[Paleopsych] The Times: Lord William Rees-Mogg: A pope for our times: why Darwin is back on the agenda at the Vatican
checker at panix.com
Sat Nov 26 02:07:55 UTC 2005
Lord William Rees-Mogg: A pope for our times: why Darwin is back on the agenda
at the Vatican
The Times November 07, 2005
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.
Print this article Send to a friend Back to top of page
ALSO IN THIS SECTION
The new Macmillan -- and David Cameron has never had it so good
A pope for our times: why Darwin is back on the agenda at the Vatican
Crushing freedom's voice
Warriors, statesmen, prelates. Can young David live up to his
More information about the paleopsych