avatar
Devolution at the Church of Rome


So, the Church of Rome is in the process of reversing course on evolution—of devolving dogmatically, one might say, on questions that pertain to the universe and to nature and to the origins of life on the planet earth, such as it is?

The Catholic Church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things.

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. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

Thus opined the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, in Thursday’s New York Times.

The Cardinal concluded (for the entirety of this, see below):

Throughout history the church has defended the truths of faith given by Jesus Christ. But in the modern era, the Catholic Church is in the odd position of standing in firm defense of reason as well. In the 19th century, the First Vatican Council taught a world newly enthralled by the ”death of God” that by the use of reason alone mankind could come to know the reality of the Uncaused Cause, the First Mover, the God of the philosophers.

Now at the beginning of the 21st century, faced with scientific claims like neo-Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science, the Catholic Church will again defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of ”chance and necessity” are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence.

Tisk-tisk. And what of it? It’s not as if these all-too-worldly gomers haven’t already devolved on a whole host of important questions—admittedly, starting out from a very low base. From the practice of sex with little boys. To the practice of opposing liberation movements when and where they’ve run up against the grain of American Power. While affirming the same when and where they’ve run right alongside of it.

Let us not forget that these same Church of Rome-types also practice mock cannibalism, under the theological rubric of the Holy Eucharist—the “most God-like” of the sacraments (here citing Aquinas, citing Dionysius), and the “greatest of all the sacraments” (here citing Aquinas all by himself). (“Whether the Eucharist is the greatest of the sacraments?,” Summa Theologica, New Advent edition online.)

It doesn’t get any brighter, I’m afraid, when one turns to the Council of Trent (mid-16th Century). Nor for that matter some of the recent handiwork of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (a.k.a. the Inquisition)—one member of which just rejected “neo-Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology” on the pages of the New York Times, and another, more famous member of which just burst the earthly chains of the Congregation, and ascended to the throne of the Papacy itself: “The Sacrament of the Eucharist” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1322 – 1419).

Given the foregoing reflections, it appears that three, and only three, questions about paleo-Catholic dogma remain to be clarified.

The first of these is whether the infallible Truth with respect to the sacrament of mock cannibalism will remain transubstantiation? Go on over into consubstantiation? Or return to the insubstantiation of the Church’s vast prehistory?

The second is whether the Catholic Church’s most recent doctrinal assertions about the origins of life on the planet earth are best characterized as evolutionary? Or devolutionary?

And if the latter, whether this devolutionary process is guided? Or unguided?

You tell me.

Finding Design in Nature,” Christoph Schonborn, New York Times, July 7, 2005
Leading Cardinal Redefines Church’s View on Evolution,” Cornelia Dean and Laurie Goodstein, New York Times, July 9, 2005

The Oath Against Modernism, Saint Pius X, September 1, 1910

Saving Us from Darwin,” Frederick C. Crews, New York Review of Books, October 4, 2001
The Wars Over Evolution,” Richard C. Lewontin, New York Review of Books, October 20, 2005

Hail, Mary, ZNet, March 13, 2005
Jesus Cristo Libertador? ZNet, April 4, 2005
Neither Man Nor Angel, ZNet, April 19, 2005
XXX, ZNet, May 15, 2005
Unde Malum? ZNet, June 4, 2005

FYA (“For your archives”): Am depositing here a copy of Cardinal Schonborn’s commentary in the New York Times, because this one was a bona fide gem and because, sooner rather than later, the Times will sequester the commentary behind the $$$$$ curtain, rendering access unduly onerous.

The New York Times
July 7, 2005 Thursday
Late Edition – Final
SECTION: Section A; Column 1; Editorial Desk; Pg. 23
HEADLINE: Finding Design in Nature
BYLINE: By Christoph Schonborn.
Christoph Schonborn, the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Vienna, was the lead editor of the official 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church.
DATELINE: Vienna

EVER since 1996, when Pope John Paul II said that evolution (a term he did not define) was ”more than just a hypothesis,” defenders of neo-Darwinian dogma have often invoked the supposed acceptance — or at least acquiescence — of the Roman Catholic Church when they defend their theory as somehow compatible with Christian faith.

But this is not true. The Catholic Church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things.

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. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

Consider the real teaching of our beloved John Paul. While his rather vague and unimportant 1996 letter about evolution is always and everywhere cited, we see no one discussing these comments from a 1985 general audience that represents his robust teaching on nature:

”All the observations concerning the development of life lead to a similar conclusion. The evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality which arouses admiration. This finality which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose a Mind which is its inventor, its creator.”

He went on: ”To all these indications of the existence of God the Creator, some oppose the power of chance or of the proper mechanisms of matter. To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements and such marvelous finality in its life would be equivalent to giving up the search for an explanation of the world as it appears to us. In fact, this would be equivalent to admitting effects without a cause. It would be to abdicate human intelligence, which would thus refuse to think and to seek a solution for its problems.”

Note that in this quotation the word ”finality” is a philosophical term synonymous with final cause, purpose or design. In comments at another general audience a year later, John Paul concludes, ”It is clear that the truth of faith about creation is radically opposed to the theories of materialistic philosophy. These view the cosmos as the result of an evolution of matter reducible to pure chance and necessity.”

Naturally, the authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church agrees: ”Human intelligence is surely already capable of finding a response to the question of origins. The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason.” It adds: ”We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance.”

In an unfortunate new twist on this old controversy, neo-Darwinists recently have sought to portray our new pope, Benedict XVI, as a satisfied evolutionist. They have quoted a sentence about common ancestry from a 2004 document of the International Theological Commission, pointed out that Benedict was at the time head of the commission, and concluded that the Catholic Church has no problem with the notion of ”evolution” as used by mainstream biologists — that is, synonymous with neo-Darwinism.

The commission’s document, however, reaffirms the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church about the reality of design in nature. Commenting on the widespread abuse of John Paul’s 1996 letter on evolution, the commission cautions that ”the letter cannot be read as a blanket approbation of all theories of evolution, including those of a neo-Darwinian provenance which explicitly deny to divine providence any truly causal role in the development of life in the universe.”

Furthermore, according to the commission, ”An unguided evolutionary process — one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence — simply cannot exist.”

Indeed, in the homily at his installation just a few weeks ago, Benedict proclaimed: ”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.”

Throughout history the church has defended the truths of faith given by Jesus Christ. But in the modern era, the Catholic Church is in the odd position of standing in firm defense of reason as well. In the 19th century, the First Vatican Council taught a world newly enthralled by the ”death of God” that by the use of reason alone mankind could come to know the reality of the Uncaused Cause, the First Mover, the God of the philosophers.

Now at the beginning of the 21st century, faced with scientific claims like neo-Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science, the Catholic Church will again defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of ”chance and necessity” are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence.

The New York Times
July 9, 2005 Saturday
Late Edition – Final
SECTION: Section A; Column 1; National Desk; Pg. 1
HEADLINE: Leading Cardinal Redefines Church’s View on Evolution
BYLINE: By CORNELIA DEAN and LAURIE GOODSTEIN

An influential cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, which has long been regarded as an ally of the theory of evolution, is now suggesting that belief in evolution as accepted by science today may be incompatible with Catholic faith.

The cardinal, Christoph Schonborn, archbishop of Vienna, a theologian who is close to Pope Benedict XVI, staked out his position in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times on Thursday, writing, ”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.”

In a telephone interview from a monastery in Austria, where he was on retreat, the cardinal said that his essay had not been approved by the Vatican, but that two or three weeks before Pope Benedict XVI’s election in April, he spoke with the pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, about the church’s position on evolution. ”I said I would like to have a more explicit statement about that, and he encouraged me to go on,” said Cardinal Schonborn.

He said that he had been ”angry” for years about writers and theologians, many Catholics, who he said had ”misrepresented” the church’s position as endorsing the idea of evolution as a random process.

Opponents of Darwinian evolution said they were gratified by Cardinal Schonborn’s essay. But scientists and science teachers reacted with confusion, dismay and even anger. Some said they feared the cardinal’s sentiments would cause religious scientists to question their faiths.

Cardinal Schonborn, who is on the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, said the office had no plans to issue new guidance to teachers in Catholic schools on evolution. But he said he believed students in Catholic schools, and all schools, should be taught that evolution is just one of many theories. Many Catholic schools teach Darwinian evolution, in which accidental mutation and natural selection of the fittest organisms drive the history of life, as part of their science curriculum.

Darwinian evolution is the foundation of modern biology. While researchers may debate details of how the mechanism of evolution plays out, there is no credible scientific challenge to the underlying theory.

American Catholics and conservative evangelical Christians have been a potent united front in opposing abortion, stem cell research and euthanasia, but had parted company on the death penalty and the teaching of evolution. Cardinal Schonborn’s essay and comments are an indication that the church may now enter the debate over evolution more forcefully on the side of those who oppose the teaching of evolution alone.

One of the strongest advocates of teaching alternatives to evolution is the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which promotes the idea, termed intelligent design, that the variety and complexity of life on earth cannot be explained except through the intervention of a designer of some sort.

Mark Ryland, a vice president of the institute, said in an interview that he had urged the cardinal to write the essay. Both Mr. Ryland and Cardinal Schonborn said that an essay in May in The Times about the compatibility of religion and evolutionary theory by Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, suggested to them that it was time to clarify the church’s position on evolution.

The cardinal’s essay, a direct response to Dr. Krauss’s article, was submitted to The Times by a Virginia public relations firm, Creative Response Concepts, which also represents the Discovery Institute.

Mr. Ryland, who said he knew the cardinal through the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, where he is chancellor and Mr. Ryland is on the board, said supporters of intelligent design were ”very excited” that a church leader had taken a position opposing Darwinian evolution. ”It clarified that in some sense the Catholics aren’t fine with it,” he said.

Bruce Chapman, the institute’s president, said the cardinal’s essay ”helps blunt the claims” that the church ”has spoken on Darwinian evolution in a way that’s supportive.”

But some biologists and others said they read the essay as abandoning longstanding church support for evolutionary biology.

”How did the Discovery Institute talking points wind up in Vienna?” wondered Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, which advocates the teaching of evolution. ”It really did look quite a bit as if Cardinal Schonborn had been reading their Web pages.”

Mr. Ryland said the cardinal was well versed on these issues and had written the essay on his own.

Dr. Francis Collins, who headed the official American effort to decipher the human genome, and who describes himself as a Christian, though not a Catholic, said Cardinal Schonborn’s essay looked like ”a step in the wrong direction” and said he feared that it ”may represent some backpedaling from what scientifically is a very compelling conclusion, especially now that we have the ability to study DNA.”

”There is a deep and growing chasm between the scientific and the spiritual world views,” he went on. ”To the extent that the cardinal’s essay makes believing scientists less and less comfortable inhabiting the middle ground, it is unfortunate. It makes me uneasy.”

”Unguided,” ”unplanned,” ”random” and ”natural” are all adjectives that biologists might apply to the process of evolution, said Dr. Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown and a Catholic. But even so, he said, evolution ”can fall within God’s providential plan.” He added: ”Science cannot rule it out. Science cannot speak on this.”

Dr. Miller, whose book ”Finding Darwin’s God” describes his reconciliation of evolutionary theory with Christian faith, said the essay seemed to equate belief in evolution with disbelief in God. That is alarming, he said. ”It may have the effect of convincing Catholics that evolution is something they should reject.”

Dr. Collins and other scientists said they could understand why a cleric might want to make the case that, as Dr. Collins put it, ”evolution is the mechanism by which human beings came into existence, but God had something to do with that, too.” Dr. Collins said that view, theistic evolution, ”is shared with a very large number of biologists who also believe in God, including me.”

But it does not encompass the idea that the workings of evolution required the direct intervention of a supernatural agent, as intelligent design would have it.

In his essay, Cardinal Schonborn asserted that he was not trying to break new ground but to correct the idea, ”often invoked,” that the church accepts or at least acquiesces to the theory of evolution.

He referred to widely cited remarks by Pope John Paul II, who, in a 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, noted that the scientific case for evolution was growing stronger and that the theory was ”more than a hypothesis.”

In December, Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo, chairman of the Committee on Science and Human Values of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, cited those remarks in writing to the nation’s bishops that ”the Church does not need to fear the teaching of evolution as long as it is understood as a scientific account of the physical origins and development of the universe.” But in his essay, Cardinal Schonborn dismissed John Paul’s statement as ”rather vague and unimportant.”

Francisco Ayala, a professor of biology at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Dominican priest, called this assessment ”an insult” to the late pope and said the cardinal seemed to be drawing a line between the theory of evolution and religious faith, and ”seeing a conflict that does not exist.”

Dr. Miller said he was already hearing from people worried about the cardinal’s essay. ”People are saying, does the church really believe this?” He said he would not speculate. ”John Paul II made it very clear that he regarded scientific rationality as a gift from God,” Dr. Miller said, adding, ”There are more than 100 cardinals and they often have conflicting opinions.”

Leave a comment