From the Fall, 1996 issue of Touchstone

Is <title>Did the Pope Bless Darwin? by Terry Mattingly

Did the Pope Bless Darwin?

A Sidebar in John Mark Reynolds’s “Afraid of Reason”

by Terry Mattingly

No one will ever accuse Pope John II of being a master of the media-friendly “sound bite.” Thus, his highly nuanced theological pronouncements often produce two quite different, or even contradictory, waves of information. First come the headlines and video clips, as reports crunch complex texts into clusters of words. Then, days later, the pope’s actual text circulates via fax machines and the Internet.

A case in point: John Paul’s recent speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences inspired headlines such as “John Paul II Embraces Darwin” and most experts declared that the Vatican had endorsed evolution and taken a belated step into modernity.

Once again, the pope had delivered an address that defied easy editing. Also, it should be noted that one popular quotation—in which he supposedly said that “new knowledge leads us to recognize that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis”—does not appear in many translations of his text.

Instead, he said: “Rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based. Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist and spiritualist interpretations.”

John Paul went on to reject materialism and any evolutionary theory that says humanity is the product of a random, uncaring cosmos. In other words, he attacked the philosophy that forms the dividing line between today’s scientific establishment and those who insist that the creation contains evidence of a Creator.

“Theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man,” he said. “They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.”

This presents a problem, since the National Association of Biology Teachers has officially defined evolution as an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process . . . that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.”

John Paul obviously didn’t endorse “evolution” in that sense of the word, noted Phillip E. Johnson, author of the controversial book Darwin on Trial and a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Darwinists who read the full papal address will quickly realize that this pope is not their ally.

“To the materialists who dominate the scientific culture,” said Johnson, “any theory of evolution involving a non-material spiritual element is as unscientific as outright creationism.”

In addition to referring to “theories of evolution”—plural instead of singular—the pope also stressed that scientists must remain critical of their own work. They must not allow any one theory to evolve into a doctrine that cannot be challenged.

A scientific theory, according to John Paul, only “proves its validity by the measure to which it can be verified. It is constantly being tested against the facts. When it can no longer explain these facts, it shows its limits and its lack of usefulness, and it must be revised.”

Writing in the New York Times, a prominent Catholic scientist applauded the pope for noting this obvious point. Right now, defenders of Darwinian orthodoxy appear anxious to avoid any evidence that the building blocks of life are too complex to have evolved randomly, said Michael J. Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.

“The complex design of the cell has provoked me to stake out a distinctly minority view . . . on the question of what caused evolution,” said Behe, who teaches at Lehigh University. “I believe that Darwin’s mechanism for evolution doesn’t explain much of what is seen under a microscope. Cells are simply too complex to have evolved randomly; intelligence was required to produce them.”

If evidence continues to emerge that supports Behe’s heretical theory, then the pope would argue that Darwin’s disciples will need to revise their dogmas.

Terry Mattingly teaches at Milligan College in Tennessee. This column was originally written for the Scripps-Howard News Service and is reprinted by permission of the author. Mr. Mattingly is an Anglican evangelical, active in St. Luke the Physician Mission in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

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