Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Church & Evolution

The other day, Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, Archbishop of Vienna and principle author of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, wrote in a NYTimes op-ed that the current scientific theory of evolution is not compatible with Catholic faith. [We'd link you to the op-ed, but you'll need a subscription to read it by the end of the week. has a reprint of the NYTimes response.]

Back in the 1990s, John Paul II made a vague statement the human mind has all the faculties necessary to discern our origins and that to accept a passage from Genesis as the totality of knowledge of origins that we will ever possess is an insult to our common intellects, especially given that modern science can reveal so much more. He went on to say that Truth cannot contradict Truth, meaning that when/if Science elucidates the actual mechanisms by which life originated, those mechanisms will add to, not detract from, the religious truth about the origin of life, which we Catholics believe to be the simple fact that God wants men and women to be here.

This vague statement has often been used to make the case that the Catholic Church "believes in evolution." First, "belief in evolution" is absurd. Scientific fact is a matter of data, NOT a matter of faith. Second this statement NOT an endorsement of evolution. It is an endorsement of the notion that scientific inquiry has already learned more about the mechanistic origins of life than Genesis revealed to us and will continue to learn more. The Church, we estimate, has a need to defend itself from those who would quote it to support the advancement of a particular scientific theory, which is not only bad science but also dangerous to the Church.

As a theory, evolution is currently messy. Scientists are certain that life has changed since it first showed up on this Earth, but the understanding of the mechanisms and nature of that change is imperfect at best, although it is better than what Darwin put forth a hundred years ago. A hundred years more research, and there will be better data to produce a better theory, which won't be as messy. If the Church were to tie itself to what turns out to be an early draft of a theory, it would have a huge problem: When the final edit of the theory is available, the Church would have to re-edit theology to fit. Now, although theology may need to be edited and the theory of evolution may need to be edited, they do not need edited because of each other.

And that is the mistake in Cardinal Schonborn's essay. He tries to edit the current draft of the theory of evolution. If he were a researcher with some new data, that would be the right thing to do. But he isn't. He is a theologian who would like to point out that while earlier drafts of the theory left some room open to a design under all of the changes in living things, the current draft (which we equate roughly with Gould's Structure of Evolutionary Theory) doesn't. To which we'd respond, Tough Sh*t, Your Imminence. But then again, he was trained as a theologian, not a scientist, so he is much more interested in pointing out inconsistencies than in explaining data.

And we think that is the crux of the issue: Until Science has an infinite data set, the Infinite will not make sense to Scientists, and until Science has consistently explained every data point in an infinite data set, the theologians will be untrustful of it.

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