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Heresies & Heretics
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Prophets of Error
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
At least one Catholic professor in a large non-sectarian university on the West Coast makes it a point to discourage Catholic students from entering the institution where he teaches. Or if they have already entered, he urges them to withdraw as soon as possible. On one occasion he confided to a friend of the writer: If a Catholic can keep his faith after spending one year in this university, I consider it a miracle. Naturally speaking it cant be done.
There is a widespread belief among Catholics that the secular secondary schools in our country are literally secular in that they have no place in their regular curriculum for religion and the truths of Christianity. Bishops and priests warn their people against attending state universities because they are convinced that such attendance is seldom justified for a Catholic and ordinarily very dangerous. But still the faithful are only half convinced about the secularism and irreligion prevalent outside Catholic institutions of higher learning. Maybe the big universities are not so bad after all. Perhaps the American hierarchy is mistaken in the puritanical attitude it has adopted toward this so-called undenominational university education. Let us see.
This is no place for an extended analysis of the course of studies followed in schools like Harvard, Yale or Ohio State. It would take us too far afield. Besides we can accomplish just as much with a survey of the curriculum in any one major branch of college discipline as taught in these schools. For the purpose at hand we are going to limit ourselves to a summary review of the natural sciences, Biology, Chemistry, Medicine and Experimental Psychology, and ask ourselves this question: What are the religious and moral principles on which these sciences are based in the lecture halls of our non-Catholic colleges and universities? For our answer we need go no further than the textbooks used in these colleges over the last ten years. What we find in these texts is an eye opener even to the most sanguine advocate of secular education. They ignore or deny or ridicule the most sacred truths of reason and revelation in their bearing on mans relation to God. What follows is only a sample analysis of a sorry condition that prevails in several hundred institutions from New York to California.
Henry Barrows, professor at New York University, collaborated with a dozen other experts in Biology to produce his handsome four hundred page textbook on the subject. In his chapter on: Protoplasm and the Cell, he goes into some detail to explain the origin of life on our planet: With the presence of the chemical elements, the stage was set for the advent of life. Among the chemical compounds present in the primordial sea were crystalline substances like common salt which can be dissolved in water and jelly-like particles, insoluble in water, known as colloids. When the chance union of certain elements produced the right kind of colloidal substance, living matter came into being.
So much for the positive doctrine. Then he goes on to dispose of other theories than his own for the origin of the visible world: Other theories have been advanced to explain the origin of life on the globe. It has been suggested that living matter was borne through space to the earth from another planet. But this explanation cannot be supported by science for the reason that the conditions obtaining beyond our atmosphere are not favorable to life. The belief that organic as well as inorganic matter was created by divine fiat, does not coincide with the tenets of modern science.
The author does not even condescend to capitalize the attribute of Gods Divinity. He is so sure of himself. But does he give any proof for this calm dismissal of the Creator from the work of His hands? Not a shred. The only concession he makes to proving what seems to him so needless of proof is to illustrate the whole explanation of how the world and life came into being, with two photographs. One of these is a picture of a spiral nebula in the Constellation of Ursa Major, and the other of a nebula in the Constellation of Coma Berenices!
Charles Rogers, teacher of Comparative Physiology at Oberlin College, published a textbook in his field that has gone through at least four reprints. There are over six hundred pages of careful explanation of the physical and chemical laws underlying the functions of the human body. Chapter Seven deals with The General Phenomena of Life. It is a classic for bold assertions, unsupported by evidence, that strike at the very roots of mans moral responsibilities. Living matter, the professor tells the students, must be considered a result of the evolution of matter. We are tempted to object that there seems to be all the difference in the world between a rock and a human being. How could the one spontaneously give rise to the other? Simple enough: the same elements, the same electrons are present and the same simple compounds of the elements of lower atomic weight. This is hardly satisfactory. Isnt there at least some difference between a man and the dirt on which he walks? There is this difference, we are told, the living substance and the compound derived from it are vastly more complex in structure and arrangement than any of the so-called inorganic substances. The molecules of the proteins which comprise a most important part of the living substance are very large and exceedingly complex in their configuration. Not much motivation to virtue there, if the only real difference between ourselves and the air we breathe is the fact that we are made out of larger molecules than the atmosphere around us.
Is there any question of a soul in living beings, and particularly in man? Professor Rogers is honest enough to admit that there are those - vitalists, he calls them - who look upon an organism as a machine plus certain unknown factors. The organism is controlled, in part at least, from within, but is subject to influences and forces outside itself. But he has little patience with this sort of explanation. He prefers to look upon man and all other organisms as a physiochemical machine, rather simple in structure, which is controlled by forces acting upon it from without. Being a machine, it must be controlled by physical and chemical laws as are other machines.
Of course, the author admits that science does not yet know all the answers to the problem of life and vital activity. Just give it time. It is the duty of the trained scientist to explain vital phenomena in terms of known physical and chemical materials and laws, in so far as it may be possible to do so and not to invoke an unknown in order to make an explanation. What is this unknown that Professor Rogers would eschew from a scientists vocabulary? Is it God or a principle of life or, as in the case of man, the human soul? The student is not told. But no matter, it is the materialist and not the vitalist who holds the key to the problem of life and living activity because the natural tendency of the vitalist is to announce that the mysterious can never be explained. Of course it can be explained if only the student rids himself of the false notion that a living being is supposed to be a very complex machine and to involve unknown as well as known forces. Obviously if every living substance is only a mechanism - and not a very complex one at that - man himself is only a machine. And as a machine what duties does he have to the Unknown that the author denies? Absolutely none. Life is only a bundle of atoms, and atoms cannot even be counted, much less rewarded or punished for what they do.
Students of medicine for the past generation have been using Albert Mathews thousand page standard text in Biochemistry, and doubtless found it satisfactory - as Biochemistry. Since the first edition in 1915, this medical manual has gone through some ten reprints and editions. Dr. Mathews was deservedly hailed as an outstanding scholar in his chosen field, through years of teaching and laboratory supervision at Chicago University and the University of Cincinnati. But like Professor Rogers, he also favors the idea that living and non-living substances are radically the same. He says: The differences between living and lifeless appear on closer examination to be quantitative rather than qualitative. In other words, it is only because the average man does not examine the problem closely enough that he is deceived into thinking that living beings like men contain something more than the chemicals out of which they are made. Dr. Mathews explains himself: Living matter is nearly always in movement and since to move objects requires that work be done and since energy is that which does work, living matter must be the seat of energy transformations. This looks for a moment like a denial of what he said before. Not at all. It might be supposed that this energy or capacity for work was due to some peculiar non-physical, vital force or spirit. But experiment has now clearly demonstrated that this is not the case and that this energy comes ultimately from light and immediately from the union of the living matter or its constituents with oxygen.
Back in 1931, the University of Chicago first put out a so-called Syllabus for students in science at the university. The book is designed to assist students who are preparing for the comprehensive examination on Introductory Biology at the University of Chicago. Presumably if a student knew the answers given in the manual he would be sure of something better than a passing grade in the subject.
This handy volume would have made an excellent source book for that other Syllabus of Errors of Atheism, Pantheism and Modernism published by the saintly Pius IX. In 1864. Here are a few gems selected at random from the chapter on The Dynamics of Living Organisms. The sub-title prepares the student for what follows: Popular Misconceptions in Psychology. Strange how childish we are. We continually build up concepts and then in forgetting that they are concepts or abstractions - we regard them as phenomenal or real objects. We speak of life, the mind, consciousness, intelligence, instincts, human nature, will power and a host of others as if they were things, entities, forces existing in their own right. But they are all abstractions and have no more independent, existential reality than the grin of a Cheshire cat. Unfortunately and insidiously, the fourteen co-authors of the Syllabus slipped a few jokers into the lineup from life to will power. Ideas may have an abstract existence; human nature may be a mere concept when taken from one point of view. But to call intelligence and consciousness and will power so much fantastic froth is to strike at the foundation of all metaphysics, all ethics and all religious dependence upon a God Who made man to His own image and likeness by breathing into him His own immortal spirit.
Have we misunderstood the University biologists? Likely enough they dont really mean what they said and the student is still allowed to pass his examinations even though he believes that man has a soul and that his mind and will are something more than a word? The professors meant just what they said: Individuals exhibit a certain group of organic responses called mental activities, such as remembering, perceiving, reasoning, and feeling. These are complex activities of an enormously complex organism. The term mental describes the particular kind of activities meant. The totality of these mental activities is referred to as the mind. But such a collective term refers to no independently existing entity. Mental energy is likewise a misleading term. When one thinks, he is using up bodily energy. We think with our bodies, particularly with our brains, not with some mysterious mind which utilizes mysterious mental energy. The italics and quotation marks are part of the authors text. Whatever else they may be accused of, it must not be ambiguity of expression.
I have before me a dozen standard textbooks used for one or more school terms at various secular universities during the last ten years. To do justice to the anti-intellectual, not to say anti-Christian principles which they propound would fill an octavo volume. But there is still one more attack on the bases of Catholic dogma that we have to see if we would begin to appreciate the harm done to the faith of students enrolled in public institutions of learning. A person would have to search closely in the history of heterodoxy to find anything approaching this particular attack for sheer brazenness and shameless disregard for truth. No one who has ever resisted a single temptation or made a single decision in his life would question the existence of a human will or its all but palpable power of liberty of action. Do we not punish criminals for homicide and decorate our heroes with medals of honor? And yet, we might be wrong?
Professor Pillsbury, as Director of the Psychology Laboratory at the University of Michigan, published a many-editioned class manual on the Fundamentals of Psychology in which the traditional notions on human freedom are pretty well talked out of existence. Earlier writers, he tells the students, always tending to discover a separate faculty or force for each of the words in common use, hardly questioned the existence of the fiat of the will; something which was an actual force in decisions and an incentive to action. As the direct examination of mental states began to take the place of speculation, with only inaccurate observation, fewer and fewer men were able to discover this peculiar state. Instead, an ever increasing number of authorities found the final cause of action in an idea that was attended to, in an idea of the movement with the belief that it was to take place, or in the feeling qualities preceding or accompanying the idea. Nine pages of evidence is displayed to prove such bald assertions as: a mans desires are the outcomes of his instincts and environment criminals are mentally deficient what one generally does is to think of oneself as a free agent.
But Dr. Pillsbury feels that his student readers will question these proofs. There was a problem which he claimed existed; the problem whether or not man is a free agent. Has the problem been solved? Not exactly. So here is the final coup: On the whole it may be said that the problem of the freedom of the will has been outgrown. Which simply means that there never was a problem in the first place. Who ever told us that we should even suspect that we had a free will?
It will be seventeen years this coming December that the late Holy Father gave us his classic Encyclical on Christian Education. There we are plainly told that the school if not a temple is a den. The school from which religion is excluded is contrary to the fundamental principles of education. Such a school cannot exist in practice; it is bound to become irreligious.
This was graphically brought home to me some months ago in a letter I received from a former pupil of mine. An excellent Catholic, he had no choice about entering a pre-engineering program subsidized by the army at a large, Mid-Western state university. He writes: For an institution of higher learning, this college has lower morals than I ever dreamed possible. From the outside the university is really beautiful and seems to be representative of all that is good. But on the inside it is really corrupt. The campus magazine, the shows, the general trends and the habits of almost everyone you meet are all indications of low morals. What else can be expected within the same walls where the human soul is denied, where free will is ridiculed, and God is outlawed from the world which He created?
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