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Theological Notebook--CNS Article on Document on Evolution

Creative tension: omnipotence of God vs. dynamism of a universe


By John Thavis
Catholic News Service


VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A recent Vatican document analyzed evolution in the light of faith, stepping into an area that has long been a religious and scientific minefield.

The document, prepared by the International Theological Commission and made available in mid-September, examined man's relationship with the created world.

Why bother to get into evolution? Because, as the text said, Catholics have a responsibility to "locate" the scientific understanding of the universe within a Christian vision of creation.

That's an assignment that challenges even the experts, however.

"That's a very big task, and a very complicated issue. It's not settled yet, by any means," said U.S. Jesuit Father George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory, who has closely followed the evolution debate.

The theological commission operates in conjunction with the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, and its document is remarkable in several ways.

First, it accepts as likely the prevailing tenets of evolutionary science: the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in a "big bang"; the earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago; all living organisms on earth descended from a first organism; and man emerged some 40,000 years ago with the development of the larger, human brain.

Second, the document does not argue for a "divine design" in specific processes of evolution. While acknowledging that some experts do see a providential design in biological structures, it says such development might also be "contingent," or dependant on chance.

"True contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence," it said.

In other words, God's plan may have allowed for all kinds of variables to play out. Or, as the document put it, "any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so."

But is the emergence of man one of these chance results? Or did God play creationist in this instance?

That's the crux of the current debate, said Father Coyne.
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Tags: evolution, scientific, theological notebook, vatican
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