After completing my freshman year of college, my friend Chuck, a physics major, helped me get a summer job at the Center for Superconductivity Research. I wasn’t studying physics or a related field at the time—I hadn’t yet chosen a major—but they were desperate for summer help due to many of their undergraduate research assistants going home for the break and I was a warm body. Besides, I thought, many of my friends were studying physics, engineering, and math—maybe this was my calling!

I realized very quickly that my future did not lie in the study of the conductivity of various materials, electrical resistance, or in measuring the low‐frequency optical response in epitaxial thin films—which was the specialization of the group of scientists to whom I was assigned. Certainly I found the field somewhat fascinating, but only in broad strokes. I was interested in learning what superconductors are, hearing about the scientific quest for high-temperature superconductors, and I enjoyed discussions about potential scientific breakthroughs and problems that they were trying to solve.

But when it came to the hard science—the theories, equations, the reading, the data, the analysis—it was as if my mind shut off and said, “not going there.” A common scene in the lab would be a group of postdocs and doctoral students (and occasionally a bright undergrad) clustered around a dry-erase board, with one or two of them writing equations and scientific formulas on it in marker while they all passionately argued about…something. I never had any idea what they were talking about. It was all completely over my head. Nor did I really care to know.

After all, this was the summer of 1998, and the Lewinsky/Clinton scandal was at the center of many people’s attention, including mine. We all have different gifts, talents, and areas of interest. That’s a good thing. It’s what builds culture. Some of us prefer to work on scientific questions. Some people like physical, outdoor work. Some like managing projects in an office environment. Some people like fixing things. Others of us are more inclined to think and write about world affairs. Getting worked up about the squiggles on that white board simply isn’t part of my constitution, but I’m grateful there are people who are invigorated and enthusiastic about it.

My work at the lab was functional: I set up and ran experiments according to the parameters I was given. I recorded data. I performed tasks that helped the scientists do their research. I even learned some skills that may theoretically come in handy someday, such as looking through a microscope and soldering four tiny gold wires to the surface of a 1 cm thin film, then connecting each of the four leads to the inside of a probe, and then slowly lowering the probe into a dewar of liquid helium until the temperature reaches close to 4 Kelvin (-452.5℉). (Admittedly, my odds of using those skills in the future is very low.)

But the truth is that I enjoyed working there. That summer job turned into three years as a research assistant, even after I finally decided on a major. I worked there until I graduated with a degree in English Language and Literature.

The reason why I stayed was because I liked the people. Our team was a very diverse group, with scientists from all over the world, including India, China, Japan, Korea, Spain, France, Germany, and Russia. I enjoyed talking to them about their lives, their beliefs, their experiences, their interests, and their goals. We also used to kill time by doing stupid things like pouring liquid nitrogen on latex gloves—so they’d freeze—and shatter them, and inhaling ice-cold helium gas released from the dewar’s exhaust valve and laugh about how it made our voices high (do not try this at home).

Overall, working in such a diverse and international environment was a big factor in my personal growth. In my job at the lab, I did what I could to support the researchers, but there was no question that the hard science was their domain. Although I could understand the research in lay terms, and could have a reasonable discussion about the work of the lab, I had little to add to the deeper conversation. I hadn’t put in the years of study, nor did I want to.

From time to time my colleagues or I would come across an obscure article or paper about a lab in China or Eastern Europe that would claim to have developed the world’s first room-temperature superconductor (essentially the Holy Grail of the superconductivity research universe). I’d be impressed when I’d read about this “achievement,” but my colleagues would inevitably deflate my excitement by explaining, systematically, why the claims were unlikely or impossible. These were the early days of the internet, and things like YouTube had not yet arrived, but fake news, pseudoscience, and wishful thinking have always been with us.

Of course, time has proven those sensational reports false. Scientists are inching closer to the room-temperature superconductor, but are not quite there. More than 20 years later, in late 2020, the New York Times announced the discovery of a superconductor that works at 58℉ (15℃), but only at pressures close to those found at the Earth’s core.

When it comes to serious questions about superconductors, I likely know quite a bit more than the average person. But I’m not an expert by any means. To avoid falling for hoaxes and fake news in the field, I have to count on professionals to do the heavy lifting.

A Matter of Trust

Even though I could do the tasks that my colleagues assigned, I couldn’t solve the big scientific questions. I had to trust that they knew what they were doing.

In his Sunday reflection, Fr. Alex Roche wrote about the way our scientific knowledge, like our theological knowledge, is accumulated and built on trusting the work of those who came before us. He explained that “trust is not some irrational concept, foreign to empirical knowledge; it is what binds us who seek knowledge together.”

Those of us who profess the Catholic faith have put our trust in the testimonies of the disciples who said that they witnessed the Risen Lord. We put our trust in Saint Thomas, who doubted until he saw the marks in Jesus’ hands and side, after which he proclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28).

Unlike the disciples, we have not seen the Risen Jesus with our own eyes. Unlike Thomas, we will not see his wounds up close. We are separated by many miles and many generations. Those of us who are Catholic must place our trust in the reliability of the successors to the apostles—the bishops. We must especially place our trust in Peter’s successor, the pope, under whom the Church teaches that “the Catholic religion has always been preserved unblemished, and sacred doctrine been held in honor.”[1] To do this is to trust Christ himself, who established that the “See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples.”[2]

When individual members of the Church decide to reject the instruments of authority and transmission of the faith given to us by Christ, the result has historically been chaos and division. We see this today in the many Protestant denominations that reject the papacy and have been divided many times over. We see it happening in real-time in the various strains of radical traditionalism and reactionary Catholicism, where fierce arguments erupt over the legitimacy of Francis’s papacy, the number of heresies he allegedly holds, and what they should do about all of it.

Like Protestants, the traditionalists have become untethered from the rock, and they hold a wide range of novel beliefs and doctrines that are incompatible with the traditional Catholic faith. They are left facing a future without a clear path back towards full communion with the Catholic Church and the Successor of Peter. They lack trust in the Apostolic See, which was established by Christ as “the rock which guarantees a rigorous fidelity to the Word of God against arbitrariness and conformism.”[3]

As Fr. Roche points out, our understanding of science is also based upon trust, noting that a lack of trust in the scientific knowledge and expertise that humanity has acquired over many generations can cause great damage. He writes:

Consider the scientific method for a moment. Scientific inquiry involves experimentation, falsification, gathering data, and drawing conclusions. But this process is not intended to be undertaken by isolated individuals. How would scientific progress be possible if every scientist felt compelled to prove that the earth was round, or that the sun was at the center of the solar system? How could scientists develop human knowledge if they did not accept germ theory, the existence of electrons, or gravity? Without trusting what others who went before have already discovered and reported, humanity would be limited to what could be confirmed by a single generation. Science tests hypotheses, yes, but it also requires trust. The breakdown of this trust has catastrophic results for science and for society at large.

This point can be applied to the current debate surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, public health restrictions, and the use of Covid vaccines. In the United States especially, every aspect of the official response to Covid—from wearing masks to lockdowns to social distancing to the safety and efficacy of the vaccines—has been vigorously contested by large groups of people challenging the experts and the status quo. Some even deny the existence of Covid-19 altogether.

Resisting Science and the Church

The Catholic Church has not been immune to such resistance. Even though Pope Francis and many of the bishops have repeatedly encouraged Catholics to get the vaccine, and even though the Church explicitly teaches that receiving the vaccine is morally licit and serves the common good, many Catholics still ignore or reject Church authority and have refused to be vaccinated or to take public health precautions.

And is it no surprise that many of the Catholics who most vigorously oppose the positions of the mainstream scientific establishment are also vigorously opposed to the teachings and decisions of the institutional Church? From Patrick Coffin to Tim Gordon to Taylor Marshall to Eric Sammons to Leila Lawler to Fr. Dave Nix to Bishop Joseph Strickland, there appears to be a strong correlation between Catholics who are passionately opposed to Pope Francis and those who publicly reject the scientific consensus on how we should respond to Covid.

This correlation prompts some questions. For example, is there a logical connection between a lack of trust of Church authority and a lack of trust in the scientific establishment? Where do those who think we should ignore mainstream scientific positions recommend that we place our trust?

Current events prompt even more questions. Was Pope Francis’s decision to enact strict Covid restrictions in Vatican City reasonable? Was an unvaccinated cardinal really denied entry to the Vatican because he didn’t have a valid Green Pass? If Covid is as serious as they say, then why doesn’t Pope Francis wear a mask all the time?

I will address these and more in my next article.

Notes:

[1] First Vatican Council, Dogm. Const. Pastor aeternus, 4.2. (https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/teachings/vatican-is-dogmatic-constitution-pastor-aeternus-on-the-church-of-christ-243)

[2] Ibid. 4.6.

[3] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church,” II.7. (1998). (https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19981031_primato-successore-pietro_en.html)


Image: Adobe Stock. By surachat.


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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

When Catholics resist both faith and science
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