This was an all-star gathering nearly unprecedented in character. The Pontifical Council for Culture, the Pontifical Gregorian University and the University of Notre Dame assembled some of the world’s leading scientists, philosophers and theologians for a week-long conference in Rome called ‘Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories’ sub-headed ‘A Critical Appraisal 150 Years After “The Origin of Species”’. Throughout the five days, just about each of those words was challenged or parsed.
On the first morning of the March 2-7 gathering, evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma said that though conferences on the different disciplines are frequently held and attended by those assembled at the Gregorian, this one was different. And he looked forward to it immensely, he enthused, as potentially the best week of his life. What made this occasion so extraordinary was its nature as an interdisciplinary meeting of physicists, biologists, molecular geneticists, paleontologists, mathematicians, philosophers and theologians – some in the higher reaches of Vatican offices – to professionally exchange ideas about Darwinian evolution. They do not engage in dialogue often, some perhaps never before. And whatever gulf may actually exist between and among them has been deeply exacerbated by popular media and pop culture, creating an unnecessary “Creation-Evolution” divide.
In 1988, in a compelling letter to Fr George Coyne SJ, Director of the Vatican Observatory, Pope John Paul II eagerly encouraged this kind of dialogue. “The matter is urgent”, John Paul said, and “the options do not include isolation.” We have unprecedented opportunities today “for a common interactive relationship in which each discipline retains its integrity and yet is radically open to the discoveries and insights of the other… Christians will inevitably assimilate the prevailing ideas about the world, and today these are deeply shaped by science… We must ask ourselves whether both science and religion will contribute to the integration of human culture or to its fragmentation. It is a single choice, and it confronts us all. For a simple neutrality is no longer acceptable.”
Nor is it popular. Celebrity atheists and neo-Darwinian scientists assail religion on perpetual book tours promoting their bestsellers. High-profile believers scorn atheistic science in their burgeoning movement to put God back in nature. They talk at but not with each other.
So when this conference opened with a welcoming address by Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, international media were present to cover it. Levada said the Catholic Church acknowledges the “wide spectrum of room” for belief in both the scientific basis for evolution and faith in God the Creator. Modern science cannot disprove the existence of God, Levada said. And Christian doctrine does not explain the physical processes by which creation took place. “We believe that however creation has come about and evolved, ultimately God is the creator of all things,” he affirmed. Pressed to comment on the debate over creationist theory, the prelate said the Church would not take a stand on a properly scientific issue. “The Vatican listens and learns,” he said.
Since Pope Pius XI instituted the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1936, the Church has relied on certain scholars to keep the Holy See current on developments in scientific research “to serve the truth”, as John Paul put it in 1996 when he addressed its plenary assembly. “How do the conclusions reached by the various scientific disciplines coincide with those contained in the message of Revelation?” the Pope probed in that address. “And if, at first sight, there are apparent contradictions, in what directions do we look for their solution? We know, in fact, that truth cannot contradict truth.”
But few know what the Church teaches regarding evolution. In fact, very little has officially been said about evolutionary biology and the theistic understanding of man. Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani generis was a marker that opened the way for scholars to develop thought along with advancing science. Church teaching on the doctrine of evolution, Pius XII said, remains something of an open question. He called it “praiseworthy” to take science into account, “in the case of clearly proved facts…” However “caution must be used when there is rather question of hypotheses, having some sort of scientific foundation, in which the doctrine contained in Sacred Scripture or in Tradition is involved,” (emphasis added). So, the Pope said, the Church allows research and discussions between scholars in science and theology “with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter — for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.”
In John Paul’s 1996 address to the Academy of Sciences, he took such openness further, saying that since Humani generis was issued, “new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.”
Those papal excerpts capture much of the March 2009 Rome evolution conference.
Facts and Theories
It was an intense week. Even the terminology in the presentations was continually challenged. “Can we claim that any statement is a fact?” mused Futuyma, reframing a participant’s question. “What do we mean by fact? It’s not something I know with unshakeable certainty, but something with so much supportive evidence that we must treat it as if it were true.” Roman anthropologist Giorgio Manzi questioned the term “theory” in presentations of science, philosophy and theology. “Perhaps we should refer to possible approaches instead,” suggested Gennaro Auletta, Gregorian Science Director. Provided they have solid grounding as science, philosophy or theology, was the underlying predication.
One participant took advantage of the Q&A session opening morning to launch a lengthy argument for the “Intelligent Design” theory. He got exactly the attention he intended when his colleague recorded the incident and posted it on YouTube. Though media reported that Turkish surgeon Oktar Babuna was denied a right to speak, that’s not true. He was in fact given the same ability as any participant to frame a question briefly and allow presenters to respond. He elaborated the “Intelligent Design” challenges to the evidence for biological evolution in the fossil record, but after repeated attempts failed to get him to pose a single question, conference organizers turned off his microphone and asked him to return to his seat. He continued to filibuster, but eventually was escorted off the floor. Futuyma personally spoke with Babuna on the side, explaining scientific evidence for evolution and transitional forms. Two Vatican officials also spoke personally with Babuna, and listened to his views.
Conference organizers say they intended to present “the facts of evolution” by scientists, hear philosophical reflection on them, and conclude with theological considerations of the nature of man. “Religious belief can exist with the sciences without losing itself,” said German philosopher Jurgen Mittelstrass. “There is a bridge to Darwin. One only has to know how to walk on it without giving up on religion or giving in to science completely.”
The problem, or one of them, is who controls the narrative. That was one point of agreement here. “Public relations encounters science in news and views these days with unfortunate consequences,” said one presenter. He called for some epistemology on the “theory of everything”… which was essentially what they were doing there in the first place.
Both mathematics and philosophy are needed
Which made a roomful of such diverse experts, who see things dramatically differently, so fascinating. The first couple of days were devoted to science: random mutations, “the common ancestry of diverse species”, evolutionary biology, natural selection, and slides on jaws and skulls and bacteria and the human eye. Early presentations relied on the necessity of mathematics for doing science. Later ones turned the philosophical corner. “The mathematical model describes everything and explains nothing,” said Belgian philosopher of science, Dominique Lambert, warning that such models can trap and limit thought. “Kant’s question ‘What is man?’ can only be considered after asking ‘What can I know?’, ‘What ought I to do?’, and ‘What may I hope?’ said Mittelstrass. “Nature gives no ethical lessons.”
Cardinal Georges Cottier, former theologian to the Pope, calmly said “the need for metaphysics has to be recognized,” to a significant number of conference participants who have not considered it either necessary or relevant. “Everything exists from God, the first and universal cause,” continued Cottier. “Everything.”
That ex nihilo concept of making something from nothing invokes Thomas Aquinas, who believed the existence of something rather than nothing proves the existence of God. But the Catholic Church doesn’t embrace creationism and never did, he specified. Aquinas drew a distinction between creation and change, and saw God’s providence in the natural sciences. The changes in nature that move and can be perceived and measured by science, Cottier said, comprise the relationship between creation and God.
He talked about the soul, and the human nature of Christ. Cottier spoke of the immortality of the soul and the meaning of the resurrection. And about parents as God’s collaborators in creation. The room was respectfully attentive. Some participants who had taken furious notes during scientific presentations were politely listening. Many who had leaned on their hands earlier in the week were taking notes as fast as they could write. “This debate required the Church to speak out, and many times to address the incorrect understanding of the imago Dei,” Cottier continued. “The human soul is directly created by God. But the concept of soul is not widely considered today.” That was a grand understatement, given the audience.
Cottier said the soul is “an antiquated concept that brings a smile to faces today,” but it’s more like a snicker or frown or worse… complete disregard. He challenged philosophers to fix that.
“The spiritual soul doesn’t proceed from the accidents of nature, but from being,” Cottier continued. “With the infusion of the spiritual soul by God, man is created. Thomas says species should be considered in the ‘order of things’. The perfection of this order is human. All elements of the cosmos tend towards man.”
Establishing a dialogue
Just two days earlier, conference participants had heard an evolutionary biologist declare “the Darwinian revolution consisted of removing man from the center of the universe and making him just one in an assortment of species, just one more among more than 10 million.” Such was the dynamic tension of the proceedings. So after Cottier’s lecture, Auletta asked all present to respect the constraints of each field and discipline. “We ought to confront ourselves and challenge our opinions,” he urged. “I invite you all to try to understand each other in a mutual way.”
Science wasn’t ‘doing God’, but scientists were listening, and some were taking notes. Like Futuyma. In a coffee break conversation, he dismissed the doctrine of original sin and ‘the Fall,’ but Futuyma was at least willing to engage the question, obviously enjoying the weeklong engagement.
“All we can do is compare beliefs with beliefs, but not directly to a known reality,” Massimo Stanzione suggested in the next lecture. Some experts “don’t believe in objective truth, but believe in being honest in these discussions,” he said. That’s an encouragement to “bring home all aspects of this great debate.”
French philosopher Jean-Michel Maldame returned to clarifying terms, at times in bullet-point form. “Theories are the considerations of facts,” he stated. “What are facts, first of all? Facts can’t be challenged. Theories or principles should. They lead to a philosophical debate. There is no spontaneous generation—that has a temporal nature. Scientific research investigates fossils and places them in a continuum of time… The theory of evolution presents itself as an historical exploration. But we can’t go back and experiment on origins.”
Maldame probed further, parsing the ideas of “origin” and “beginning”. “In Genesis, ‘In the beginning’ can also be translated as an origin rather than just the beginning.” What’s the difference? “Origin is a constituent of what appears on a continuum. Beginning does not. An origin is not a beginning. Be careful of referring to origin as beginning…. Science applies to change or energy. Philosophy applies to reasons for change, and for life itself.”
The conference was indeed provocative.
“God’s role in causality can be understood as interactive,” Maldame said in setting up an analogy. “Take, for example, the music produced by a musician playing an instrument. All is produced by both, and if you eliminate either you lose it. This allows us to understand God’s action in the forces of nature. Everything comes from both God and nature. My explanation of God is not to negate science.”
Tension between science and religion
There is “tension still between science and religion, with a lot of skeptical bystanders,” said French philosopher Jacques Arnauld. He invoked the “render unto Caesar” analogy. “We can have discussions with scientists, inviting but not obliging them to consider the things that are of God,” said Arnauld. “Just take God into account. Don’t blow out the candle or the lamp post saying ‘Stay here.’ But instead, say ‘Go out’, and encourage the journey of finding the way.”
Even before it ended, these final lectures brought the conference full circle, venturing where the Pontifical Council for Culture and partner sponsors intended it to “journey”.
To those who believe the Church tortured Galileo and abhors science, this would all be rather stunning. Auletta, a professor of philosophy at the Gregorian, told the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano that the Church is rich in scientific scholarship and pointed to Cardinal John Henry Newman as a supporter of 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.
In that 1988 letter to Vatican Observatory director Fr George Coyne, Pope John Paul II emphasized the importance of diverse disciplines converging for a unified vision of humanity and humanism. But he qualified it, with keen awareness and insight: “Yet the unity that we seek… is not identity. The Church does not propose that science should become religion or religion, science. On the contrary, unity always presupposes the diversity and the integrity of its elements. Each of these members should become not less itself but more itself in a dynamic interchange… We are asked to become one. We are not asked to become each other.”
On that occasion, the 1988 tri-centennial of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (philosophy of mathematical principles of natural philosophy), John Paul said the benefit from this exchange is mutual. “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes… Only a dynamic relationship between theology and science can reveal those limits which support the integrity of either discipline, so that theology does not profess a pseudoscience and science does not become an unconscious theology.
“You are called to learn from one another, to renew the context in which science is done and to nourish the inculturation which vital theology demands. Each of you has everything to gain from such an interaction, and the human community which we both serve has a right to demand it from us.”
Whatever the other evolution conference participants do with the proceedings in their own particular disciplines, it’s up to the Pontifical Council for Culture to tell the culture that they’re working on it.
Sheila Gribben Liaugminas is an Emmy Award winning journalist who reported for Time magazine for more than 20 years. She blogs at InforumBlog.com and on MercatorNet.