The conference that drew multi-discipinary scientists, philosophers
and theologians to Rome last week to assess facts and theories of
evolution has generated a lot of heat and light.

And growing media interest, best explained probably by the Church’s role in it.

The conference, titled “Biological Evolution: Facts and
Theories,” was sponsored and organized by the Pontifical Council for
Culture’s Science, Technology and the Ontological Quest project, the
University of Notre Dame in Indiana, and several of Rome’s pontifical
universities.

The assembly itself was highly unusual, as one of the speakers
pointed out early on the first day. Douglas Futuyma, a professor of
ecology and evolution at the State University of New York at Stony
Brook, said that though he attends many conferences within his field of
expertise, this assembly of interdisciplinary experts promised an event
that could be ‘the best week of my life’, no less.

Futuyma was Jesuit trained in his schooling, he said, and
appreciates that education and moral framework. But his approach to the
issue is purely scientific. The article leads with his thinking:

Charles Darwin’s theory that all living organisms have
descended from one common biological species is a scientific fact that
has tremendously aided medical research,

and

common biological ancestry is the basis upon which all scientific research is conducted

said Futuyma.

The conference was heavy on science, though with the presence of
philosophers, theologians and academics from around the world, the
Q&A and discussion sessions got very interesting. When asked
whether the reliance on “open ended possibilities” of science hadn’t
actually become its own act of faith, Futuyma said scientific belief is
“always an approximation to what we assume is a reality instead of
attaining an absolute truth.” When he was challenged again on
scientific assumptions, he said this…

Can we ever claim that any statement is a fact? We can
never do that. What do we mean by fact? It’s not something I know with
unshakeable certainty, but something with so much supportive evidence,
we must treat it as if it were true.

This is what the conference sponsors were after, wrestling with
facts and theories and even arguing about that constitutes a fact or a
theory.

Gennaro Auletta, who teaches the philosophy of science
at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University and heads the culture
council’s project, said the aim of the five-day conference was to offer
a critical appraisal of Darwin’s theories of natural selection and
evolution.

Modern scientific discoveries have modified and added greater detail
to Darwin’s findings, he said in an interview published March 4 in the
Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

For example, he said, many now see that “the evolution and
development of an organism is the result of a co-evolution — a
co-adaptation” between the organism and its environment, which are
constantly interacting with each other…

Theologians and many scientists recognize the universe “is not just
a random jumble of elements, but is a structure that we can define as
being, if not intelligent, then at least intelligible,” he said.

However, Auletta said, this has nothing to do with the claims of
intelligent design, which accepts that life has evolved over the eons
but that because it is so complex its development has been guided by a
supreme being or intelligent agent, which some identify as God.

Intelligent design “is not a scientific theory even if it tries to pass itself off as one,” he said.

He said Catholic theologians understand the distinction between God,
who is the first cause of the universe, and his autonomous creatures
and creation.

Furthermore…

The Italian expert asserted that the Church “has never adopted an attitude of condemnation” towards Darwinism.”

“This is one of the many reasons that in my opinion make all the
efforts to recover or rehabilitate Darwin superfluous, because neither
the Catholic Church nor her most important exponents have ever
condemned Darwinism or the theory of evolution,” he said.

“It [Darwinism] has always been given much attention,” Auletta
said.  “We only need to recall that Cardinal John Henry Newman in
England was a clear supporter, since its beginnings, of Darwinism. I
would even say that since the famous statement by John Paul II in 1996
we have entered a phase of recognition.”

This engagement of even the debate over science and faith in
creation and evolution has drawn a lot of criticism from all sides. Vatican officials involved in it know that.

Speaking at the opening of a Vatican conference marking
the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Cardinal William
Levada said that it is “absurd” to suggest that modern science can
disprove the existence of God. The prefect of the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith said that scientific inquiry and religious faith
are separate endeavors, and it is a logical error to think that one
could determine the other. Christian doctrine does not explain the
physical processes by which Creation took place, the cardinal observed.
“We believe that however creation has come about and evolved,
ultimately God is the creator of all things,” he explained. Briefly
addressing the debate over Creationist theory, the American prelate
said that the Church would not take a stand on a properly scientific
issue. “The Vatican listens and learns,” he said.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....