Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

A friar, a priest and a nun all walk into a lab… 

 It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but this litany tells a larger story. 

The father of modern genetics, the first proponent of the Big Bang theory, and the first American woman to receive a doctorate in computer science were all members of Catholic religious orders: an Augustinian friar, Father Gregor Mendel; Jesuit Father Georges Lamaître;  and Sister of Charity Mary Kenneth Keller. 

The Catholic Church’s relationship to the sciences has been a long one — and one that is much more complex than is often portrayed in the popular media.  

Father Brian Rafferty

“There has always been a rich intellectual tradition in the Church,” said Father Brian Rafferty, formerly a botanist with the Food and Drug Administration who is pastor at St. Stephen, Martyr, Chesapeake. “Even going back to the early middle ages, you had Albert the Great — he was one of the great thinkers of the Church and a scientist; there was Hildegard of Bingen — she was an artist, a poet, a scientist.”

The priest noted that many monasteries and cathedral schools were seminal institutions for some of today’s great universities. 

“We’ve never been about squelching science; we’ve always encouraged the pursuit of knowledge,” he said.

The Church and the balance of faith and reason 

St. Anslem, the archbishop of Canterbury at the turn of the 12th century, took as his motto “Fides Quaerens Intellectum” (“Faith Seeking Understanding”). 

Nine hundred years later, St.  Pope John Paul II wrote in a similar vein in his 1998 encyclical “Fides et Ratio” (“Faith and Reason”), explaining how faith and reason are not opposed to one another, but rather complementary, two wings working together to bring people to the truth. 

Today, however, it might seem as if the wings are pulling further apart. 

At one extreme, there’s the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, which presents the idea that the universe is about 6,000 years old and depicts humans and dinosaurs as living side by side. At the other extreme, there’s a stream of bestsellers by writers referred to as the “new atheists,” ready to dismiss faith as outdated, Bronze Age superstition.  

“So often it seems we get caught between both sides,” Father Rafferty said. “Sometimes we get condemned by people who are very liberal, who say that we are backward, and then by people who are very conservative, who tell us that we don’t know the Bible.” 

So, what are Catholics to say when people who might take a more fundamentalist view of the Bible ask questions about what the Church believes? What should they say when their children, heavily involved in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) classes, ask why they should put any faith in a reality beyond what can be quantified? 

“Some traditions take the Bible literally — word for word for word — almost as if God dictated it to the authors. We don’t believe that,” Father Rafferty said. “We say that God inspired them. He inspired an author to present a certain message through his writings, and those writings were done in the context of the time and the culture.” 

He noted history was written at that time to convey larger ideas, unlike today when it records a series of facts. 

“In Genesis, the idea the writer wanted to express is that God is the one that created all of this, the one who is directing it, the one who is present with us now. It was meant to express fundamental truths about who God is and about our relationships with one and another and with him,” Father Rafferty said. “How many days creation took wasn’t the main point.” 

While Catholics are not bound by a literal, fundamentalist view of the Bible, nor are they bound by a materialist view of the world that reduces the universe to the mere movement of matter.  

“I could pull a seed up, as a botanist, dissect it, examine all of the parts, and how they function,” Father Rafferty said. “I can talk about the biochemical reactions that take place within the cells that cause life to burst forth and flourish. I can trace the process that led to it back through the millennium, but eventually, you reach a point where you ask, ‘Where did all of this come from?’ We find that there must be something more that initiated all of this.” 

To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, Catholics are free to believe in a created universe, one in which there is order that can be studied and understood, and also free to believe in a greater reality beyond the material world.

The Church does, of course, place some ethical parameters on scientific experimentation — especially when it comes to protecting the sanctity of life. 

“Unfortunately, the pundits, the media like to seize on these issues, and immediately try to cast the Church as anti-intellectual. They aren’t always interested in taking the time to fully study what the Church says,” Father Rafferty said.  

In the case of stem cell research, there are studies that show cells taken from the placenta are just as productive without violating the sanctity of life, Father Rafferty said, and should be given further attention. 

“And in the case of GMOs, many have raised legitimate concerns about what the long-term consequences might be. … Our technology is moving faster than our ethics,” he said. “The Church calls us to study, to ask questions, before rushing into things too quickly.” 

Through their minds, the priest said, God gives people an opportunity to better understand him.

“Are we going to understand everything? No. It’s something we are going to explore for our whole lives, for all the time we have,” Father Rafferty said.  

In 2016, the Society of Catholic Scientists was founded to, according to the society’s website, “foster fellowship among Catholic scientists and to witness to the harmony of faith and reason” by holding conferences and seminars on pertinent topics. 

Interviews with scientists in the Diocese of Richmond reveal that, though they work in different fields, Catholics in the sciences have much in common — a wonder at the complexity of the world, an awareness of their responsibilities toward creation, and a desire to pass that wonder and sense of responsibility on to the next generation. 

Dispelling myths

Software engineer Ken Feldt is a volunteer with NASA’s Solar System Ambassadors Program, a program designed to help share the organization’s mission and latest research with the public. Recently, Feldt, a parishioner at St. Michael the Archangel, Glen Allen, gave two presentations about faith and science at the parish. 

Ken Feldt

“I think it’s important for people to know that the Church does support science,” he said.  “First of all, it’s necessary to dispel some of the myths concerning the Church and its relationship with science. And, we have to lay the groundwork for the next generation of scientists and engineers who will have even greater abilities. The next generation may be able to have the power to design humans — do we want to send them off without any moral North Star?” 

“What we get so often is just a simplified tale of Galileo — Galileo the scientist fighting for truth, the Church represented by a group of dour old men shaking their heads, arms crossed,” Feldt said. “It was more complicated than that; there were priests on both sides of the argument, and then there was the Reformation going on, there were political issues, and even personal squabbles.” 

“It was, at times, a bit like a Twitter fight,” he said with a laugh. 

Faith provides the ‘why’ 

In understanding the Church’s relationship to the sciences, Feldt explained, it’s important to distinguish between science and scientism. 

“The Church is all for science. What the Church does not endorse is scientism — the belief that science can answer all the questions and all of the problems in the world. Generally speaking, science does a terrific job explaining the what and the how, but we need faith to answer the why.” 

Feldt said he was inspired to get involved with the NASA program after reading Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’” (“On Care for Our Common Home”), in which Pope Francis addresses issues of consumerism, irresponsible development and climate change. 

“It’s one thing to say that we need to be better stewards, but how do we do that?” Feldt said, explaining that he uses information from NASA’s earth sciences program — including information on CO2 monitoring, forest coverage and water usage — to illustrate points Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Francis have made concerning the environment. 

“It’s all about the call to stewardship — it’s our responsibility to care for the earth for ourselves and for the next generation,” he said. “Environmental issues are important to Catholic social teaching, too; as Pope Francis explains in the encyclical, environmental changes affect the poor the most. They get hit the hardest, and they don’t have insurance to rebuild.” 

Feldt also looks to the works of Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmango, director of the Vatican Observatory, and of other contributors to the observatory’s website for source material for his presentations.

“Science is neutral — you can discover the cure for cancer or invent thermonuclear weapons — it’s what you do with it that makes the difference,” he said. “And that’s where issues of faith come in — to give people the moral compass to make decisions as to what they should do with that power.” 

‘Showing the greater glory of God’

Vaughn Behun’s career in engineering began with a book given to him by his father. 

“I grew up in the projects of Pittsburgh in a family of nine kids,” he said. “One day my father brought home a ‘How to Build’ book — it was a book filled with instructions on how to build different things. I must have read that book a hundred times. I knew that one day I wanted to be the one to build things.”

Vaughn Behun

The elder Behun did not know that book would lead his son to a 38-year career at NASA Langley in Hampton. He retired just a few years ago as a chief engineer with Northrop Grumman. Over the years, Behun helped develop a solar sail and later worked on the ARES I-X program, a launch vehicle designed to assist human spaceflight, meant to replace the retired space shuttles. 

“One thing I’ve loved about my work at NASA is that everything we do is for the betterment of mankind — not just for the United States, but for the whole world. Cell phones, circuit boards — there’s a long list of things that have developed out of research done by NASA,” he said.  

Behun and his wife Sherry are members of Immaculate Conception Church, Hampton, where they married in 1974. 

“We are some of the original parishioners,” Behun said. “We’ve been involved in almost every ministry at one point or another.” 

His faith has been a natural source of inspiration in his work. 

“There’s so much out there that we’ll never run out of things to explore — and all of it shows the greater glory of God,” he said.

Inspired by God’s beauty 

Behun pointed out that, recently, scientists have confirmed the existence of superionic water — water that has properties of both a liquid and a solid simultaneously — on Neptune. 

“That’s crazy,” he laughed.  “Whoever would have imagined that water could exist in an entirely different state? 

“Looking at the beauty of the world that God has put out there for us to see has been very inspiring. And we keep finding new discoveries. It’s all part of God’s plan to keep us interested. Life would be very boring, very mundane without challenges.” 

The most rewarding part of his career, Behun said, was giving a new generation of scientists a chance to excel.

“So many of the young men and women that I hired were truly inspired by and changed by the work we did — so many projects to make the world a better place,” he said. “I’m most proud of that legacy that I left with them. All of our future stars reaching for the stars in the heavens.” 

A passion for equity

Due to her father’s career in the Navy, Dr. Luisel Ricks-Santi spent much of her childhood divided between Puerto Rico, where she attended the same Catholic school her mother did as a child, and Virginia. 

“As a child, I always loved science,” she said. “I was just naturally curious, naturally inquisitive. I think everyone knew I would be a scientist one day — either in the medical field or in engineering.”

After earning an undergraduate degree in molecular biology at Hampton University, she earned a doctorate in tumor biology from Georgetown. In 2013, she was asked to establish the Hampton University Cancer Research Center. 

“I always wanted to come back to Hampton University because of their focus on working with the community and with addressing issues of health care disparity,” she said. “I had always prayed for an opportunity like this. It really was like an answer to my prayer.” 

Dr. Ricks-Santi

Throughout her career, Ricks-Santi has had a specific interest in making certain that underserved populations are included in research. As an example, she cited African-American men who, although they have a higher risk of prostate cancer, are often unrepresented in studies. 

Taking the time and effort — through educational and community outreach programs — to be certain all demographics are represented in studies helps ensure results will be more useful when applied to a general population, she explained. 

Ricks-Santi is a member of St. Joseph Parish, and her daughter attends St. Mary Star of the Sea School, both in Hampton.  

“Growing up Catholic has definitely influenced me to be fair — to be more just, to be more equitable,” she said. “I want to do all I can to make sure the latest research, the latest technologies, are available to all.” 

A day in God’s time and a Martian sol

“Ever since I can remember, I was interested in space,” said Frank Quinto. “As I kid, I always used to draw the Mercury capsule.” 

While attending Granby High School in Norfolk, Quinto participated in a career exploration program that gave him the opportunity to intern at NASA during the summers before his junior and senior years. 

After completing a degree in aerospace and ocean engineering at Virginia Tech in 1980, Quinto returned to NASA. Today, he manages the 14-by 22-Foot Subsonic Tunnel at NASA Langley in Hampton. The wind tunnel has tested everything from aircraft to building structures to wheelchairs. 

“Ninety-seven to 99 percent of testing at the tunnel concerns landing and takeoffs,” Quinto explained, adding dryly, “If you don’t take off safely and you don’t land safely, then nothing else matters in between.”

Frank Quinto

Quinto served as lead test engineer on 39 tests from 1980 until 1998, when he became a facility manger. He’s held steady at 39 tests for 18 years, and, for quite some time, he’s aspired to reach the 40-test mark.

He will have that opportunity this summer. 

“As facility manager, I dictate who gets to lead a test. So, I’ve assigned myself a test,” he said with a laugh, noting this month he will be testing a free-flying drone, or UAS — an unmanned aerial system. 

Quinto, a member of Immaculate Conception, Hampton, said he’s never felt any conflict between his faith and career, but that once he was questioned by a man who knew that he worked for NASA. 

“He was very religious — he always carried his Bible with him wherever he went. He came to me and said, ‘The Bible says the universe was made in seven days. But science says 14 billion years. Which is right?’” 

Quinto answered in a way only a NASA engineer might. 

“I said, ‘It depends on what you are calling a day. … when God put that image in the writer’s mind, he was referring to a period of time, but it wasn’t necessarily 24 hours.’”

After all, Quinto pointed out, you have to go one planet away for a day to last longer than 24 hours. A Martian day, or sol, is 24 hours and 39 minutes.

“I said, ‘Time is relative. God’s day isn’t necessarily the same as the earth’s day.’ And he said, ‘Oh. I never thought about it that way.’” 

“And he never asked me another question about religion again,” Quinto said.  

 Quinto added that, in serving the Church, he has also found a very practical application for his skills as an engineer: For years, he volunteered as lead usher at the 11 o’clock Mass, a job in which he received positive feedback for keeping Communion lines running smoothly. 

“As a facilities manager, as a test engineer, I’m always organizing things,” he said with a laugh. “I take that with me wherever I go.” 

Ways to serve, share 

Science teacher Becky Schnekser has always believed the world is her classroom. In 2017, the lifelong parishioner at St. Mark, Virginia Beach, was awarded the Donna Sterling Exemplary Science Teaching Award by the Virginia Association of Science Teachers. As part of the award, she received a grant to study thermal river systems in Peru this summer.  

Becky Schnekser

She is also a National Geographic certified teacher and a 2018 recipient of a National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship. The fellowship will give her the chance to take another trip this summer as well — to the Galapagos Islands, where she will study endemic species — species native only to those islands. 

“I’ve made it my mission to dive into science, to look for opportunities where I can expand my knowledge so that I can take what I’ve learned and bring it back to the classroom,” Schnekser said. “I want to make sure the kids have time for hands-on projects.” 

Schenkser has been attending St. Mark since she was a child. 

“I’ve had all my sacraments here, I was married here, and my kids were baptized here,” she said. 

She has served on parish council for six years and also teaches baptism classes.  

“I do have people who have asked me: ‘How can you be Catholic and teach science?’” she said. “I want to show people that you can be Catholic, be a Christian, and do science. I think being Catholic has led me to find ways to serve, to find ways to share with others. I’m a big proponent of citizen science — showing people how they can actually participate in doing science.” 

Schnekser encourages citizen science in her classroom, finding programs that allow her students to collect and provide data used by research organizations. Every summer, she takes a group of students to the Florida Keys, where they participate in fish identification surveys for REEF, a marine conservation organization. 

“That’s been especially important in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, for scientists to learn how populations of different species have been affected,” she said.

Faith and science, hand in hand

And, there’s room for science in her students’ own backyard. Schnekser’s students record cloud cover for NASA’s GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) program and have also been studying a population of box turtles who rove the school’s Virginia Beach campus. 

“St. Francis of Assisi would be excited about it,” she said with a laugh.  

For Schenkser, faith and science go hand in hand: it’s all about the drive to keep learning.

“I’d encourage people to always ask questions. If there are situations in which you have to form an opinion in the world, and you wonder how it might relate to your faith, find out about it. Learn all you can about it. The simple human act of asking questions is the basis of all science.”