Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Catholic School Is Going Into Orbit

A Virginia Catholic primary school (grades K-8) is going into orbit soon. Faith and science are striving to reach space from the hands and minds of Catholic school kids (with the help of Orbital ATK’s Cygnus Cargo Spacecraft carrying four tons of supplies). Students at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington designed, programmed, customized, and tested a four inch by four inch cube satellite (CubeSat) that is set to be released from the International Space Station (ISS). Launches on December 3rd and 4th were delayed by weather. A launch is expected before the end of Sunday.

The idea for the project, the STMSat-1 Mission, came when America’s last operational manned spacecraft (for now) flew over the region’s skies on its way to the Smithsonian. Kids from the school formed the outline of a shuttle in the school parking lot as the Space Shuttle Discovery came to its new home in April 2012. The kids wanted the Discovery and the plane carrying it to see them. They began to think on a bigger scale and wondered about putting something in space that could not only look down but also up and out to the stars.

The satellite cost about $50,000 and was paid for with fundraising and assistance from NASA. It includes an Earth observation camera and an asteroid observation camera. Unlike all other NASA satellites it also comes with a golden crucifix that was blessed by Pope Francis and a plate with the etched names of all the students and those who supported the project.

Each grade has had its own responsibilities. For example, the first graders are operating the ground station, the third grade is operating the asteroid detection camera, and the seventh grade worked on the satellite’s 3D compass payload. Outside of science classes, space has become integrated into other aspects of the school’s curriculum. “The art teacher has the students drawing planets, the music teacher has them making up space songs, the gym teacher has the children inventing space dances, and their religious instructor has the kids writing prayers for the satellite” (NASA).

So often we hear about religious schools being criticized in secular media for integrating too much faith into the curriculum. Here we have a Catholic school widely integrating science. This may come as a surprise to many but it shouldn’t. Pope Leo XIII famously noted that “no real disagreement can exist between the theologian and the scientist, provided each keeps within his own limits.” The Church never opposed Darwin’s work on natural selection and in 1950 Pope Pius XII positively resolved that evolution is worthy of investigation for the source of the human body (...but not the soul...and of course Catholics can still favor the literal Genesis account). Generations of students have learned about evolution in biology and science classes in Catholic schools. In the 1920s and 1930s, Catholic priest and astronomer Georges LemaĆ®tre was instrumental in describing the creation of the universe with the Big Bang and the expansion that followed. Since 1936, many Nobel laureates (including Max Planck, Otto Hahn, and Niels Bohr) have served the Church in the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences. Current members include Stephen Hawking, Werner Arber, and Francis Collins.

Yet this recent rich scientific history and legacy has never reached the consciousness of many. A 2014 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, found that 36% of U.S. adult Catholics believe that science sometimes conflicts with their religious beliefs. By comparison, 34% of Protestants responded as such as did 16% of those without a religious affiliation. Even as most Catholics do not see conflicts between science and religion it is still distressing that more than a third of Catholics assume that there is. Equally troubling is the scientific knowledge U.S. Catholic adults express in surveys. The table below shows responses to 11 scientific knowledge questions in the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS). On average, only about seven in ten adult Catholics correctly answered these questions. More often than not being “outscored” by Protestants, those of other non-Christian religious affiliations, and those without a religious affiliation.

I just finished teaching a class on secularization at Georgetown. One of the themes explored in the class was the growing number of young Americans who leave the faith they were raised in to adopt science as their new “faith.” Among those leaving Catholicism, many believe science is incompatible with the religion in which they were raised.

I think the Church should continue to emphasize, perhaps as Pope Francis has with Laudato si', that the Church and science are by no means “at war.” I often think of science and theology as being on two parallel tracks seeking truth in different ways and searching for answers to different (but ultimately related) questions. Each may have to periodically correct course (i.e., the Church with Galileo or modern physics accepting “a day without a yesterday” as proposed by LemaĆ®tre). Perhaps somewhere in the distant future those two tracks will meet. After all as Pope Leo XIII noted “no real disagreement can exist.” Science also needs religion or some other ethical system. In the end it is just a tool or a process. It can tell you how to build a nuclear weapon but it can say nothing about how, if ever, this should be used.

I hope Catholic schools not only continue to be great places to teach the Catholic faith but also strive to be world class centers for science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM) like St. Thomas More Cathedral School. Not only would this likely improve Catholics’ knowledge about science but also do much to counter New Atheism’s attempt to “claim” science as their own—as something apart from religion. Perhaps some of those Catholics leaving their faith for “science” would realize there have been little if any incompatibilities between the two for hundreds of years.

Congratulations to the students and faculty of St. Thomas More Cathedral School and everyone at NASA that helped them. We hope all goes well. Godspeed, STMSat-1.

Update (12/6/15): The launch was successful (...on the feast day of Saint Nicholas)!

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