The monk who became the ‘father of genetics’


This is the first piece in a series exploring Catholicism and science.

We know well the church’s stance that reason (ratio) can never be ultimately alien or antithetical to fides (faith), for God is the Source of all Truth. A disproportionate overtaxing of the aims and abilities of human nature as the basis for all social, ethical and political realities can and has led to “totalitarian systems which have been disastrous for humanity” (Fides et Ratio, 46). Yet the answer to these challenges is never a flight into the “feeling and experience” of unmitigated fideism, with no relationship to rational reflection, for this ends in religious expression “withering into myth or superstition” (FeR, 48).

This series will hope to emphasize the relationship between scientific thought and religious conviction, always recognizing the distinct spheres of both — because using Scripture as a proof text for a scientific claim, or enshrining a scientific hypothesis as an indubitably revealed truth, is neither good science nor good theology. Yet faith and reason are famously recognized as the two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the Truth.

These anthropological and theological claims do not preclude us from examining the contributions people of faith have made to the progress of human knowledge in various scientific disciplines. On the contrary, they impel us to do so. And with the proliferation of television commercials for private companies offering to help us explore our genetic past and the impact it has on our children and grandchildren, there is no better place to begin than with Gregor Mendel.

Mendel was born in 1822 in what is today the Czech Republic. An Augustinian monk, he studied math and botany in Vienna. When he returned to the monastery, he experimented with pea plants and came to realize that traits were passed on in independent pairings of what he coined “dominant” and “recessive” factors (now called genes), not inherited in equal proportions from each of the preceding generations as previously thought. He is thus known as the “father of genetics.”

Both the ability to identify genetically inherited diseases and to engineer plant varieties for more desirable qualities (e.g., corn with optimal kernel size, shape, color, durability, and resistance to pests) are indebted to the work of Mendel.

It is well known that prayer and praise formed and supported Mendel’s exploratory search for truths about life on our planet. He recognized the importance of “creatureliness” and what this implied: both limitation to our self-determination and a relationship with the Creator and the natural world in which we live.

Like Anselm of Canterbury almost a millennium before him, Mendel saw in his rigorous investigations a path toward union with the divine. As Mendel’s predecessor put it: “Come now, insignificant man, fly for a moment from your affairs, escape for a little while from the tumult of your thoughts…. Enter into the inner chamber of your soul, shut out everything save God and what can be of help in your quest for him … Come then, Lord my God, teach my heart where and how to seek You, where and how to find You…. Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me as I seek, because I can neither seek you if you do not teach me how, nor find you unless you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in desiring you; let me desire you in seeking you; let me find you in loving you; let me love you in finding you.”

Mendel died at 61 years of age after serving as a friar, botanist, abbot, and author. It was not until decades after his quiet death in the monastery that his genius was recognized by the international academic community, and his important role in this history of human self-understanding confirmed.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.