Faith and Science at Notre Dame

John Zahm, Evolution, and the Catholic Church

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John P. Slattery
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , August
     260 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Two 19th-century books, John William Draper's History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) embedded within academic and popular culture the belief that dogmatic theology and natural science were locked in an intractable struggle. White, the founding president of Cornell University, went so far as to argue theology often dominated science at the expense of human advancement. Declining numbers of theologians and scientists, in turn, viewed one another as partners in the pursuit of truth. Even fewer would view the practice of both as essential to such a pursuit.

One individual who viewed the practice of both as essential was John Augustine Zahm, C.S.C. Perhaps most widely known for joining Teddy Roosevelt on an exploration of the Amazon, Zahm was a Congregation of Holy Cross priest who believed “empirical, inductive science is a good and positive thing in the world; the Church has nothing to fear from science; scientific truths can never negate dogmatic truths” (75). Zahm, however, found advancing those beliefs was far from easy.

In an attempt to chronicle those challenges, John P. Slattery offers Faith and Science at Notre Dame: John Zahm, Evolution, and the Catholic Church. A senior program associate with the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Slattery argues the challenges Zahm faced are compounded by accounts which “do not give enough weight to the philosophical, theological, and political factors of [Zahm’s] situation” (4).

Slattery convincingly demonstrates Zahm is a complex figure who sought to hold contested ground. The manner in which Slattery organizes his volume, however, is confusing.  Regardless, he leaves readers yearning for further reflections on Zahm’s life and scholars better prepared to offer those reflections.      

As previously echoed, Slattery’s work concerning Zahm “is an exercise in complexification” (3). Slattery is right to denounce the perception of struggle between faith and science as being “oversimplified” (3). Zahm’s story on its own merits exploration. For Slattery, that story also “complicates the history of the discourse” White and Draper set in motion by demonstrating the need to depend “on the political, theological, and philosophical forces at play in the world at any given moment” (3). To Slattery’s credit, such discourse is deemed “inherently anachronistic and unhelpful,” failing to capture what was at stake in Zahm’s life and, more broadly, in the complicated relationship shared by faith and science.

When reading Slattery’s book, one is faced with the question of whether he tries to do too much—especially in such a slim volume. For example, the first three chapters include an overview of scholarship concerning Zahm, a proposed outline for a biographical sketch of Zahm’s life, and then an exploration of the manner Zahm envisioned faith and science relate to one another.

Slattery’s work is arguably at its best in these three chapters and, in particular, when he explores the relationship Zahm envisioned between faith and science. At this juncture, Slattery successfully argues Zahm’s “ability to popularize an idea allowed him to transform this simple commitment into a world-renowned argument for the endless possibilities of modern science under the guidance of the Catholic Church” (84). Part of how Zahm did so was by not only writing Evolution and Dogma (1896) but by laboring to share those details in accessible terms to laypersons.

Just as complicated as Zahm’s understanding of the relationship between faith and science was the Church’s response. Zahm’s work, particularly his Evolution and Dogma, became a source of concern to the hierarchy at that time. Wrapped in his discussion of the “political, theological, and philosophical forces at play,” Slattery makes detailed and significant distinctions concerning the Church’s response, noting Evolution and Dogma was “censured and Zahm was ʻsilencedʼ but not ʻprohibitedʼ” (46). These details clarify perceptions of Zahm’s work while also shedding light on the complicated relationship faith and science share.

Chapters 4 and 5, however, shift to broader discussions concerning the relationship between science and faith in the Church in the 1800s and then the relationship between the Church and modernity. While quite beneficial in their own right, perhaps chapter 5 and then chapter 4 would respectively prove better placed as chapters 1 and 2. In its current form, Slattery vaguely mentions Zahm in chapter 4 and only slightly more in chapter 5. Reworking the order as proposed would allow readers to begin by appreciating the larger forces at work and then how Zahm and his work intersect with them.

Despite its organization, John P. Slattery’s Faith and Science at Notre Dame convincingly argues the relationship shared by faith and science, as represented by John A. Zahm, C.S.C., is far more complicated than often perceived. The reductive and, in turn, simplistic nature of the narrative John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White set in place proves problematic. The challenge is whether future generations of scientists and theologians will follow Zahm’s lead or remain sequestered within the confines of their respective disciplines.   

About the Reviewer(s): 

Todd C. Ream serves on the higher education and honors faculties at Taylor University, is a fellow with the Lumen Research Institute, and is the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.

Date of Review: 
February 9, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John P. Slattery is Senior Program Associate with the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


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