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Binzley on Catholic Science April 9, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Awhile ago I promised a look at Ronald Binzley’s recent Isis piece on the Albertus Magnus Guild, a mid-2oth century American Catholic science society. So I thought I better just go ahead and write it up. Basically, I like the piece in the same way I like a good magazine article: it does a great job of informing me about a topic I know nothing about. Indeed, Binzley makes a good case that no one knows much about his topic’s general area. Footnote 6 is the key, where he discusses the large amount of interest in the relationship between science and religion, and how, in the historical space in question, almost all the literature is on Protestantism. Plus I’m from a Catholic background myself, so there’s some automatic interest there.

So the piece is chewy and delicious, but is it nutritious? That question hinges on the way Binzley frames his inquiry. Basically, what does the article, a case study, tell us about Catholic science in America? According to Binzley, near the end of his article, not much: “The [AMG], though short lived, provides historians with an important case study for understanding the development of Catholic science education and the relationship between the American Catholic Church and the sciences….” Yet: “How representative the guild’s viewpoint truly was of Catholics working in the sciences during the mid-twentieth century is a question that we will be able to answer only with additional studies of the Catholic institutions and individuals involved with the sciences during this period.”

OK, so why is the case study “important” then? Well, there is an argument at work here. Binzley chooses to argue in terms of the traditional view of the Catholic Church as hostile to science: “At first glance, the character of science departments in twentieth-century American Catholic institutions of higher learning seems to conform to the conflict interpretation of Catholicism’s relationship to science…. [Next paragraph]: Despite this sociological consensus, I believe a careful consideration of the historical development of Catholic science departments will yield a more nuanced assessment.” I mentioned once before that the word “nuance” will often signal a nearby naive position. Binzley is very honest about this. Two paragraphs earlier: “The historiography on the relationship of the Catholic Church to the sciences has undergone substantial revision in the last several decades.” It is well known to anyone who has been paying attention that the Church has not been hostile to science. The piece mostly serves to extend this assessment to more recent periods (not just early modern Jesuit natural history and philosophy, or whatever).

The issue of the economy of writing comes up. I have been told by wise men never to use the word “gap” when explicating the importance of my piece. Here: “It is my hope that this essay, beyond filling a gap in the literature, will help awaken more historians to the need for additional research on the interaction of American Catholicism and science during the twentieth century.” This, in my mind, is the crucial point in the defense of the piece’s formulation as a case study. However, if we are honest about our understanding of 20th century science, we’ll admit we have an ocean with islands, not a jigsaw puzzle with gaps. I mentioned we know nothing about 20th c. Catholic science, but we also know nothing about a lot of things.

Why study Catholic science, then? The piece presents itself as, while not really settling much in and of itself, being the pebble that sets off the avalanche. But the history of science field’s not big, and I don’t foresee a sudden explosion of interest in the topic. Therefore, it seems to me, if we’re going to write on the topic, we should try and set out some sort of scheme, however flawed, for saying something about the topic in a general sense. What are the most important set of concerns in the history of modern Catholic science, and how were these concerns typically answered? From this perspective the brief general discussion of Catholic science education on pp. 699-700 is by far the most interesting part of the piece for me.

So, basically, this all amounts to another thrown stone in my campaign against the case study. I think case studies play it too safe, that they hide from criticism by making narrow absolute claims, while attacking straw man naive positions to justify themselves. I don’t think we should be afraid to be a little sloppy in making broad claims–but I suspect that creating this kind of study means massive methodological changes. We would no longer be able to rely on one or two magic archival files to produce a quality piece of academic work. We would have to be more adventurous in assembling porous data from a wide variety of sources.

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1. Will Thomas - April 9, 2008

On a little further reflection, my overall sense is that in the case study we see a reflection of the author’s more general knowledge of Catholic science. In order to have assembled this piece intelligently, Binzley must know quite a bit about Catholic science, its institutions, and its major players that he’s not letting on (this sometimes comes out in the footnotes). To me, this is exactly the kind of information I’d like to see made explicit alongside an explication of the major issues.

As it is, I have a hard time coming away from the piece with much more than a hand-waving sort of knowledge of Catholicism and science in this period, because I can’t really refer to the historical terrain. Instead we get a bunch of off-hand references, say, to major Catholic institutions like St. Louis University, without an explanation of SLU and its place in Catholic intellectual life; or to the major players in Catholic science, without explaining who they are or why they are major players.

Again, I think it’s a great piece, but it’d be more useful if it laid out the knowledge obviously underlying it in some sort of scheme, rather than as reflected in the case history. The scheme might not be complete, but I’d still like to see it.


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