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The Pope's Parlay: Vatican Officials Gather to Discuss Evolution

The recent Guardian story that the Pope may be about to endorse intelligent design as a scientific theory is way off the mark, I believe. There clearly is more media interest in this weekend's meeting than the annual reunion of the pope's former theology students ordinarily would warrant, even given this year's special topic. But there will be a lively discussion. Various opinions will be heard. And I suppose you can expect a lot of uninformed spin afterwards. But don't expect some definitive new Vatican declaration on science questions. (Granted, I COULD BE SURPRISED!)

Rather, what seems most significant is that this meeting represents the expansion of a line of inquiry for the Vatican. For one thing, the pope apparently has long wanted a larger discussion on evolution. He says as much in his 2003 book, Truth and Tolerance, where as Cardinal Ratzinger, he says a real and full dialogue has not taken place yet.

"There is at any rate no getting around the dispute about the extent of the claims of the doctrine of evolution as a fundamental philosophy and about the exclusive validity of the positive method as the sole indicator of systematic knowledge and of rationality. This dispute has therefore to be approached objectively and with a willingness to listen, by both sides--something that has hitherto been undertaken only to a limited extent." Page 179, 2004 paperback edition, Ignatius Press.
In fact, he wrote in German on the topic as early as 1987.

Dr. Dominique Tassot, director of the Centre d'Etude et de sur le Science (Center for Studies and Prospectives on Science), a group of scientists in France (mostly Catholic) and a strong critic of Darwinism, reminds us in an article for the National Catholic Register that Pope Pius XII suggested in Humani Generis in 1950 that a debate within the Catholic Church on evolution should be conducted. "But it has never happened," as Tassot says. Now there are more scientists who question Darwinism--certainly more than in 1950--and a two-sided discussion will be more robust.

Of course, the Vatican understandably would rather not opine on specific science questions at all and it doesn't need to. On the other hand, the ideological aspect of Darwinism (or "evolutionism", in Cardinal Schoenborn's phrase) is seen as part of the problem of a secularized Western society, especially in Europe. That the Vatican cannot ignore.

The theologians this weekend are sure to discuss, but probably not resolve, the extent to which the materialist ideology of Darwinism actually preceded the creation of Darwin's theory and is an inevitable part of the theory's fabric. The Church can live with evolution if it merely means change over time or micro-evolution, change within species. So can nearly all critics of Darwinism, including us, for that matter. But Darwinism is about macro-evolution. And as Cardinal Ratzinger again wrote in his 2003 book, "Within the teaching about evolution itself, the problem emerges at the point of transition from micro- to macro-evolution..." (Page180.)

There also may be a way to accept Darwinism as part of a larger process where meaning somehow does inhere. But Darwin's theory, according to its leading advocates and spokesmen, does not allow for such meaning in nature, per se. Therefore, to the extent evolution is "evolutionism" and is applied to many related subjects in science and sociology, and to the extent the scientific theory itself is shot through with materialist ideology (as scientists connected with Discovery Institute hold that it is), the Church is going to have a problem with it. (See "A Meaningful World," the new book, by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt.)

In terms of holding dialogues in the Church or anywhere, the very vocabulary of the discussion is confused, unfortunately. People mean different things by such terms as "evolution," "creation" and "intelligent design," so they wind up talking past one another. In addition, at Castel Gandolfo you will hear a lot of words that borrow from philosophy, particularly the natural philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. That will confuse even many of the scientists.

For an example of media confusion: It is correct that the Church doesn't support what is normally considered creationism--a literalist reading of Genesis, creation in six 24 hour days 6500 years ago. Neither do ID scientists. But even knowing this, Darwinist critics of intelligent design say that ID is creationism "in disguise".

But when they say that they are shifting to a different definition. To a die-hard Darwinist, ANY account of the development of life that does not commit to a materialist (unguided, unplanned) explanation can be stigmatized as "creationism." The confusion by Darwinists in this case is intentional. And the media, alas, tend to follow the definitions of the Darwinists (even for ID), not the definitions offered by ID scientists. This is very frustrating for the ID scientists, and to say the least, impedes serious dialogue.

Simply put, neither the Catholic Church nor ID scientists are "creationists". But if you were to apply to the Church the same meaning of "creationism" that Darwinists try to fix on intelligent design scientists, you would have a church that denies its own foundational teaching and would be making a kind of going-out-of-business announcement! The Church plainly isn't doing that.

But if the media are going to accept the definition of the word creationism that the Catholic Church uses (as do most people) , they logically have to acknowledge that, in the same sense, ID scientists are "not creationists" either--"in disguise" or otherwise. In fact, ID, as science, makes no statement about God, whereas the Church does. ID is theism-friendly just as Darwin's theory is atheism-friendly, but ID scientists don't operate from a religious premise, while the Church does.

This background shows why we are pleased that Pope Benedict is taking up this subject. It will force many people to look more closely into issues that challenge their worldview. We see it as one more indication that various kinds of scholars and ordinary citizens alike are taking a fresh look at evolution and design issues. You are going to see a great many more meetings and conferences of various kinds on the topic. Slowly the confusion of definitions will lift.

As pope, Benedict XVI already has made several public statements critical of Darwinism as ideology and has referred favorably, if indirectly, to ID ("this intelligent design of the cosmos" in one translation, "intelligent project" in another). More tangibly, there is a little "holy card" with Pope Benedict XVI's picture on it that is for sale around Vatican City kiosks these days. Its message is taken from the Pope's first homily in his new role and includes the statement that "We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution."