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November 04, 2005

Relevant Religious Positions

Apropos to this earlier entry, a pleasing development out of the Vatican:

A Vatican cardinal said Thursday that the faithful should listen to what secular modern science has to offer, warning that religion risks turning into "fundamentalism" if it ignores scientific reason.
Cardinal Paul Poupard, who heads the Pontifical Council for Culture, made the comments at a news conference on a Vatican project to help end the "mutual prejudice" between religion and science that has long bedeviled the Roman Catholic Church and is part of the evolution debate.
The Vatican project was inspired by Pope John Paul II's declaration in 1992 that the church's 17th-century denunciation of Galileo was an error resulting from "tragic mutual incomprehension." Galileo was condemned for supporting Nicolaus Copernicus's theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun; church teaching at the time placed Earth at the center of the universe.
"The permanent lesson that the Galileo case represents pushes us to keep alive the dialogue between the various disciplines, and in particular between theology and the natural sciences, if we want to prevent similar episodes from repeating themselves in the future," Poupard said.

Well, that's one billion Christians who don't have to twist their minds into a pretzel over that particular issue, which is roughly half of the Christian host. And it's worth noting the Cardinal is restating the Catholic Church's position, not making a change. Given that the fundamentalist view of science v. religion is not held by every other Christian sect either, this is a reminder that religious fundamentalism's antipathy regarding science is a minority view within Christianity. This may or may not be relevant to various people, for various reasons.

Posted by john at November 4, 2005 10:41 AM

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Ed Trimnell | November 4, 2005 12:12 PM

I attended Catholic grade school and high school during the 1970s & 1980s. I was taught about evolution in my science classes in elementary school, then again in high school biology class. The whole issue of evolution was pretty much a *non-issue* for us. I don't remember it being controversial at all. (In fact, I recall learning at some point about the Scopes Trial, and the viewpoint we got was pro-evolution.)

Joe Rybicki | November 4, 2005 12:24 PM

Ed, I had the same experience--8 years of Catholic gradeschool where science and evolution were very enthusiastically supported, and 4 years at a Jesuit high school (I took classes from a guy who actually wrote one of the most widely-used textbooks at the time) where we watched--and tore apart--Inherit the Wind (the flick about the Scopes trial, starring who? Orson Welles? Somebody famous). Catholics can be crazy about certain traditional things, but I'm frequently impressed by how they do tend to approach religion with a certain scientific, logical bent. Until you start asking exactly how Jesus could be both 100% human AND 100% divine. Then we get into leap of faith territory for sure.

Anyone else interested by the fact that this statement did not come from Benny 16? And that in fact, in addition to coming from an underling it specifically referenced JP2's positions on the matter?

Jemaleddin | November 4, 2005 12:32 PM

A survey of my office mates shows that none of the Catholics believe in evolution, common descent, or natural selection. They say that they think that Intelligent Design should be taught in schools, but when explained that it includes some aspects of evolution, they confess that what they really believe in is special creation.

And since they're all Republicans, they all believe in social darwinism - go figure.

Everyone in my office who believes in evolution is an atheist.

John Scalzi | November 4, 2005 12:48 PM

Jemaleddin, you should tell them the Pope believes in evolution. See how they work with that.

Ed Trimnell | November 4, 2005 12:51 PM

Jemaladdin writes:

"And since they're all Republicans, they all believe in social darwinism - go figure."

This is a real shift from the Catholic education that I recieved, which emphasized the social justice aspects of the New Testament. In fact, I would say that almost every one of my high school teachers (in the Catholic high school I attended) voted for Mondale in the 1984 election.

We had to perform a social justice practicum of sorts in order to graduate. We were required to spend a certain number of hours working in a soup kitchen, or for habitat for humanity during our senior year.

20 years ago American Catholics were not part of the Religious Right. However, the mixture of religion and politics that we see today may be causing many Catholics to sign up for the Religious Right agenda--which is in opposition to the more admirable teachings of Catholicism (and most other faiths).

This is yet another piece of proof that politics brings out the worst in religion--and a good argument for keeping religious doctrine out of public policy debates.

Martin Wagner | November 4, 2005 01:41 PM

What bears mentioning here is that the kinds of fundamentalist Protestants and evangelicals and pentacostals in America who support "ID" and creatonism already think that the Catholic church is so apostate they're barely distinguishable from Satanists. So whatever the Vatican says in favor of good science education will simply shore up the wingnuts' view that to be pro-science and pro-evolution is to be a horrible evil sinner.

John Scalzi | November 4, 2005 01:45 PM

Agreed, Martin. However, this is a further indication these folks are the minority, not the majority.

Brian Greenberg | November 4, 2005 02:06 PM

Interesting post. It raises a question in my mind, relative to the other discussion we've had on this topic:

Would you be opposed to evolution being discussed in Catholic schools? Would it matter if it were discussed in science class, or in religious class (as an counter-example to creationism or ID or whatever they teach there)?

Just curious...

Paul | November 4, 2005 02:19 PM

Main stream Christianity has never been "anti-science". Most of the great scientists in the Enlightenment were Christians. It makes sense because Christians expect to find order and laws in the universe which can be described and relied upon not to change.

The fundamentalists who get press for being anti scientific are indeed a very small minority. They get attention precisely because they are so whacked out.

The rub comes when people claim that "evolution" is somehow rooted in actual science. It's not, by definition. It can't be proved or disproved experimentally. It can't be observed in action. It can't be used to predict future outcomes. It does not fit any of the parameters of the scientific method.

It's a set of beliefs just like any other set of beliefs.

John Scalzi | November 4, 2005 02:29 PM


Paul: talk.origins. Read the FAQ, if you please.

Let this be the extent of the "evolution is not real science" stupidity in this thread.

Paul | November 4, 2005 02:45 PM

I'd just like to point out that the Paul who commented above was not me. Thank you.

James | November 4, 2005 02:56 PM

The Social Darwinist Republican Catholics referenced above would seem to be flying in the face of a fair number of Encyclicals going back to near the beginning of the 20th century, as well as the long tradition of Catholic social teaching as evidenced by e.g. Augustine and Thomas.

As such, their divergence from the overall position of the Church on evolution would be a relatively minor matter.

I have heard some (not very sophisticated) Catholics adopt intelligent design because they can't see any middle ground between it and straight "everything-happened-by-pure-chance" evolution: this despite the fact that they're perfectly willing to accept dual causation in their day-to-day lives (i.e. seeing the hand of God in some event (such as being delayed on a trip and thereby missing a major transport disaster) which has evident non-miraculous causes as well). As one moves up the hierarchy this sort of naivete becomes rarer and rarer.

The traditional view of the Church generally is that God acts in many circumstances as a Deus absconditus, and this is easily extensible to evolution (mechanisms are those of chance: God gives an "unprovable" nudge here and there). This is my understanding of the position of the Catholic Church -- they require that the faithful believe that God was involved in the creation of man (specifically) but do not require that that involvement be such as to prove God's existence (which would seem to be the fixation of the ID people, since they've already thrown out biblical literalism).

Perfect foresight would allow for the most minimal interventions possible; economy and elegance would seem to call for them ("Now a nudge right here to that allele during replication ... good, good ... that'll bear fruit in another 500,000 years..."); such interventions would, from any standpoint outside of already existing faith, be indistinguishable from random chance. (And, of course, such a view is explicitly not science nor part of the domain of science, since it deals with unprovable / unobservable interventions not required by Occam's Razor; nor, unlike ID, does it make any such claims.)

Scott | November 4, 2005 03:21 PM

I am not a Catholic... but I can't help but respect them.

Mostly because of the Jesuits. I am an education and logic whore. Finding huge societies of people who are too... it just tells me that there's something right in their heads.

Ben | November 4, 2005 03:36 PM

For anyone interested in the thoughts of Pope Benedict XVI on evolution, he has a short, accessible book on the subject. "In the Beginning ..." is a collection of four homilies he delivered on creation (including evolution) in the 1980s. It's a fascinating read --- even for a non-believer like myself.

rick mcginnis | November 4, 2005 04:51 PM

This seems to be a case, once again, of having to state what should be obvious: Catholics are not Protestants, and are especially not Protestant fundamentalists. Now, I don't even think that a majority of evangelicals believe what's populary ascribed to them (hate evolution, are closet racists, want to see the world returned to some magic pre-lapsarian 1955 of the mind), but this is one that we should hold in the foreground. The RC church made its peace with evolution before it finally demonized anti-Semitism in the last century, so when I hear liberal atheists ascribe so much fiendishness to the Pope, I can't help but hear their Methodist, Episocopalian, Baptist, etc. forebearers speaking through them - basically, much so-called "progressive" thought bears undigested remnants of olde-tymey nativist bigotry, 1910 stylee.

Kevin Q | November 4, 2005 08:07 PM

I've got to back up Ed and Joe above. 8 years of Catholic gradeschool and 4 years of Jesuit education, and I never once doubted, or was encouraged to doubt, the scientific basis of evolution. In all my science classes we were taught the scientific method, and the importance of questions in science, but were were never taught to question that evolution was, in fact, science.

Moreover, we had honest-to-God sex ed in gradeschool. We learned bits and pieces in health class, and then were taken to the city health center one day, where we were given the rundown, and could ask questions.

However, it does seem that the Catholics have gotten crazy conservative lately. I don't understand what happened.


Dave Klecha | November 4, 2005 11:30 PM

Some Catholics have gone crazy conservative. Mostly, I think, they were coopted in fundamentalism by way of the right to life program; the slide from that into other aspects of "we Christians are all in this together" seems rather straightforward.

Interestingly, this past Sunday at Mass our priest, in rural, conservative West Michigan, specifically directed his homily toward the egregious and exclusionary sins of fundamentalism. Not by name, nor with great thunder, but he said as much as could be said without dropping names. I have the feeling, given the Gospel reading of the weekend, he was not the only one to call out the right-extreme end of Christianity.

doubt | November 5, 2005 03:27 AM

Some Catholics have always been crazy conservative. I knew some when I was growing up, and I doubt that many more exist now than existed then, but as I no longer run in any circles where I would encounter them, I can't say for sure. But, for the most part, the Roman Catholics I've known aren't particularly crazy, stupid, or even particularly conservative (even the ones I knew that were pro-life tended to be otherwise liberal as often as not).

For the record, I was raised Catholic and am no longer in any way religious. I went to a Jesuit high school, and we had a saying that if you graduated from a Jesuit school, you would end up unshakably Catholic for life or a complete atheist -- there was no middle ground. I, of course, more or less came out atheist. That said, I have a great deal of respect for the Jesuit order, and I think I can say with fair certainty that no Jesuit school would agree to teach ID.

doubt | November 5, 2005 03:29 AM

Oh, and when I say "even the ones I knew that were pro-life" I mean the ones that were strongly so -- most of the Catholics I've known were at least nominally pro-life, although a few weren't.

Primate | November 5, 2005 08:42 AM

And to add a bit more to the timeline as reported by my father: Catholic schools in the 50's and 60's also taught evolution.

It should also be noted that the Catholic church itself uses science when figuring out how to hand out sainthoods. Reports of miracles are investigated by the church. If the event cannot be explained by scientific means, it is considered to a miracle. If the miracle can be clearly associated with a person as its immediate source, it counts towards their eventual sainthood, which is granted only after they've been dead a while. Miracles granted through prayer to a dead person count towards the dead person's miracles. I'm pretty sure Mother Theresa already has all her required miracles, which is why she's been fast tracked for sainthood since her death.

rayyy | November 5, 2005 10:25 AM

Let's hope people reflect on the Cardinal's call to reason.

Unfortunately, the far right aren't interested in reason. It makes them weaker - and they're playing to win.

Whatever the cost.

Jon H | November 5, 2005 09:00 PM

Brian Greenberg writes: "Would you be opposed to evolution being discussed in Catholic schools? Would it matter if it were discussed in science class, or in religious class (as an counter-example to creationism or ID or whatever they teach there)?"

Those are private schools, chosen by the parents, and paid for by the parents. What they teach is their business. There are plenty of religious private schools teaching nonsense instead of science, but they're generally protestant.

But when it comes to public school, science ought to be science, not fables and mythology.

Jitka | November 12, 2005 04:49 PM

My mother teaches science at a Catholic school, and while she doesn't teach evolution, since that's not her curriculum, she does teach about space and stars and such, and they adhere to the scientific method better than my (public) high school did. (My mother didn't teach at the Catholic school when I was in high school, to clarify.) On the other hand, she's Republican, so I can't say I agree with all her ideas. Still, the education at the school she works at is excellent, as evidenced by the fact that their standardized test scores are higher than the surrounding public schools, in a well-to-do town.

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