Fr Andrew Pinsent echoes the spirit of Fr Georges Lemaitre, a father of modern cosmology who changed the mind of Albert Einstein about the origin of the Universe.
It always comes as a disappointment when someone I otherwise like to quote writes something biased and misinformed. I’ve quoted The Wall Street Journal’s Matt Ridley several times in my occasional science posts on These Stone Walls. He’s written 130 installments of a weekly science column called “Mind & Matter” in the WSJ Weekend Edition, and last week’s would have been a home run except for two sentences. His title was “Science is About Evidence, Not Consensus” (July 6-7, 2013), and his offending remark was,
“Much as I admire Charles Darwin, I get fidgety when his fans start implying he is infallible. If I want infallibility, I will join the Catholic Church.”
I still like Matt Ridley’s articles, and I would still read him and quote him, but to my chagrin when I got to the end of this week’s column, I read that it was to be his last. I now wish I had collected his 130 “Mind & Matter” science columns in one place for he wrote a lot about science that’s quotable. I hate parting company with Matt on a contentious note, but his remark about Catholic infallibility promotes a common error that undermines the very point about science he set out to make. Infallibility means that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra – i.e., “from the chair” [of Peter] – defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be without error and not subject to consensus. A doctrine of faith is declared infallible, just as a doctrine of science is demonstrated in Matt Ridley’s point, because evident faith, and not consensus, defines it.
Matt Ridley might do well to consider “joining the Catholic Church” for any scientist who can put consensus aside and look only at evidence will find a vast wealth of Catholic contribution to science. The “consensus” that Catholic faith is somehow opposed to science, and has stifled and restrained it, is a long-held bias based on prejudice and not evidence. At times in the history of science and faith, the truth has been just the other way around.
FATHER GEORGES LEMAITRE
Perhaps the best example in modern science is one I tackled in my first “science post” on These Stone Walls three years ago, and used again as an encore post last week. It was about the Belgian priest, mathematician and physicist, Father Georges Lemaitre, originator of the Big Bang theory and the man who changed the mind of Albert Einstein on the true origin of the created Universe. In a brief disclaimer at the beginning of that post, I asked TSW readers to “indulge me in this few minutes of science and history.” Well, please do so again, for it’s a necessary prelude to this post. What follows will make much more sense if you’ve had another look at “A Day Without Yesterday: Father Georges Lemaitre and The Big Bang.”
At the very end of that post, there is a photograph of Father Lemaitre with Albert Einstein who once told Father Lemaitre in response to his theory about the Big Bang, “Your math is perfect, but your physics is abominable.” Six years later, in 1933, Einstein declared that his own “Cosmological Constant” – his theory that the Universe always existed – was his greatest error, and he called Father Lemaitre’s work “the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation I have ever heard.” For Einstein to use the “C” word – Creation – was a pivotal moment in modern science.
The story of Fr. Lemaitre’s role in modern cosmology was often stifled by science because he was a Catholic priest. Today, it is told well in How It Began: A Time Traveler’s Guide to the Universe by Chris Impey (Norton 2012), a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Something astonishing happened after I wrote “A Day Without Yesterday.”
I first mentioned my friend, Pierre Matthews, a TSW reader from Belgium who has visited me several times in prison, in my post, “Saints Alive! Padre Pio and the Stigmata.” It described Pierre’s encounter with Padre Pio when he visited San Giovanni Rotondo as a teenager in 1954. It was like a bolt of lightning to know that there are but two degrees of separation between me and Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, one of the patrons of These Stone Walls. Pierre is also Pornchai Moontri’s Godfather.
Just after I published “A Day Without Yesterday,” Pierre sent me a letter with a photograph of a priest surrounded by members of Pierre’s family. I have asked that it be scanned for this post.
The priest in front in the photo is Father Georges Lemaitre. To his immediate right from our perspective is his mother. That’s Pierre Matthews as a young man just behind and to the left of Father Lemaitre, and Pierre’s sister and mother are seated next to Father Lemaitre’s mother. Pierre wrote in his letter accompanying the photo:
“My mother and Fr. Lemaitre both were born in the same little town, Marcinelle, in Belgium. My maternal grandparents and Fr. Lemaitre’s parents were good friends. In the summer of 1954 we spent four weeks with them at the shore of Lake Luzern, Switzerland . . . I thought you might like to have this picture.”
It was the understatement of the year! I don’t have many treasures that survive prison, but that photograph is surely one of them. Along with it was another original photo of Father Lemaitre bearing his signature. If you read “A Day Without Yesterday,” the full impact of receiving these photos, and knowing that I share a mutual friend with the father of modern cosmology might be clear to you.
FATHER ANDREW PINSENT
The strangeness of these threads of connection does not end with that treasured photograph. In late June, I received a brief message, along with a gift to help support These Stone Walls, from Andrew Pinsent. As a prisoner with no online access at all, the message was read to me like dozens of others each day. I dictated a brief reply of thanks, but over the next few days I kept going back to the name “Andrew Pinsent.” Why was it so familiar to me?
Just a week later, I received a snail-mail note from Liz McKernan, a very nice TSW reader from London. Along with her note was a clipping from the British paper, the Catholic Herald. The clipping was an article by Sarah MacDonald entitled “Big Bang Theory? A Priest Invented It.” The article was about Father Andrew Pinsent, a priest of the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton, and research director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University. The Andrew Pinsent in that article holds doctorate degrees in both particle physics and philosophy, and advanced degrees in theology. The article quoted Father Pinsent:
“That a Catholic Priest was responsible for the Big Bang theory was news to me and says something about the airbrushing of Catholic scholars out of scientific history … Not talking about [Fr.] Lemaitre in the context of the Big Bang is like describing relativity without mentioning Einstein.”
Could this be the same Andrew Pinsent who sent a message to These Stone Walls just a week earlier? The article pointed out that he became a priest after working as a physicist at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, site of the discovery I wrote about last year in “The Higgs Boson God Particle: Of All Things Visible and Invisible.” I had a short message sent to him to inquire, and received this astonishing reply:
“Dear Fr Gordon: What an honour to hear from you personally. I have been following your blog and have been deeply moved by your story and by your wisdom on a great many subjects . . . Regarding the note you received from the UK, I am the only Catholic priest by the name of Andrew Pinsent who was also a particle physicist at CERN, so the article was probably about me.”
“What an honour to hear from you . . . “? ” . . . Your wisdom on a great many subjects”? He must be joking! These are the overstatements of the year! Then I did something monumentally stupid. I had someone send Father Pinsent a link to my post, “Did Stephen Hawking Sacrifice God on the Altar of Science?” It was a little like placing one of my grade school finger paintings before Rembrandt for an opinion! Then, before I came to my senses, I also sent Father Pinsent a link to “The Higgs Boson God Particle,” where I took a stab at physics that I could not even begin to understand. What was I thinking?! In his gracious reply, Father Pinsent wrote:
“Thank you for your article on Stephen Hawking, and for reminding the world again of Msgr Georges Lemaitre, whose contributions were carefully omitted from a BBC documentary two years ago on the Big Bang. The historian Helge Kragh also mentioned that, as late as 1948, astronomers in the Soviet Union were urged to oppose the Big Bang theory because they were told it was ‘encouraging clericalism.’ People tend to forget that the world’s first atheist state in effect banned the Big Bang and genetics, both invented by priests, for more than thirty years.”
I shudder at the thought of what Father Andrew Pinsent might make of my abominable amateur science when he reads “The Higgs Boson God Particle.” I shuttered just a tad less, however, when I came across Father Andrew’s own take on it in another article reprinted at the site, Thinking Faith entitled “Jesuits and the ‘God Particle.’ “
It didn’t leave me feeling more secure in my science, but both Father Pinsent and I invoked the example of Michelangelo. My Higgs Boson post pointed out that this discovery was like finding a chisel with which Michelangelo created the Pieta. In the Higgs particle, we encounter one of God’s exquisite tools of creation. Father Pinsent wrote in his own article, “Nevertheless, finding the Higgs may turn out to be no more ‘useful’ than . . . a Michelangelo sculpture.”
I was shocked at the coincidence of hearing from someone who has literally echoed the work of Father Georges Lemaitre. And not just at that, but because HE thought it was an honour to hear from ME? Like Einstein’s error, the Cosmological Constant, it turned all of my sense of reality on its head. I’ll be doing penance for at least a year over the boost to my ego that bizarre twist of reality brought about!
For reasons I do not fully understand, these connections are profoundly humbling to me. They hint at a cosmic truth about this created Universe that Father Lemaitre understood, and Father Pinsent points us to in the spirit of Father Lemaitre. What God created is a tapestry filled with meaning and purpose, and its threads of connection surround us. These threads are like highways for the soul. They link us together, and bind us, through faith, to our Creator.
In his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), Pope Francis wrote,
“Faith renders the believer humble and leads to coexistence with and respect for others. From this, it follows that faith leads to dialogue in all fields: in that of science, as it reawakens the critical sense and broadens the horizon of reason, inviting us to behold Creation with wonder . . . ” (Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, Chapter 2).
Father Georges Lemaitre and Father Andrew Pinsent are examples of this dialogue of faith with science that Pope Francis calls us to in Lumen Fidei. I am humbled beyond measure to listen in.