Speaking of the Church and Science, Ian Laurenzi, professor of chemical engineering at Lehigh, read my piece; Ian takes a decidedly more grim view about the prospects for science education in the Church than I do. He sent me this via email:

I think you hit some good points, but there is a much bigger issue and there is no hope of fixing it.
Look to the sources and sinks.
Catholic schools (K-12) are by and large weak in the sciences. The priests are educated in seminaries that have no scientific education component, and are almost exclusively graduates of Catholic education. Thus, all priests and bishops have a poor scientific education that comes exclusively from their science-poor Catholic high schools. Ignorant priests, ignorant laity.
Catholics who are educated in public schools (K-12 and college) have a better chance at getting a decent scientific education. The simple reason is that someone looking for a teaching job (K-12) will make a decent wage in a public high school but will not do so in a Catholic school. So anyone with a B.S. in a scientific field (biology, chemistry) who wants to take a pay cut to teach can get by on a public school salary. The problem for public-school Catholics though is that they are almost 100% secular by the end of their schooling. Educated laity = Faithless laity.
Catholic schools (K-12) will hire anyone with a B.S. and pay quite poorly. It’s a career disaster to teach science in a Catholic school and you essentially live at the poverty level, so the only people who will work at Catholic schools are typically poor students who just got through their college programs and didn’t have the grades to get a job at a public school (or in industry). So Catholic school kids have no chance of getting a teacher who has any real scientific skills or teaching training.
Catholic schools can’t afford to hire good scientists fresh from a B.S. program. Moreover, a faithful married Catholic teacher will immediately be put to the test, since Catholic school salaries are insufficient for the support of a family.

In summary, there isn’t any hope. Bishops and priests won’t see the problem because they have no reason to care (I never took chemistry!), and monetary restrictions would prevent them even if they did (since most Catholic schools are operating on a shoestring budget).

4 thoughts on “

  1. Honestly, part of the problem here is that the entire Catholic school system is, to my mind, in for some serious difficulties. Average spending per pupil in public schools (which funds the general market for teachers’ salaries) is 5,000-10,000 through the K-12 range, with costs at the higher end for older students. However, when Catholic schools charge that much, they quickly exclude most potential students.

    Our ability to build the school system was based on the nearly free labor of religious who had taken vows of poverty. With most of the ordered devoted to education in bad shape these days, they have to hire lay people, and the lay people they can afford are generally not good.

  2. Agreed. I can’t help feeling, of course, that with bishops and clergy who had broader educational backgrounds themselves, (i.e., not just in theology, etc,) even this challenge might not be as dire as it seems now.

  3. Do you have any statistics on the educational backgrounds of priests and bishops? In your essay you admit they are “difficult to find.”

    I think I remember a major Catholic columnist, possibly John Allen or Peter Steinfels, actually complaining that new seminarians lack a humanistic background and engineers and science-types are overrepresented. He thought this made them less able to communicate with and relate to people.

    My own worry is that seminary education can treat the priesthood like a profession, rather than a vocation. Thus intense seminary coursework weeds out the dull-witted who might in fact be saintly pastors.

    Even if they aren’t saints, priests who were poor students may be more sympathetic to their less educated parishioners, those who are tempted by the plain-talking unintellectual Evangelical church down the road.

  4. Hi Kevin,
    Yeah–in fact when I first started writing, I had some correspondence with the dept. at Georgetown that conducts regular surveys of Catholics on various topics. They were intrigued with the idea of a survey to break down the percentage of priests with scientific training. Problem was, surveys of that nature cost between $80 and $100k.

    That said, I wouldn’t mind contacting Peter Steinfles and John Allen for follow-ups.

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