Young Catholics are leaving the Church because they think that Church teaching on cosmology and evolution is in conflict with science, even though it’s not. How can this problem be fixed?

I wrote the piece below on (approximately) the tenth anniversary of the adoption of Florida’s K-12 science standards and the publication of my article about my experience on the standards committee in America Magazine.  I submitted this piece to America, and it was rejected within 48 hours.  I guess lightning wasn’t going to strike twice.  But you might find it interesting, anyway.

Last year, I spoke to a few hundred members of the Catholic Student Union at the university where I am a physics professor about our Church’s relationship with the science of cosmology and evolution. I told them about how our recent popes have embraced science and how evolution and the Big Bang have been recognized in ecclesiastical documents. Indeed, one of the pioneers of the Big Bang theory, Georges Lemaître, was a Jesuit priest.

But I also talked about how many Catholics have clung to Young Earth Creationism or other unscientific theories like Intelligent Design. My primary mission in talking with the Catholic Student Union was to assure the students that the Catholic Church to which they belong is rock solid on science, despite the unscientific beliefs of some of the church’s members.

Dr. Mark Gray, a Senior Research Associate at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and Director of the Center’s polling operations, recently explained in an Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly article (August 27, 2016) why this is an urgent message to deliver to young Catholics. He documented that the Catholic Church is losing some of its young members because of their perception that belief in the well-established science of cosmology and evolution is inconsistent with the Catholic faith.

Of course, that perception couldn’t be further from the truth. But it can be difficult for a young Catholic who has heard from older parishioners that the Genesis creation story is a literal account or that the theory of evolution is an atheist weapon against faith to believe that the institutional Catholic Church has at times provided scientific leadership in the development of cosmological and evolutionary theory.

Last fall, Gray and CARA colleague Dr. Jonathon Wiggins published a CARA Special Report in which they reported that 21% of American Catholics believe that the Bible is “to be taken literally, word-for-word” and that “God created the universe, including Earth, most likely within the last 10,000 years, as described in the Book of Genesis in six 24-hour days”. Catholics also seem to be particularly susceptible to a belief in Intelligent Design, which denies the possibility that God could have allowed natural processes to govern the development of life and which involves frequent (or constant) supernatural intervention in this process.

If the many Catholics who have unscientific beliefs are causing some young people to leave the Church, it would seem that correcting those unscientific beliefs would be a priority for the Catholic clergy. Yet, Gray and Wiggins report that only 16% of Catholics have heard scientific beliefs mentioned by a priest or deacon during Mass. Those among the 16% are more likely to have scientific beliefs that match those of our Vatican leaders.

Gray argues in his Our Sunday Visitor article that the solution to the problem of unscientific beliefs among Catholics is to have more children attend Catholic schools. Indeed, he demonstrates that those who have attended Catholic schools are more likely to hold scientific beliefs than those who did not. Nevertheless, that is an expensive and long-term solution to an urgent problem.

A more easily implemented approach would be for more priests and deacons to talk about the position of the Church leadership on evolution and cosmology during Mass. The CARA research suggests this would be effective as well, and might help our Church hold onto more of its young people.

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One Response to Young Catholics are leaving the Church because they think that Church teaching on cosmology and evolution is in conflict with science, even though it’s not. How can this problem be fixed?

  1. Pingback: Three reflections on the evolution education scuffle in Collier County | Bridge to Tomorrow

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