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Theological Notebook: More Intelligent Articles?

Some of you couldn't help but noticing a pair of recent "events" in the newspapers and commenting upon them. Both Cardinal Schönborn's column in The New York Times on teaching philosophical conclusions mixed in with the scientific data of biological and physical evolution, and the earth-shattering report that Cardinal Ratzinger a few years ago wrote a few favourable word to a critic of the Harry Potter books, both earned a great deal of commentary in the press and in people's journals. While the first was certainly a more serious effort than the second (one can detect our current Pope being more serious by the presence of multiple paragraphs and footnotes in his writing), both had the ability to be taken way out of proportion and misunderstood. These, certainly, were my cringing feelings as a theologian.

As part of an ongoing effort to settling the dust, I offer the following two articles which seem to me to even-handedly put the teapot tempests in their proper contexts. The first was an article published a few days ago and distributed by the Catholic News Service. The second comes from the regular column of John Allen, who is perhaps our most gifted American Vatican-watcher and who, amazingly, neglected to report on the Harry Potter story when it was Big News, and seemed to think that other things were more newsworthy at the Vatican that week! Those matters, you can discover in the archives of his regular webpage, The Word From Rome. (I note that this week's column also features a follow-up to the Schönborn business, among other matters, including an interview with Professor Nicola Cabibbo, president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. A 78-member panel of distinguished scientists from around the world, the academy advises the pope on scientific matters. It's descended from the "Academy of the Lynxes," founded in 1603, making it the oldest scientific academy in the world.)

Let's dance: Viennese cardinal waltzes into U.S. evolution flap


By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Can a bespectacled, balding 60-year-old cardinal in Vienna waltz his way into a flap in the United States?

Definitely yes. The orchestration was proposing that the Catholic faith and aspects of evolutionary thinking are not good dancing partners. His suggestion stepped on the toes of those who see no conflict, while it swayed rhythmically with supporters of "intelligent design."

The reaction was almost immediate after Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna wrote an article in the July 7 New York Times. The piece questioned whether aspects of evolutionary thought such as random variations and natural selection are compatible with Catholic belief in God.

Although the cardinal's article did not use the term "intelligent design," it articulated the underlying principle that intelligent design is scientifically provable.

"Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science," said the article.

Within a week, the article and a follow-up news story generated more that 200 letters to the editor, pro and con, said Thomas Feyer, Times letters editor.

"This is a good, healthy response," he told Catholic News Service. The only bigger responses are when a regular columnist writes an article readers consider highly controversial, he said.

The cardinal's article also prompted three prominent U.S. scientists who oppose intelligent design to write a letter to Pope Benedict XVI to ask him to reaffirm church support for evolution.

The article appeared at a time when the controversy over intelligent design is more than an academic dance among scientists and religious thinkers.

It's also being debated in state legislatures and by local school boards. There is pressure to get public school science classes to step up criticisms of Darwinian evolution and to incorporate intelligent design in classrooms as an alternative.

Cardinal Schonborn's article did not raise the issue of teaching intelligent design in U.S. public schools.

Mark Ryland, a promoter of intelligent design and a friend of the cardinal, helped place the article in the Times.

The cardinal also called "rather vague and unimportant" a 1996 message by Pope John Paul II supporting the scientific evidence for evolution. This message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which includes many non-Catholics in its international membership, is used by scientists and theologians as proof that evolution and Catholicism are compatible.

Critics of intelligent design say that it is not science because it interprets data nonscientifically to conclude that there is a design and a purpose in nature, similar to the way Catholics use philosophy and theology to reconcile scientific data with their faith and belief in God.

"I disagree," said Michael Behe, biochemistry professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., and a proponent of "intelligent design."

"Some parts of nature are better explained by an intelligent act rather than physical laws," said Behe, author of "Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution."

He told CNS the formation of the Rocky Mountains can be easily explained scientifically.

"But if you look at Mount Rushmore, not all of the answer is scientific," he said referring to the four giant heads of U.S. presidents carved into the mountain.

"You can see clear evidences of design. This is not a philosophical conclusion, but physical evidence," said Behe.

"Things like Mount Rushmore are found in life," he said. "From empirical scientific evidence parts of life were the result of purposeful, intelligent activity."

As an example, Behe said that there are biochemical systems in nature that are "irreducibly complex" in that they need various components to work together in order to function, similar to a mousetrap. The coming together of these components cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution which says that improvements occur gradually and in tiny steps, he said.

Jesuit Father Kevin FitzGerald, who holds doctorates in molecular biology and philosophy, said that intelligent design advocates "see the unresolved problems of evolution and find data that doesn't fit the theory."

But then "they make a leap from the data" and evaluate it as saying that design and purpose are present in life forms and that this is a better explanation than evolution, said Father FitzGerald, professor of Catholic health care ethics at Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington.

He said that the scientific task is limited to discovering data, "but the data can be looked at from nonscientific perspectives such as philosophy, history, theology, even art."

"The question of design in the universe needs to be addressed and scientific evidence brought to bear. But the ultimate terrain to judge this would be philosophy, not science," he said.

"This is what intelligent design doesn't get right," he said.


Here, then, is the whole of Allen's comments on the Harry Potter silliness:


If you're reading this, it's despite the best efforts of much of the world's media to convince you that the only literature worth perusing this summer is the new Harry Potter book.

Perhaps the only dark cloud surrounding the book's release in mid-July was the news that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, wrote to a German author in March 2003, praising her criticism of the Potter books.

The books contain "subtle seductions," Ratzinger wrote in a private letter, that "deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly."

For anyone familiar with the pope's views on other facets of pop culture -- he once excoriated rock music as a "vehicle of anti-religion" -- the verdict is probably not much of a surprise.

On the other hand, it is also not a magisterial judgment, and Catholics are free to take other views.

One such perspective came on Vatican Radio on July 14, in an interview with Msgr. Peter Fleetwood, a former official of the Pontifical Council for Culture who now works in the Council for European Bishops' Conferences in Geneva.

Fleetwood is no stranger to the discussion over Harry Potter. Back in 2003, he appeared at a Vatican press conference to discuss a document on the New Age movement. I asked him about the Harry Potter books, and he delivered a basically positive judgment, which, in the style of secular reporting, soon made the rounds under the headline of "Vatican OKs Harry Potter," causing some minor consternation.

On July 14, he once again took to the defense of the Potter series.

"I remain firmly convinced that the Harry Potter novels are very well written," Fleetwood said. "They are written on the classical plot of good versus evil in the standard way that the old myths were written. The characters are built up around that: the goodies and the baddies so to speak, and I can't see that that's a bad thing for children, when goodness, and the people on the side of goodness, are portrayed as the ones who will eventually win. Harry's enemies resort to all sorts of evil things, and they are the ones who lose in the end. I don't see what's wrong with that, and I can't see that does any harm to children."

"Maybe I'm blind, as one article about me said, maybe I'm stupid and doing the devil's work, as another article about me said. I have a funny feeling I'm not doing the devil's work, and I have another feeling I am not blind or stupid. I just think that there's a lot of scare-mongering going on, particularly among people who like to find the devil around every corner. I don't think that's a healthy view of the world. …"
Tags: benedict xvi, books, evolution, harry potter, philosophical, scientific, theological notebook
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