National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2006
Benedict's evolving thought on evolution
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Presumably, Pope Benedict XVI asked his Schülerkreis, the circle of his former doctoral students, to discuss “Creation and Evolution” during the group’s annual meeting this month at Castel Gandolfo, Italy, because he wants to consult theologians, philosophers and natural scientists before addressing the subject -- if, indeed, he feels the need to say anything, a point which remains to be seen.
The fact the pope wants to hear from others, however, by no means implies that he lacks ideas of his own. Over the years, Joseph Ratzinger has wrestled with the theory of evolution in books, articles, lectures and interviews, including a 1990 book-length commentary on the Genesis creation stories.
Whether that past will be prologue to anything Benedict does as pope is still unclear, but these sources, examined at length by NCR in recent weeks, at least provide a picture of his approach.
What do they reveal?
First, Benedict XVI is not a “creationist.” He does not advocate a strictly literal reading of Genesis, nor has he ever made reference to teaching “creation science” in schools. A member of the prestigious secular French Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques (inducted in 1993 along with then-Czech President Vaclav Havel as one of only 12 foreign nationals), Pope Benedict has no desire to launch a crusade against modern science.
Nor is Benedict XVI really an advocate of “intelligent design” in the American sense, since intelligent design theorists typically assert that data from biology and other empirical sciences, by itself, requires the hypothesis of a designer. Benedict may have some sympathy for this view; he has questioned the evidence for “macro-evolution,” meaning the transition from one species to another on the basis of random mutation and natural selection.
Ultimately, however, he sees this as a debate for scientists to resolve.
His concern cuts deeper, to what he sees as the tendency to convert evolution into “a universal theory concerning all reality,” improperly transposing Darwin from the scientific to the philosophical realm. Such a worldview, Benedict believes, excludes God, and therefore excludes rationality, as the basis of existence. In contrast, the pope insists upon the fundamental conviction of Christian faith: “ In principio erat Verbum -- at the beginning of all things stands the creative power of reason.”
Benedict acknowledges that this question “can no longer be decided by arguments from natural science.”
Beyond these essentials, one can outline the pope’s thinking in terms of four concepts.
Whatever the findings of the natural sciences, they will not contradict Christian faith, since ultimately the truth is one.
This confidence is expressed in Ratzinger’s 1990 book, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall.
“What response shall we make to this view [evolution]?” he asked. “It is the affair of the natural sciences to explain how the tree of life in particular continues to grow, and how new branches shoot out from it. This is not a matter for faith. … More reflective spirits have long been aware that there is no either-or here. We cannot say: ‘creation or evolution,’ inasmuch as these two things respond to two different realities. … The theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments. But in so doing it cannot explain where the ‘project’ of human persons comes from, nor their inner origin, nor their particular nature. To that extent we are faced here with two complementary -- rather than mutually exclusive -- realities.”
n As a scientific matter, the evidence for “micro-evolution” seems beyond doubt; the case for “macro-evolution” is less persuasive.
“Micro-evolution” refers to developmental changes within a species, while “macro-evolution” is the transition from one species to another on the basis of mutation and selection. Some critics of evolution concede the former but dispute the latter, and Ratzinger has voiced support for this view.
His comments come in a Nov. 27, 1999, lecture delivered at the Sorbonne titled “The Truth of Christianity,” published in his 2003 book Truth and Tolerance.
“No one will be able to cast serious doubt upon the scientific evidence for micro-evolutionary processes,” he wrote. “R. Junker and S. Scherer, in their ‘critical reader’ on evolution, have this to say: ‘Many examples of such developmental steps [micro-evolutionary processes] are known to us from natural processes of variation and development. The research done on them by evolutionary biologists produced significant knowledge of the adaptive capacity of living systems, which seems marvelous.’ … The problem emerges at the point of transition from micro- to macro-evolution, on which point Szathmáry and Maynard Smith, both convinced supporters of an all-embracing theory of evolution, nonetheless declare that: ‘There is no theoretical basis for believing that evolutionary lines become more complex with time; and there is also no empirical evidence that this happens.’ ”
(Ratzinger here refers to the argument, often made by intelligent design theorists, that organic life reveals an “irreducible complexity” that cannot be ascribed to mechanisms of chance.)
The distinction between “micro-” and “macro-evolution” is apparently one Ratzinger began to make in the 1980s, after hearing a series of lectures at the Gustav Siewarth Academy, a small Catholic academy in Germany’s Black Forest. Dominique Tassot, head of a group of European Catholic intellectuals critical of evolutionary theory, told NCR that German Catholic intellectual Alma von Stockhausen has related that Ratzinger concluded macro-evolution is “impossible” based on this experience. Von Stockhausen is the founder of the Gustav Siewarth Academy and a long-time Ratzinger associate.
Whatever his personal views, however, Benedict XVI seems unlikely to render an official judgment on what he sees as a scientific question. In a 1992 Vatican news conference presenting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he said that it is not the function of the church to pass judgment on the scientific merits of evolutionary theory.
Evolution has become a kind of “first philosophy” for enlightened thinkers, ruling out the possibility that life has any ultimate meaning. Here Christianity must draw the line.
Benedict’s deepest concern is that Darwinism has promoted scientific positivism, holding that only empirical science can produce certainty, and hence that religion, if it survives at all, can only do so as a subjective, emotional consolation against the cold indifference of the universe. In response, Benedict argues that Christianity relies on truths deeper than empirical observation, chief among them that life has purpose. In this sense, he believes in “intelligent design” -- not necessarily as the product of scientific observation, but as a metaphysical principle.
In the Beginning, Ratzinger writes: “We must have the audacity to say that the great projects of the living creation are not the products of chance and error. … The great projects of the living creation point to a creating Reason and show us a creating Intelligence, and they do so more luminously and radiantly today than ever before. … Human beings are not a mistake but something willed; they are the fruit of love. They can disclose in themselves, in the bold project that they are, the language of the creating Intelligence that speaks to them and that moves them to say: Yes, Father, you have willed me.”
On the moral level, evolution as a “first philosophy” is dangerous.
Benedict draws this argument out in Truth and Tolerance: “An evolutionary ethic that inevitably takes as its key concept the model of selectivity, that is, the struggle for survival, the victory of the fittest, successful adaptation, has little comfort to offer. Even when people try to make it more attractive in various ways, it ultimately remains a bloodthirsty ethic. … All this is of very little use for an ethic of universal peace, of practical love of one’s neighbor, and of the necessary overcoming of oneself, which is what we need.”
To put all this into a formula, the pope doesn’t want to repeat the Galileo case, but neither does he want to surrender to Auguste Comte -- who in the 19th century predicted a “physics of man” that would render religion obsolete.
With respect to Pope John Paul II’s famous 1996 statement that evolution is “more than a hypothesis,” therefore, it’s meaningless to ask whether Benedict XVI agrees or disagrees. Ever the professor, he would insist upon clarifying what precisely is meant by “evolution,” whether it’s being evaluated on a scientific or philosophical basis, and so on.
What seems clear, however, is that Benedict fears such nihil obtstats for evolution may inadvertently have accelerated the diffusion of a worldview that holds that it’s pointless to ask questions that can’t be settled by laboratory experiments, and that chance and meaninglessness are the ultimate laws of the universe. In that sense, one suspects Benedict would affirm that evolution is indeed “more than a hypothesis” -- for better, and for worse.
Perhaps the best optic on what Benedict is after in the discussion on evolution comes in this comment from Truth and Tolerance:
“This dispute has to be approached objectively and with a willingness to listen, by both sides -- something that has hitherto been undertaken only to a limited extent.”
John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the Web
John L. Allen Jr. digs deeper into the writings of the then-Joseph Ratzinger to determine what Pope Benedict XVI might ultimately say about evolution. Go to Allen's column All Things Catholic at NCRonline.org to read more about this subject.
National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2006