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Theological Notebook: More Follow-Up to Schönborn's Article

This material is taken from John Allen's column and additions to it that he posted and that I referenced last week. I wanted to toss all this in my journal for future reference. I include the following three items:
1) Allen's full interview with Professor Nicola Cabibbo, president for the past 12 years 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.

2) Allen's full follow-up article on the affair entitled, "Catholic experts urge caution in evolution debate: Scientists, theologians take issue with Schönborn's op-ed article"

3) An excerpt Allen included from the Vatican’s International Theological Commission document, “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God” on the mechanisms of evolution. The ITC is the Pope's advisory commission of theologians.


Posted: July 21, 2005

Interview with Professor Nicola Cabibbo
July 18, 2005

By John L. Allen, Jr.
Rome

A July 7 op/ed piece by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna in The New York Times on evolution has caused no small amount of ferment in both scientific and theological circles. In it, Schönborn challenges the widely held perception that the Catholic church has reconciled itself to the theory of evolution.

To talk these issues through, NCR Rome correspondent John L. Allen Jr. sat down with Professor Nicola Cabibbo, president for the past 12 years 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.

The full text of the interview follows.


NCR: What did you think of The New York Times article by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna on evolution?
Cabibbo: Two things struck me, one positively and the other negatively. Positively, it opens a very interesting discussion. But I cannot agree with the way he handled the address of John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996. I don't know if the problem was in a bad translation from German, but he calls it "vague and rather unimportant." I've never considered it that way, in fact I have always considered it very important. Not only for the now famous statement, that evolution is "more than a hypothesis," but also for what comes next: "It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory," the Pope said. With these words the Pope demonstrated a clear understanding of the scientific method, on how an hypothesis can be transformed into a widely accepted fact. This allocution is in fact a very articulated expression of the thought of the late John Paul II.

The theory of evolution can be disturbing to Christians because it seems to clash with the idea of divine creation. This fear is, however, unfounded. What clashes with divine creation is a possible extension of the theory of evolution in a materialistic direction, the so-called "evolutionism." What evolutionism seems to say, and here I'm thinking about authors such as Dawkins, is that there's no need for God. But this extension of Darwin's theory is not part of what has been discovered by science. What has been discovered is a series of facts about biology, about the relationships of different species of living beings, including man, all structurally related to each other. We can live because our proteins are similar to those of plants and animals so that, when we eat, we are able to incorporate biological material from other organisms. This is obviously necessary for human life, since we are not able to do photosynthesis. This overarching system of living beings has a history. The great intuition of Darwin was that there is an evolution, that different species evolved over time, even if he could not at the time understand the mechanisms which made evolution possible.

Darwin's intuition drew on two sorts of influences. One was the study of ancient species that are now extinct. He was interested in fossils, geology, in brief in the role of the passage of eons in shaping the surface of the earth. Secondly, he was an English gentleman and a landowner, and so he was interested in animal husbandry. He knew that you can modify the appearance and function of horses or pigeons, or other animals, by selection. These two sources of inspiration led him to propose the theory of evolution, based on mutation and natural selection. What he did not have at the time was a mechanism for mutation, and this was only clarified by the discovery of DNA, and of its role in genetics. We have a fair idea now of how evolution works, though most of it should be considered as on-going research.

This is all part of what the pope wanted to say, comparing notes as it were with what Pius XII had said 50 years ago, before the discovery of DNA. At that time, we were still essentially at the point where Darwin was, there had been no great breakthroughs. Since then molecular biology gave us the theory of evolution as we know it now.

To this, there are two different reactions. One is the atheist view, according to which, now that we now know how life works, we don't need God any more. This is a metaphysical conclusion that goes beyond the scientific facts. The other is the theistic response, believing that God is the cause of this process. This is an interesting part of the discussion Cardinal Schönborn's article has raised, because actually the contrast between evolutionism and creationism has nothing to do with science. They are instead two very different religious and philosophical positions. The controversy is not scientific, but philosophical.

What troubles many people, including Schönborn, is that scientists use words such as "unguided" and "unplanned" in referring to evolution, which seems to exclude God. As a scientist, what do those terms mean to you?
Let me take this from a distance. In Italian, there is a popular saying, non cade foglia che Dio non voglia. [No leaf falls unless God wants it.] What science tries to do is to try to explain how the leaf falls. For example, gravity. Gravity explains at the scientific level how the leaf falls. I once was told that St. Thomas put it this way -- everything descends from the will of God, but this doesn't mean that what happens doesn't have its own logic, its own way of happening. We are not puppets in God's hands, without the means --- volition, muscles --- to do whatever we do. It would be debasing to think that God is directly causing every leaf to fall from the tree. Instead there is a system, a mechanism, by which things do happen. I think there is no philosophical, no theological, problem here. This was the thought of John Paul II -- there is no a priori reason to see a clash between science and religion. They're doing different things.

As for evolution, its basis is mutation. For evolution to occur, you need progeny that is not identical to its parents. We know fairly accurately how this works, and there is an element of chance in it. This discovery was due not only to a great Catholic, but a great priest, Gregor Mendel. He discovered that genetics operates according to principles of probability. You cannot cross a yellow and a green pea, and automatically get a certain result. Mendelian laws are statistical laws. We now know that in sexual reproduction, the new DNA of the descendant is a somewhat random mixture of that of the parents. We also know that there can be errors in the transcription of the new DNA from the old, and this is how, through a process which has elements of chance, progeny is not identical to its parents. The presence of a random element in reproduction may be disturbing, especially because it is a source of diseases, but it seems to an inescapable conclusion of the knowledge accumulated during the last fifty years . But for religious belief the existence of random elements in reproduction should not be of greater concern then the discovery that the Earth turns on itself and around the Sun. There seems no doubt that evolution is a salient element of man's history. We know that, before humans similar to the present inhabitants of the earth, there were populations significantly different from us, with different cranial features and so on. But these people painted their caves, built elaborate instruments, mastered fire, they were human.

Is it fair to call this process "unguided"?
Here we enter a very difficult theological problem, which is how the action of God is operates in nature. Books have been written on this subject. Fr. George Coyne, a respected astrophysicist, the head of the Vatican observatory, has organized conferences on this very topic. These are interesting studies, but removed from what we consider science. There are many mysteries in nature. We know that revelation told us that God came and manifested himself to us. But scientifically, "unguided" means that as an empirical matter, we don't see guidance in nature. We see the very clever mechanism by which evolutionary change occurs, through these random mutations. Scientists believe these changes to be based on a combination of mutation and selection, which in general favors positive adaptations. Some changes, of course, do not. There may be aspects of evolution that do not respond to selection. I don't know, for example, whether the fact that young people today are taller than we were 50 years ago has any evolutionary meaning. It could even be irrelevant. But there is no scientifically verifiable mechanism for the guidance of evolution except for the combination of mutation and selection. On the subject of selection, we are essentially in Darwin's situation. We know that farmers can select, and we suspect that nature selects. It selects in ways that tend to favor survival and reproduction, ensuring that organisms are well suited to their ecological niche. There is no scientific way of measuring the presence of God. The admiration one feels for the beauty and magnificence of creation can be increased by what we discover, of course, but that's not a scientific reaction. Some of these terms, like "unguided," are a little bit tainted by a materialistic point of view.

Rather than calling evolution "unguided," I would say that it's guided by itself, in a way. The evolution of a single species is guided by the environment, by changes in the environment. For example, a new predator appears on the scene, and an insect species is guided to develop a different color. This is the general idea. The environment is the visible hand of evolution.

The International Theological Commission in 2004, in its document Communion and Stewardship, wrote that God's causation is of a radically different sort than natural causation, and that God can work both through necessity and through contingency. Thus the fact that evolution involves a random element does not mean that God is not the cause of it. Would you agree?
That's the whole point. This is why John Paul II was not afraid of evolution. How can you be afraid of something that is true? Of course, in understanding the mechanics of evolution we are not at the level of precision and certainty achieved in many aspects of the physical sciences. There's still a lot to be discovered to fill in the gaps in our understanding of life at the scientific level.

When Cardinal Schönborn says that purpose and design can be clearly discerned in the natural world, would you agree?
Not scientifically. As a scientist, I cannot draw this conclusion. What I can say is this: If the will of God was to create man, he certainly organized things in a beautiful way to do it. Of course, we know by revelation that God wanted to create man, but we don't know how he did it. This is what science attempts to explain. There cannot be any clash or controversy between science and religion, because they work on different planes.

Does the scientific understanding of how life was created and how it evolved, in and of itself, demand belief in a creator God?
I would say no. Scientifically, we don't know. We know the universe is highly complex, and we have no reason to believe there is only one universe, the one we can see around us. Theoretically this could happen in two different ways: some interpretations of quantum mechanics suggest the idea of parallel universes, with histories different from our own. Cosmologists speculate on a multiplicity of "Big Bangs", giving rise to a multiplicity of universes. These are fascinating ideas and we find ourselves in a situation similar to that of Giordano Bruno when he proposed that stars are really suns, that there may be other planets and other solar systems, that the universe is much larger than previously thought. This was part of what got him into trouble! We really don't know. Science is incapable of supplying answers to ultimate questions about why things exist and what their purpose is.

So on the basis of the available information, you can't draw a scientific conclusion in favor of intelligent design?
No. You can say that if there is a design, it is very successful. Science can invoke wonderment. The philosopher Kant said the two things that impressed him the most were the moral law within us and the starry firmament above us.

Some creationists argue that on the basis of an examination of the scientific facts, you can conclude that there must be a creator.
This is not believed by any serious scientist. You can certainly construct an argument about how beautiful the creation is, how clever it is, but these are aesthetic, not scientific concepts.

Do you think the Pontifical Academy of Sciences will want to talk about this?
Yes. In 1996, and this was the occasion for John Paul II's talk on evolution, we studied the origin of life and early evolution, meaning from molecules to bacteria. We looked at molecular evolution, the very early evolution, almost "pre-life," a field that is partly accessible to laboratory experiments. There is a huge gap from the molecular-evolution stage to single-cell organisms. It's not known how it happened. Once you are in bacteria, the knowledge is more detailed. There was a lot of interest at that time in bacteria that were able to live in various conditions, very differentiated environments. I would like the Academy to come back to evolution as a whole, to put together essentially everything that is known at the scientific level. According to the statutes of the Academy we will also explore the epistemological dimensions of the new discoveries.

Will you treat evolution this year?
Probably not this year. Academy meetings require an accurate preparation.

Do you think attitudes in the church towards evolution are moving in the direction suggested by Cardinal Schönborn?
Many academics, especially Americans, have reacted to his article. I don't know if Cardinal Schönborn fully understood how "hot" the situation is in America on this subject. I know many people within the Catholic Church whose attitudes would be closer to mine than those suggested in the article. I think many Catholics, especially Catholic scientists, would prefer to adhere to the 1996 statement of John Paul II.

Do you have any indication what the mind of Pope Benedict might be on this question?
No, but Pope Benedict certainly has an appreciation of science. I'd like to recall that Pope Benedict opened up the archives of the Holy Office, a highly appreciated step for the freedom of scientific research. I remember that he announced it at the Italian Accademia dei Lincei (literally, "the Academy of the Lynxes"), a setting that was not specifically Catholic. The Pontifical Academy and the Italian Accademia dei Lincei both descend from the original Accademia dei Lincei, founded in 1603, the oldest scientific Academy in the world. As Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict became a member of our Academy together with Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. Since that nomination, three years ago, he has taken part in the meetings of our academy, and celebrated a memorable mass for the Academy at the Benedictine convent in Cassino. After Pius XII, Pope Benedict is the second member of the Academy to ascend to the papacy.

National Catholic Reporter, July 21, 2005


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Issue Date: July 29, 2005

Catholic experts urge caution in evolution debate
Scientists, theologians take issue with Schönborn's op-ed article

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Rome

A recent article by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in The New York Times, asserting that “unguided, unplanned” evolution is inconsistent with Catholic faith, should be read with caution warn a number of Catholic scientists and theologians, including the head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Most of the experts interviewed said the article can offer a useful alert if taken at a theological level. Evolution, they point out, has sometimes been invoked to justify atheism, as well as immanentism (that God is a vague life force) or deism (that God set the universe in motion and has nothing more to do with it).

To the extent Schönborn’s point is that Christianity cannot accept a universe without an active, personal God, they say, there’s little to dispute.

If taken as a scientific statement, on the other hand, these observers warn that Schönborn’s insistence on seeing “purpose and design” in nature could steer the Catholic church towards creationism in the bitter cultural debate, especially prominent in the United States, between evolution and intelligent design. Doing so, they say, risks overstepping the bounds of the church’s competence, as well as reopening a divide between science and the Catholic church that had seemed largely overcome.

Several said Schönborn’s July 7 piece should be read in the context of a 2004 document of the International Theological Commission, an advisory body of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the most recent Vatican document to treat evolution.

The document, titled “Communion and Stewardship,” argues that Catholic theology does not commit the church to one side or the other in the strictly scientific dispute between evolution and design. Even if evolution appears “random” and “undirected” from an empirical point of view, the document asserts, it could still be part of God’s providence.

That view is welcomed by many Catholic scientists, who say the problem with evolution is not so much the theory itself, but the philosophical applications some make of it.

“The theory of evolution can be disturbing to Christians because it seems to clash with the idea of divine creation,” said Nicola Cabibbo, president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a 78-member body of academics who advise the pope on scientific matters. Cabibbo is a professor of particle physics at Rome’s La Sapienza University.

“However, this clash is false. What clashes with divine creation is an extension of the theory of evolution into materialistic interpretations, so-called ‘evolutionism,’ ” Cabbibo told NCR July 18. “That’s not science, it’s metaphysics.”

This distinction between evolution as a scientific hypothesis, and “Darwinism” or “neo-Darwinism” as a philosophical system, is crucial, observers say, to understanding Catholic thought on the subject.

Long history of compatibility

Cabibbo’s confidence in the compatibility of evolution with Catholic faith reflects a long history.

In 1950, Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Humani Generis, signaled acceptance of the basic principles of evolutionary theory.

“The church does not forbid that… research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from preexistent and living matter,” Pius wrote.

Commenting on the creation accounts in Genesis during a 1986 general audience, Pope John Paul II extended this idea.

“The theory of natural evolution, understood in a sense that does not exclude divine causality, is not in principle opposed to the truth about the creation of the visible world as presented in the Book of Genesis,” the pope said.

John Paul went further in a 1996 message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, referring to evolution as “more than a hypothesis.”

“It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge,” John Paul wrote. “The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.”

Yet in conservative Catholic intellectual circles, critics for some time have been questioning this formula. They argue that it is not so simple to separate evolution from its philosophical applications -- that atheism, in effect, may be part of the genetic code of evolutionary theory.

One voice making that argument has been Philip Johnson, a law professor at the University of California in Berkeley. Though a Presbyterian, Johnson’s work has been featured in First Things, an influential journal of American Catholic opinion.

“It is the alleged absence of divine intervention throughout the history of life -- the strict materialism of the orthodox [Darwinian] theory -- that explains why a great many people, only some of whom are biblical fundamentalists, think that Darwinian evolution (beyond the micro level) is basically materialistic philosophy disguised as scientific fact,” Johnson wrote in First Things in 1997.

Another important contributor to a Catholic reappraisal of evolution is Michael Behe, professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and author of Darwin’s Black Box, perhaps the most-read scientific challenge to evolutionary theory.

Behe is a Catholic, and a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a think tank that supports the intelligent design argument. A public relations firm associated with the Discovery Institute, according to reporting in The New York Times, helped place Schönborn’s piece in the newspaper.

Schönborn’s July 7 article, therefore, did not come out of the blue.

“The Catholic church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things,” Schönborn wrote.

“Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense -- an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection -- is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.”

Schönborn referred to the 1996 statement of John Paul II as “rather vague and unimportant.” He cited other statements of the pope to the effect that evolution presents an “internal finality” that leads one to suppose the existence of a creator.

Weighing Schönborn’s words

In the wake of the Times piece, some observers have noted that there are 181 cardinals in the world, which means that Schönborn’s views on evolution, while they may be interesting, are not determinative of the church’s stance. Indeed, just four days after Schönborn’s piece appeared, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington told an audience at the National Press Club that as long as scientists leave room for God in the evolutionary process, the church can “work with that and accept that in principle.”

Yet Schönborn is not just any cardinal. A polyglot intellectual, a Dominican, and the scion of old Bohemian nobility, he is widely regarded as one of the leading theologians at the senior levels of the church, and served as general editor of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church. He is also a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s doctrinal agency.

Perhaps more to the point, Schönborn is a close friend of Pope Benedict XVI. He did postdoctoral work with then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger at the University of Regensburg in Germany in the late 1970s, and was one of the “grand electors” in the April conclave that made Ratzinger pope.

His views, therefore, could be influential in shaping the thinking of Benedict’s pontificate.

Charles Townes, a Nobel laureate in physics at the University of California in Berkeley, has been a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Science for more than 20 years. A Protestant, Townes told NCR July 18 that he found Schönborn’s piece “disappointing.”

“Some materialists may use evolution in the sense Schönborn talks about, but there’s no necessary connection,” he said.

Behe, however, disagreed.

“Most people don’t realize that Darwinian evolution makes a very radical claim,” Behe said.

“Not only does evolution work by natural selection, but it was totally unintended by anyone or anything. … I think that any Christian, any theist, would have to say that life was intended by God,” he said.

Behe hints at the key question -- does the theological affirmation that life comes from God also obligate Catholics to insist, as a scientific matter, that intelligent design is evident in nature?

Townes said that things are not so clear-cut. Even processes that appear random, he said, can have an underlying logic.

“The idea that calling something ‘random’ means that it’s without direction is a mistake,” Townes said. “In a gas, for example, random interaction among particles ensures uniform distribution and temperature. In other words, an unplanned process produces an orderly outcome.”

“Evolution,” Townes said, “is like that. It’s a random process that produces spectacular things.”

Jesuit Fr. George Coyne, head of the Vatican observatory, agreed.

“Chance is the way we scientists see the universe. It has nothing to do with God. It’s not chancy to God, it’s chancy to us,” Coyne said.

Coyne told NCR in a July 20 interview that far from implying atheism, evolution “can equally well be interpreted to the glory of God.”

“I see a God who caresses the universe, who puts into the universe some of his own creativity and dynamism,” Coyne said. Cabbibo said he would call evolution “self-directed” rather than “undirected.” The point is that random genetic mutation, coupled with natural selection, does not require anything external to direct the process.

This does not exclude, Cabibbo said, the faith conviction that God arranged things this way.

“As a scientist, what I can say is this: If the will of God was to create man, he certainly organized things in a beautiful way to do it,” Cabibbo said.

Some Catholic theologians point to “Communion and Stewardship,” issued with the approval of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, in 2004, as offering a different approach.

The debate between evolution and intelligent design, the document notes in paragraph 69, “involves scientific observation and generalization concerning whether the available data support inferences of design or chance, and cannot be settled by theology.”

“But it is important to note,” it says, “that according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. … Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation.”

The document then warns against philosophical abuse of evolutionary theory.

“Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so,” it says. “An unguided evolutionary process -- one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence -- simply cannot exist.”

The document, according to experts such as Cabibbo, provides a basis for Catholics to accept evolution as it is understood by modern scientists, without thereby surrendering belief in God as the ultimate cause of life.

One Catholic scholar who worked on “Communion and Stewardship” agrees.

“There’s quite a strong element in the natural sciences who simply don’t approve of any transcendental cause as a matter of philosophy,” said Jesuit Fr. Shun ichi Takayanagi of Sophia University in Tokyo.

“That doesn’t mean, however, that evolution as such is incompatible with Christianity,” Takayanagi said in a July 17 phone interview. “We are not against evolution as such, but the materialist use of evolutionary theory.”

Even Behe, who believes the scientific data does not support evolution, nevertheless said he believes a faithful Catholic could accept evolutionary theory.

“I’m a biochemist, not a theologian,” he said. “But it seems to me that belief in mutation and natural selection is compatible with Catholicism, as long as the underlying premise is that God set it up that way. That seems to me an orthodox Catholic position.”

“I’m critical of evolutionary theory not because it’s unorthodox,” he said, “but because it can’t do what it purports to do.”

What does the pope think?

A final question about Schönborn’s piece is the extent to which it reflects the thinking of Pope Benedict XVI.

Schönborn told The New York Times that he wrote the article after being encouraged to look into the issue of evolution by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prior to his election as pope. Moreover, the new pope himself struck a note not dissimilar to Schönborn’s in the homily at his April 24 installation Mass:

“We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution,” Benedict XVI said. “Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”

Yet “Communion and Stewardship,” which clearly distinguishes between a scientific and a theological analysis of evolution, was published in 2004 with Ratzinger’s authority. That permission was given in forma specifica, which generally means the one giving permission makes the conclusions his own.

Cabibbo also pointed out that as prefect, Ratzinger opened the archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to scientific research, and chose to announce the move during a meeting of a secular scientific academy in Italy. Moreover, Cabibbo said, Ratzinger himself had been a member of the Pontifical Academy of Science since 2003.

“He certainly seems to have an appreciation of science,” Cabibbo said. “I’m optimistic.”

In the end, Cabibbo argued, the trick is for both scientists and theologians to respect the limits of their competence.

“We know that God wanted to create man by revelation,” Cabibbo said, “but we don’t know how he did it. This is what science attempts to explain. There should be no clash between science and religion, because they do different things.”

John L. Allen Jr. is the NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org.
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Keeping ‘divine causality’ in the process

Excerpt from the Vatican’s International Theological Commission document, “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God.”

69. The current scientific debate about the mechanisms at work in evolution requires theological comment insofar as it sometimes implies a misunderstanding of the nature of divine causality. Many neo-Darwinian scientists, as well as some of their critics, have concluded that, if evolution is a radically contingent materialistic process driven by natural selection and random genetic variation, then there can be no place in it for divine providential causality. A growing body of scientific critics of neo-Darwinism point to evidence of design (e.g., biological structures that exhibit specified complexity) that, in their view, cannot be explained in terms of a purely contingent process and that neo-Darwinians have ignored or misinterpreted. The nub of this currently lively disagreement involves scientific observation and generalization concerning whether the available data support inferences of design or chance, and cannot be settled by theology. But it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation. According to St. Thomas Aquinas: “The effect of divine providence is not only that things should happen somehow, but that they should happen either by necessity or by contingency. Therefore, whatsoever divine providence ordains to happen infallibly and of necessity happens infallibly and of necessity; and that happens from contingency, which the divine providence conceives to happen from contingency” (Summa theologiae, I, 22,4 ad 1). In the Catholic perspective, neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science. Divine causality can be active in a process that is both contingent and guided. Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so. An unguided evolutionary process -- one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence -- simply cannot exist because “the causality of God, Who is the first agent, extends to all being, not only as to constituent principles of species, but also as to the individualizing principles. ... It necessarily follows that all things, inasmuch as they participate in existence, must likewise be subject to divine providence” (Summa theologiae, I, 22, 2).

National Catholic Reporter, July 29, 2005
Tags: evolution, philosophical, scientific, theological notebook
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