Blast from the Past

by Michael Potemra

Etienne Gilson was one of the key intellectuals of the 20th century, and specifically its leading expositor of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. In rereading his intellectual memoir, The Philosopher and Theology (1962), I happened upon this remarkable passage:

Some Christians are today worrying at the thought that sooner or later it will become possible to produce living matter in laboratories experimentally, and perhaps, who knows? some sort of “hominides.” Even if this dream should come true, there is nothing in it to disturb us. The only teaching of theology in these matters is that God creates each and every human soul, immediately and individually, every time an embryo becomes the possible body of a man. Whether this embryo is produced naturally or experimentally does not enter the data of the problem. . . . Science has nothing to fear from faith, since scientific truth bears essentially upon nature and is essentially natural knowledge; inversely, the truth of faith is also impregnable in its own domain. . . . When a theologian inadvertently trespasses on scientific ground, he is twice at fault, for just as he should not expect to hold his theology from natural sciences, so also the scientist is not supposed to draw his physics from theology. This is not the only instance when neighbors get along better by staying at home.

(Emphasis added.) Remember, this sophisticated analysis of faith and reason comes from a pre-Vatican II book by the leading Thomist. Gilson is a master at the drawing of distinctions. He has no fear of cloning or other Promethean advances by science-and yet, if he were alive today and objected to the taking of innocent human life in the name of those very same advances, he would be dismissed in some quarters as an atavistic enemy of science, a boobish “Christianist” who fears reason.