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Catholic Truth

Brian Trench

Irish Catholicism and Science: from ‘Godless Colleges’ to the ‘Celtic Tiger’, by Don O’Leary, Cork University Press, 343pp, €39, ISBN: 978-1859184974

In February 1943 Erwin Schrödinger delivered a series of lectures in Dublin examining the physical structures of life forms. The Austrian-born theoretical physicist was at that time a professor in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), where he had been given refuge from the political turmoil of continental Europe. Schrödinger’s lectures were later published as a slim volume, What Is Life?

Last year these lectures were recalled in a Dublin City of Science event when US scientist-entrepreneur Craig Venter delivered a lecture offering a twenty-first century perspective on Schrödinger’s question and remarked that the book of those lectures “has influenced almost every scientist I know”. He has read it at least five times and found new meaning in it on each occasion.

That book might have been more readily seen as an Irish contribution to twentieth century scientific thinking were it not for the intervention of a Catholic priest. When Schrödinger submitted the lectures to the board of DIAS for prospective publication Patrick Browne, monsignor and mathematician, objected to the book’s materialism. Cambridge University Press published the book, which went to many reprints, was distributed around the world and is still celebrated nearly seventy years later.

The DIAS board decision not to publish Schrödinger’s lectures merits a couple of lines in O’Leary’s examination of relations between the Irish Catholic church and science from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. His focus is on the discussion of doctrine in published writings on science rather than on the roles of Catholics in educational and scientific institutions.

In the reports of royal commissions on education of the early 1900s he finds plentiful evidence of Catholic attitudes to science and scientific education but also of the scepticism of Trinity College scientists that Irish Catholics could give effective leadership in this domain. But most of the historical material comes from a trawl of the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, the Irish Theological Quarterly and Studies for articles on scientific matters. In examining Catholic responses to Darwin, O’Leary finds that Irish Catholic authors, not surprisingly, reproduce the arguments of English and other Catholics in dealing with the theory of evolution by natural selection and with the secularism which they see as an inherent danger of Darwin’s theory.

However, tracking the Irish references also allows O’Leary to conclude that Irish Catholicism was intellectually weak and “repressed creative thinking”. He describes the Catholic University of Ireland (established 1854) as having been “strangled” by the bishops, noting the bias of Irish church leaders against open intellectual exchange on a wide range of matters. In his analysis of individual writings he repeatedly laments the poverty of the arguments advanced against Darwin and, in a later phase, against relativity and other aspects of modern physics. Irish Catholic polemics are variously described as flawed, incoherent, grossly ignorant, and similar.

O’Leary does not, however, write out of hostility to the Catholic church or belief in a necessary antagonism between that church and science. On the contrary, he views the “conflict thesis” as belonging to a particular period of history and he entertains several possible ways of conceptualising relations between the church and science – conflict, harmony, independence, and more. However, he is reluctant to offer a view on which might best apply in specific circumstances or to specific issues.

O’Leary notes that Irish Catholic authors were often concerned that “ordinary people”, the less well-educated, might interpret some scientific theories as a licence for atheism and socialism. He also observes that many Catholic writers overestimated the danger of the possible secularisation of public culture. This wider social and cultural context of the production and perception of science is covered only sketchily, although it was a live concern for many of those whom O’Leary features prominently.

One of these is Alfred O’Rahilly, physicist, university president and later priest, who criticised Schrödinger’s lecture series for taking on a question that was not just scientific but also philosophical and religious. O’Rahilly was active in the media in drawing these lines. In 1940 he wrote a series of articles in The (Catholic) Standard in opposition to HG Wells and his science-derived criticism of Catholicism. O’Rahilly also gave a series of radio talks in 1944 on religion and science that exposed supposed weaknesses in various current scientific theories. In a widely used book on electromagnetics he criticised Einstein. The relations between his rejection of aspects of modern science and his personal commitment to adult education and the teaching of Catholic social doctrine merited further analysis.

In commending the opening of Irish Catholicism in the 1970s to more liberal views, O’Leary cites Maynooth lecturer PJ McGrath as someone who “would probably have been condemned as a modernist in the early decades of the twentieth century”. He fails to note that McGrath had a hard time espousing his views in the last third of the twentieth century and left the priesthood.

The book’s title appears to promise a treatment of Catholicism and science in contemporary Ireland. In fact, the tiger phrase is used only in passing and the long-time stalled issues of stem cell and embryological research, in which the Catholic church has a very direct and critical interest, have been set aside for a later volume. This omission is a pity, as it would not only have brought the history up to date but also required more attention to the roles of lay Catholics, such as the “pro-life” lobbies.

O’Leary deserves great credit for ploughing this field of research as a personal intellectual interest. But he also deserves some company in his endeavours. Where are the professional historians and sociologists who are examining the promotion and perception of science in the Catholic-infused culture of modern Ireland?


Brian Trench is a researcher and trainer in science communication, formerly a senior lecturer at School of Communications, Dublin City University



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