Review: Faith and Science at Notre Dame

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Faith and Science at Notre DameJohn P. Slattery. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 2019..

Summary: A study of the life of Catholic priest and science professor at Notre Dame, and his clash with the Vatican over his writing on evolution.

Many of us are far more familiar with the clashes between fundamentalists and scientists over evolution beginning with the Scopes trial and continuing to the present day. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, even as this conflict was developing in fundamentalist circles, there was a parallel conflict within the Roman Catholic Church.

One of those on whom the conflict centered was Fr. John Zahm, a Catholic priest from Ohio, educated at Notre Dame, ordained to the priesthood and recruited to teach chemistry and physics at Notre Dame. Highly esteemed, he was named a vice president of the university, speaking widely representing the university, and publishing works ranging from Sound and Music to Evolution and Dogma, an outgrowth of popular lectures on “Science and Revealed Religion.” He was granted a pontifical doctorate, a recognition of his distinguished accomplishments.

His contention throughout was that an embrace of evolutionary theory, if not joined to metaphysical naturalism, need not be seen in conflict with either the biblical account of origins or of God as creator. Zahm went so far as conceding the descent of human beings from the apes, while affirming the divinely bestowed soul that made humans distinct.

And then came the notice from the Congregation of the Index that he was to submit and retract his work and that his publication would be publicly censured. Even as this is unfolding he was appointed provincial of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, vigorously advocating for Notre Dame and for a grand vision for the university.

Friends advocated for the reversal of these efforts but were only partially successful. Zahm agreed to retract French and Italian translations of his work and no longer teach on evolution. Sadly, this spelled the end to a promising career in Caholic higher education. He lost re-election as provincial, and never taught or occupied an administrative post again at Notre Dame. He continued to research, write, and travel, including accompanying Teddy Roosevelt on one of his expeditions.

John P. Slattery’s new book recounts Zahm’s biography and explores the dynamics that set up the clash between Zahm and the Church. He attributes to the very different intellectual cultures that formed Zahm and those in the Congregation of the Index, and particularly Fr. Otto Zardetti. For Zahm, the influences, while reflecting traditional theological formation, centered in his training as a scientist in the empirical tradition spanning the tradition from Francis Bacon to Charles Darwin. He drew on a tradition in reading the Church Fathers from Augustine through Aquinas that did not set faith against observational study of the physical world.

Father Otto Zardetti and key figures like the Jesuit Kleutgen, in the Congregation of the Index, were shaped by a Neo-Scholasticism that arose as a response to modernism that advocated for a return to an Aristotelian approach to science that reached conclusions about the world from first principles rather than empirical observation. The Congregation promulgated the Syllabus of Errors and laid the basis for the doctrine of papal infallibilty.

Slattery draws upon archives of both Fr. Zahm’s work and the Vatican to analyze the clash in which Fr. Zahm found himself caught up. He also includes translations of the Syllabus of Errors and Zardetti’s correspondence. In doing so, he helps us understand how such a distinguished scholar and university leader ended up sidelined as the Church wrestled with its response to modernism and scientific advances. Much like the fundamentalists, they engaged in a form of intellectual retreat rather than the intellectual engagement advocated by Zahm. Unlike the fundamentalists, they used ecclesiastical power to suppress a line of scientific inquiry, and sadly, the career of Fr. John Zahm.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.