A summer training program aims to help high school teachers relate science and religion in their classrooms.

In 2009, Chris Baglow published a textbook entitled Faith, Science & Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge. But he soon realized that the first teachers to use it, at McGill-Toolen Catholic High School in Mobile, Ala., needed more than the book to properly convey the central ideas.

A theologian who received his Ph.D. in systematic theology in 2000 from Duquesne University, Baglow is currently a professor of theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, La., and has spent many years exploring the relationship between faith and science. For Catholic high school teachers, however, bridging the divide between science and religion in the classroom is often a tricky task.

“It occurred to me that if teachers were going to be able to relate science and religion in a positive way — a way that doesn’t put the two in competition — what’s needed is something that isn’t normally provided in their training,” Baglow says. In response, Baglow co-organized and directed the Steno Learning Program, named after Saint (and scientist) Nicolas Steno. Over three summers beginning in 2011, 16 science and 16 theology teachers from across the country came together for a week in Louisiana for seminars on topics ranging from human evolution to the Big Bang. The seminars aimed to assist teachers in understanding how these scientific findings inform, and sometimes appear to challenge, Christian belief.  Ultimately the project seeks to improve the quality and depth of discussion of these issues in both science and theology courses.

At the same time, theologian and professor John Cavadini of the University of Notre Dame was similarly wrestling with how to bridge the perceived conflict between science and religion in Catholic high schools. Beginning in summer 2014, Cavadini sponsored a separate Science and Religion Initiative at the university, where teams of science and religion teachers from high schools nationwide joined for a week to discuss scientific topics and Catholic teachings and to translate what they learned into lesson plans for their own classrooms.

“We thought that if we could affect the pedagogy in Catholic schools around this issue, we could create a cultural shift that would affect students from year to year,” Cavadini says.

In 2016 the pair joined forces, co-founding Training Catholic Educators, a project funded by a $1.7 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Beginning summer 2017, five-day seminars that involve teachers in both the sciences and theology will be held concurrently at the University of Notre Dame and at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. Between the two locations, Cavadini and Baglow hope to host 270 teachers over the grant’s three years. Teachers who travel to one site the first year may apply to go to the other site the next summer. In addition, the grant will support Baglow as he takes a semester-long sabbatical to write a second edition of his textbook.

Religion in the Lab

As part of the grant, the teachers who travel to New Orleans will stay at Notre Dame Seminary and will use the science labs at nearby St. Mary’s Dominican High School. Science teachers in physics, chemistry, and biology will lead religion teachers through various experiments during the day. In the evening, discussions led by religion teachers will focus on theological questions the experiments might have raised.

Baglow says the experiments and discussions are meant to show how religion and science are two different yet complementary ways of understanding the world. Whereas science takes things apart to see how they work, religion puts things together to see what they mean. For students at Catholic high schools, that connection, Baglow and Cavadini argue, is critical. A recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that the top intellectual reason why young people lose their faith is a perceived irreconcilable conflict between science and religion.

“As theologians, we would like to see the faith thrive in young people,” says Baglow. “Unless our teachers can address the number one intellectual issue that young people face, then we’re not going to be able to do our job of forming them into Catholic adults.”