Experts address design debate - Catholic Courier

Experts address design debate

A federal judge ruled Dec. 20 that intelligent design — a theory intended to explain the origins of life — cannot be taught in biology classes in the Dover, Pa., school district.

The case began in October 2004, when the Dover Area School Board mandated that the district’s biology classes should include mention of intelligent design as an alternative to evolutionary theories. Consequently, a handful of families sued the district, claiming the policy infringed on their First Amendment rights.

The ensuing six-week trial garnered much media attention and fanned the flames of a national debate. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III’s ruling will keep intelligent design out of public-school classrooms in parts of Pennsylvania, but what bearing — if any — will it have on Catholic schools in the Diocese of Rochester?

Life’s origins

In order to understand whether Jones’ ruling will affect local students, it is first necessary to understand what the debate is about.

In most U.S. public schools, science teachers use evolutionary theories to teach students about the origin of the world and its creatures. Most college-level biology textbooks define evolution as “all the changes that have transformed life on earth from its earliest beginning to the living entities characterizing it today,” explained Carmelite Father Matthew Temple, a biology professor at Nazareth College in Pittsford.

Evolution is not a single, overall theory, but rather a number of different theories that each attempts to fill in gaps and inconsistencies in the other theories, Father Temple said. When people talk about “evolution,” they are talking about the collection of scientific hypotheses that address the changes the earth’s life forms have undergone, he said.

Evolutionary biologists study the similarities and differences between various species and use this information to support or disprove these hypotheses, Father Temple said.

According to the core curriculum for biology and living environment classes set forth by New York state’s Education Department, the basic theory of evolution states that the earth’s present-day species developed from earlier, distinctly different species.

“According to many scientists, biological evolution occurs through natural selection. Natural selection is the result of overproduction of offspring, variations among offspring, the struggle for survival, the adaptive value of certain variations, and the subsequent survival and increased reproduction of those best adapted to a particular environment,” the curriculum states.

Some scholars and scientists have proposed the theory of “intelligent design” as an alternative to better-known evolutionary theories, according to the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Wash. Founded in 1996, the center promotes the theory of intelligent design and encourages schools to teach students about both the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theories.

Proponents of intelligent design maintain that an undirected process such as natural selection cannot adequately explain certain features of the universe and living beings, and instead believe an intelligent cause or designer created these features.

The Discovery Institute’s Web site,, states that proponents of intelligent design don’t necessarily take issue with all evolutionary theories. Intelligent design is compatible with the notion of change over time and with the theory that living beings have common ancestry, according to a “Top Questions” article on the institute’s Web site. Instead, the article says intelligent-design theory challenges neo-Darwinism, “which contends that evolution is driven by natural selection acting on random mutations, (resulting in) an unpredictable and purposeless process. …”

Critics of intelligent design claim the theory is just a repackaged version of creationism — a theory based on a literal interpretation of the creation account in the biblical book of Genesis. Intelligent-design theorists deny this claim, however. They say their theory is not religious, but is instead scientific and agnostic. Intelligent-design theorists don’t defend Genesis and do not name the earth’s designer as God or any other being, the Discovery Institute says.

The Catholic view

In his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis (“Concerning Some False Opinions Threatening to Undermine the Foundations of Catholic Doctrine”), Pope Pius XII declared that there is no conflict between evolutionary theories and Catholic doctrine, so long as Catholics kept two conditions in mind. Catholics should regard evolutionary theories as hypotheses, not certain truths, and also remember that even if humans originated from pre-existing matter, God is the lone creator of the human soul, the encyclical stated.

Pope John Paul II clarified the church position in a 1996 speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He said the church accepts evolution as a well-researched theory, but reiterated that the development of the spiritual aspect of human life cannot be scientifically explained.

“Pope John Paul II argued essentially that you ought to let Scripture speak to those elements of truth that it can best speak to, and … let science speak to what it can speak to,” Father Temple said. “Don’t look to one to solve the other’s questions.”

In 2004, the International Theological Commission — headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — produced a document that again asserted that evolutionary theory could be compatible with faith; differentiated the role of science from those of philosophy and theology; and criticized those evolutionary theories that deny God’s existence.

Confusion about the church’s stand on evolution recently resurfaced, however. In July 2005, Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn authored an essay in The New York Times, asking whether evolutionary theories that avoid the evidence of purpose and design — such as natural selection — are compatible with the Catholic faith. The cardinal’s essay prompted three U.S. scientists to ask Pope Benedict XVI to clarify the church’s position on evolutionary theory.

At the end of a general audience in November, Pope Benedict XVI called the world an “intelligent project”; talked about the wisdom of recognizing “signs of God’s love” in the world; and said there is a “creative reason” behind the world.

Yet the pope’s remarks did not endorse intelligent-design theory, observed Jesuit Father George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory, in an interview with Catholic News Service. Instead, Pope Benedict tried to explain God’s love for his creation, Father Coyne said, noting that this love makes God much more than just a “designer.”

Father Temple agreed, noting that intelligent-design theory doesn’t leave room for the majesty and transcendence of God. Although he has no doubt God is the one and only higher power, that doesn’t automatically mean God has to be the micromanager of every chemical bond that forms or dissolves, Father Temple said.

Intelligent-design theory also doesn’t leave room for free will or the notion of God as a loving father, said Don Muench, a member of St. John of Rochester Parish in Fairport.

“For me, the intelligent designer is not the God that Christians worship. The God we have is the God who cares about us as a personal God. The intelligent designer is not like that,” said Muench, a mathematics professor at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.

Local impact

Consistent with Pope John Paul II’s message about the compatibility of evolutionary theory and the Catholic faith, students at Catholic high schools within the Rochester Diocese study evolution as part of the requirements for state Regents diplomas.

Science teachers at Rochester’s Aquinas Institute instruct students about evolution in science class, and theology teachers discuss the Genesis account of creation in theology classes, said Eric Phillips, theology department chair.

“We teach that those (biblical) stories do contain truth, but that truth is not intended to be scientific or historical in nature,” Phillips said.

Students typically do not object to studying about evolution, although they occasionally have questions about creationism and intelligent design, said William Hobbs, principal of Rochester’s McQuaid Jesuit High School.

“It’s come up occasionally, but the reality is with our curriculum, we do teach evolution, and I think that’s well in line with the church’s understanding,” Hobbs said. “As Catholics we understand the Bible as faith history, not as a science textbook. We can … believe that evolution is part of God’s plan as well.”

Catholic faith and values likewise are incorporated into each aspect of the curriculum at diocesan elementary and junior-high schools, said Sister Margaret Mancuso, assistant diocesan superintendent for curriculum and instruction. Students in the upper grades learn about evolutionary theory, whereas students in every grade learn that God is the creator of heaven and earth, she said.

When younger students first hear the Biblical story of creation, they interpret it literally because that helps them to understand the story. As they grow older, they focus less on the story’s specific details and more on the message God presents through the story, the Sister of St. Joseph observed.

The message Catholics can glean from this story is that there is one, all-powerful God who called creation into existence out of absolute peace and serenity, and displays ample satisfaction with what has been established, Father Temple said.

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