[Paleopsych] The Times: Lord William Rees-Mogg: A pope for our times: why Darwin is back on the agenda at the Vatican

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Lord William Rees-Mogg: A pope for our times: why Darwin is back on the agenda 
at the Vatican
    The Times November 07, 2005

    William Rees-Mogg

    IN THE mid-1980s I was a member of a Vatican body with the impressive
    title International Committee of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
    Each year we had a meeting with Pope John-Paul II; on one occasion he
    gave us lunch and served a light white wine from, I think, a papal

    The other members of the committee included a splendid Ibo lady, the
    head of the Catholic Women's Movement in Nigeria, an Indian nun, a
    Japanese Jesuit and a Francophone president of an African nation who
    believed that French culture and a sound classical education would be
    the best answer to Africa's educational problems. I enjoyed our
    discussions, which were almost always held in French.

    The idea, which came from the Pope himself, was far-sighted. We
    foresaw what has subsequently been called the "clash of
    civilisations"; we tried to relate that conflict to the widely
    differing cultures of the billion members of the Roman Catholic
    Church. We discussed the impact of particular developments in modern
    science but so far as I can remember we did not try to deal with the
    central problem of the relationship between science and religion; that
    seems to have come now.

    Our chairman was Cardinal Paul Poupard, an admirable example of the
    cultivated French intellectual in the Roman Curia; he is still the
    head of the Pontifical Council for Culture. Whether the council still
    has an international committee I do not know, since I left it nearly
    20 years ago. Last week the cardinal was giving a press conference
    before a meeting in Rome of scientists, philosophers and theologians;
    this week they will be discussing the difficult subject of infinity.
    Cardinal Poupard had a beautifully trained French mind and inner
    loyalty to the Catholic faith. Nothing he says is said without careful
    thought. At the press conference he was discussing the issue of
    evolution, which is the critical dividing line between science and
    religion. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species shook religious
    belief when it was first published in 1859 in a way that Isaac
    Newton's equally important Principia had not shaken the faith of 1687.

    In The Times Martin Penner reported the cardinal's argument. He had
    said that the description in Genesis of the Creation was "perfectly
    compatible" with Darwin's theory of evolution, if the Bible were read
    properly. "Fundamentalists want to give a scientific meaning to words
    that had no scientific aim."

    He argued that the real message of Genesis was that the Universe did
    not make itself, and had a creator. "Science and theology act in
    different fields, each in its own." In Rome, the immediate reaction
    was that this was a Vatican rejection of the fundamentalist American
    doctrine of "intelligent design". No doubt the Vatican does want to
    separate itself from American creationists, but the significance
    surely goes further than that. This is not another Galileo case; the
    teachings of the Church have never imposed a literal interpretation of
    the language of the Bible; that was a Protestant mistake. Nor did the
    Church condemn the theory of evolution, though it did and does reject
    neo-Darwinism when that is made specifically atheist.

    Indeed, one can go back nearly 1,500 years before Darwin and find St
    Augustine of Hippo, the most commanding intellect of all the early
    doctors of the Church, teaching a doctrine of evolution in the early
    5th century. In one of his greatest works, De Genesi ad Litteram, he
    stated that God did not create an organised Universe as we see it now,
    but in the beginning created all the elements of the world in a
    confused and "nebulous" mass. In this mass were the mysterious seeds
    of the creatures who were to come into existence.

    Augustine's thought does therefore contain the elements of a theory of
    evolution, and even a genetic theory, but does not have natural
    selection. St Augustine has always been orthodox. He did not foresee
    modern science in AD410, but he did have an extraordinary grasp of the
    potential evolution of scientific thought. Cardinal Poupard's address
    to the journalists should not be seen as a matter of the Roman Church
    changing its mind and accepting Darwin after 145 years.

    It is a precautionary statement, distancing the Church from the
    American attack on Darwinism that Rome considers to be neither good
    science, nor good theology. It will also be taken as an indication of
    the priorities of the present Pope Benedict XVI.

    His critics had expected him to be more conservative than his
    predecessor. I tended to share this expectation myself, but refrained
    from expressing it because new leaders always surprise one; they move
    in directions no one had previously foreseen. We should have been more
    conscious of differences between the national traditions of the
    Catholic Church in Poland and in Germany. The Polish Church, which
    trained John-Paul II, had always combined conservative theology with
    support for the national claims to liberty. The German Church has
    always been challenged by the modernism of German theology.

    In the 16th century Germany was the region where the Reformation
    happened. German theologians on the Roman Catholic side had to
    understand the arguments of the Reformers if they were to reply to
    them. In the 18th century Germans were fully exposed to the French
    Enlightenment. In the 19th century they were exposed to German
    philosophers such as Hegel, and to the challenge of German biblical
    scholarship. Modernism itself in the late 19th century had a great
    influence on German Catholic opinion.

    All these arguments are well understood by Benedict XVI, because so
    many of them are German arguments.

    Cardinal Poupard's statement clarified the acceptance of Darwinism and
    rightly asserted that religious belief is compatible with the theory
    of evolution. He also gave a further indication that the mindset of
    Benedict XVI may be a good deal more modern than had been expected.
    One should have foreseen that with a German pope. The German Church
    has a strong tradition of theological inquiry in which Benedict XVI
    has been educated.
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