The Pope, the Cardinal, the Jesuit & the Evolving Debate About Origins
by Martin Hilbert
It makes no obvious difference to our salvation whether the geometry of our universe is Euclidian, whether quantum mechanics is the last word in atomic physics, or whether the Big Bang is the correct model for the development of the universe. These theories witness to the power of the human intellect, but few would claim that they bear on questions of faith and morals.
Evolution, on the other hand, says something about the origin of man, and in this way can, at least in theory, conflict with religious dogma. And so, although the Catholic Church seldom speaks about scientific theories, from time to time it breaks the silence to address the question of biological evolution. It does so when it perceives that some Catholics accept as true a scientific theory that denies some important Christian teaching about man and his origins.
Darwinism has famously become just such an alternative creation account. Both the classical theory and the enhanced neo-Darwinist synthesis (which includes genetics, statistics, and molecular biology) claim that apparent design can result from blind forces. Although some Darwinists and neo-Darwinists might protest that their scheme does not banish God from the picture, most are, whether they know it or not, crass materialists.
Both (the distinction does not make a difference at this point) assert a materialistic explanation for the realities that Christians know as the creation and the fall. They assume that human intelligence, will, and even morality can be fully explained in terms of material causes. Their theory provides its own explanation of why man is violent and lustful, and it understands death as part of the process that created us.
The church does not pretend to give scientific answers to biological questions. But it does point out that some Darwinist claims are mere materialist metaphysics pretending to be science, because it knows that were it to remain silent on a truth—the nature of man—that has been entrusted to it by God, that truth would soon disappear, only to be replaced by the ever-changing dogmas of a materialist science.
Even so, the Catholic Church has been surprisingly sparing in its pronouncements on the subject, given that Darwin’s theory has been used to underpin some fairly disastrous worldviews, such as Nazism and communism. The church has never been very comfortable with the theory, but, perhaps fearing bad press of the kind that arose from its condemnation of Galileo, has usually preferred to deal with theologians who were enthusiastic about evolution in more discreet ways than by magisterial interventions.
But it has made some exceptions. The first was a short section of the encyclical Humani Generis (1950), in which Pope Pius XII gave Catholic theologians and scientists permission to consider the possibility that the human body evolved from pre-existing life forms, provided that such people were open to all the evidence, pro and con.
At the same time, the pope insisted that each and every human soul was immediately created by God. Evolution may or may not explain the origin of the body, but it certainly could not explain the soul.
Pius XII also ruled out polygenism—the theory that the human race had multiple “first” parents—for it was in “no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual, Adam, and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.”
The faithful had to wait almost fifty years, until 1996, for the next papal intervention on evolution, which took the form of an address John Paul II made to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. This address was widely publicized, mainly because of the following sentence: “Today, more than a half-century [ sic] after the appearance of that encyclical [ Humani Generis], some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis.” The news in most mainstream media spread under the headline “Pope Accepts Darwinism,” suggesting that the church had finally caught up to modernity.
Recently the topic of evolution and the church became newsworthy again. First, Benedict XVI chose to mention evolution in the homily of his inaugural Mass as pope: “Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”
It was as though he were directly responding to a Darwinist dogma put most clearly in the widely read Meaning of Evolution: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” That the new pope should mention the theory in such an important context shows that he thinks that it can be taken to have a tremendous (and pernicious) influence on man’s understanding of himself and his relation to God.
Several months later, on July 7, the New York Times published an op-ed piece on neo-Darwinism by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna. Schönborn, a former student of Joseph Ratzinger and the main editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, argued that the media had misrepresented John Paul II’s address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
The media is interested in selling news, so it does not distinguish the degree of authority that these various interventions on evolution possess. To be sure, Catholic theologians also argue among themselves as to how much authority a particular mode of teaching possesses, but it is safe to say that an encyclical letter like Humani Generis carries much more weight than a papal general audience or even an address to the Pontifical Academy of Science.
References to evolution in homilies, even in important papal homilies, or op-ed pieces, even when written by cardinals, are not means for settling doctrinal questions. But they can provide clues as to how the church understands particular teachings. And they can be effective means of reminding the faithful what the church teaches and of engaging the world at large in a dialogue on important issues.
In the op-ed piece, “Finding Design in Nature,” Schönborn said that to accept Darwinism was to abdicate reason, as was clear from a talk John Paul II had given to a general audience eleven years before he addressed the Pontifical Academy of Science. “The evolution of living things, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality, which arouses admiration,” said the pope. This finality “directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge” and thus “obliges one to suppose a Mind, which is its inventor, its creator.”
When John Paul II, a philosopher, used the term “finality,” he did so with the full awareness that he was defending design in nature and a designer of nature. Schönborn himself entered the fray with one very important consideration about the danger of neo-Darwinism: its degradation of human reason by ruling out of bounds the intellect’s ability to see design.
The cardinal was particularly irked by attempts to make a Darwinian out of Benedict XVI. Cardinal Ratzinger had been the head of the International Theological Commission in 2004 when it published Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God, a report dealing with the bearing of biological evolution on the Catholic faith, among many other topics. Some interpreted the report as favorable to neo-Darwinism, and hence an argument that Benedict finds no problem with the theory. In rebuttal, Schönborn quoted Benedict XVI’s inaugural homily.
A Livid Coyne
In a telephone interview given after the Times article appeared, Schönborn said that although his article had not been vetted by the Vatican, he had spoken with Ratzinger a few weeks before his elevation to the papacy about what he perceived to be misrepresentations of the church’s views on evolution, and the future pope had encouraged him to work to set the record straight.
In the interview, Schönborn admitted that he was angered by those who taught that neo-Darwinian evolution was compatible with the Catholic faith. “Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense—an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection—is not.”
If the cardinal was angry at the misrepresentations of John Paul’s and Benedict’s thought, the head of the Vatican Observatory, Father George Coyne, S.J., was livid at the cardinal’s intervention. In an essay, “God’s chance creation,” published in the English Catholic magazine The Tablet in early August, he accused the cardinal of muddying the already “murky waters of the rapport between the Church and science” by attacking the “best of modern science.”
Coyne conjured up the ghost of the Galileo case as an example of what he meant by incompetent handling of the relation between the church and science. In the case of evolution, he thought that Communion and Stewardship was a step in the right direction. Schönborn’s piece, on the other hand, put the church on a collision course with science once again.
To work towards avoiding unnecessary antagonism is laudable, but there are two serious problems with Coyne’s analysis. First, he is wrong in thinking that Schönborn’s op-ed piece was at odds with John Paul II and the International Theological Commission. Second, he claims that science is neutral with regard to religion, but then blatantly contradicts himself when he says that the results of modern science make it necessary to adjust our concepts of divine omniscience and omnipotence. Coyne is neither a careful reader of texts, nor a coherent philosopher.
Let us look at Coyne’s first mistake. In his 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, John Paul II did indeed say that evolution was more than a hypothesis, and in his subsequent remarks he made it clear that he was quite convinced that today’s flora and fauna were different from the flora and fauna of earlier epochs and yet originated from those ancestral forms.
But he also made it clear that although “evolution” might be more than a hypothesis, Darwin’s explanation of evolution enjoys no such intellectual respectability. “[R]ather than speaking about the theory of evolution, it is more accurate to speak of the theories of evolution,” he said.
Later on in the address, the pope in fact did apply principles of theological anthropology to rule out the Darwinist account. Citing Pius XII’s Humani Generis, St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, and Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, he concluded: “The 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. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.”
It is a deep mystery how anyone could have read the 1996 address and thought that the church had accepted Darwinism. Schönborn may not have helped his cause by referring to the address as insignificant—it did after all go beyond Humani Generis in judging that the evidence for bodily transformation of species was quite convincing. But he is absolutely right in complaining that the address is misrepresented when it is cited in favor of Darwinian evolution.
The report of the International Theological Commission may at first sight appear friendlier to Darwinist evolutionary theory (and to Coyne’s claim), for it holds out the possibility that empirical data may yet show that there are processes and potentialities inherent in nature that can function as (secondary) causes of the emergence of the complexities found in biological structures. But, the commission goes on to say,
This is hardly new, as may be gathered from the commission’s citation of St. Thomas. It is as old as the theological problem of reconciling God’s providence with contingent affairs or with freedom of action.
The commission was aware of the problems of invoking God as an explanation for currently unknown chains of causality: the so-called God-of-the-gaps approach, which tends to embarrass religious believers when science progresses and proposes an alternative solution that credibly fills in the gaps. Nevertheless, the document insisted that there are ontological gaps, as distinct from gaps in explanation, which do require divine intervention:
Neither of the commission’s considerations can be seen as an endorsement of Darwinism, which, as it is popularly presented, specifically denies purpose in the universe in general and human life in particular. If anything, Coyne undermines his case that Schönborn misrepresented John Paul and Benedict by citing these documents.
That is Coyne’s first mistake. The second is more substantial. The main problem with his argument is not his attempt to claim papal authority for neo-Darwinism, but his attempt to portray science as a religiously neutral enterprise and at the same time as the ultimate basis for a rational worldview.
“Science,” he declares at one point, “is completely neutral with respect to philosophical or theological implications that may be drawn from its conclusions.” Yet he goes on to say that science has a bearing on our understanding of divine omnipotence and omniscience. So is it neutral or is it not? He informs us that “in the universe as known by science, there are essentially three processes at work: chance, necessity, and the fertility of the universe.”
Let us begin with chance and necessity. If this is a statement of scientific methodology, very well and good. Science tries to explain the realities of this world in terms of other realities in this world. It looks for patterns and demands that experiments adduced in favor of theories be replicable. Any given situation in nature is assumed to unfold by necessity: Identical initial conditions must lead to the same outcomes. It does not include any personal element, such as divine intervention. Science as we know it could only begin when the denizens of Mount Olympus ceased to count as explanations for natural phenomena.
Once found, the causal connections are expressed in terms of necessary laws. Chance stands for whatever is still unknown, either conceptually or because it escapes our finite ability to measure or compute. To be sure, quantum mechanics adds its own complexities to the discussion about chance, but there is no need to take these up to understand what Coyne is saying. Two hydrogen atoms, he says, will of necessity combine under the right conditions, but will not do so if by chance the conditions are not right when they meet. Coyne is using the terms chance and necessity as a working scientist would use them.
Working scientists need not be blamed for being realists by force of habit, but such naiveté is another matter in someone trying to philosophize about science. Is chance something real in the universe? In a telephone interview he gave to John Allen, published in the National Catholic Reporter, Coyne implied that chance is merely a statement of our ignorance: “Chance is the way we scientists see the universe. It has nothing to do with God. It’s not chancy to God, it’s chancy to us.”
Yet, in the Tablet article, he says that “if we confront what we know of our origins scientifically with religious faith in God the Creator—if, that is, we take the results of modern science seriously—it is difficult to believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient in the sense of many of the scholastic philosophers. For the believer, science tells us of a God who must be very different from God as seen by them.” This implies that chance must be something real and not just shorthand for our ignorance. Here, the way that scientists see the universe does tell us something about God that theology does not.
Legitimate criticisms can be made of Schönborn’s argument, of course. Stephen Barr, writing in the October 2005 issue of First Things, took Schönborn to task for equating “random” with “unguided.” Scientists can use the term “random” in statistically precise ways, without implying that a random process can give rise to effects that God cannot foresee or control.
God can use a random process, such as radioactive decay, to achieve his purpose. This, as Barr points out, is perfectly consonant with what the International Theological Commission taught: “An unguided evolutionary process—one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence—simply cannot exist.”
Given that the commission’s report at this point quoted St. Thomas Aquinas in support of its position, one is at a loss as to how Coyne should see support for his belief that the report got the relation between science and religion right, and yet that science makes holding medieval ideas about God’s omniscience and omnipotence impossible. It seems that he reads magisterial documents very selectively.
The Fertile Universe
Coyne’s third scientific category may come as a surprise to many working scientists: the fertility of the universe. This is not chance or necessity. This is not a particle or field. It is an expression of faith that the universe as created by God has so much inherent potential in it that it produces the most complex forms without divine intervention. This is Coyne’s attempt to give the universe an intrinsic value and dignity, but with the result that he effectively asserts that God could neither know it perfectly nor guide it to achieve his ends: hardly a philosophically and theologically neutral scientific category.
Further insights into the “fertility of the universe” may be gathered from the end of the article. Modern science “provides a challenge, an enriching challenge, to traditional beliefs about God,” he claims.
Although he acknowledges that theologians have the concept of “continuous creation” with which to explore God’s relation to the universe, this last paragraph suggests that he has attributed to the universe too much power and autonomy. He holds out the possibility that the world in its continuous evolution could bring about the emergence of spiritual realities without divine intervention.
This is precisely what Catholics are not to believe, as John Paul II said in the address that Coyne thought was a model of sensitivity: “It is by virtue of his eternal soul that the whole person, including his body, possesses such great dignity. Pius XII underlined the essential point: if the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God.”
In Coyne’s scenario, the “fertility of the universe” takes over God’s role. An impersonal creative force—a creative chaos—accounts for the most amazing elements of the universe, while at the same time doing away with a Personal Designer. In refusing to adopt Coyne’s vision of the “fertility of the universe,” the church need not worry that it is closing the door on “the best of modern science.” Rather, it is rejecting a nebulous philosophy that claims for itself the mantle of science.
It is puzzling that Coyne should undertake his analysis of the relationship of science and religion in defense of Darwinian evolution, a theory that is hardly “the best of modern science.” This is not the place to rehearse the scientific problems with the theory. There are many good books available on the subject, including Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial, Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, and Denyse O’Leary’s By Design or by Chance?
As I mentioned above, Schönborn argued against one very important danger of neo-Darwinism: its degradation of human reason by ruling out of bounds the intellect’s ability to see design. His objection would lose much of its force if the fossil beds provided evidence of continuity, if there were no “pre-Cambrian explosion” of life, if the simplest forms of life were not so unbelievably complex, and many other facts that all make clear that there is very little substantial evidence for the grand claims of Darwinism.
If such evidence were there, proponents of the argument for God’s existence from design in nature would not be able to cite the human eye or the bacterial flagellum as being beyond the ability of natural processes to create without God’s intervention, but would have to see design in the whole grand scheme of things. This is the possibility that may have alarmed Coyne and led him to his criticism of Schönborn.
The International Theological Commission allows for this possibility. But it does not allow for a process that could produce a universe with features that God’s omniscience could not have predicted or that did not need God’s intelligence as their first cause. It would then simply be clear that God has been molding the universe in small and apparently random ways. Coyne need not fear that the church is backing into an embarrassing God-of-the-gaps fallacy.
In other words, arguments such as Coyne’s are not necessary to save the church from adopting positions that seem reasonable now but will be an embarrassment if science should make some startling discoveries in the future. One does not have to accept that God created each species in its present state or assert that there are no secondary causes that God could have used to develop birds from dinosaurs as a premise for arguing against Darwinism.
It may be that Coyne’s daily association with scientists leads him to view Darwinism as “the best of modern science.” Many sincere Christians have done this. But as a priest, Coyne should know that there are basic theological questions that need to be addressed if a Christian seriously contemplates accepting Darwinism.
Darwinism not only does away with an immaterial soul, it also comes with its own account of original sin. Death, on the neo-Darwinian view, is not the result of the envy of the devil and of a human choice, as the Scriptures teach. It is, rather, an impersonal, potent, creative force that combined with chance mutation to make us what we are.
We are lustful and violent, not because we fell from a privileged pedestal through original sin, but because our ancestors copulated and fought their way, red in tooth and claw, to biological predominance. Those who by chance were not obsessed with copulation or who were slow to anger and violence were culled from the ancient gene pools that eventually led to the present gene pool that we call human.
If Darwinism is accepted as true, we have no choice but to accept that the Christian understanding of created and fallen man is just a pious fable, a myth intended to assign personal agency to a universe that has none. And if the nature of man is a fable, so must be the Incarnation.
There has been little attempt by Catholics who are favorable towards evolutionary theory to deal directly with the theological truths revealed by the story of Adam and Eve. The opening chapters of Genesis tell us, first of all, that human beings are the pinnacle of creation. God made us in his image, something that is said of no other animal. Scripture also speaks of the original innocence of our first parents. They were naked and not ashamed.
Theologians have differed among themselves about the details of this state of original justice, but they agree that man was created immortal. It was only through the disobedience of Adam and Eve that death became part of the human condition.
Darwinism collapses the story of creation and the fall into one. The economy of the Darwinist explanation is itself a powerful argument in favor of the theory. And one should not underestimate the allurement of Darwinism as an excuse to dismiss both God and sin from the world.
Such considerations make Darwinism attractive to atheists and agnostics. Christians, however, should know better than to wish sin away by denying its reality. The Catechism refers to original sin as an “essential truth of the faith,” and for Catholics, Pius XII’s censure of polygenism appears to retain its force. The third chapter of Genesis need not be read in a naively literalistic sense, but any serious reading of the text must acknowledge that our first parents, whenever and wherever they lived, chose to rebel against God, and consequently became subject to sin and death.
The Faith Preserved
Many people who do not see any problems with reconciling Darwinism and Christianity have endorsed the common tendency to view science as rational and religion as emotional. Their attempts to delineate the spheres of science and religion in effect deny that religion has any objective truth claims. But given that there is no universally accepted definition of science and a fortiori of religion, how could this separation ever be effected in a universally accepted way, even if we thought it desirable?
Coyne may not explicitly deny that religion has objective truth claims. But his insistence that the church give biology the sole right to determine whether man’s spiritual nature can arise out of secondary causes is tantamount to relegating theology to the status of an emotional reflection on the world as it really is. That is, among other things, to deny that Christianity offers man a revelation of truths he cannot know on his own.
The church would do a great disservice to believers and to humanity as a whole were it to remain silent when science tried to pass off as fact an unsubstantiated theory. To criticize Darwinism, as the three popes and the cardinal have done, is not meddling in a neutral science. It is preserving intact the deposit of faith, which says some very definite things about the origin and fall of man, by rejecting theological claims made in the name of science that science itself cannot sustain.
Cardinal Newman, in his Idea of a University, warned of the danger of excluding any science, and especially philosophical discourse about God, from a complete understanding of reality:
If Coyne had his way, scientists and their popularizers would become the sole arbiters of reality. Darwinism, rather than theology, would provide the ultimate truth about God and man. Some Christians might see this as evidence of a more thoughtful and enlightened approach to religion. But Christianity without an omniscient and all-powerful God is not truth. And to accept the Darwinian explanation for both man’s grandeur and his depravity is to put up with an illusion.
Cardinal Schönborn’s article can be found at www.catholiceducation.org/articles/science/sc0060.html; George Coyne’s article at www.thetablet.co.uk/cgi-bin/register.cgi/tablet-01063; John Paul II’s address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP961022.HTM; and Communion and Stewardship (the Report of the International Theological Commission) at academic.regis.edu/mghedott/communionstewardship.htm.
Martin Hilbert is a priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Toronto (www.oratory-toronto.org). He holds a doctorate in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Toronto and teaches a course in the philosophy of science at St. Philip?s Seminary.
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“Darwin’s Divisions” first appeared in the June 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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