On 'Origin of Species' milestone, experts ponder its impact on faith

On ‘Origin of Species’ milestone, experts ponder its impact on faith

On ‘Origin of Species’ milestone, experts ponder its impact on faith

A first edition of Charles Darwin's landmark 1859 book, "On the Origin of Species." (Credit: YouTube.)

On the 158th anniversary of Charles Darwin's world-changing book 'On the Origin of Species,' which laid the foundations for evolutionary theory, several Catholic scientists and experts are expressing frustration with the common perception of tension between evolution and religious faith -- pointing, among other things, to a string of popes who clearly didn't feel that way.

ROME – “I see no good reasons why the views given in this volume should shock the religious views of anyone,” wrote Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species, which laid the foundation for evolutionary biology. Today marks the 158th anniversary of its publication on Nov. 24, 1859.

Despite Darwin’s confidence, the theory that human beings might have evolved, and continue to evolve, from one or more common ancestors, has stirred both deep passion and intense debate ever since, touching on many of the core doctrines of Christianity – creation, the soul, original sin, and the destiny of humanity.

Over the last century and a half, many Christians have rejected evolutionary theory in favor of creationism, based on a literal interpretation of the Scriptures, or various forms of intelligent design, attempting to use science to prove divine intervention.

Yet other Christians, including notable Catholics, have embraced Darwin’s perspective with enthusiasm. French biologist Louis Pasteur, a devout Catholic who drew his last breath while clutching his rosary, backed Darwin’s findings.

While Darwin was working on the book, Augustinian Friar Johann Mendel, considered the father of genetics, began his famous pea plant experiments which helped establish the laws of heredity. He pored over the German edition of On the Origin of the Species, and thought it was compatible with the Christian faith. The work of the two men provided the basis for the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology.

Over the years, popes, bishops and many Catholic scholars have voiced their support for evolutionary theory, seeing no contradiction with Church teaching. Yet other Catholics, including senior members of the hierarchy, have voiced doubts or worked towards alternative explanations of scientific data.

On this important anniversary, Crux reached out to several Catholic theologians and scientists to discuss the intersection between faith and science, and the ongoing debate between evolutionary and creationist beliefs.

Creationism in the United States

Polls say that about one out of three Americans believe in creationism. While some surveys show the ratio to be higher, around 40 percent, the number has been progressively declining in the past decade.

Organizations such as the Discovery Institute have tried to find a third way with its version of the theory of intelligent design, a supposedly evidence-based religious argument for the creation of life that has drawn a measure of Catholic interest. Schools often become the battlefield for this debate, with each side wanting to knock the other off the curriculum, or at least claim some real estate for its position.

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that creationism, not being a science, could not be taught as such in public schools since it is in violation of the First Amendment’s proscription against “an establishment of religion.”

The Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case in 2005 was one of the most influential and media-covered. The Pennsylvania school board was brought to court by parents and professors because of its intention to incorporate intelligent design in its school programs. The judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, referring to the Supreme Court’s decision.

“Within the general public using public education as a battleground, there is a debate. But it’s a cultural clash,” said molecular biologist Kenneth R. Miller, the lead expert witness for the plaintiffs in the 2005 case and a practicing Catholic, in an interview with Crux.

“Those who wish to introduce the creationistic debate are profoundly skeptical of science,” Miller said. “It’s a revolt against the very culture of scientific discovery. As a scientist, this is the thing that bothers me the most.”

Another important moment regarding Catholics and evolution in the United States came in 2005, with an opinion essay published in the New York Times by Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn appearing to support intelligent design and echoing several arguments by the Discovery Institute.

Though the cardinal later reviewed his position, saying his criticism was not of evolution as a scientific theory but as a philosophical axiom, the article reinforced perceptions of a tension between the Catholic faith and evolutionary theory and reinvigorated Catholic support for the creationist position.

“This thing called scientific creationism, which got traction in the United States for the past 40 years, no one should teach that anywhere,” said Father Paul Mueller, religious superior of the Jesuit community at the Vatican Observatory and an American, in an interview with Crux.

“It’s neither good science, nor good theology,” Mueller said.

According to the Jesuit, “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and biblical literalists are in agreement in adopting a very “simple and literal” interpretation of the Bible, insisting that was never the Catholic approach.

Mueller warned against confusing Catholic belief in divine creation, according to which God created the universe out of nothing and gave it order while also allowing it autonomy, with the scientific notion of causation, which describes how things developed.

“One of them belongs in the religion classroom, and the other belongs in the science classroom,” he said. “It’s all too easy for a scientist who’s not theologically sensitive to present scientific theories as if they are the whole story, and exclude any kind of divine action. Scientists should know their limits.”

He added that in the same way, a religion teacher has no place saying whether a scientific story is true or false. This sentiment was echoed by Father Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti, adjunct scholar of the Vatican Observatory and among the leading voices in Italy on the relationship between faith and science.

“Those who support [creationism] don’t understand science, and don’t understand good theology,” Tanzella-Nitti told Crux in an email.

“One cannot attribute [creationism] to the Christian faith,” Tanzella-Nitti said. “Those who fear that the theory of biological evolution or the idea of a physical cosmos in evolution are a danger to the Christian faith simply don’t yet have the theological knowledge to understand that the two things, science and faith, can go well together.”

A professor of Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, Tanzella-Nitti said these issues are a consequence of a “hasty comparison” of the Holy Scriptures and scientific results, stating that instead, the Bible requires theological and philosophical exegesis in order to be understood correctly.

Popes and evolution

In his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII addressed evolutionary theory, calling for a dialogue between science and the Catholic faith and accepting the legitimacy of examining whether the origin of the human body is from a previous non-human life form.

“Some however, rashly transgress this liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts,” Pius wrote, “and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question.”

The main concerns raised by Pius XII were science’s desire to use evolutionary theory to question the existence of the human soul and to suggest the possibility of polygenism, which postulates that different human races come from different origins, as opposed to a common ancestor.

“That is beyond the capacity of science,” said Mueller, commenting on the encyclical. He summarized Pope Pius’s message this way: “Scientists, please don’t make a metaphysics of the method.”

Half a century later, in 1996, Pope St. John Paul II built on the legacy of his predecessor and offered his own views in favor of evolution.

“Some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis,” John Paul wrote in a letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. “In fact, it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines.”

“The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory,” the pope said.

Miller praised the words of John Paul II, stating “he clearly was a friend of science” and his words showed “how profound the acceptance of evolution has been in the Catholic tradition.”

Pope Benedict XVI was also instrumental in promoting the complementarity between faith and science. While still a cardinal, he wrote in his 1995 publication In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall that Genesis does not explain how human persons come to be, but rather what they are.

“It explains their inmost origin and casts light on the project that they are. And, vice versa, the theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments,” Ratzinger wrote. “But in so doing, it cannot explain where the ‘project’ of human persons comes from, nor their inner origin, nor their particular nature. To that extent we are faced here with two complementary—rather than mutually exclusive—realities.”

Along this line, Tanzella-Nitti stated that the role of the Catholic faith is not that of denying scientific discoveries, but rather adding to what science could never answer.

“Even if cosmology, physics and biology could describe precisely all of the evolutionary steps that led to the origin of the universe and of life until the appearance of Homo Sapiens on the earth, they could not say why ‘I’ am on earth, each of us with our own name, before our Creator,” he said.

“This is the question that the Holy Scripture and theology answer,” Tanzella-Nitti said. “To state that God the creator has wanted and loved each of us, calling us to life, it’s not necessary to deny any scientific result.”

Miller, who’s written a book titled The Human extinct. How we have evolved to have Reason, Consciousness and Free Will to be published in April, said that a literal interpretation of the Gospel does not allow one to see the true mission of the Gospel.

“Jesus did not come to teach us how to do differential calculus, or to tell us about DNA,” he said. “He came to save our souls.”

More recently, in 2014, Pope Francis also spoke of the importance of not seeing God as a “magician, complete with an all-powerful magic wand,” encompassing both evolution and the Big Bang theory within the Catholic theological framework.

Mueller pointed to Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ as a great example of how the Church can engage with science.

“Take the best science there is, assume it’s true originally, and then offer a moral, ethical reflection on it,” he said.

At the same time, Miller insisted that scientists who also share a religious faith need to play a greater role in building bridges.

“We cannot sit by and allow people to take the position that science is antithetical to faith,” Miller said. “The burden is on us to speak up in the public square, and to make the argument” for why science and faith are complementary.

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