Scientific wonder is God’s handiwork
Father Terry Ehrman, C.S.C. with a student from his aquatics biology class collecting water samples. (Photo: Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)
A POPULAR stereotype is that scientists and people of faith abhor each other. Like most simplistic takes on complicated topics, there’s a grain of truth—Galileo and the church had a spat, Christians reacted against Darwin, and even today fundamentalists want to scrub evolution. But Catholics and science actually go way back. Since sisters, brothers, and priests are such prominent actors in the Catholic Church, they, too, have a long-standing affinity for science.
Some of the names that pop up in science class were members of religious institutes: Augustinian priest George Mendel put genetics on the map. Franciscan friar Roger Bacon pushed forward the empirical method. Other religious aren’t household names but made contributions that matter. For instance, in the latter half of the 20th century, Sister Miriam Michael Stimson, O.P. was the first scientist in the world to discover the critical role DNA mutations play in causing human cancer.
The Catholic higher education system in the United States, built by women and men religious, includes countless hospitals, laboratories, and science departments. The Vatican hosts a leading astronomy facility run by Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J. A newer field linked to theology, Christian cosmology, has been pioneered by scientist-theologians, including Sister Ilia Delio, O.S.F. and Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin S.J., who connect the sciences with the Christian story.
The intrigue with science continues for today’s men and women religious. A common theme in the following stories is that the wonder and awe evoked by science renews and inspires people’s sense of God alive in the world. Furthermore, many sisters, brothers, and priests want to harness science to improve lives and sustain the planet. That’s a tall order, but one by one, bit by bit, these religious are carrying it out.
—Carol Schuck Scheiber
Related article: VocationNetwork.org, “Science + Spirit = Brother Kyle: Profile of Brother Kyle Mena, F.S.C.”
God is a verb: Theology mixed with science
By Susan Flansburg
Father Terry Ehrman, C.S.C. (see photo at top of page) was ecstatic. He had encountered a mammal he’d never seen before during his morning meditation at one of the University of Notre Dame campus lakes.
“I saw ripples at my feet and here’s a weasel-like thing that comes out and looks at me,”
Ehrman says. “It was a mink! Not five feet from my boots. Wondrous.”
Ehrman couldn’t wait for the next “Logos (Word) of the Day” to share with students the picture he took in his “Science, Theology, and Creation” class. It would form another stop on the class’ “guided tour of the amphitheater of creation,” an exploration of the observable reality of the world as it intersects with the Cause of all.
The class is a natural outgrowth of Ehrman’s own interests. Once a graduate student in biology and entomology, he changed course to pursue a spiritual focus with the Congregation of the Holy Cross. He was ordained in 2000, earned his Ph.D. in theology, and, with the Holy Cross emphasis on education, returned to teach at his alma mater.
“I consider myself a missionary of God’s wonder,” he says. “It’s a false view that science and religion don’t go together. God’s plan of salvation always includes both.”
Ehrman likens the fundamentalist stances of science-only and religion-only explanations of life to the two strands of DNA. Unraveled, they are useless. They must be intertwined to work, and helping students understand this idea is a goal of the class.
“Science is a powerful tool to understand the world,” he says. “But science can’t tell us why. God gives being to all creation. The mink. Everything. God is a verb. The cause.”
Science that sustains the planet
By Carol Schuck Scheiber
The science of sustainable living is what fuels Sister Libby Osgood, C.N.D. She teaches sustainable design engineering at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada and sees a direct line between her daily formulas and physics and the needs of the poor and the Earth, both of which are priorities for her congregation.
“We live in the Anthropocene, a time that is defined by the massive effect that human activity has on literally everything on the Earth,” says Osgood. “Since we are called to care for the most vulnerable of our society, we must remember it is the poor who are most affected by these changes.”
Her love of travel has inspired her to use applied science during short-term missions in Kenya and the U.S.-Mexico border, helping with wheelchair modification, medical clinics, and a deforestation project.
Before she entered religious life, she worked for NASA, part of a large team of scientists and engineers involved with the FERMI satellite. She moved into teaching before joining the Congregation of Notre Dame sisters and happily continues in that field.
“I love teaching,” she says. “Working with my students to design even small ways to make our world a better place. That is so rewarding.”
Innovation and God-talk add spark to the electronics industry
By Sister Laura Turbini, C.S.J.
My journey combining religious life and electronics science and engineering began when I was a researcher at Western Electric in Princeton, New Jersey. It proceeded to assignments and travel around the world. I can best sum it up by saying it was the Lord who led me.
My role as a religious woman within the electronics industry has been one of presence and availability to the intellectually rich and spiritually limited scientific world. Let me explain. Although scientists can analyze and understand many natural phenomena, it is difficult for them to postulate something beyond their experience. Many are agnostics. As a Sister of St. Joseph, I naturally reached out to what my religious community calls “dear neighbors without distinction.” My presence as a believer was a source of wonder and contradiction. Conversations developed which enabled them to take a new look at the existence of a divine being. Some were former Catholics but would never knock on the door of a rectory or convent. Once they trusted me, my presence offered the opportunity to share a glimpse of adult faith in response to the many questions they held in their hearts.
A sampling of Turbini’s science accomplishments:
• creator of a new government-industry-academic research program
• service with international professional associations
• co-organizer of first major international soldering conference
• EPA Stratosphere Ozone Protection Award
• ongoing industry consultant and mentor/tutor to college students
Teens learn how to find god in a complex world
By Susan Flansburg
"The world is a scary place. Let’s talk about it.” So begins the relationship of Brother Sam Amos, F.M.S. with his Marist High School students in Chicago. They are seniors in the class called “Faith, Science, and Reason” that he co-teaches with a physics instructor. They are on the cusp of adulthood, where they will have to face questions their parents never thought of. The questions—ranging from whether to have genetically modified children to what to do about climate change—could keep them up nights. Amos’ goal is to help them identify, articulate, and strengthen their values to give them a foundation to answer those questions.
“We discuss things like artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, genetic engineering, climate change,” Amos says. “These are things they may have to make personal decisions about at some point during their lives. This class helps them blend the reality of science with their feelings and spirituality. Both need to be foundationally strong.”
Amos is more theologian than scientist, but, as a “scientifically literate person,” he agreed to teach the class when asked. He says, “Marists have a practice of the presence of God. God is with you, not just on the mountaintop or in prayer but in everyday details, in all things: music, English, math, science. We help kids deal with the scientific reality of a rapidly changing world in a healthy and joyful way.”
Science education gets a lift
By Carol Schuck Scheiber
The Dominican drive to preach and teach encouraged two sisters—Sister Cecilia Sehr, O.P. and Sister Angelo Collins, O.P., both members of the Sinsinawa Dominicans in southwest Wisconsin—to make substantial contributions to the world of science education.
Sehr has earned state and regional awards and recognition for her teaching of physics and other sciences. Her accolades include being named Outstanding Science Fair Educator 18 times by the Dallas Regional Science Fair. “I have the best job in the world,” Sehr said when Bishop Lynch High School in Dallas named a new science building for her. “I work with young people who daily delight, question, challenge, amuse, and amaze me. Teaching science gives me life, joy, friendships, fulfillment, and love.”
Sister Angelo Collins, O.P. made her mark by producing the first National Science Education Standards in 1996. She also was the founding executive director of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation. Accolades for her science education contributions include election as a fellow to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Educational Research Association. The School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gave her its Alumni Achievement Award and Edgewood College in Madison gave her an honorary doctorate. Today Collins serves on the leadership council for her congregation.
Privileged to do god’s work in healthcare
By Carol Schuck Scheiber
"Jesus was a physician; his ministry was marked by compassion and healing. I feel it’s a privilege to be in healthcare, to be with people in their pain and sorrow, in their doubt and fear,” Sister Mary Flood, O.P. told thepatch.com, an online newspaper, in 2020.
That underlying approach to medicine has guided Flood during decades of doctoring that have seen her navigate the heartbreak of AIDS, fight the COVID-19 pandemic among her own sisters, treat thousands, and be honored with multiple billings as a New York metro area top doctor.
Like many Catholic sisters of her time, when she entered the Dominicans in 1964, she became a teacher, eventually earning a doctorate in biology and moving into research. Over time she felt called to patient care and became an M.D., specializing in infectious disease. She has seen patients with everything from meningitis to wound infections during more than 30 years of practice. She also keeps a foot in the academic world as an associate professor of medicine at Columbia University.
More recently, Flood turned her talents to the motherhouse of the Blauvelt Dominicans in New York to serve in leadership and as medical director of the sisters’ infirmary. One of her patients, Sister Diane Forest, O.P., recalled in thepatch.com how Flood cared for her as she recovered from a surgery. It was the anxious early days of COVID-19. Visitors were prohibited, so Flood brought Communion to patients herself. Forest remembered, “Day after day as I watched and waited for her to bring Eucharist, I couldn’t help but think how awesome it was that a doctor, a healer, was also the bearer of the Body of Christ. It moved me so very deeply.”
Dignity comes to the ICU
By Susan Flansburg
When Father Myles Sheehan, S.J. is called to Georgetown Medical Center’s ICU, he knows what he’s likely to find: a critically ill patient on aggressive life support surrounded by family and medical professionals who need to discern next steps. The family’s opinions may differ from those of the medical professionals. Tensions are high and emotions are raw. Sheehan—doctor, Jesuit priest, medical ethicist—is there to help everyone navigate the moment.
“I try to bring people together,” Sheehan says. “Part of my vocation as a doctor and a Jesuit is to relieve suffering. To be with people in pain. To listen.”
The particular situations—catastrophic kidney failure, sepsis, stroke—vary, but the stress and pain loved ones feel is universal. And it becomes more troubling and complicated when the patient has not signed an advanced directive stating her or his wishes ahead of time.
“I work with the family to get a sense of what the patient would want,” he says. “We can get too focused on technical issues when what we need to do is step back and pay attention to the dignity of the person before us. Sometimes continued medical treatment prolongs death rather than sustains life. I try to bring people together, to see the end of life as a blessing and not to be fought against all the time.” The Jesuits, after all, proclaim “God in all things.”
Science explored through the lens of faith
By Susan Flansburg
Nicanor Austriaco was developing a “crazy idea about red wine 25 years ago” in a science lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology when everything changed. He had taken time to go to Saturday night Adoration with others from the Catholic Fellowship program. He heard them describe their joy at having met Jesus, an experience he was curious about but so far had eluded him.
And then, there He was.
“Even after 30 years I still cry,” Austriaco says. “It changed me. For the first time I understood joy.”
Austriaco continued his work in the lab alongside a scientist renowned for his work in the biology of aging. But his heart now belonged to Someone Else. “At the end of my graduate career, I went to London for a fellowship,” Austriaco recalls. “But there was a hole in my heart. I was seeking Jesus. I left after 10 months to enter the Dominican novitiate.”
Today a Dominican priest, Austriaco teaches both biology and theology at Providence College in the United States and biology at the University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines. His most urgent research focuses on developing an oral, shelf-stable, and inexpensive COVID-19 vaccine for low-income countries.
“You can love God through the Word, the Blessed Sacrament, and through science. I liken it to going into a museum, where you are in awe at the genius of the painters. The same thing happens when you go into a lab. You are in awe at the genius of the Creator.”
Healthcare gets a shot of truth
By Carol Schuck Scheiber
Aided by her credentials as an obstetrician, gynecologist, and Catholic sister and mother superior of her religious community in Ghana, Sister Lucy Hometowu, S.M.M.C. has championed life-saving truth over ignorance.
In Ghana and other parts of Africa, many women are impoverished and marginalized when enemies accuse them of witchcraft. Those who survive attempts on their lives often resort to living in camps in Ghana, scraping by on income from irregular jobs. Hometowu is fighting against the false labeling of women as “witches.”
With a similar emphasis on truth, Hometowu has worked to educate people on the scientific facts about COVID-19 vaccines in a national immunization campaign. Led by the Conference of Major Superiors of Religious in Ghana, the effort involves 80 religious institutes of women, with Hometowu serving as spokesperson to the media.
Finally, Hometowu focuses much of her energy on battling the myths of women’s appropriate role in society. “Lack of women empowerment and gender equality results in lack of sustainable source of livelihood and job opportunities. It is also a major cause of teenage pregnancy and child marriage,” she told Catholic News Service. Working together with religious institutes and global organizations, Hometowu hopes to raise awareness and create systems that allow women “to grow, thrive, and become who they want to be.” She noted, “Women are at the forefront of healthcare provision and contribute immensely to quality healthcare and the effective and efficient running of the healthcare system.”
God’s creation explored and protected
By Julie A. Ferraro
The sciences have always been part of the ministries of the Benedictine Sisters of Atchison, Kansas. From the days when they welcomed students to Mount St. Scholastica Academy and College to the sisters’ climate change efforts today, science has been important.
During the pandemic, one sister-scientist has helped preserve lives. Sister Mary Teresa Morris, O.S.B. earned a master’s degree in public health from St. Louis University and ministered in the pediatric and adult home health field for 30 years. She returned to Atchison when the pandemic began to be director of infection control. With specialized training from the Centers for Disease Control, she fought to keep COVID-19 out of the monastery and its adjacent nursing home. Thanks to her vigilance, of 85 people, only a few became infected, none seriously.
Science is integrated into the monastery in other ways, too. Sister Elizabeth Carrillo, O.S.B. is completing studies for a master’s degree in religion and the environment at the University of the South School of Theology in Sewanee, Tennessee. Her scholarly work focuses on how a foundation of faith can facilitate a response to the ongoing climate crisis. She hopes to give presentations on integral ecology at Mount St. Scholastica’s Sophia Spirituality Center, to Benedictine Oblates, and to other groups interested in the cross section of faith and ecology.
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