The Roman Catholic Church has never had a vendetta against scientific discoveries about evolution. What she has consistently opposed have been certain aspects of its interpretation by scientists and popularizers — reducing the advent of intelligent life to the play of chance, and tying humanity's success to the survival of the fittest.
The controversy was revived in the 1980s, when Jacques Monod received the Nobel Prize for medicine. Mr. Monod had popularized the notion that chance was the ruling explanation for the world as we know it. Francois Jacob, who shared the Nobel Prize with him, thoroughly disagreed with what he called this "animistic inflation of the role of chance." Succeeding research has left an ever larger number of physicists, astronomers and biologists impressed by the stupendous series of coincidences that would have been necessary to make life as we know it possible. The public, however, generally found it easier to go with chance. It undermined any argument for a direction to the universe, or for purpose to human life itself. No purpose, no responsibility.
Charles Darwin himself, it must be noted, had already given anti-religious interpretations to his own discoveries. They eliminated, he thought, all necessity for a creator, as well as all pressure on humans to live up to a preconceived morality. As he is reputed to have put it jokingly, his theories must be correct, for they allowed him to relax about the possibility that some of his best friends might end up in hell.
There is another problematic aspect to evolutionism, from the standpoint of the churches: not the facts garnered by Darwin, but his insistence on explaining their connection by natural selection. Some conveniently forget that the full title of his Origin of Species is On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Evolution was widely used to extol the survival of the finest as a healthy, natural approach to life. It is no accident that raw capitalism thrived in Darwin's afterglow; that faith in world conquest by a master race followed soon after; that Nazism shared the political arena with belief in class war as the way to social paradise.
Few scientists today would still reduce evolution to the gradualist view of Orthodox Darwinism. The churches can hardly be blamed for having balked at a "scientific" picture of the history of life as red in tooth and claw, as evolutionists wanted their contemporaries to see it. Its moral implications were too horrifying.
It has always been the official policy of the Catholic Church that religion could never contradict demonstrated scientific facts. Even Bellarmine, the infamous friend-turned-opponent of Galileo, made it clear that "if there were a true demonstration that the sun was in the centre of the universe... then it would be necessary to use careful consideration in explaining the Scriptures that seemed contrary, and we should rather have to say that we do not understand them than to declare false something which had been proven. But I do not think there is any such demonstration."
The evolutionists, not the churches, launched the evolution controversy. They pushed the notion that evolution and religion were mortal enemies. Huxley's defence of Darwin's Origin illustrates the tone: "Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science, as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules." Huxley, John Tyndall, Herbert Spencer, Clifford Galton and their positivistic allies waged an unremitting campaign to convert England to scientific naturalism. The goal of the evolutionists was clear: to replace the clergy as new leaders of English culture. An 1868 scientific journal put it bluntly: "Enforcing the claims of science upon the general public... (would) secure her followers their proper need of recompense and social distinction." Their lure was the intimate connection of science to the success of business, and to the comfort of everyday life.
Today, the tide may be turning. Evolution is no longer tied by scientists either to reductionist chance happenings or to straight forward natural selection. The "survival of the fittest" approach has cost us the bloodiest century of our history; the notion that science challenges faith in biblical revelation is increasingly recognized as unsophisticated. In his recent statements, the Pope did not "make peace with evolution," as most newspapers reported. He simply reminded us that the Church and scientific truth can only be at peace.
Janine Langan, "The Quarrel the Evolutionists Started," Globe & Mail, 24 June 1996.
Reprinted with permission of the Globe & Mail.
Janine Langan is the William J. Bennett Professor of Christianity and Culture, St. Michael's College, University of Toronto. Dr. Langan is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
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