The “Big Bang” hypothesis of cosmology has become part of our collective psyche and is the most popular explanation for how the universe came to be. If you asked a cross-section of people who it was that first came up with this theory you might get a variety of answers but few would be able to tell you that it was a Belgian scientist and catholic priest named George Lemaître (Monsignor Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître). He first developed his idea in a paper published in 1927 under the terminology of the “hypothesis of the primeval atom.” The paper suggested that the universe was not static but rather continuously expanding. Such a view was contrary to the collective understanding of the physicists of his day, including Albert Einstein. Lemaitre’s theory led others to agree that there might have been a primeval point and sent physicists down the path of searching further and further back toward the elusive big bang as the point from which all else follows. Einstein once stood and applauded a lecture given by Lemaitre on this very topic.
Many would find it surprising to hear that a faithful catholic priest would have developed such a significant and world changing concept. How did this man maintain his faith and his science? Hubert Vecchierello remarked that,
It is a point of great interest nowadays . . . to see a man who is both a priest and a scientist fraternizing on the most intimate terms with the world’s most illustrious scientific geniuses. He not only associates with them, but he is their peer; and in that is the lie given to the old and empty charge that the study of science means the loss of belief in religion. Lemaître, of course, is usually an object of great curiosity — not so much to his coreligionists as to many not of the faith who marvel at the “phenomenon” of a Catholic priest being a scientist, yes, not only a scientist of the regular run, but a genius whose theories are most daring.*
Lemaitre was very careful with his use of the scientific method. Speaking to Catholic scientists, Lemaître said:
The Christian researcher has to master and apply with sagacity the technique appropriate to his problem. His investigative means are the same as those of his non-believer colleague . . . In a sense, the researcher makes an abstraction of his faith in his researches. He does this not because his faith could involve him in difficulties, but because it has directly nothing in common with his scientific activity. After all, a Christian does not act differently from any non-believer as far as walking, or running, or swimming is concerned.#
And he was sensible about his understanding of theology.
Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes . . . The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses . . . As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.%
His understanding of the Bible led him to trust it on all matters of salvation but never worry that it might include scientific or historic errors.
The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less — some more than others — on the question of salvation. On other questions they were as wise or ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant that errors in historic and scientific fact should be found in the Bible, especially if the errors related to events that were not directly observed by those who wrote about them . . . The idea that because they were right in their doctrine of immortality and salvation they must also be right on all other subjects, is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding of why the Bible was given to us at all.^
Lemaitre’s conclusion to his 1950 book on the subject of the primeval atom gives us a glimpse into the mind of a man who is thoroughly scientific and thoroughly Christian.
We cannot end this rapid review which we have made together of the most magnificent subject that the human mind may be tempted to explore without being proud of these splendid endeavors of Science in the conquest of the Earth, and also without expressing our gratitude to One Who has said: “I am the Truth,” One Who gave us the mind to understand him and to recognize a glimpse of his glory in our universe which he has so wonderfully adjusted to the mental power with which he has endowed us.@
For further reading see “The Faith and Reason of Father George Lemaitre.”
The original 1927 paper can be found here.
*Hubert Vecchierello, Einstein and Relativity; Lemaître and the Expanding Universe (Paterson: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1934), 23.
#Godart and Heller, Cosmology of Lemaître, 174.
%Hubert Vecchierello, 1934, 24.
^Hubert Vecchierello, 1934, 25.
@Georges Lemaître, The Primeval Atom (New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1950), 55.