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Theological Notebook: Follow-up on L'Osservatore Romano Article

From this week's "The Word From Rome" column by John Allen:
There's a growing debate at senior levels of the Catholic Church about what to make of the theory of evolution, and it took a new twist this week with the publication of an article in L'Osservatore Romano by Fiorenzo Facchini, a professor of evolutionary biology of the University of Bologna.

In summary, Facchini argued that "intelligent design" is not a scientific theory and should not be taught in science classrooms, applauding a recent court decision in Pennsylvania to that effect.

It's the latest development in a debate that has been going on since 1996, when John Paul II defined evolution as "more than a hypothesis." To the outside world, it seemed the Catholic church had made its peace with evolution. Yet for some leading Catholic thinkers, that was a dangerous impression, since some people conclude that if evolution explains the development of life, we don't need God.

That worry burst into public view on July 7, with the publication of an op/ed piece in The New York Times by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, asserting that the Catholic church does not accept evolution, in the sense of a philosophy that excludes intelligent design in nature implanted by a Creator. That triggered a fierce reaction from many Catholic scientists, who felt the cardinal was blurring scientific and theological arguments, and inadvertently aligning the church with anti-evolution advocates of "intelligent design" in the States.

Facchini's piece was their response.

One question that a number of American media outlets asked me this week: Is the L'Osservatore article an official Vatican statement?

The quick answer is "no," but as always with quick answers, things are a bit more complicated. The article was not issued by a Vatican dicastery or approved by the pope, and while L'Osservatore is informally known as the "Vatican newspaper," technically only the items in the "Nostre Informazioni" box amount to official Vatican releases. Yet the contents of the paper reflect attitudes and judgments at high levels, and in that sense provide a window onto what at least some Vatican officials are thinking.

All this underscores the point that sometimes it can be difficult to know what "the church" thinks about something, and this is one of those cases.
I note that once again, it is the point where the physical sciences come to the end of their competency--say, for example, in their method's inability to speak to the meaning of physical facts, if any--that the problem seems to occur. As is quoted above, "Yet for some leading Catholic thinkers, that was a dangerous impression, since some people conclude that if evolution explains the development of life, we don't need God." (My emphasis)

The problem has been that for far too long an anti-Christian, or at least materialist, philosophy has been tacked on to the presentation of this biology. People who did not realize that distinction, could fail to realize that a given discussion had stopped being a scientific treatment of evolution and had now become a philosophical interpretation we can call "evolutionism," or "scientism," or "materialism;" the idea that there is no reality but matter--that there is nothing spiritual in reality. That, of course, is not science. Nor is it very sharp philosophy (any philosophy or theology that requires you not to notice what is being said probably isn't terribly insightful).

When "intelligent design" is presented as a philosophical possibility that one can move toward after they come to the end of what evolutionary science can indicate in its methods, that seems a fine conversation-partner in the academy. When "intelligent design" is presented as an alternative biological construction to evolution, that's when you have an illegitimate move (probably on the part of classical fundamentalist Protestant Creationists) to simply subvert a current term like "intelligent design" for their own ends.

But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Science needs philosophy, and it needs to be aware of that need, aware of the full variety of philosophical directions that are possible after the physical sciences present their data, and not to dismiss possibilities because some have been misused. That's bad philosophy. And we don't need scientists being bad amateur philosophers any more than we need philosophers being bad amateur scientists.
Tags: evolution, philosophical, scientific, theological notebook
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