Peter Hodgson, A Testimony of Faith

Peter Hodgson 1926-2008, Fellow Corpus Christi

Peter Hodgson graduated in Physics from Imperial College in London in 1948. He got his PhD in 1951. In 1958, he was invited to Oxford where he become the head of the Nuclear Physics Theoretical Group and Fellow of Corpus Christi College, staying there until his retirement. He encouraged Catholic scientists and priest-scientists to integrate their studies and belief and to publicise their work effectively, emphasising the need for the Church to be thorough and professional with regard to the use of scientific advice and comment. He worked closely with the Templeton Foundation, the Newman Association and many other organisations to promote the integration of science and religion.

Here is a Testimony he presented to cadets at the United States Air Force Academy:

A Personal Testimony of Faith— Talk given in the Chapel of the United States Air Force Academy. Colorado Springs, on 12 October 2000

It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to talk to you this evening, and to join you in praising Our Lord Jesus Christ, and also to think about how we can best serve Him, and through that service our country and all mankind. Christ was a historical person. He was born in Bethlehem about 2000 years ago in the reign of Tiberius Caesar in a small outlying province of the Roman Empire. He went around with his disciples teaching the truth, and for that He was persecuted, condemned and executed as a common criminal. By all human standards His life was a failure. And yet after three days He rose from the dead and inspired his disciples to preach His truths to the whole world, and His teaching has inspired the lives of countless millions since His time.

 I have been asked to make a personal testimony to my Faith. I must admit that this is not a very congenial activity; Englishmen prefer to just get on with things quietly without a lot of talk. I will approach my task historically. As you know, I am a nuclear physicist, and indeed gave a lecture on my fifty years in nuclear physics research to your Physics Department this afternoon. In this capacity I often attend Conferences, and some years ago I was at one in Caen near the coast of Normandy. For the Conference outing we were taken to see the mementos of two invasions. First we were taken to the beach at Arromanches, where the British troops landed. We saw the huge concrete jetties that were towed across the Channel to make a port where the ships could unload military supplies. To the south of Arromanches was the Omaha beach where the American forces landed.  Then we were taken to Bayeux, where we saw the long tapestry recording the invasion of England by the Normans in 1066. Some of my Polish friends remarked to me: ‘Aha, Peter, that was an invasion you lost’. ‘No’, I replied, ‘my own ancestors were Normans’.  Probably, of course, I have many Anglo-Saxon ancestors as well, but we keep the Norman connection through my mother’s maiden name, Bulbeck. There is a town called Bolbeck in Normandy, near the famous abbey of Bee. That is a far back as I can trace my Catholic Faith. 

 The Catholic faith was first brought to England by the Romans, and Christian symbols have been found in the Roman villa at Lullingstone in Kent. The faith was carried on by the Anglo-Saxons, who built many of our parish churches. The Faith was further strengthened by the arrival of the Normans, who enlarged the parish churches and built great cathedrals. In the subsequent centuries the Faith flourished. The churches were painted inside with biblical scenes and the windows filled with stained glass, also with Biblical scenes and pictures of saints. Then came the reign of Henry VIII. He was married to Catherine of Aragon, but he was attracted to Anne Boleyn and wanted to divorce Catherine so that he could marry Anne. He asked the Pope for a dispensation, but the Pope told him that divorce is against the moral law, and that he had no power to change it.  So Henry told the Pope that he would go ahead anyway. He broke away from the Church and started his own Church. Everyone was required to swear an oath of loyalty, recognizing his new marriage. He took over the parish churches and cathedrals, smashed the statues and stained glass windows and burnt the priests’ vestments (1). The monks and nuns were thrown out of hundreds of abbeys and priories, and the buildings given to his henchmen, to convert into their country houses Those who held to the Faith were heavily fined if they did not attend the state services and were thus reduced to poverty. It was high treason, punishable by death, to say Mass. Young Englishmen who were called to be priests went to seminaries on the continent at Rome Douai, Rheims and Vallodolid. When ordained they returned to England in disguise and went about the country saying Mass secretly until they were captured and executed. Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, refused to take the oath and was imprisoned in the Tower of London and then executed. When he had mounted the scaffold, he turned to the crowd and said ‘I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first’. After he had forgiven his executioner humorous to the end, he raised his head and pulled his beard to one side, remarking that his beard had not committed high treason (2). John Fisher, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge and Bishop of Rochester, also refused to take the oath and, though an old man near death, was executed and his head put on a pike on London Bridge. In such ways the Catholics loyal to Rome were reduced to a small remnant, and among them were my own ancestors.

After a few centuries there were so few Catholics left that conditions gradually improved, and eventually they were allowed to build churches again and worship freely. They were joined by Catholics from many other countries, fleeing from persecution and famine, and now Catholics are about 10% of the population. Initially most of them were poor but gradually they improved their position, like the immigrants to the USA, built schools and sent their children to universities.

I attended a school run by the de La Salle Christian Brothers, an order of men dedicated to teaching. I lived in London before and during the war. They taught me the laws of nature and the moral law. Both are objective facts. If you ignore the law of gravity you get hurt. Similarly with the moral law. The moral law in unchangeable. The Pope did not have the power to dissolve Henry’s marriage, whatever the consequences of his refusal. Life is not easy, but our duty is to persevere. One day on the playground at school a boy was hurt. One of the Brothers came up and told him, kindly but firmly: ‘You cannot stop the pain, so just ignore it and carry on’.

During the war, it was Hitler’s plan to break our morale by bombing, so that we would panic and surrender. So every evening he sent his bombers over London, and the next morning Londoners would sweep up the wreckage, bury the dead and carry on. Over sixty thousand Londoners were killed. For most of us, life went on much as usual. We would go to sleep to the drone of the bombers, hear a few bombs explode, and next morning find that some houses were burnt to the ground. We went to school wondering if it was still there but the Brothers spent the night on the roofs, with sandbags ready to drop on burning incendiary bombs. I was still at school at the end of the war, and so too young to fight. Three of my closest friends had elder brothers in the Royal Air Force, and they were all killed. There was~ a battery of about a hundred anti-aircraft rocket launchers in the park just in front of the house where we lived. It was quite an impressive sight when they were all fired together. Apart from such entertainments, we lived quite normally. However one Sunday morning al about seven-forty we were just getting ready to go to Church.  Suddenly there was a hug~ explosion, followed soon after by the scream of the incoming supersonic V2 missile. The heavy front door flew open, the windows shattered and soot bellowed out into the living~ room. What do we do now!, my father exclaimed. ‘We’re just off to Mass, dear’, replied my mother in her usual matter-of-fact voice, as if nothing  whatever had happened. And off we went.

I have already spoken here today and yesterday about the relation  between faith and science, and now I will say a few words about my life as a  physicist in the context of my faith. I believe that religion is not something that is practiced  only on Sundays, but should permeate our whole lives. Work is a form of prayer, so all we do  should be done as well as possible for the glory of God. You recall the parable of the  talents. You are all very talented people, so your responsibility is correspondingly great.  Much is  required of you and eventually you will be asked to give an account of your  stewardship.

I spent most of my life at Oxford teaching physics and  mathematics, and doing research in nuclear physics. In academic life, we have duties to  our students and to scholarship. We must prepare our lectures carefully, and be ever  ready to spend time helping students. In our research, we must make our experiments and  calculations as carefully as possible. If the results disagree with our theories, we have to  abandon or modify them. We share our results freely with colleagues worldwide, and give them  all the help we can.

As scientists, we have knowledge that is of great importance for  mankind. This brings with it further responsibilities that were keenly felt by nuclear  physicists after the end of the war. Those in Los Alamos founded the Federation of the Atomic  Scientists and gave public lectures and wrote books and articles to inform the public about  the potentialities of atomic energy for good and evil. In Britain, scientists founded the  Atomic Scientists’ Association for the same purpose, and as a young graduate student I edited the  Atomic Scientists’ Journal from 1953 to 1955. Since then I have written several books and  numerous articles on the effects of nuclear physics on our society, in particular the  energy crisis, nuclear power the environment and global warming (3).

This evening we join in praising the Lord, and often we pray to  Him for our needs. Prayer is always answered, and the answer is usually NO. When we  look back, months or years later, we can usually see that it would have been a  disaster if we had been given what we had asked for. Our lives are in safer and surer hands than our  own.

Jesus Christ no longer walks on the earth in person. He can act  only through us, as our hands become His, and as our voice echoes His voice.

1. See ‘The Stripping of the Altars’ by Eamon Duffy. Yale  University Press, 1992.

2. See ‘The Life of Thomas More’ by Peter Ackroyd. London: Chatto  and Windus, 1998.

3. Nuclear Physics in Peace and War. London: Burns and Oates, 1961. Our Nuclear Future? Christian Journals Ltd, 1983. Energy and Environment. London: Bowerdean, 1997. Nuclear Power, Energy and the Environment. London; Imperial College Press, 1999. .

1 Comment
  1. John,

    As a physicist I especially appreciated your post Dr. Hodgson's address. Some parts which caught my morning attention:

    "…the de La Salle Christian Brothers, an order of men dedicated to teaching… taught me the laws of nature and the moral law. Both are objective facts. If you ignore the law of gravity you get hurt. Similarly with the moral law."

    His reminder that "Work is a form of prayer," was powerfully put. This reminded me of Monsignor Jamail, pastor at St. Vincent de Paul in Houston before he passed on, who used to say "Every action is properly a form of prayer. Those actions which are not should be called addictions."

    The story of the V2 missle not being as excuse to miss Sunday mass will give me pause next time I stumble on a busy weekend.

    And I laughed out loud in my office at his final wisdom:

    "Prayer is always answered, and the answer is usually NO." I'm glad to hear someone say this– and for someone to post it. I've often believed this, but am never quite sure if it is a "canonical" belief to hold.

    Off to teach students about the physics of charge and field.

    -Jim Clarage

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