The priest who was the father of the Big Bang Theory

The 10-meter South Pole Telescope and the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization experiment, or Biceps2, at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station are seen against the night sky with the Milky Way in this National Science Foundation picture taken in August 2008. Citing measurements from the telescope and Biceps2, astronomers announced March 17, 2014 they detected ripples in the fabric of space-time that echo the massive expansion of the universe that took place just after the Big Bang.
CNS photo/Keith Vanderlinde/National Science Foundation via Reuters

How can a reasonable and educated Catholic square the Adam and Eve account(s) in Genesis with the cosmological discoveries of the scientific age? Are these aetiologies of natural and human origins mutually exclusive, with only one able to be “true”? Not according to Father Georges Lemaitre, the priest responsible for the Big Bang Theory (the scientific hypothesis, not the sitcom).

Father Lemaitre was a Belgian Catholic priest who had dual doctorates, in math and physics, studying and working at institutions of unrivaled caliber: Leuven, Cambridge, Harvard and MIT. Last year, I had the privilege to attend a presentation on Father Lemaitre’s Catholicism by Jonathan Lunine, Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University, and I have drawn much of the resources for this article from that fascinating talk.

Lunine made clear that Father Lemaitre felt a vocation both toward religious life and scientific inquiry, and saw no conflict between the two.

At the time of Father Lemaitre’s rise to prominence, Einstein and others posited that the Milky Way galaxy was a static entity. Father Lemaitre disagreed, instead arguing that the universe was expanding, and that it was vastly larger than previously thought, with innumerable galaxies moving away from one another. Today data from the brilliance of stars and the red-shifting spectra of their chemical composition has proven this to be true.

The idea that space itself is expanding leads to another conclusion: that it can be traced back to an incredibly small and compressed beginning point within a finite span of time in the past, what we call today the Big Bang model. This title was given to Father Lemaitre’s theory derisively by Fred Hoyle, as Father Lemaitre instead preferred calling it the “primeval atom” model.

Pope Pius XII met with Father Lemaitre after his findings were released and wanted to state publicly that science had thus proven an eternal universe incorrect, thereby validating the truth of the Catholic doctrine of creation by God ex nihilo (“out of nothing”). An alarmed Lemaitre begged him not to do this, realizing that scientific theories, which are inherently always open to new data and subject to the scientific method and future peer review, had no place in “certifying” creedal faith claims. He wanted to make sure that it was clear that his mathematical calculations were not misconstrued as metaphysical claims arguing for a transcendent creator, and that Father Lemaitre found the Bible to be inspired only in truths about salvation, not about the cosmological realities of the “time” before time existed. Pius was convinced of his arguments and remained largely on the sidelines of the cosmological debates between the academic community, though voraciously reading the scientific analysis and findings. Father Lemaitre never wavered in his faith, nor in his scientific conclusions.

To return to the questions of Adam and Eve, it’s evident that the truths which Catholics claim can be recognized in Scripture are not historical snapshots of the origins of the universe or the human race. These accounts are testimonies not of where we started, but rather of who we are.

I close with Saint John Paul II’s remarkable 1988 letter to the Vatican Observatory, whose sentiments Lemaitre would likely support wholeheartedly:

“We might ask whether or not we are ready for this crucial endeavour. Is the community of world religions, including the church, ready to enter into a more thorough-going dialogue with the scientific community, a dialogue in which the integrity of both religion and science is supported and the advance of each is fostered? Is the scientific community now prepared to open itself to Christianity, and indeed to all the great world religions, working with us all to build a culture that is more humane and in that way more divine? Do we dare to risk the honesty and the courage that this task demands? We must ask ourselves whether both science and religion will contribute to the integration of human culture or to its fragmentation. It is a single choice and it confronts us all….

“For the truth of the matter is that the Church and the scientific community will inevitably interact; their options do not include isolation. Christians will inevitably assimilate the prevailing ideas about the world, and today these are deeply shaped by science. The only question is whether they will do this critically or unreflectively, with depth and nuance or with a shallowness that debases the Gospel and leaves us ashamed before history.”

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