Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Rome: Please Don't Explicitly Embrace ID

In the subspace of the internet hypersphere that cares about such matters, there is a fair amount of chatter about the apparently very real possibility of the Catholic Church embracing Intelligent Design.

Personally, I think it would be a bad idea.

Oh, in the short term it would be amusing beyond belief. Just reading the reactions of those on the evolution side of the ID vs. evolution debate would provide untold hours of comic relief. Any modest restraint now (though not uniformly) in place, and based on the premise that it is better to misrepresent Rome's current position (as pro-evolution) and declare her as an ally rather than renouncing her dogma, would be jettisoned. Many true and ugly colors would be exposed. Who wouldn't enjoy that?

However, long term it could be a disaster--depending entirely on the specificity of any new Vatican position.

A statement that zeroes in on any particular ID example or theory would set the church up to be (potentially) on the wrong side, scientifically, of the argument. Any reference to this irreducibly complex component or that theory of information complexity would position the church in the midst of a specific scientific debate--a place where it has experience in ending up on the losing side, at a cost to the credibility of Christianity.

The bible makes very few testable statements about science. (On the other hand, it make loads of testable statements about history and archeology.) The church should no more endorse ID than it should String Theory.

Rather than embracing ID, it would be much better if Rome unambiguously clarified its position on evolution, with no mention of ID.

The Vatican position on evolution is available--but it is immersed in a fair number of unfortunately vague statements with too much wiggle room. Statements that lend themselves to "The Catholic Church approves evolution" quote mining.

For example, one of the best sources for Rome's position is this document, which contains this unambiguous clarification of John Paul II's unfortunately imprecise statements:
Pope John Paul II stated some years ago that "new knowledge leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge" ("Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution", 1996). In continuity with previous twentieth century papal teaching on evolution (especially Pope Pius XII's encyclical Humani Generis ), the Holy Father's message acknowledges that there are "several theories of evolution" that are "materialist, reductionist and spiritualist" and thus incompatible with the Catholic faith. It follows that the message of Pope John Paul II cannot be read as a blanket approbation of all theories of evolution, including those of a neo-Darwinian provenance which explicitly deny to divine providence any truly causal role in the development of life in the universe. (Emphasis added.)
If this were a quote from blog rather than from the Vatican, you can almost imagine it ending with: so stop quote-mining JP II!

The Catholic Church has never approved of evolution that excludes God's personal and continuing involvement in the physical realm. It has never approved of a view (deism) that has God merely setting the initial conditions—even if it is posited that he set them so perfectly that the differential equation for the universe has spit out just what he planned. No, even this "perfect" set of initial conditions set by a benevolent loving God is incompatible with Catholicism, which has always (and rightly) taught of a God who continues to interact with creation in both the spiritual and the physical domains.

In fact, there has always been an excruciatingly explicit acknowledgment that God did not just set everything up and watch it unroll. Rome teaches that at times he purposely intervenes in the material realm in the most radical of ways: by suspending the physical laws. When the intervention is sudden and spectacular the Catholic Church has always affirmed these intrusions as miracles.

So what would be useful from Rome is a single, definitive statement, using unambiguous language, stating that while evolutionary processes appear to have been used by God, there are clear limitations to the applicability of evolution as a theory. Some of the important points that are already Rome's position but are scattered about include:
  1. Deism in creation, even "perfect" deism wherein the universe is evolving according to plan, is not compatible with Catholicism. The picture of God in scripture and tradition is that He intervenes not to redirect a universe that has veered into an unforeseen direction, but because it pleases him to do so.

  2. The species man was an inevitable part of God's sovereign plan. Any theory that states that the development of man included, even in part, truly random processes is not in alignment with Catholic teaching. Nor is any theory that God just waited for a sufficiently intelligent species to evolve, and it happened to be man, but that whales, under different circumstances, might have been just as suitable.

  3. Catholic scientists are certainly free and encouraged to approach life science from an evolutionary view point. They are not required to search for discontinuities that might be evidence of God's intervention. On the other hand, it is not acceptable for them to proclaim that it is impossible for such discontinuities to exist in nature.
Finally, my dream encyclical would include a pronouncement that anyone stating that Catholicism approves of evolution without reference to the full complexity of the Church's position is guilty of misrepresentation.

Such a clarifying statement by Catholic Church would not represent a shift in it her position, and would not place her in the dangerous position of affirming the scientific truth of ID.

It should be quite interesting. Let's hope it's not much ado about nothing.

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