"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Church & evolution again

The only good news in the latest buzz about Catholic teaching on evolution is that people are no more confused than they've ever been. In a July 7 Op-Ed article for the New York Times, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna and lead editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, indicated that while "[e]volution in the sense of common ancestry might be true," the fact remains that, according to Church teaching,
...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 (emphasis added).

But of course: what else could he say? Leave aside that Schönborn is a former student and close ally of the present pope. To hold that genetic variation, and therefore the raw material of natural selection, is "random" is to deny providential design in the the development of life on earth. A church that has always confessed God as the intentional Creator and Sustainer of the universe could not deny such design and remain self-consistent. So why the hubbub in both the mainstream media and the blogosphere?

My examination of the usual suspects suggests that it's because the materialists think the Cardinal is taking back something that the Church had once conceded. As early as 1950, Pope Pius XII had allowed that

...the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter...

Pope John Paul II went further in his 1996 letter on evolution to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, where he briefly supported the view that evolution in the above sense is "more than a mere hypothesis." But this is not news, folks. It's been a long time since the Catholic Church had a problem with the idea of the physical emergence of species, including our own, out of earlier ones. That is a matter for scientific evidence to determine. The problem is that the materialists take too much for granted. They are convinced (see below) that, once physical emergence is conceded, the rest of their etiolated worldview somehow follows. But the Church does not think so. And that is intolerable to them. They truly believe that the triumph of "enlightened" philosophical materialism would be ineluctable were it not for those blasted clerics and bible-thumpers. That's ideology at work.

The Church insists on two points: everything in the universe is intelligently designed, and the human soul is created by God without any secondary causes. The latter entails that the human soul is not even secondarily a product of natural causes. Such claims are not scientific; they are metaphysical. They can neither be established nor overthrown by natural science; they are in fact irrelevant from the standpoint of scientific method. But by the same token, neither does the claim that there is no design belong to the scientific method. The most the scientist as such can say about such claims is that they are beyond his professional purview whether he personally believes them or not. Hence he can neither prove nor disprove the aforesaid doctrines of the Church. To be sure, Schönborn cited "overwhelming evidence" of design, and the word 'evidence' has given some critics the impression that Schönborn was talking (bad) science. But such evidence is not the sort that figures in science—and everybody who studies these things knows it. It is the sort St. Paul cited in Romans 1:20: "Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made." That's evidence of a cognitive order altogether different from that of modern natural science. The Church does not deny that; she says only what she's always said, which is no less worthy of consideration for that. Yet the neo-Darwinists ideologues don't care to hear that. It's just too convenient to paint the Church as doing bad science.

Mind you, it's not that they can't know otherwise; the record is not exactly secret. But they don't care because they think the whole thing is a dodge. For they believe that what cannot be predicted by the methods of natural science, such as genetic variation, is unpredictable by its very nature. That is because they believe, more generally, that what cannot be learned by natural science is not even potentially knowable. If so, then the very notion that there are truths of ultimate importance which cannot be known scientifically is at best weak-minded and at worst quite dangerous to humanity. Such is the ideology of "scientism," in which the forces of enlightenment—chiefly the subscribers to the ideology—are pitted against the forces of obscurantism, chiefly religious believers and their leaders.

So that's why the Church, in the person of Cardinal Schönborn, is being jeered as a vacillating, confusing, and unproductive interlocutor. But even as that happens, the rumblings are afoot in the enemy camp. Neo-Darwinism has critics of impeccable scientific credentials, such as Michael Behe, and the literature on "intelligent design," while of quite uneven quality, just won't go away. So the struggle continues. But that's old news, is it not?

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