Virtual silence on the Vatican front

fall04 nextwave1 p24Well, I have some good news and some bad news.

The bad news is that we know almost nothing concrete about what happened during the discussions between Pope Benedict XVI and his former students this past weekend — those talks about evolution and philosophy. We have clips and snips from here and there, with the spin being that Intelligent Design was not on the agenda. What was on the agenda? Well, precisely the kinds of philosophical concerns that are at the heart of the ongoing debates inside the Vatican about clashing evolutionary theories (plural).

The good news is that the “minutes” of the meeting will be released. I assume that minutes do not equal a transcript. Here is a typical report, from The Register. Note the rejection of ID, while ID is defined with a phrase that sounds a lot like statements by the late John Paul II:

The Vatican will publish the minutes of the Pope’s recent meeting with his former doctoral students in which he discussed the Catholic Church’s position on the origins of life, evolution, and creationism.

The meeting was called, aides say, not to align the Catholic Church with the Intelligent Design camp from the US, but to revive a public discussion of faith and reason. Intelligent Design is presented as a counter to the theory of evolution, suggesting that life is too complex to have evolved without a designer, usually understood to be God. Proponents want it taught in science classes, alongside Darwin’s theory.

Father Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University in Florida, told Reuters that described the session as “a meeting of friends with some scholars to discuss an interesting theme”. Fessio explained that the conclusion that God created the world is not a scientific position, but a philosophical one. This, he said, is where the Catholic Church differs from the creationist movement in the US.

He told the news service: “There’s a controversy in the United States because there is a lack of awareness of a thing called philosophy. Evangelicals and creationists generally lack it and Catholics have it.”

Pope Benedict has also argued that some scientists go too far in their interpretation of the theory of evolution, and make claims for it that are based on ideology, rather than science.

Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn said that the minutes would probably be published in November.

Click here for a longer version of, basically, the same information.

Do we trust the paraphrases of the quotes from Fessio? I do not, because Fessio knows that the arguments over science education are rooted in philosophy and the interpretation of data. Fessio also knows that several of the key critics of the “unguided,” “random” definitions of evolution are either (a) Catholic or (b) scholars with Cambridge University-level doctorates in the philosophy of science.

So the news here is that the statements of John Paul II and Benedict remain on the record. We’ll have to wait for public documents to be released — while the storm inside the Vatican rages. Like I keep saying — stay tuned. We don’t know anything new yet.

P.S. Please try to focus the comments on press coverage. I will strive, again, to kill comments that turn into shouting matches between fundamentalists on both sides.

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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.

  • MattK

    Until the minutes come out, or unless someone at the siminar leaks what was said and who said it, there isn’t much to report. It is my opinion that this is seminar going to require four stories:
    1. There was a meeting at the Vatican where X was discussed among varios people known to B16 but the details are not known.
    2. According to the minutes of the previously reported meeting and/or Vatican insider’s X was discusssed at the previously reported meeting.
    3. Reaction to the meeting from distinguished non-participants such as a) John Searle of berkeley, b) Alvin Platinga of Notre Dame, c) Phillip Johnson of Berkeley, d) Alister McGrath, and Gary Wills of anywhere that disagrees with Rome.
    4. Reaction of some of the participants to the reaction of the distinguished non-participants.

    That would be a fascinating series of stories.

  • MattK

    I don’t know how to make the link button work but between Phillip Johnson and Gary Wills I had typed Alister McGrath of Oxford, and had tried to link it to his web page at Oxford. Oh, well. Technology has never been my forte. I still use fountain pens.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    I fixed it, Matt. Coding for the link was in your comment, but Alister McGrath’s name had disappeared. Please try again in the future, brother. Practice makes perfect!

  • JohnC

    Further detail, also sourced from Fessio, at Catholic News Service:

    And I think we DO know the position that will emerge when the proceedings are published:

    1. The Vatican is understandably unenthusiastic about taking sides in a political/legal stoush being promoted by American evangelical protestants in which they stand to gain nothing while losing credibility with scientifically literate Catholics.
    2. The Vatican’s core position remains that methodological naturalism does not – and should not – equate to ontological naturalism. They will publicly oppose, when necessary, the “atheism follows from science” line of Dawkins & Co. but are quite comfortable with the Gouldian NOMA formulation.

    This position is shared by the great majority of working scientists, who rather wish the Discovery Institute and the whole silly ID thing would go away and stop distracting them from their work. They are unlikely to get their wish (in the US at least).

  • http://auspiciousdragon.com/wp/ holmegm

    I find this denial endlessly funny. “We have nothing to do with ID! We’re smart! We’re Catholic! ID is crypto-creationism!”

    I’m still waiting to find out whether Rome thinks:

    1. That God is not intelligent.
    2. That God is a deist God, who didn’t design anything but just set things up and let ‘em go (maybe saying “wonder what will happen?”)
    3. Or both.

    Because, well, if He’s intelligent, and He designed, then, um, er, …

  • jimbo

    Intelligent Design is presented as a counter to the theory of evolution, suggesting that life is too complex to have evolved without a designer, usually understood to be God. Proponents want it taught in science classes, alongside Darwin’s theory.

    Both of these statements are untrue, and are invariably repeated in every story about ID. For the record: ID is at worst agnostic about “evolution” (the idea that biological forms have changed over time, and that at least some species have common ancestors) What it is opposed to is the Darwinian explanation for evolution, which posits that an undirected process of random mutations acted upon by natural selection is able to account for it. Also: the problem that ID addresses is not that life is “too complex”: after all, snowflakes are highly complex and no one doubts that they are formed by natural forces with no intelligent guidance. But life exhibits a quality of complexity that is fundamentally different from anything we see formed by randomness or by lawlike natural processes; that is, irreducibly complex structures and complex specified information. In othe words, its not the amount of complexity but the kind that is at issue.

    Finally, if by “proponents of ID” they mean the Discovery Institute, then it is not true that “they want it taught in science classes”. The DI position is that ID is too new and untested to be properly taught, at least at the HS level. What they do want is for Darwinian evolution to be taught as something less than Revealed Truth, and for the obvious problems with the theory to at least be acknowledged.

    Note: I am not affliliated with the DI or any other organization, I’m just and interested observer.

  • JohnC

    That ID may be “agnostic” (rather than merely deceptive) about common descent may explain why the media (among others) could be confused. Indeed, it is difficult to see how any testable hypothesis in modern biology can be formed (and therefore any empirical research undertaken) without a clear view on this question, which was at least the strength of the Morris-Gish approach.

  • BluesDaddy

    “I will strive, again, to kill comments that turn into shouting matches between fundamentalists on both sides.”

    No you did NOT?!! On a site that consistently raises the issue of how this word is misused, you go an perpetuate this bastardization of it. I confess, I am disappointed!

  • http://parableman.net Jeremy Pierce

    It’s true that some proponents want it taught in science classes, and some of those want it taught alongside evolution (as an alternative), but others want it taught instead, and still others don’t want it taught as science because they realize it’s philosophy. This is an overly simplistic and irresponsible statement given the variety of positions among supporters of intelligent design in the U.S.

    Similarly, it is presented as a counter to evolution by some, but it’s presented as a separate issue by most of its main figures. Some of them accept common descent. Others do not. But the main figures consider that a separate issue and don’t think the ID arguments themselves answer that sort of question.

    I can’t say that this is any more irresponsible than the predominant presentation of this issue by the anti-ID side, which has taken over the Wikipedia articles on the subject despite its intent to be a non-partisan site. But I don’t think that’s an excuse. Those two sentences do seem to me to be irresponsible journalism.


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