Even as he sought the truth day in and day out, peering into mice brains in the lab to figure out the mysteries of addiction and depression, Jaime Maldonado-Aviles was filled with uncertainty.
Was this what he should be doing with his life? As he excelled in school, earned a post-doctoral position at Yale, and won prestigious fellowships, Maldonado-Aviles wondered: Is this what God wants from me?
Eventually, the calling he felt from God became too powerful to ignore. The promising neuroscientist left the Ivy League research laboratory — and entered seminary at Catholic University of America in Northeast D.C. to become a priest.
“This constant intuition — I almost want to say nagging — that maybe I was called to serve in a different way… it was always frequent,” he said. “At different times the question would come back: If I see myself 90 years old, close to death, would I say to myself, ‘I should have entered seminary’?”
He entered. And now, within the church, he hopes to help Catholics understand scientists, and scientists understand Catholics.
Scientists are a secular lot, on the whole. While 95 percent of Americans say they believe in God or some other higher power, just 51 percent of scientists do, according to a 2009 Pew study. But many of them quietly believe. And a small but significant number are turning from research to the priesthood, bringing a science-based perspective to the Catholic church that many church leaders say is greatly needed.
When Maldonado-Aviles arrived at Theological College, the Catholic University seminary, many of his classmates were young men just out of college. But he also found among his peers a seminarian with a PhD in chemistry, another who studied nanoscience, another who first went to medical school.
The number of seminarians in Washington who studied the sciences, at least as undergraduates, is high enough that Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the head of the archdiocese, has noticed it. “Here they are, saying, ‘There’s more,'” he said about those seminarians who seek God after finding science first.
Ken Watts works as a recruiter for Pope St. John XXIII Seminary, a unique school in Massachusetts open specifically to men over 30 — sometimes many decades over 30 — who decide they want to become priests. By far the most common first career for these men is education, he said, followed by healthcare, military service, social work and other religious work — all fields that logically might lead to the priesthood. But he’s guided scientists to seminary quite a few times.
“They seem to fit in pretty well, is all I can say. There doesn’t seem to be a terrible struggle for them to bring their scientific backgrounds through the front door here. Nobody asks them to abandon it,” Watts said. “When the moral issues are those that revolve around medical, scientific areas, it’s certainly helpful to have people who really understand that world to help refine and clarify the church’s thinking on this.”
Suzanne Tanzi, a spokeswoman for Theological College who noted the several scientists who have enrolled there, said scientist-priests are particularly helpful given one of the primary focuses of the current pope, who in fact was once a chemist himself: the environment. Francis’s first major writing as pope was a highly technical treatise on the environment, and the church has been an increasingly vocal advocate worldwide for policies to reduce climate change.
As Watts put it: “They’re very, very valuable.”
Maldonado-Aviles’s thoughts about the priesthood started early, as a youth growing up in Puerto Rico. He participated in mission trips as a high schooler, and started wondering what it would be like to grow up to be a missionary.
Instead, he studied biology at the University of Puerto Rico, where he earned a fellowship for honors students through the National Institutes of Health. After he earned his doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh, he went into a post-graduate program at Yale, where he spent six years. He became particularly interested in researching the molecular basis of eating disorders.