Are you a Catholic scientist in Florida? Perhaps some of this will seem familiar.

During a recent session of my small Catholic Bible study group, a newcomer bragged about the “evolutionist” he had shouted down at work. In the preceding months, everybody else in the group had accepted my profession as a physics professor and my confidence that the universe is 13.8 billion years old without objection. But that consensus had obviously changed, and I was quiet during the rest of the evening.

The next morning, I received an e-mail from the recently-formed Society of Catholic Scientists describing the steps they are taking to protect the identities of young members of the group so that they would not be discriminated against by atheist colleagues. I’m old, my physics department has a cluster of devout Catholics, and my Catholicism has been quite public for a decade and even noted in the statewide media once. My colleagues consider me to be eccentric for reasons other than my religious beliefs. So this is not a problem for me. But I can certainly see how some young Catholic scientists could have legitimate professional concerns.

Perhaps a Catholic scientist can be forgiven for feeling a bit claustrophobic, with walls closing in on both sides.

Of course, none of this should be happening.

The last three Catholic popes have been quite public with their embraces of the science of cosmology and biological evolution. Science has been integrated into ecclesiastical documents. One of the pioneers of Big Bang cosmology was a Jesuit priest.

But Florida may be a particularly tough place for Catholic scientists. In 2008, while the Florida Department of Education was conducting a process to write new science standards for K-12 schools (I was a member of the committee doing so), the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) conducted an opinion poll of Florida parents about evolution education. Among Catholic parents, 79% opposed teaching an evolution-only curriculum and wanted Young Earth Creationism or Intelligent Design included in public school curricula either with evolutionary theory or to the exclusion of evolutionary theory.

All of this flies in the face of the pro-science stance of the church’s leadership in Rome.

And there is no reason to think that the opinions of Florida Catholics have changed much in the last decade.

As for the concerns about discrimination against young Catholic scientists in university science departments: We are supposed to be living in an age when university faculties are focused on openness and inclusion. This issue is the sort of thing that encourages legislators to include ideas in legislation like the “intellectual freedom” survey of university faculty, staff and students proposed by Florida House Majority Leader Ray Rodriguez during the present session. The survey will not fix a thing, of course. But it is a shame that young Catholic scientists feel vulnerable.

The core problem causing all of this is that these institutions – churches and universities – are full of fallible human beings like me. As much as each of us would like a safe space, none of us is ever going to find a space that is completely safe.

But these institutions should at least strive to provide each individual with enough emotional breathing room that she or he can worship or study or work to the best of her or his ability.

After all, that’s what churches and universities say they are there for.


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