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Faith, Nature, and Science in the Works of Canon Sheehan

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 17, Number 2, Samhreadh/Summer 2013
pp. 119-135 | 10.1353/nhr.2013.0015

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The published works of Canon Patrick Augustine Sheehan (1852-1913) place him within the Irish-Ireland sector of the Irish Literary Revival. His primary motivation as a novelist was to use fiction to counteract ideas and attitudes inimical to the Roman Catholic church in Ireland, and to inculcate in his co-religionists a sense of pride in their church. As a novelist he was highly successful. The ten novels he wrote between 1895 and 1913 sold in excess of 100,000 copies within his lifetime. There is no simple correlation between cultural influence and book sales, of course, but it is reasonable to infer that Sheehan's promotion of Catholic values through the medium of fiction exerted considerable influence, not just in Ireland, but also among Irish Catholic emigrants to England, the United States of America, and Australia. Ruth Fleischmann has observed that Sheehan's novels were read by the urban middle classes, by those in farming and in religious life, and in schools up to the 1960s.

Much has been written about Sheehan against the background of the Home Rule movement, emigration, urbanization, the troubled relationship between landlords and tenants, the status and role of priests in society, and perceived threats to the Catholic faith. The published works of his biographers, especially Ruth Fleischmann and Catherine Candy, have done much to enhance our understanding of his literary achievements. However, there is much more to be learned about this prolific novelist and essayist. One important aspect of Sheehan's intellectual life has been missed in these studies, and is especially worthy of attention: his opinions about science. Such issues as Home Rule for Ireland and landlord-tenant relationships were of great concern to Canon Sheehan, but not of central importance. Science, although not held in high esteem by Sheehan, is especially important in understanding his most defining characteristic. Sheehan was first and foremost a Roman Catholic; everything else was subservient to this core element of his sense of identity.

The Roman Catholic church, the foundation of Sheehan's life and work, had to contend in his lifetime with a series of developments in the historical and natural sciences that demonstrated that some biblical narratives were not literally true. Geology, for example, undermined literal interpretations of some verses in the first chapter of Genesis. Biological evolution, especially if applied to humans, seemed inconsistent with chapters one and two. Chapters six, seven, and eight of Genesis, giving an account of the Flood, had lost credibility—at least if interpreted in a literal sense—due to progress in the sciences. For example, knowledge of physical geography made it clear that there was far too little water on earth for a global deluge to occur. As thousands of new species of animals were discovered during the European voyages of discovery and colonization, it became increasingly implausible that the Ark could have accommodated all of them. There were major difficulties in explaining how animals and birds could have been assembled before the Flood and how they could have migrated to their respective environments after the floodwaters had subsided. Furthermore, given that the numbers of each species were relatively few, it was argued that the carnivores would chase down the herbivores within days and then starve to death. It was easy, then, for opponents of the Christian churches to argue that there was an inevitable conflict between science and religion.

Two books in particular helped to popularize the notion that there was such a conflict: 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), published in a series of editions from the 1870s. Frequent assertions by strident evolutionists significantly influenced popular opinion. Roman Catholicism was often singled out for attack by those who extended evolutionary theory beyond the natural sciences. This was especially true of Britain, where anti-Catholicism was rife for reasons that frequently had little to do with science. Religious concerns were further intensified when a number of influential scientists, notably Thomas Henry Huxley and John Tyndall, stridently promoted the position that religion, based on faith, was necessarily in opposition to science based...



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