Evolution in the Eyes of the Church (Part 1)

Father Edward Oakes on the Importance of Definitions

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MUNDELEIN, Illinois, JULY 27, 2005 (Zenit.org).- It isn't often that cardinals from another continent get space in the op-ed pages of the New York Times.



Such was the case on July 7 when Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna and principal editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, tried on the opinion page of the Times to clarify the Church's teachings in regard to the theories of Charles Darwin. His statements ignited a firestorm of commentary.

To get insight into the issue, ZENIT turned to Jesuit Father Edward Oakes, a theology professor at the University of St. Mary of the Lake.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Thursday.

Q: Cardinal Schönborn recently wrote an opinion-page article in the New York Times on evolution. What was the real point he made in that piece? Was it just a new chapter in the evolution-vs.-creationism debate?

Father Oakes: First of all, let me clear up a problem of interpretation regarding Cardinal Schönborn's essay, due no doubt to the editors of the Times.

Two days after his op-ed piece appeared, the Times ran a front-page story on the controversy whose headline read: "Leading Cardinal Redefines Church's View on Evolution." This so-called redefinition is something the cardinal most decidedly did not do.

For one thing, the Church has no "doctrine" on evolution, any more than it has a doctrine on tectonic plates or a magisterial teaching on how human consciousness arises from the electrical firings inside the neurology of the brain. These matters are both beyond the competence of the magisterium and are irrelevant to salvation, anyway.

Secondly, even if the magisterium did have an official teaching on evolution, it does not officially revise its "views" on matters of science by having a cardinal, however "leading," writing an article "in propria persona" -- on his own behalf -- and using an op-ed piece in a secular newspaper to boot.

That said, I believe that Cardinal Schönborn's essay "Finding Design in Nature" in the July 7 issue of the Times makes a valid point, roughly the reverse side of the coin of what Pope John Paul II said in his now-famous letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in October of 1996.

John Paul said at the time that "evolution" -- which, as Cardinal Schönborn rightly notes, the Holy Father left undefined -- can no longer be considered merely a "hypothesis" because so much data have now come in to confirm the theory.

The problem is that this very short letter brought some misinterpretations of its own in its wake -- because of the obnoxious way some Darwinians like to hijack the word "evolution" for their own atheistic purposes -- and it is those false conclusions, as I see it, that the cardinal was trying to warn against.

But, no, I do not see the cardinal's quite legitimate warning as a "new chapter in the evolution-vs.-creationism debate."

First of all, if "creationism" means six-day creation as a few Christian fundamentalists still hold, then there is no chance in the world that the Catholic Church will join that cause. But "creationism" can also refer to the total ontological dependence of the universe on God's creative act of will, and nothing in the theory of evolution can threaten that essential doctrine of the Catholic faith.

Remember that, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, even if the world happens to be temporally eternal, such an eternity of time would not undermine the created contingency of the world, utterly dependent on God's free decision to create it.

Q: Non-scientists often think Darwin's theory of evolution is accepted as scientific fact. Is that the case? If not, what is the best science saying right now?

Father Oakes: As Cardinal Schönborn rightly pointed out, the key is how one defines evolution.

If evolution simply means "descent with modification," then I would agree that evolution must be regarded as confirmed by scientific "fact" -- meaning by that tendentious word a reality that no one can afford to deny, except at the price of obscurantism.

Defined in that way, the theory of evolution claims that all life began about 3.5 billion years ago as a single-celled, self-replicating organism from which we are all descended. Since everyone now reading this sentence once began his or her existence as a single-celled organism, I hardly see how such a theory can be regarded as inherently implausible. Plus, let's not forget that the biological basis of the Church's opposition to abortion is based on the single-celled origin of human life.

And once one traces the transmission of life all the way back, using the science of genetics as one's marker, and once one follows the paths of life back to life's remotest beginnings, one sees how the various life-forms are interrelated. Moreover, using genetics, one can roughly spot when each branch of life broke off from its parent-branches.

The problem comes from the conflation of Darwinism with evolution strictly defined. Now Darwinism asserts not just the fact of "descent with modification"; it also claims to know the "how" of evolution: Evolution occurred, it claims, by means of something it calls "natural selection."

Again, if that term is strictly defined, it simply means that only those organisms that reach reproductive age get to transmit their genes; and if those genes were somehow "responsible" for helping that organism reach reproductive age, then that "helpfulness" will likely contribute to later success as well.

As with the doctrine that all life began as a single-celled organism, I hardly see how such an obvious insight can be regarded as controversial. But then again, we have to ask: How much does the concept of natural selection actually explain the "how" of evolution? Certainly, this question is a very controversial point among philosophers of biology.

But leaving aside whether natural selection actually does any explanatory work, the importation of that concept into human relations has been nothing but an unmitigated disaster for the 20th century: Karl Marx, John D. Rockefeller and Adolf Hitler were all enthusiastic Darwinians.

For that reason, I would say that any application of Darwinian principles outside the restricted sphere of organic evolution is not only not "accepted as scientific fact" but that it has also been massively disconfirmed by history.

Q: Many Catholic scientists -- including Kenneth Miller, biology professor at Brown University and author of "Finding Darwin's God" -- have requested a clarification from the Holy See on this issue, claiming that from a strictly scientific standpoint, Darwin's description of biological origins is not incompatible with Catholic teaching. Do these scientists have a legitimate point?

Father Oakes: A statement from the Vatican could be beneficial, but I also see no problem with everyone just taking a deep breath and cooling off for a while.

My worry about any more statements from the Church on evolution is the way the world of journalism will inevitably distort the import of both the Church's teaching and the debate such a statement will surely provoke among theologians, believing biologists and kibitzing atheists.

But the infernal noise of journalistic debate is a feature of our times anyway, so perhaps a serene and untroubled statement by the Vatican on this topic would be timely.

Q: What would you like to see the statement say?

Father Oakes: Well, it's a bit above my pay-scale to be giving Pope Benedict and the cardinals in Rome instructions on how they can best do their jobs, but here's how I approach this issue in my own writings.

Take the law of gravity. Fortunately the Catholic Church made no official pronouncement on Isaac Newton's "Principia Mathematica," not only because such a pronouncement would have been beyond the competence of the magisterium, but also because Newton's law had to be revised when Albert Einstein was forced to redefine gravity as the warping of space-time by material bodies, and not as some mysterious attractive force inherent in matter, as Newton held.

But when Newton published his "Principia" -- which completely bowled over the educated public -- many philosophers hijacked Newton's law for their own anti-theological purposes. They declared that Newton's law meant that God was this law's "legislator."

Fair enough, it would seem, but then came the next step. Because gravity works on its own, this meant, according to some philosophers, that after God's "enactment" of this law, he could just retire and let the universe run on its own.

Unfortunately for these self-styled "Enlightened" -- but in fact benighted -- thinkers, there is absolutely nothing in the law of gravity that would justify such a philosophical move; Newton certainly resisted it. And quantum mechanics has in any event completely exploded that old-style determinism.

Similarly, what if a geologist were to claim that God either doesn't exist or is unfeeling, with no regard for the sufferings of the human race, simply because tectonic plates cause earthquakes? That, too, would be a philosophical importation introduced adventitiously into the assured deliverances of geology.

And if a neurologist were to say that, because consciousness depends on brain activity, there is therefore no such thing as a soul -- that too would be an invalid conclusion.

In other words, just because evolution is true, that doesn't mean that any of the conclusions that so many boring positivists draw from evolution is true.

Q: So it's just a matter, then, of pointing out the philosophical errors in the conclusions of some Darwinians?

Father Oakes: St. Thomas Aquinas, I believe, has given theologians the best way to deal with these illegitimate moves. When he began to meet the challenge of Aristotle's philosophy, he immediately recognized much wisdom and truth in this natural-born Greek genius, but he also knew, as a Christian, that Aristotle had to be wrong in at last some of his conclusions.

But Thomas didn't just content himself with recognizing the falseness of the conclusions. He also realized that if Aristotle were to be proved wrong, he had to be proved wrong philosophically.

Think of someone who tries to teach himself algebra without a tutor, by using one of those textbooks with the right answers in the back. He tries out a problem on his own, and then he looks up the right answer in the back. And if he sees he got the answer wrong, he needs to go back and find out where the error was made according to the standard rules of mathematics.

Otherwise he's not really teaching himself algebra, just memorizing answers that, for all he knows, could be quite arbitrary.

Now a Church statement on evolution -- especially of the kind that Professor Miller seems to be seeking -- can either content itself with pointing out certain erroneous conclusions from Darwinian theory, or it can also show how and where the false logic operates that brings some benighted Darwinians to their dreary conclusions.

It is my view that the Church's magisterial office would work best if it confined itself to the first task, and left it to philosophers and theologians to thrash out the second challenge.

[Thursday: Reconciling Science and Faith]