Pope Benedict XVI, dumb creationist?

Sistine God 712871You can tell that key journalists in the mainstream media are watching Pope Benedict XVI like a hawk right now. Everyone is waiting to see what he is going to say about the controversial question of whether God had anything specific to do with the creation of the world and, in particular, humanity.

Yes, that is a slanted way of stating the issues that are out there at the moment.

However, this is one way of looking at this German theology professor’s current private seminar with some of his former students, the subject of a report in today’s New York Times by correspondent Ian “Crow’s Ear” Fisher.

Most of us will, I am sure, watch the coverage as it unfolds. Let me, as always, state that I have close friends involved in this debate and, thus, I will simply try to underline one or two issues and then ask you to read the news for yourself.

My main concern is, of course, language. It is very important how journalists describe the people who are involved in these complicated debates about science, research, philosophy, theology and free speech. The most commonly used words divide the debate into two camps — the “creationism” camp for religious people and the “evolution” camp for scientists. However, there are signs that this simplistic way of describing these debates is beginning to change.

Why is the lingo changing? The Vatican — which contains some smart people — has been forcing a change. That’s why the mainstream media are focused so hard on what this pope is saying, like when he called creation an “intelligent project.” And then there was that sermon in the Mass marking the inauguration of his pontificate:

“The purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men,” he said, in St. Peter’s Square. “And only where God is seen does life truly begin. … We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”

So what is the pope concerned about? What is the Vatican trying to do?

Here is the crunch section of Fisher’s report, a place where all kinds of undefined words and, in one case, a serious oversimplification create a bit of a mess. Does the reporter realize it?

… (The) church has moved from neutrality to something like acceptance of evolutionary theory, though drawing a thick bottom line that God is the ultimate creator. In 1996, Pope John Paul declared evolution “more than a hypothesis,” and in 2004 as Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict endorsed the scientific view that the earth is roughly four billion years old and that species changed through evolution. Indeed, there has been no credible scientific challenge to the idea that evolution, the foundation of modern biology, explains the diversity of life on earth.

Given that history, scientists and church experts say they cannot imagine the study session ending with any alignment of the pope or the church with intelligent design or American-style creationism, which often posits that Earth is only about 6,000 years old.

Once again, there is that infamous quote from the late Pope John Paul II, the quote that totally misses the point of this debate — when seen from the point of view of Rome. Clearly, the Vatican accepts many ideas associated with the mechanisms of evolution, but, at the very least, the pope rejects the unprovable Darwinian doctrine that creation is the result of random and unguided changes. How would someone in a lab prove that changes are random? How could someone in a lab prove — absolutely — that they were guided and by whom?

200px John Paul II and Benedict XVIAt some point, research must be interpreted. This is where science becomes philosophy and that is precisely where the Vatican debate is focused. You can tell that by reading what John Paul II actually said. Here is a section of a column I wrote on this topic for Scripps Howard News Service. I would bet the moon and the stars that this is the issue being discussed right now by the current pope and his students.

Part of the problem is the 1996 papal address (by John Paul II) to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, with its familiar quotation that “new knowledge leads us to recognize that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis.”

The question is whether John Paul said “theory” or “theories.” According to official translations, the pope said: “Rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based.”

The pope then rejected all theories arguing that humanity is the product of a random, unguided process of creation. Thus, he said that “theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.”

At the time John Paul II spoke these words, the National Association of Biology Teachers had officially defined evolution as an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process … that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.” Critics said this definition veered beyond science into theological speculation. Thus, in 1997 the association’s board reversed itself and removed the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal.”

This is where the debate must focus. It all comes back to that quite religious, doctrinaire statement by George Gaylord Simpson in the famous The Meaning of Evolution. That faith-based statement of naturalism is: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”

Pope John Paul II disagreed. It appears that Benedict XVI does, too. Does that make this pope a stupid creationist? Does this put him “on the wrong side of science”?

Stay tuned.

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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://filmchatblog.blogspot.com/ Peter T Chattaway

    We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.

    FWIW, I don’t see why the seemingly random forces of evolution would necessarily be at odds with the idea that each of us is willed, loved, and necessary. I mean, one could just as easily say that all of us are the “casual and meaningless products of reproduction”; each of us is the product of a seemingly random encounter between an egg and a gazillion sperm competing for its attention. And then there are those of us who were conceived in situations that were adulterous or promiscuous or downright abusive. If we can accept a mix of divine intent and random chance — or worse — in those cases, then there is no reason why we could not accept it further back in time.

  • http://filmchatblog.blogspot.com/ Peter T Chattaway

    Clarification: When I said “those of us”, I did not mean to imply that I myself had been conceived in one of those situations — far from it! I meant it more in the sense of “those among us”. Sorry for any confusion; it didn’t occur to me that that might be misinterpreted until after I posted it.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    “Seemingly” is not a great concept in journalism, science or theology.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I fear that no matter what comes out of the pope’s seminar–most of the stories will be written by reporters and columnists who know little about science and even less about religion and therefore will find a way (maybe unintentially) to screw up the reporting on whatever comes out of the seminar. I just hope that whatever comes out will not be treated with a great deal of weight and authority but not as infallible–”the last word” so to speak– since whatever is stated will not be “ex cathedra” nor in a formal encyclical.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Sorry! A typo–I hope it WILL BE treated with a great deal of weight and authority, but not as infallible….

  • c.tower

    Hmmm… 2 of the 3 posters so far on this thread have gone back and reposted to correct themselves.Is that a great metaphor for the debate, or what?

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  • http://filmchatblog.blogspot.com/ Peter T Chattaway

    “Seemingly” is not a great concept in journalism, science or theology.

    Perhaps not, but would anyone seriously argue that procreation and conception are not, in some sense, a “rolling of the dice”? Or is the ultimate aim of one side of this discussion to prove that there is no such thing as an “accident”, anywhere?

  • Martha

    “Or is the leader of the world’s billion Roman Catholics signaling that he may join in earnest the emotional debate over evolution, intelligent design and all that might mean for politics and faith, especially in the United States?”

    I’m going to have to get a new desk: the old one will never hold up, the amount of banging my head against it I do…

    Why, yes, of course our current (and our previous) Pope never ever thought for an instant about the “emotional debate” or ever concerned themselves with the topic. Too busy doing whatever trivial stuff it is that Popes do, over there in Yurpland.

    And certainly it only became a topic of moment when the good ol’ U.S. of A. got all worked up about it. Never happened anywhere else, or if it did, it didn’t matter until the Americans got concerned about it. So now the Pope must get involved! For America!

    *sigh* I really don’t suppose Mr Fisher has ever read, say, “Survivals and New Arrivals” by Hilaire Belloc, published 1929, where this is among the notions covered?

    “You can hardly find an article in any newspaper discussion on religion—save the very few by Catholics, which are occasionally admitted as a favor—but takes it for granted that advance in physical science has shaken something which the writer calls “religion.” He can only mean the religion of the Bible Christian. For in what way could Physical Science affect the Catholic Church?

    You can hardly get an allusion to the evolutionist writers (in this country it is always Darwin) without the same idea cropping up: “The Conflict of Science with Religion.” But with what religion can Science conflict save Bibliolatry? On every side the recent presence of that strange worship—and even its present lingering—is taken for granted.

    (v) Scientific Negation

    This, the last of my series of Survivals, and the most vital of them is very difficult to define. What it is we all appreciate: we still meet it daily. We all know the spirit when we come across it; it is a definite organic thing in the thought of our time, a thing which was triumphant not so long ago and formed indeed, in a generation which has not yet passed away, the Main Opposition to Catholic Truth. It is the spirit which dominated Victorian England and politically, if not socially, captured France in the later nineteenth century and flooded the French University. It is the spirit which was taken for granted throughout the ruling minds of Bismarck’s new Prussian Germany, and, though inherited from the earlier and more cultured German States, was almost identified with the scholarship of the modern Reich. It was taken for granted, outside the Catholic body, as the mark of the intelligent and educated man during the “Liberal Period” of the Italian resurrection. Those who refused to accept that spirit were hardly treated seriously. Catholicism, its sole rival, was in its judgment stricken to death. The Faith was necessarily doomed, because positive scientific knowledge disproved it. Catholics were not regarded as competent to discuss philosophy, nor as intellectual equals. The individuals among us who by accident became prominent were thought, at the best rhetoricians and poets deliberately indulging their emotions at the expense of their reason, at the worst either insincere men taking up an attitude, or mere fools.

    I have said that it is exceedingly difficult to find a name for this spirit. The popular name is, without a doubt, “Scientific.” All that is connoted to the general mind by way of praise or blame in the words “Science” and “Scientist” attaches to this attitude of mind.”

    I know he’s writing for an American publication and an American audience, but y’know, there are some poor few of us who are not American and there are other times than Right This Minute.

  • Cole

    Regarding this:

    Clearly, the Vatican accepts many ideas associated with the mechanisms of evolution, but, at the very least, the pope rejects the unprovable Darwinian doctrine that creation is the result of random and unguided changes. How would someone in a lab prove that changes are random? How could someone in a lab prove — absolutely — that they were guided and by whom?… John Paul II and Benedict XVIAt some point, research must be interpretted. This is where science becomes philosophy and that is precisely where the Vatican debate is focused… It all comes back to that quite religious, doctrinaire statement by George Gaylord Simpson in the famous The Meaning of Evolution. That faith-based statement of naturalism is: ‘Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.’”

    Science does not need to disprove supernatural explanations in order to discredit them. For example, natural explanations of planetary motion discredited accounts of angels pushing planets around, but they did not disprove such accounts. Likewise, natural explanations of epilepsy discredited explanations in terms of demonic activity, but they did not disprove them. Science, unlike mathematics, is not a proof-driven discpline. It deals in successful theoretical explanations, it does not deal in mathematical axiom/definition/theorem proofs. A theory need not disprove its rivals, it need only surpass them. And when a theory is highly successful and far superior to its rivals, then those rivals lose their credibility.

    Hence science clearly can (and indeed does) discredit supernatural explanations. And so when it comes to the history of living things, including humans, it could easily turn out that a purely natural explanation is so powerful as to discredit all supernatural rivals. And that’s exactly what evolutionary biology does: it’s no more unusual or unprecedented than the cases of planetary motion or epilepsy.

    So first, the fact that “someone in a lab” (!!) cannot “absolutely” disprove supernatural guidance of changes in populations of living things is simply irrelevant. Scientists have a far better explanation of those changes, an explanation that makes no reference to supernatural activity. They are fully justified in rejecting supernatural guidance as an unnecessary component of a failed theory (just as a physicist is justified in rejecting phlogiston, and a biologist in rejecting élan vital).

    Second, Simpson’s statement should be no more controversial (or “faith-based”) than the statement, “hydrochloric acid is the result of a purposeless and natural process that does not have it in mind”. It’s not that science can decisively prove that hydrogen and chlorine are mindless chemical elements (they might have a forever-undetectable mental life), or that chemical reactions aren’t controlled by highly predictable demonic activity. It’s just that our most successful explanations of these phenomena make no reference to purposive chemicals or punctual demons, so we are fully justified in rejecting them as unworthy of serious attention.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    COLE:

    This is a wonderful demonstration of Simpson’s position.

    Attention newspaper editors: There is no difference whatsoever between hydrochloric acid and Gandhi, Mother Teresa and your own children.

  • mjbubba

    How is it that the Darwinists have so successfully pursuaded the field of journalism that their position is based on science, while anyone who believes in a creator God is opposed to science?
    Is the existence of a series of theories that are phrased in big words adequate of itself to displace the theory that God exists? That approach seems mighty flimsy to me.

  • allygally

    The meeting took plce. Intelligent Design was not even raised as a subject for discussion…so much for all the Discovery Institute press releases and predictions! Boy, they’ll be suicidal!

    Reuters did a report, and you can read a good report here;

    http://www.news.com.au/adelaidenow/story/0,22606,20348721-5005962,00.html

    “Clearly, the Vatican accepts many ideas associated with the mechanisms of evolution, but, at the very least, the pope rejects the unprovable Darwinian doctrine that creation is the result of random and unguided changes.”

    Just a very MAJOR point. The Theory of Evolution says nothing about the creation of life. There is no “Darwinian” doctrine, provable or otherwise, which says that creation is the result of random and unguided changes. The ToE is about the development of life from a single source to its present variety. Abiogenesis is a different (although related) idea.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    We are moving from discussing the issue of the story to shouting.

    Please stop.

    But the shouting is evidence of the challenge that journalists face covering the fundamentalists on both sides of this story, the true creationists and the faith-based doctrine in “The Meaning of Evolution.”

    Let’s just say that open debates are good, open journals are good (with honest peer reviewing) and journalists are supposed to do journalism about the many different beliefs involved in this debate about the philosophy that grows out of work in labs.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    ALLYGALLY:

    “The Theory of Evolution says nothing about the creation of life. There is no “Darwinian” doctrine, provable or otherwise, which says that creation is the result of random and unguided changes.”

    *****

    As John Paul II said, there are THEORIES about this issue — plural. Some mesh with Christian faith and some are unacceptable.

    Please read the actual content of the National Association of Biology Teachers debates on this very issue. There are legions of evolutionists who think your statement above is inaccurate.

  • Cole

    tmatt ascribed to me:

    There is no difference whatsoever between hydrochloric acid and Gandhi, Mother Teresa and your own children.

    Tmatt, you are an adult, and you recognize that this is a reckless misrepresentation of my position. If you want to insist that natural explanations given by science are incapable of discrediting supernatural explanations, then please address the issue and stop being dishonest. (And if you’re feeling especially generous, you can say “Cole, I’m sorry for deliberately misrepresenting your position. I was wrong to do so, and I feel a little ashamed of myself”).

  • Cole

    And I’d like to second allygally’s request to set proper limits on the scope of evolutionary biology. It does not concern abiogenesis, the origin of the universe, or the existence of God. It concerns living things on earth.

    Perhaps, as tmatt suggests, there are ‘evolutionists’ who think otherwise (no surprise there, as biology teachers in US public high schools aren’t exactly well-informed). But if so, I’d like to see what they wrote; the NABT statement on evolution looks more-or-less fine.

  • Luciano

    This is somewhat humorous that so many are hanging in anticipation by their finger nails afraid to admit that their faith in scientism or evolutionism may be shaken by what this pope may say that would make sense to many on both sides. The hints are many and quite good and I love the suspense that is being generated. For my part I can say that it’s about time that a reasoned and reasonable debate and discussion should take place without acrimony slander and obfusctions and who better to start the ball rolling than Pope Benedict XVI a man of peace who knows how to listen, a rare commodity when it come to the issues of creation and evolution where the opposite side are basically talking at each other side with disgust and self righteousness. I’m hoping and praying for the best but mindful that there are political, financial and many kinds of other interests, large egos least excepted, that may try to waylay a good and fruitful discussion of the subject.


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