Debate about evolution evolves

Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Columns


I did a column at the end of last year on the continuing debate regarding the compatibility of the science of evolution with the church's traditional faith in God as the creator of the universe and of ourselves as the crown of that creation.

The column pointed out that many Catholics who had been educated for the most part before Vatican II were taken aback when a prominent cardinal, Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna and someone who had been frequently mentioned as a possible successor to John Paul II, published an op-ed piece in The New York Times ("Finding Design in Nature," 7/7/05) that purported to give the "real" Catholic position on evolution.

The position that Cardinal Schönborn espoused, however, seemed to represent a reversal rather than a reaffirmation of the Catholic moral tradition on the subject of evolution, and particularly of the teaching of Pope Pius XII (1939-1958).

Even in his otherwise doctrinally rigid encyclical, Humani generis (1950), Pius XII explicitly approved of dialogue between scientists and theologians regarding the subject of evolution. The pope acknowledged the existence of scientific arguments in support of evolution, and insisted that the church is open to them so long as there is no retreat from its traditional teaching that "souls are immediately created by God" (n. 64).

The Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes (1965), also spoke approvingly of an evolutionary framework for understanding the human condition: "the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one" (n. 5).

Moreover, in a 1996 address before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome, Pope John Paul II noted that the scientific case for evolution was growing stronger and that the theory was "more than a hypothesis."

Catholic theologians, too, have found the scientific arguments for evolution fully compatible with the view that God creates through evolution. These theologians have clearly distanced themselves from creationist theories which are based on a literalist reading of the Book of Genesis. They insist that creationism and its updated form, intelligent design, are products of faith, not scientific evidence.

With regard to Cardinal Schönborn's widely discussed op-ed piece in The New York Times, it only later came to light that the article had been solicited by the Discovery Institute in Seattle, a leading advocate for the teaching of intelligent design in biology classes, and that the column had been submitted to the Times by a Virginia public relations firm, Creative Response Concepts, which also represents the Discovery Institute.

However, the debate about evolution continues to evolve. A recent article in the same New York Times notes that Cardinal Schönborn subsequently sought to "clarify" what he had written in his column of last July ("In 'Design' vs. Darwinism, Darwin Wins Point in Rome," 1/19/06).

The cardinal insisted that he had not meant to question evolution as such but what he called evolutionism, which, he said, is an attempt to use evolution to deny God's role in creation.

"I see no difficulty in joining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution," Cardinal Schönborn said in a speech last October, "but under the prerequisite that the borders of scientific theory are maintained."

Critics of creationism, or intelligent design, would quarrel with the cardinal's use of the word "theory" with reference to the science of evolution, but they would welcome his effort to pull back a bit from the revisionist position he had staked out in the original op-ed column.

In mid-January the official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, published an article by Professor Fiorenzo Facchini of the University of Bologna, approving of the widely publicized court decision in Dover, Pa., which had ruled that intelligent design should not be taught in the classroom as a scientific alternative to evolution.

According to the Times, Facchini's article pointed out that scientists could not rule out a divine "superior design," but it also argued that Catholic thought would not preclude a design fashioned through an evolutionary process.

"God's project of creation can be carried out through secondary causes in the natural course of events, without having to think of miraculous interventions that point in this or that direction," he wrote.

The term "secondary causes" generates familiar echoes in the memory banks of many older-generation Catholics, who were taught in the pre-Vatican II years that we live in a universe of secondary causes.

God remains the primary, or uncaused, cause, but at the same time God depends upon us to be instruments of the divine causality. Secondary causality was never thought to be a threat to God's.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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