We talked about Steno quite a bit over the past several months. Briefly, he was a brilliant observational scientist. Brought up in Lutheran Denmark amid the violence of the seventeenth century, he wandered Europe and won fame as possibly the foremost observational scientist of his day, first in anatomy as a tremendously skilled dissectionist and then, via the bridge of biological fossils, as one of the most important precursor figures of what would become geology in the following two centuries. He laid down, if one can forgive the pun, the laws of geological chronology or stratigraphy (superposition, original horizontality, and inclusion) and even the most basic law of crystallography, the law of constant interfacial angles.
But Steno placed more importance on his faith. He spent time in both Catholic and Protestant countries and eventually decided to become Catholic. By the end of his life he had forsaken science for the Catholic priesthood, been ordained a bishop, and spent a long lonely time attempting to convince Protestants in Northern Europe to return to the Catholic faith of their ancestors. He lived an austere life that probably killed him relatively young, much as is said of Fr. Michael McGivney of the Knights of Columbus or the African American priest of the same era, Augustus Tolton.
I was listening to Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire podcast last night about Cardinal Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua, and I remarked on the similarities between Steno, Newman, Tolton, and other figures of the last few centuries like Isaac Hecker of the Paulists and for that matter even GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. These were intelligent men whose virtue and love for others could not be denied, and yet it is easy to look at the aftermath of their lives and conclude that they failed. Was there something they should have done differently? Perhaps it was just that too few people joined them. Perhaps their contributions are still waiting to be gathered up into a new synthesis of faith. There is a great deal more I’d like to say on that subject, but it will have to wait to another day.