Evolution Meeting in Rome

The New York Times reports on the big evolution meeting in Rome:

They meet every year, the eminent German professor and his old doctoral students, for a weekend of high-minded talk on a chosen topic. For years it was nothing more than that.

But now the professor, once called Joseph Ratzinger, has become Pope Benedict XVI. And this year, for three days beginning Friday, the topic on the table is evolution, an issue perched on the ever more contentious front between science and belief.

And so the questions rise as the meeting unfolds at a papal palace just outside Rome. Is this merely another yearly seminar? Or is the leader of the world’s billion Roman Catholics signaling that he may join in earnest the emotional debate over evolution, intelligent design and all that might mean for politics and faith, especially in the United States?

There is no way to know immediately, though many church experts believe that the pope has fewer problems with the science of evolution than with its use to wipe God more cleanly from a secular world. No document will be published afterward, no news conference given.


There’s been a lot of fuss recently about the Catholic Church and evolution. On several occasions the current Pope has taken shots at evolution, and last year Cardinal Schonborn published an op-ed in The New York Times critical of it. Most recently, the Vatican astronomer George Coyne was relieved of his position after speaking publicly in defense of evolution. It’s unclear whether his support for evolution was the reason for removing him from the position.

For a while now, at least since Pope Pius XII in the late forties, the official position of the Church has been that evolution and natural selection are fine as long as one is careful to restrict their application to the physical bodies of organisms. Evolution notwithstanding, they say, humans have souls, and those souls are the result of direct divine intervention. Pope John Paul II upped the ante somewhat by describing evolution as more than a hypothesis, and speaking favorably of the many lines of evidence in support of the theory.

My impression is that nothing has changed under Pope Benedict XVI. I suspect that he will not explicitly reject evolution or endorse ID. Instead, he will walk right up to the line without actually crossing it. On the one hand, he personally has grave doubts about evolution. On the other hand, he is fearful of the Church receiving another black eye over conflicts between science and religion. The meme that the Catholic Church is okay with evolution is now so widespread that he probably won’t want to rock the boat too badly.

It is ridiculous, of course, that anyone cares what the Church thinks on this issue. After all, we are talking about an organization that sets itself up as the sole legitimate intermediary between Man and God, and then declares its leader to be infallible. Such an outfit has no business lecturing scientists on the virtues of humility.

Comments

  1. #1 Jonathan Lubin
    September 4, 2006

    The (grudging) acceptance of evolution by the Catholic church ought to be useful in argumentation: when one of the idiots says that Christians are agin it, you can point out that the majority of Christians are Catholic, and that the Catholic church has no objections. What your response should be when the idiot says that Catholics aren’t Christian, I haven’t figured out yet.

  2. #2 David Heddle
    September 4, 2006

    Jonathan Lubin,

    By such a response, you’d only demonstrate to the “idiot” that you are, in fact, an idiot–or at least a quote miner. It is a simple exercise to show that the Catholic Church does indeed have objections and has never, ever stated anything construable as “evolution is fine, period.” It always insisted on substantive caveats.

    If interested, read this:

    http://helives.blogspot.com/2006/08/rome-please-dont-explicitly-embrace-id.html

    And/or this Vatican document:

    http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20040723_communion-stewardship_en.html

    which contains:

    Pope John Paul II stated some years ago that “new knowledge leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge” (“Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution”, 1996). In continuity with previous twentieth century papal teaching on evolution (especially Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis ), the Holy Father’s message acknowledges that there are “several theories of evolution” that are “materialist, reductionist and spiritualist” and thus incompatible with the Catholic faith. It follows that the message of Pope John Paul II 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.

    (emphasis added)

  3. #3 David Heddle
    September 4, 2006

    Jonathan Lubin,

    By such a response, you’d only demonstrate to the “idiot” that you are, in fact, an idiot–or at least a quote miner. It is a simple exercise to show that the Catholic Church does indeed have objections and has never, ever stated anything construable as “evolution is fine, period.” It always insisted on substantive caveats.

    If interested, read this and/or this Vatican document.

    which contains:

    Pope John Paul II stated some years ago that “new knowledge leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge” (“Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution”, 1996). In continuity with previous twentieth century papal teaching on evolution (especially Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis ), the Holy Father’s message acknowledges that there are “several theories of evolution” that are “materialist, reductionist and spiritualist” and thus incompatible with the Catholic faith. It follows that the message of Pope John Paul II 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.

    (emphasis added)

  4. #4 David Heddle
    September 4, 2006

    Jonathan Lubin,

    By such a response, you’d only demonstrate to the “idiot” that you are, in fact, an idiot–or at least a quote miner. It is a simple exercise to show that the Catholic Church does indeed have objections and has never, ever stated anything construable as “evolution is fine, period.” It always insisted on substantive caveats.

    If interested, read this

    helives.blogspot.com/2006/08/rome-please-dont-explicitly-embrace-id.html

    and/or this Vatican document:

    http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20040723_communion-stewardship_en.html

    which contains:

    Pope John Paul II stated some years ago that “new knowledge leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge” (“Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution”, 1996). In continuity with previous twentieth century papal teaching on evolution (especially Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis ), the Holy Father’s message acknowledges that there are “several theories of evolution” that are “materialist, reductionist and spiritualist” and thus incompatible with the Catholic faith. It follows that the message of Pope John Paul II 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.

    (emphasis added)

    Note: actual links caused this comment to go into the moderator’s queue, which from experience is a black hole.

  5. #5 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 4, 2006

    David-

    As usual, your comments are irrelevant. The bold-face remark in your comment is simply an error – the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution says nothing one way or the other about God’s role in the process. Some people, myself included, interpret the success of the neo-Darinwian theory as evidence in favor of atheism, but other people, like Ken Miller and Joan Roughgarden do not. Such discussions are beyond the scope of science.

    It is entirely accurate to say that the Catholic Church has no objections to evolution. They only object to people who use evolution as part of a larger argument in defense of atheism, exactly as I described in my opening post. Even the remarks of Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Schonborn do not challenge the legitimacy of evolution by natural selection as an explanation for the physical form of organisms. I don’t think Benedict will change that stance.

  6. #6 shiva
    September 4, 2006

    By such a response, you’d only demonstrate to the “idiot” that you are, in fact, an idiot–or at least a quote miner. David there’s no quote in Jonathan’s comment so you are acting like someone when you call him for quote mining!

  7. #7 David Heddle
    September 5, 2006

    Jason,

    Setting aside your claim that the boldfaced text is an error, I’ll point out that it matters not. If the Catholic Church has an objection to neo-Darwinism, well then the Catholic Church has an objection–which is what I asserted. In that case, “The Catholic Church has only bogus objections to evolution” would be defensible, while the statement “The Catholic Church has no objections” is still a gross mischaracterization of her position.

    I don’t think any honest person could read that document and not conclude that while the RCC accepts evolutionary processes as secondary causes, she certainly has certain objections.

    I think the statement “the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution says nothing one way or the other about God’s role in the process” is correct on the basis of a technicality. It is perfectly analogous to the statement “ID is not concerned about naming the designer.” Neither statement can be disputed, but in both cases you know in your gut it’s a bunch of BS.

    It is entirely accurate to say that the Catholic Church has no objections to evolution.

    Wait a sec–which are you claiming, because I am getting two messages: 1) The Catholic Church’s objections are based on an error and 2) The Catholic Church has no objections.

  8. #8 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 5, 2006

    David-

    Why are you wasting my time? The Church objects to attempts to use the theory of evolution as a foundation for atheism. They do not object to explaining the physical form of organisms as the result of natural processes acting over long periods of time. Therefore, they have no objection to evolution. The error is simply in applying the wrong label to the former view.

    Are people like Ken Miller, Joan Roughgarden, John Haught, Keith Miller, Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, Natan Slifkin and countless others lying when they say that neo-Darwinism is perfectly compatible with God acting in the world? As an atheist I wish it were BS to say that neo-Darwinism is compatible with faith, but its plain that it isn’t. And unlike yourself, I lack the necessary combination of rudeness and arrogance to be so dismissive of people who disagree with me.

  9. #9 David Heddle
    September 5, 2006

    <

    Are people like Ken Miller, Joan Roughgarden, John Haught, Keith Miller, Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, Natan Slifkin and countless others lying when they say that neo-Darwinism is perfectly compatible with God acting in the world?

    First of all, the question whether they are “lying” is a bit odd don’t you think? How is one supposed to answer? I have no reason to doubt that they provide their honest opinion on the matter. Shouldn’t the question be, “do you think they are wrong?”

    Secondly, it has nothing at all to do with the Catholic Church. You are aware, I’m certain, that Rome speaks magisterially, not through the opinions of its layity, or even the bulk of her clergy, or non-Catholic experts.

    To reiterate, the question is both ill-formed and irrelevant.

    The bottom line, you can run from the linked document that reads: “It follows that the message of Pope John Paul II 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” but you can’t hide. The simple statement “Rome is ok with evolution” remains, as always, a quote-mine. It’s not much different from quoting Hawking who wrote “It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as an act of a God who intended to create beings like us.” and then claiming “Hawking is OK with cosmological ID.”

  10. #10 JohnC
    September 6, 2006

    The position of the Vatican is entirely congruent with that of most scientists – namely an acceptance of methodological naturalism in science, but a refusal to equate that with ontological naturalism (ie philosphical materialism) That is, scientific results (and the epistemology behind them) cannot and should not be used to support metaphysical statements for or against the doctrines of the soul or of God.

    So, yes “Rome is [still] ok with evolution” (the scientific theory and fact) but the Vatican will oppose the use of science to promote atheism (a la Dawkins) or claims that science can “disprove” the existence of God (a la Stenger). Its position is therefore very close to the Gouldian NOMA formulation when it comes to evolution.

    It should be noted that the Stenger position suffers from serious problems and is not supported by the peak scientific bodies anywhere. While Dawkins-style atheism can only be said to be fully consistent with science, not derivable from it.

    The fear was that some forces would seek (for reasons incomprehensible to me) to move the Vatican into some kind of alliance with the US protestant zealots pushing the ID wedge. This seems not to have happened, and perhaps was only ever a possibility in the fevered imaginations of the Discovery doyens and journalists hungry for a story.

  11. #11 John Farrell
    September 6, 2006

    Good post, Jason. And in the general sense, indeed no one (including Cardinal Schonborn) is going to come out and say the Church disagrees with the theory per se. Someone must have talked some sense to the Cardinal, because earlier in the summer, if I recall, he even went on record as describing Darwin as ‘brilliant’.

    That said, when spokesmen for the Pope or the bishops themselves fall back on the tired tropes of the theory’s alleged ‘problems’, i.e. ‘gaps’, I wince. Smacks too much of Discovery Institute style (non) talking points.
    :)

  12. #12 JohnnieCanuck
    September 6, 2006

    So if an idiot says that Christians don’t believe they are related to monkeys, we can use the ‘Catholic church which represents a majority of Christians’ argument.

    I would avoid saying most Catholics believe they are related to monkeys, since the various polls show wide discrepancies.

    The Church is trying to have its cake and eat it too. Just because they cannot argue that evolution is wrong, doesn’t mean they will extrapolate from it or accept people making logical inferences from it.

    So according to these guys, God is still the creator and directed evolution to achieve H. Sapiens, his ultimate and final goal.

    When exactly did He start sticking souls into primates? We know the given names of the first two, but acceptance of evolution means they had parents who didn’t. Given no fossil evidence of a soul, science isn’t going to be able to locate this boundary. Australopithicus, Afarensis?

    That leaves the church to answer the burning question. Maybe one of their demon hunters can examine fossils for soul traces.

    Another question I don’t expect them to address, is whether descent with modification is still acting on humans. Are we still the final word in all creation, or not?

    Good thing it isn’t the Greek Gods that Heddle believes in. His appreciation of his godlike intellect might make one of Them generate some nemesis for his hubris.

  13. #13 JohnC
    September 7, 2006

    While I personally agree that, for instance, holding both a belief in the doctrine of the soul and an acceptance of evolution can quickly lead to preposterous conclusions, that is a problem for Catholic apologists, not us.
    The real question is simply pragmatic and political – will the Vatican hold to the view that the content, practice and teaching of science is best determined by scientists? The point is to effectively neutralize Rome in the battle with these crazy American protestants, who despite a deep historic antipathy to Catholicism would welcome an alliance pushing ID with open arms (as they would with Judaism and Islam, both of which they also despise).

  14. #14 John Farrell
    September 7, 2006

    JC, very good point. In fact, the Discovery Institute has already signed on at least one Muslim scholar (‘Senior Fellow’), who wrote an awful piece for National Review toward the end of last year (Jason will probably remember this).

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