Letting Big Ben speak for himself

DarwinFishDuring all of my West Coast travels last week there was one URL that I kept watching for, a link that would let us read what Pope Benedict XVI had actually said in his latest remarks on creation and a Creator.

I didn’t want to comment on this issue until there was some kind of official translation available. Now we have it (hat tip, of course, to the omnipresent Amy Welborn). Rare is the pope who speaks in sound bites, and reporters often, frankly, get the quotes wrong or out of context. When in doubt, it’s best to let the pope speak for himself.

Frankly, I was surprised at how little MSM coverage this story received. The story is old, now, but here is the start of the basic Associated Press report to remind you:

Pope Benedict XVI has waded into the evolution debate in the United States, saying the universe was made by an “intelligent project” and criticizing those who in the name of science say its creation was without direction or order. …

He quoted St. Basil the Great, a fourth century saint, as saying some people, “fooled by the atheism that they carry inside of them, imagine a universe free of direction and order, as if at the mercy of chance.”

“How many of these people are there today? These people, fooled by atheism, believe and try to demonstrate that it’s scientific to think that everything is free of direction and order,” he said. “With the sacred Scripture, the Lord awakens the reason that sleeps and tells us: In the beginning, there was the creative word. In the beginning, the creative word — this word that created everything and created this intelligent project that is the cosmos — is also love.”

For another take on this story, click here for the Religion News Service report that appeared at Beliefnet.

In terms of what the pope said, two points must be made.

First of all, he places a heavy emphasis on the awesome words at the start of the Gospel of John, a major source of unity for Christians, rather than the creation accounts in Genesis, which often cause division. In doing so, he is following the strategy of the Intelligent Design camp, not the traditional creationist argument. In the beginning was the Word. Words are intelligent and contain information.

Second, if must be noted that — more than any other point — Benedict XVI is arguing against the philosophy of Darwinism, with its emphasis on a random, unguided and impersonal process of creation, rather than against the idea of common descent and slow change over time. In doing so, he is being consistent with the often quoted and misquoted remarks of the late Pope John Paul II. For more information on that, click here and then here.

It is also clear that — in Catholic higher education and, yes, even inside the Vatican — the pope’s remarks are setting teeth on edge. Just about the only thing Big Ben hasn’t done is openly do what John Paul II did when he talked about plural “theories of evolution” and then started describing which parts of the Darwinian canon fit with traditional Christian faith and which parts do not. It would really help if journalists had to cover a detailed discussion of the merits of microevolution (accepted by virtually everyone involved in this story) and the fierce debates about the evidence for macroevolution (ah, there’s the rub).

truth eats darwinMeanwhile, Catholics will argue about this from now until doomsday.

Check out this latest blast against the Intelligent Design camp — against the pope, as well? — from the “chief astronomer” of the Vatican.

You can also follow this link to a long thread at Welborn’s open book blog, with Catholics on all sides jumping into the debate. Welborn herself opens things up with a calm post that begins with this interesting thought:

I am far less interested in Intelligent Design than I am in simply asking questions about evolutionary theory. It seems to me one could be done with out the other, and, in fact, need to be. There is not one aspect of science which should go unquestioned, even by members of the unwashed such as me, and I am a little weary of questions about evolution — about evidence, in particular — being brushed off as the wishful thinking of creationists. They’re not.

It would be quite interesting for cultural permission to be given, as it were, for this particular dogma to be held up to scrutiny and for an honest discussion to be had about the explanatory power of evolutionary theory as well as its weaknesses, flaws and gaps — without anyone getting defensive. Impossible, but it’s sort of what I’m looking for.

Amen. What she said.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://wafflinganglican.blogspot.com The Waffling Anglican

    I would hope it is possible to be unimpressed with “Intelligent Design,” the theory, while still being mightily overwhelmed with the intelligence of the Designer Himself. Intelligent Design (which, basically, is the argument for irreducible complexity in biological systems) is an argument about mechanism, not about theism. It seems to me possible to hold to Intelligent Design and be an atheist (the phrase “extradimensional aliens” comes to mind); it is also possible to be struck by the power of natural selection and genetic drift over eons of time, and still recite the Nicene Creed several times a week with absolute conviction.

  • http://blog.kevinbasil.com/ Basil

    Dear tmatt,

    You clearly do not understand this issue. Your articles on this point are very tiring. People who accept science and believe that the world is created are not “in the intelligent design camp,” unless you mean that they believe that God is intelligent and designed the world. “Intelligent Design®” has not been able to produce more than a couple of papers in peer-reviewed journals to date, mostly because they are questioning the philosophy of science, not putting forth evidence that the current consensus is false. Science is just fine, and there are many, many practitioners of it who are believers. They are not philosophical Darwinists, as you suppose.

    People who don’t understand the philosophical basis of the scientific method seem to think that there is a problem with the various scientific descriptions of origins. I thoroughly recommend to you two books: The Galileo Connection by Charles Hummel, published by InterVarsity, and Abusing Science, by Philip Kitcher, published by MIT Press. The latter, especially, is a philosophy of science text which focusses on why creationism does not count as science.

    It might also help you put away that silly creationist distinction between microevolution and macroevolution.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Terry, what particular questions do you have about evolutionary theory? Have you tried asking scientists or searching through the existing scientific literature for answers to specific questions?

  • tmatt


    I think the pope and I disagree with you.

    You also need to lose your old “creationist” label. I think even the NYTs is on the verge of outgrowing that.

  • http://blog.kevinbasil.com/ Basil

    tmatt, what are you talking about? The pope disagrees with me, how? He has said nothing in the linked statement that supercedes what his predecessor stated, that we must at this point regard evolution as more than just a theory.

    Kitcher’s book was written in the early eighties, so it does not reference “Intelligent Design®.” However, until ID ceases to be the pseudo-philosophical whinings of lawyers and mathematicians railing against the very structure of science itself and begins producing peer-reviewed scientific publications, Kitcher’s objections, I am sure, apply equally to suppliants of “Intelligent Design®” as to traditional creationists. Of course, there are plenty of scientists who already believe that an intelligent God designed the world. And, surprise, they don’t think that their job is to disprove a century and a half of scientific research.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Me, I’ll stop calling the Intelligent Design people creationists when they stop using most of the same arguments that creationists have been using since Darwin’s day.

  • jm

    In line with what “waffling” said, I am a scientist who belives in “intelligent design,” that is God is the Creator and Designer of the Universe. I don’t think the “Intelligent Design” movement is at all productive because it’s not science. The existence of God is not provable scientifically, that’s why we have faith.

    tmatt, what do you see as the distinction between microevolution and macroevolution? As somebody smarter than me said, when somebody asserts that microevolution is believable and macroevolution is not, the distinction between the two often ends up being: microevolution is what I believe and macroevolution is what I don’t believe. What you look at the data, there doesn’t appear to be any real line between the two.

    The reason that the Intelligent Design crowd often gets placed with the Young-Earth Creationist (YEC) crowd is because they make little effort to distinguish themselves and they overlap at times. Their self-proclaimed “big tent” strategy means that they don’t disavow the poor science being done by the YECs.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Phillip Johnson’s own statements do little to clarify the difference (if any) between ID and YEC. Asked about the matter, Johnson said “I have consistently said that I take no position on the age of the earth, and that I regard the issue as not ripe for debate yet.”

    This makes it sound as if he’s just holding out for some cultural change that’ll make it possible to talk about his actual views without seeming foolish.

  • tmatt

    JP II spoke of THEORIES of evolution, plural. He also said that Christians cannot accept any theory that said the creation of humanity was the result of a purposeless and random process.

    He was misquoted, frequently.

    As always, our discussions of these issues on these blogs go in circles. My point is that the media must find language that will accurately represent the views of people on both sides.

    Some readers will say either one of two things:

    * You should not quote accurately the viewpoints of liars.

    * Or it is hard to treat fairly those who want to rid the public square of all those who disagree with their orthodoxies.

    The press cannot settle for either of these positions.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    My point is that the accurate representation of the viewpoints of liars is a complicated matter. If someone says one thing in a press release, but turns out to have said a conflicting thing in private conversation that later becomes public, what do you do? I hope you don’t just quote the press release as if that was all there was to the matter.

  • http://insightscoop.typepad.com/ Mark Brumley

    Glad to see you’re finally catching up on this. The discussion of the mainstream media’s problems with B16′s recent comments and others related to it is interesting. We’ve been talking about it for quite sometime at Ignatius Insight’s Insight Scoop (http://insightscoop.typepad.com/2004/2005/11/intelligent_des.html)

    Just to be clear: B16 didn’t endorse Intelligent Design, which is a specific claim about a scientific methodology for determining whether life was “designed.”

    It shouldn’t be a revelation to anyone that the Pope thinks the world is the result of an Intelligent Agent. Nor is it news that the Pope would hold that the existence of that Agent can be discerned by reason’s reflection on the world he made (see Vatican I). All of that is distinguishable from whether we can, as a matter of science (as opposed to philosophy or theology), determine whether organisms were designed. Thus far, B16 has not addressed the issue. I suspect that he probably won’t take a side, but will leave the matter for scientists and others to debate.

  • Jean Louise

    Words contain information, but only the information we assign to them.

  • tmatt


    The press cannot work with that belief system.

    So I read your sentence and redefined all of the words in it. Now I have no idea what you said.

  • George

    jm, your argument for a blurred distinction between micro and macro evolution is tenuous. It is one thing to say that a creature can adapt to its environment by using traits from the DNA it already possesses (such as the various varieties of dogs), it is quite another to have a change in DNA that causes one creature to “evolve” into another. I’d say I see a big fat line between the two.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    George, “microevolution” does not exclude the introduction of new changes by mutation. It’s general definition is genetic change below the species level, taking place over only a few generations. Since the definition of “species” is somewhat fuzzy and complicated, the boundary between micro- and macroevolution must be at least as fuzzy.

  • George

    Avram, you are right about mutation, but I have yet to hear of any mutation that have resulted in an increase of genetic material which would be required for one species to evolve into another higher order species.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    George, what do you mean by “higher order”? And “increase of genetic material”? There are observed mutations that lead to the insertion of extra nucleotides in the DNA molecule, or even duplication of larger chromosomal regions.

  • George

    Avram, by “higher order” I mean something more complex, for example an amoeba to a slug. As for increase in genetic material, I mean an increase in functionality infused into the DNA, which seems to be contrary to the article you provide above which quotes “many mutations will lead to loss of functionality”. It is widely known that genetic mutations, for practical purposes, are always useless or harmful to an organism. Not to mention I would find it hard to assert that genetic mutations are reponsible for life, and self awareness. And no, I’m not a creationist.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    George, it’s widely known that “many” is not the same as “all”, and “usually” is not the same as “always”.

  • George

    Avram, we can play with words if you like, but that doesn’t change the argument. If 99.99% (and I think I am being generous here) of all genetic mutations result in something harmful or useless (in an evolutionary sense), then you’re strictly correct, 99.99% is not “always”. But that doesn’t posit genetic mutation as a strong candidate for the macro-evolutionary cause. If I were a betting man, those would be pretty bad odds especially considering the 0.01% would have to be a pretty fantastic mutation to offset the 99.99% of the deleterious ones. When Sickle Cell Anemia is the poster boy for positive genetic mutations, I think we should revisit our theories. It all sounds like faith to me.