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Evolution in the Eyes of the Church (Part 1 of 2)

7/28/2005 - 7:00 AM PST

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Father Edward Oakes on the Importance of Definitions

MUNDELEIN, Illinois, JULY 28, 2005 (Zenit) - It isn't often that cardinals from another continent get space in the op-ed pages of the New York Times.

Such was the case on July 7 when Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna and principal editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, tried on the opinion page of the Times to clarify the Church's teachings in regard to the theories of Charles Darwin. His statements ignited a firestorm of commentary.

To get insight into the issue, we turned to Jesuit Father Edward Oakes, a theology professor at the University of St. Mary of the Lake.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Friday.

Q: Cardinal Schönborn recently wrote an opinion-page article in the New York Times on evolution. What was the real point he made in that piece? Was it just a new chapter in the evolution-vs.-creationism debate?

Father Oakes: First of all, let me clear up a problem of interpretation regarding Cardinal Schönborn's essay, due no doubt to the editors of the Times.

Two days after his op-ed piece appeared, the Times ran a front-page story on the controversy whose headline read: "Leading Cardinal Redefines Church's View on Evolution." This so-called redefinition is something the cardinal most decidedly did not do.

For one thing, the Church has no "doctrine" on evolution, any more than it has a doctrine on tectonic plates or a magisterial teaching on how human consciousness arises from the electrical firings inside the neurology of the brain. These matters are both beyond the competence of the magisterium and are irrelevant to salvation, anyway.

Secondly, even if the magisterium did have an official teaching on evolution, it does not officially revise its "views" on matters of science by having a cardinal, however "leading," writing an article "in propria persona" -- on his own behalf -- and using an op-ed piece in a secular newspaper to boot.

That said, I believe that Cardinal Schönborn's essay "Finding Design in Nature" in the July 7 issue of the Times makes a valid point, roughly the reverse side of the coin of what Pope John Paul II said in his now-famous letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in October of 1996.

John Paul said at the time that "evolution" -- which, as Cardinal Schönborn rightly notes, the Holy Father left undefined -- can no longer be considered merely a "hypothesis" because so much data have now come in to confirm the theory.

The problem is that this very short letter brought some misinterpretations of its own in its wake -- because of the obnoxious way some Darwinians like to hijack the word "evolution" for their own atheistic purposes -- and it is those false conclusions, as I see it, that the cardinal was trying to warn against.

But, no, I do not see the cardinal's quite legitimate warning as a "new chapter in the evolution-vs.-creationism debate."

First of all, if "creationism" means six-day creation as a few Christian fundamentalists still hold, then there is no chance in the world that the Catholic Church will join that cause. But "creationism" can also refer to the total ontological dependence of the universe on God's creative act of will, and nothing in the theory of evolution can threaten that essential doctrine of the Catholic faith.

Remember that, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, even if the world happens to be temporally eternal, such an eternity of time would not undermine the created contingency of the world, utterly dependent on God's free decision to create it.

Q: Non-scientists often think Darwin's theory of evolution is accepted as scientific fact. Is that the case? If not, what is the best science saying right now?

Father Oakes: As Cardinal Schönborn rightly pointed out, the key is how one defines evolution.

If evolution simply means "descent with modification," then I would agree that evolution must be regarded as confirmed by scientific "fact" -- meaning by that tendentious word a reality that no one can afford to deny, except at the price of obscurantism.

Defined in that way, the theory of evolution claims that all life began about 3.5 billion years ago as a single-celled, self-replicating organism from which we are all descended. Since everyone now reading this sentence once began his or her existence as a single-celled organism, I hardly see how such a theory can be regarded as inherently implausible. Plus, let's not forget that the biological basis of the Church's opposition to abortion is based on the single-celled origin of human life.

And once one traces the transmission of life all the way back, using the science of genetics as one's marker, and once one follows the paths of life back to life's remotest beginnings, one sees how the various ...

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