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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: Article on Rome Conference on Biological Evolution and Doctrine of Creation 
11th-Mar-2009 11:17 pm
Here's an article and sample essay from a conference I would have loved to have attended in Rome about the broad cultural reception of evolutionary theory over the last 150 years. Fun stuff, and hopefully the type of thing on the academic level that will raise popular consciousness and discourse in the United States.

Give to Darwin What Is Darwin's. But Creation is God's

A major conference sponsored by the Vatican has assembled scientists, philosophers, and theologians of various tendencies. All of them said yes to evolution. But the intelligent structure of creation also has its defenders. Beginning with the book of Genesis

by Sandro Magister

ROMA, March 9, 2009 – Two hundred years after the birth of Charles Darwin, and one hundred fifty years since his most famous work, the pontifical council for culture headed by Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi has sponsored a monumental international conference, entitled "Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories. A critical appraisal 150 years after 'The origin of species'."

The conference was held from March 3-7 in Rome, at the Pontifical Gregorian University. It was organized by this university together with the American University of Notre Dame.

The speakers were leading worldwide specialists in various disciplines, from biology to paleontology, from anthropology to philosophy to theology. A wide variety of positions were discussed. There were Catholic scholars, Protestants, Jews, agnostics, atheists.

Since Darwin, few scientific theories have been debated as bitterly as evolution, or have determined such a paradigm shift in the common interpretation of all of reality, including man.

In both the field of science and the view of the Catholic Church, creation and evolution are not necessarily incompatible. But on both sides, there are tendencies to erect theoretical constructs that are mutually exclusive.

In officially presenting the conference at the Vatican, Jesuit Fr. Marc Leclerc, professor of natural philosophy at the Gregorian, summed up the two opposing ideological tendencies as follows:

"The novelty of this paradigm prompted a number of Darwin's followers to go beyond the limits of science in order to set up some elements of his theory, or of the modern synthesis created during the twentieth century, as a 'Philosophia universalis', in the fitting words of then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as the universal key for interpreting a reality in perpetual change.

"But too often, the adversaries of Darwinism have also followed this same path, confusing the scientific theory of evolution with the all-inclusive ideology that deformed it, in order to reject it entirely as being completely incompatible with a religious view of reality. This situation could explain the contemporary return of 'creationist' conceptions, or that which sometimes presents itself as an alternative theory, so-called 'intelligent design'. At this level, we are far from scientific discussions."

In effect, none of the speakers at the conference defended any of these ideological constructions. All of them were discussed and evaluated critically. The common intention was to employ the individual disciplines – scientific, philosophical, theological – with the specificity and richness of each one, for the benefit of all.

After five extremely intense days, with thirty-five presentations each given by a different specialist, it can be said that the objective seems to have been reached. Peace between creation and evolution now appears more solid.

A shining example of how the two views of the world can coexist and interact can be found in the following essay, published on the eve of the conference by "La Civiltà Cattolica," the journal of the Rome Jesuits published following review by the secretariat of the Vatican secretariat of state.

The author teaches at the Pontifical Gregorian University, which hosted the conference on Darwin. In his essay, he demonstrates how the biblical account of creation not only is not incompatible with modern rationality, but marks "an emancipation of scientific knowledge," by entrusting creation to the responsibility of man.

The following is an extract of the essay, published in issue number 3807 of "La Civiltà Cattolica," February 7, 2009:

"The origin of species." Genesis 1 and man's scientific vocation

by Jean-Pierre Sonnet

When speaking about origins, the challenge for Christians in our time is that of living a dual citizenship: an intelligent fidelity to the teaching of Genesis 1, and an attentive openness to the proposals of scientific research. [...] Today, in any case, they must refine this twofold loyalty, at a time in which some enjoy pitting the notions of creation and evolution against each other, under the form of ideologies – creationism and evolutionism – that are mutually exclusive.

For the supporters of evolutionism, referring to the opening poem of Genesis means regressing into a form of obscurantism that is incompatible with the rationality of the modern age. In this essay, we will seek to demonstrate that referring to the first chapters of Genesis does not at all imply a surrender of the intelligence. [...] A brilliant rationality permeates these texts, which are capable of speaking to every reasonable man, and in particular to the contemporary man of science. [...]


Genesis 1 could be subtitled "Process and Reality": the act of creation is divided into successive moments, in the sequence of a week. [...] Far from being an explosion of blind power, creation – according to the narrative poem of Genesis 1 – is an action that takes place progressively, in an ordered sequence that reveals a plan.

The progression – as Paul Beauchamp has demonstrated in his essay "Création et séparation" is above all that of successive separations, expressed at first with the verbal root "badal": "And God separated the light from the darkness" (1:4; cf. 1:6, 7, 14, 18). Beginning with the third day, once the macroelements of the cosmos have been put in place, the verb of separation does not appear anymore (except in 1:14, 18, regarding the "great lights"). It is replaced with another expression: "according to its kind." This formula, which is repeated ten times, is applied first to the plant species (1:11-12), and then to the animal species (1:21, 24-25). From the beginning, God drives away formlessness and indeterminateness, gradually constituting a differentiated world.

In their sequence, the days of creation amplify the succession already connected to speech. From the first day the divine acts, as immediate as they are, are manifested in a discursive manner. [...] Succession is without a doubt a law of language, and of narrative discourse in particular, which can only say things one after another. In a reflection of theological "realism," the account of Genesis 1 takes care to refer this succession back to the divine freedom itself. [...]

Following the divine initiatives step by step, the narrator takes pains to accentuate what is fixed and finalized about the divine plan. The act of creation, in its sequence, is not a random process or an extravagant dispersion of energy. The divine act – the narrator asserts – unfolds between "beginning" (1:1) and "completion" (see the verb "finished" in 2:1), and in a series ("first day," "second day," etc.) which appears gradually in its completeness, that of six days plus one. Finally, at the end of the account we discover that God brings to fulfillment precisely that which he had begun to create at the beginning, "the heavens and the earth" (2:1; cf. 1:1). In other words, the process is part of an intelligent plan, which governs each of its phases.

The divine dominion in Genesis 1 paradoxically has its most beautiful demonstration in the pauses that mark the sequence of creation. In fact, God adds to his creative initiatives a moment of pause and admiration: "God saw that the light was good" (1:4). [...] In each of these pauses, God reveals that he is not in any way the slave of his own power; instead, this is ultimately the expression of his freedom, as is shown on the seventh day, when God "rested . . . from all the work that he had done" ("wayysbot," from the root "sabat") and consecrated an entire day to this rest (2:2). Instead of occupying the seventh day of the series with "exhausting" his creative power and filling the entire world, the biblical God puts a limit on his act of creation, "dominating his dominion," to echo the words of Solomon: "But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency" (Wisdom 12:18). In this rest, God establishes his refraining from filling everything, and, at the same time, his desire to to make room for autonomy in the universe, in particular for humanity. [...]

Finally, this process, in its arrangement, reveals the finality underlying it: the progressively constituted elements trace out a curve that goes from "good" in verse 4 to "very good" in verse 31. The axis of speech is that which best reveals this curve of created space. If from the beginning of the creation of light God speaks, and if he speaks of all the elements he creates – "Let there be light . . . Let the waters be gathered . . . Let there be lights in the firmament . . ." – he speaks in the second person only to the living, beginning on the fifth day: "Be fertile, multiply, and fill the water of the seas . . ." (v. 22). Until then, the creatures had not been addressed, but at the most had received orders in the third person. From this moment, God speaks of living creatures, capable of understanding him.

But it is on the sixth day, with the creation of man, that the missing grammatical person – the first person – makes its appearance on the lips of God. First, in the plural: "Let us make man" (v. 26) and then in the singular: "I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food" (v. 29). And it is with the appearance of the human couple that the divine word is addressed to an explicit interlocutor: "God said to them" (v. 28). God addresses himself – and in the first person – to the being who will also be a being of language, "the being in his image," destined for gentle mastery of the word.

The sequence was therefore, in every one of its parts, ordered to its end. And the narrative form, in particular in its way of representing the variations in the divine word, was the effective vehicle for this purpose.


Genesis 1 could also be subtitled "The origin of species," because of the close connection between the divine plan and the diversity of species. Of course, this is not a matter of the evolution of species. If Genesis 1 evokes a process, this is to be sought in the sequence of days, during which God creates the plant species, the animal species of the water, the air, and the dry land. The various life forms are respected (water, firmament, earth), but the divine intervention is not addressed to "classes" of animals, but instead goes directly to particular species: the plants and animals appear all "according to their kinds" (vv. 11-12, 21, 24-25). And these species appear "as they are," meaning as man sees them beginning in verse 28. The flora and fauna consecrated by God in their goodness are the ones that accompany the human family in its destiny. [...]

If the species are brought into existence individually by the immediate intervention of God, they are also created in autonomy. The plant species sprout according to their principle of reproduction: "Let the earth bring forth vegetation: every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it" (1:11). As for the representatives of the animal species, these are told to "be fruitful and multiply" (1:22). If heteronomy is present at every moment of the narrative poem of Genesis 1 – because the creatures have their secret in this Other who brings them into being – the autonomy of the species over the passing of time is also demonstrated: God creates living beings and entrusts them to their reproductive autonomy, to that which will make them "the same" from age to age.

There is another text in the Pentateuch, chapter 11 of Leviticus, in which the topic of the "discourse on species" in Genesis 1 becomes fully evident. [...] The treatise on clean and unclean animals in Leviticus 11 constitutes, in fact, a sophisticated implementation of the elements and distinctions introduced in Genesis 1. New light was brought to Leviticus 11 with the work of Mary Douglas, an English anthropologist, who in 1966 published "Purity and Danger." Already in 1962, Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his "La Pensée sauvage," had [...] demonstrated through the analysis of various myths and their structure that the primitive thought called "savage" was instead guided by a rigorous logic of classification. In "Purity and Danger," Douglas demonstrates that Leviticus 11 perfectly illustrates this logic. [...] God has declared the goodness of all creatures, including the sea monsters, consecrating their division according to species (Genesis 1:21-25). Why, then, does Leviticus 11 introduce supplementary distinctions between clean and unclean animals? The differences introduced in Leviticus 11 apply only to the people that has been "distinguished": these are practical in nature, and refer to the dietary regime of the Israelites and to their sacrificial practice; they concern a people called to enter into the sanctity of God – and therefore into his "difference" – by entering into a world more rich in distinctions. One passage from Leviticus sums up this singular vocation: "I, the Lord, your God, have set you apart from the other nations. You, too, must set apart, then, the clean animals from the unclean, and the clean birds from the unclean, so that you may not be contaminated with the uncleanness of any beast or bird or of any swarming creature in the land that I have set apart for you. To me, therefore, you shall be sacred; for I, the Lord, am sacred, I, who have set you apart from the other nations to be my own" (20:24-26). [...] Together with the other distinctions introduced by Leviticus, the distinction of clean and unclean animals is among those that put the children of Israel on the side of [...] a more attentive respect, in others and in themselves, for the first gift from God, which is this life. Once again, the biblical vision does not at all support an irrational religiosity, but reveals itself as connected to an intelligent articulation of the world, respectful of the distinctions within reality and of the finality indicated by these.


Genesis 1 could, finally, have the subtitle that Karl Popper gave to his last work: "Questions concerning the understanding of nature." Adam extends the creative work of the separation of species. In doing this, he exercises, in the image of God, the "gentle mastery" of the world that is entrusted to him (1:28).

A text in the book of Kings also asserts that in this he exercises a royal, and, so to speak, a "scientific" function. The praise of Solomon's wisdom ends with these verses: "Solomon surpassed all the Cedemites and all the Egyptians in wisdom. [...] Solomon also uttered three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He discussed plants, from the cedar on Lebanon to the hyssop growing out of the wall, and he spoke about beasts, birds, reptiles, and fishes" (1 Kings 5:10-13). In the garden-state that is Judah and Israel (cf. 1 Kings 5:5), Solomon, full of the wisdom that he has received, extends the work of Adam, who "gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals" (Genesis 2:20), and also initiates the governance of the world with language.

Following Herder and Heidegger, there has been no lack of interpretations that have seen in the naming of the animals by Adam man's poetic vocation, that of "inhabiting this earth poetically" (Hölderlin). To tell the truth, the cultural background of the twofold scene (in Genesis 2 and in 1 Kings 5) invites looking at Adam and Solomon as representatives of both poets and men of science. Solomon's encyclopedic wisdom in the passage cited from 1 Kings 5:12-13 is close, in fact, to the classification and "science of lists" among the inhabitants of Mesopotamia, from which the inventories of the book of Proverbs and the biblical legal codices are also derived. René Labat writes about this "science of lists" developed between the Tigris and the Euphrates: "Although it was not intended for universal use, in practice it was extended to all areas of knowledge: to the natural sciences in the lists of minerals, plants, and animals; to the technical sciences in the lists of tools, garments, buildings, foods, and drinks; to the science of the universe in the lists of gods, stars, countries or districts, rivers, and mountains; and finally, to the human sciences in the lists of physical features, parts of the body, occupations, and social classes."

This classification of natural phenomena is especially organized on the basis of their names. In the Bible, there is an echo of the creative activity of God who creates things by giving them names. "Solomon's zoological and botanical circle of knowledge is another garden of Adam," writes Paul Beauchamp. Adam and Solomon both attest – one at the beginning and the other in historical "modernity" – to man's vocation of inhabiting "scientifically" the earth that God has entrusted to him.

In his nomenclature, Labat mentions the elaboration of the "lists of the gods." But this is not a task for biblical man, whose one God has revealed himself as irreducible to the phenomena of the world. In fact, it must be stressed how biblical monotheism transformed the relationship of man's "knowledge" with the world around him: in the biblical world, the "science of lists" has a new meaning. The polytheistic religions of the ancient Near East – Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Canaanite – [...] were strictly connected to cosmic elements: the sky, the rain, the constellations, the air, the wind, the rivers. This is no longer thinkable in the biblical context: if God penetrates with his attention and care the world he has created, even in its most inaccessible parts (cf. Job 38-39), he is nonetheless "separate" in his absolute transcendence (cf. Isaiah 40:25; 46:5; 66:1-2).

The religious societies of the ancient Near East are further characterized by a dark undercurrent ruled by demons and malevolent forces. Biblical thought noticeably altered this situation. [...] Liberated from divine and demonic immanences, the earth is given over entirely to biblical man: "The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth he has given to the sons of men" (Psalm 115:16). It is given to him in its full extension, sky, sea, and land, as Psalm 8 says, with the duty of inquiry that stems from this: "The glory of kings is to search things out" (Proverbs 25:2). This royal task of biblical man receives its most "modern," almost secularized form in the research of Solomon, as presented in the book of Ecclesiastes: "I applied my mind to search and investigate in wisdom all things that are done under the sun" (1:13). This undertaking is certainly far from the modern sciences: in order to become operational, these would have to pass across other thresholds of rationality, beginning with that of Greek philosophy. It is nonetheless true that the biblical idea of the handing over of creation to the knowledge and power of man constitutes one of the conditions of the emancipation of scientific knowledge.


Genesis 1 is, therefore, in its own way, a manifesto on the intelligibility of the world. [...] This chapter and the ones that follow in Genesis do not at all assert a form of competition between divine science and that of man. Man's access to the knowledge of language is not a prerogative taken away from the divinity, like a Promethean fire, in spite of the false promises of the serpent in Genesis 3:1-5. Man's "scientific" vocation is, instead, enunciated in the moments of God's presence to man, whether it is a discourse addressed to Adam by God in Genesis 1, or God's closeness to man in the garden in Genesis 2, or the mystical experience in 1 Kings 3, where Solomon asks God for wisdom, which in particular would take the form of his governance of the world through speech. This knowledge is not immune from deviations, but it proceeds above all from "being in the image," like the royal task that God entrusted to Adam. Psalm 8 puts things in the proper perspective when it celebrates the mastery of God by celebrating that of man: "You have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, put all things under his feet."

The journal in which the essay was published:

> La Civiltà Cattolica

The website of the conference, in Italian and English:

> Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories

Benedict XVI dedicated to "creation and evolution" the closed-door seminar that he held with his former students in Castel Gandolfo in September of 2006. On that occasion, www.chiesa published the following article:

> Creation or Evolution? Here Is the View of the Church of Rome (11.8.2006)

The article reprints the famous article that Cardinal Christoph Schönborn dedicated to the topic in "The New York Times" on July 7, 2005, a commentary by Professor Fiorenzo Facchini (one of the speakers at the recent conference on Darwin) and a topical selection of magisterial Church documents on evolution.

Benedict XVI has revisited the topic since then, in particular in the annual speech to the Roman curia on December 22, 2008, in a passage highlighted in this other article from www.chiesa:

> Faith By Numbers. When Ratzinger Puts on Galileo's Robes (9.1.2009)

Moreover, a book has been published containing the proceedings from the seminar in Castel Gandolfo in September of 2006, with essays by Christoph Schönborn, Peter Schuster, Robert Spaemann, Paul Erlich, and Sigfried Wiedenhofer. The book, entitled "Creazione ed evoluzione," was published in Italy by Edizioni Dehoniane in Bologna, and in Germany by Sankt Ulrich Verlag, in Augsburg.

English translation by Matthew Sherry, Saint Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.
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