Georges Lemaître with Albert Einstein during their tour of California in 1933; source: Astronomy Notes. 2 Fr Gregor Mendel, father of genetics and Augustinian Friar; this image is in the public domain; source: Wikimedia Commons. 3 Fr Georges Lemaître at the Catholic University of Louvain; this image is in the public domain; source: Wikimedia Commons. 4 A spiral galaxy, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope; this image is in the public domain and is copyright free, (see Wikimedia); source: Wikimedia Commons]