Kuhn's Scientific Revolutions and Paradigm Shifts: A Social Science Model of Anomalies and Revolutions in the Clerical Hierarchy of the Catholic Church

By Ann, Mary | Magistra, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Kuhn's Scientific Revolutions and Paradigm Shifts: A Social Science Model of Anomalies and Revolutions in the Clerical Hierarchy of the Catholic Church


Ann, Mary, Magistra


The exclusive all-male power system in the Roman Catholic Church, including the theologians who support it, is analogous to the scientific power structure of old scientists who are unable to detect when their normal science no longer accounts for the anomalies that announce an emergent paradigm. Like the guardians of normal science, only when forced by new/younger theologians, and others, will they listen, and even then most will have to die off; few will change. Those who change will do so only after exhausting all possibilities of forcing every problem through the old paradigm solution.

Using historical evidence and discussion of contemporary challenges to the Roman Catholic clerical authority arising from such issues as married clergy, female priesthood, reinterpretation of sources, democratization, transparency and accountability, and the sex scandal as examples, this paper will argue that the process the church is going through directly parallels the cycles of scientific revolutions, beginning with normal science, and progressing through the discovery of anomalies, competing theories, disappearance of the old paradigm, and finally agreement on a new paradigm.

The Basic Structure of Kuhn's Model

Thomas Kuhn's work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, was a definitive critique of the positivist philosophical approach to science but, more important for this work, it is a description of the structural elements and chronological order required to understand how revolutionary change occurs in science. According to Kuhn, the development of scientific knowledge is neither predetermined by a set of laws to which theory must conform nor to a teleological end that it is destined to achieve based on those laws. Rather, it is a matter of competition among explanations that compete socially, as well as epistemologically, over how best to understand natural phenomena in the face of constantly changing facts from observation.

First, it is necessary to outline the elements of Kuhn's model, in chronological order. The same elements, in the same order, will apply to the discussion below about change in the Church, which proceeds by the same process Kuhn uses to explain change in science.

The chronological order of structural elements Kuhn proposes is as follows: 1) During the pre-paradigm period there are various competing schools of interpretation regarding observable facts which prevailing science cannot explain. These unexplainable facts are considered "anomalies." 2) Paradigm/normal science is "the triumph of one of the pre-paradigm schools"(1) as a result of solving a problem/crisis that the other models of thought were unable to solve, resulting in the acceptance of one paradigm by a large and stable group of practitioners thus establishing "normal science."(2) 3) After acceptance, the paradigm is fleshed out by solving additional problems through "accepted examples of actual scientific practice, which includes laws, theory, and application."(3) The paradigm then settles into a period of fine-tuning through the process of "puzzle solving." 4) The new paradigm has now prevailed and become normal science, purporting to explain all observable phenomena. There are no credible competing paradigms during the "normal science" period. This paradigm persists unchallenged for a time. 5) Eventually, new anomalies arise from new facts that are discovered or uncovered with new instruments or ways of observing that cannot be explained by normal science.

The laws and explanations of the current, once new, paradigm cannot be solved within the rules of the paradigm. The failure to solve the problem results in a crisis and a break with the paradigm, such that an opening is created for a "new paradigm" to step in and solve the problem. Pre-paradigm explanations of anomalies are proposed and, if the new paradigm is successful at solving the problem, it is positioned to repeat the cycle.(4)

Application of Kuhn's Model in the Study of Religious Change

For the organized scientific enterprise to work, according to Kuhn, "Observation and experience can and must drastically restrict the range of admissible scientific belief, else there would be no science.

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