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May 24, 2009

Evolving dialogue between religion and science

By Sheila Liaugminas


In early March, some of the world’s leading scientists, philosophers and theologians gathered in Rome for a weeklong conference titled “Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories.” Sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Pontifical Gregorian University and the University of Notre Dame, it was headlined as “A Critical Appraisal 150 Years After ‘The Origin of Species.’”

It was a rare interdisciplinary meeting of physicists, biologists, paleontologists, mathematicians, philosophers and theologians to professionally exchange ideas about Darwin’s theory of evolution. Whatever gulf may actually exist among them has been deeply exacerbated by popular media and pop culture, creating an unnecessary “Creation-Evolution” divide.

Pope John Paul II eagerly encouraged such dialogue in 1988 in a letter to the director of the Vatican Observatory, Jesuit Father George Coyne. “The matter is urgent,” John Paul said, and “the options do not include isolation … Christians will inevitably assimilate the prevailing ideas about the world, and today these are deeply shaped by science. … We must ask ourselves whether both science and religion will contribute to the integration of human culture or to its fragmentation. … For a simple neutrality is no longer acceptable.”

The culture is no longer so neutral. Celebrity atheists promoting a neo-Darwinism scorn religion and try to ridicule God. High-profile believers promoting a neo- Creationism scorn atheistic evolutionists and try to put God back in nature.

So the world’s media paid attention when this conference opened at the Pontifical Gregorian University with a welcoming address by Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Levada said the Catholic Church acknowledges room for belief in both scientific evolution and faith in God the Creator. Modern science cannot disprove the existence of God, he said. And Christian doctrine does not explain the physical processes by which creation took place.

“We believe that however creation has come about and evolved, ultimately God is the creator of all things,” he affirmed. Pressed to comment on the debate over creationist theory, Levada said the church would not take a stand on a properly scientific issue. “The Vatican listens and learns,” he said.

But few know what the church teaches regarding evolution. In fact, very little has officially been said about evolutionary biology. Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani Generis virtually invited scholars to engage with advancing science. Church teaching on the doctrine of evolution remained an open question if it concerns “the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter,” he said. But “the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.”

John Paul argued further, that science can neither prove nor disprove the doctrine of the soul and its creation. This phenomenon grounds the dignity of the human person.

Cardinal Georges Cottier, former papal theologian, addressed the Rome conference. “Everything exists from God, the first and universal cause,” he said. “Everything.”

Cottier spoke of the human nature of Christ and the meaning of the resurrection. He talked about parents as God’s collaborators in creation. “This debate required the church to speak out,” he continued. “The human soul is directly created by God. But the concept of ‘soul’ is not widely considered today.” He challenged philosophers to fix that.

Chicago seminarian Andrew Liaugminas, [the author’s son] attending on a grant from the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary, engaged American evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma in conversation on the doctrine of original sin and the “Fall.” Futuyma dismissed it as a scientist, but he was at least willing to engage the question. Both enjoyed the challenging weeklong encounter.

For average Catholics, this would be stunning. But Gennaro Auletta, Gregorian’s science director, a professor of philosophy and a conference organizer, said the Catholic Church is rich in scientific scholarship and pointed to Cardinal John Henry Newman as a supporter of Darwinism.

In that 1988 letter to Coyne, Pope John Paul II emphasized the importance of finding a unified vision of humanism. “Yet the unity that we seek … is not identity. The church does not propose that science should become religion or religion, science. … Each of these members should become not less itself but more itself in a dynamic interchange. … We are asked to become one. We are not asked to become each other.”

John Paul said this exchange has mutual benefit. “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. … Only a dynamic relationship between theology and science can reveal those limits … so that theology does not profess a pseudoscience and science does not become an unconscious theology.”

Liaugminas is author of, a correspondent for Relevant Radio and host of “America’s Lifeline.”