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Friday, July 22, 2005

Read Veritatis Splendor to find out why the Catholic Church can’t really accommodate Darwinism

After Cardinal Schönborn wrote his op-ed in the New York Times, making it clear that the Catholic Church does not accept Darwinism, a number of Darwinian evolutionists have asked for clarification. Various mainstream media have also flung themselves into the fray. I will link to those stories in upcoming blogs.

But first, while they all wait for the Vatican to respond, I might be able to shed a little light.

Recently, I read the papal encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth, 1993), written by John Paul II against relativism.

Relativism is an approach to morality best characterized by such popular English expressions as “Whatever.” and “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.” In other words, in all moral matters, avoid temptation by giving in quickly. This encyclical was the first time that the Church spoke out on the subject (115) though, goodness knows, moral relativism had been around for decades. The Church takes its time while positioning a target.

(Note: If this is not the story you were looking for, see the Blog service note below or the stories listed in the sidebar.)

The underlying anthropology of Veritatis (understanding of what a human being is) simply cannot admit the point of view about life that is central to Darwinism:

In one of the most existentially penetrating statements ever made by a scientist, Richard Dawkins concluded that `the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.'

What does the Catholic Church say in Veritatis on the same topic on which Shermer/Dawkins hold forth? Well, here are some excerpts from Veritatis Splendor:

12. But God has already given an answer to this question [“Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?”]: he did so by creating man and ordering him with wisdom and love to his final end, through the law which is inscribed in his heart (cf. Rom 2:15), the "natural law". The latter "is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation".

13. "You shall love your neighbour as yourself" (Mt 19:19; cf. Mk 12:31). In this commandment we find a precise expression of the singular dignity of the human person, "the only creature that God has wanted for its own sake".

22. [ refers to ] “God’s original plan for mankind, a plan which man after sin has no longer been able to live up to ...”

102. What is the ultimate source of this inner division of man? His history of sin begins when he no longer acknowledges the Lord as his Creator and himself wishes to be the one who determines, with complete independence, what is good and what is evil. "You will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen 3:5): this was the first temptation, and it is echoed in all the other temptations to which man is more easily inclined to yield as a result of the original Fall.

(Note: The numbers are in the document. You can easily find your place by following them.)

It is immaterial to the Catholic position whether evolution occurs or whether Genesis 1 and 2 should be taken completely literally. In any event, these statements are intended as statements of literal fact about the nature, purpose and history of the human being on this planet, not as pleasant folk tales.

But the stakes are high. Darwinism, by its very nature, must refute these assertions, as Shermer’s citation of Dawkins shows.

If a correct account of the human being includes design, purpose, forward planning, spiritual nature, mind as well as brain, and so forth — as the Catholic Church insists — then the Darwinist’s natural selection and other naturalistic processes cannot be the central account of the history of life that Darwinists want - and need - them to be. The key question, as the Catholic Church recognizes, is not whether evolution or natural selection happen but how central they are to an accurate account of life on Earth.

Can there be a middle “Catholic evolutionist” way that accommodates Darwinism, as biochemist Ken Miller hopes? I doubt it, because doctrines that the Catholic Church wants you to treat as fact about humans become matters of faith (as in, maybe it could somehow be true, but only in ways we can never know ... ). Such a faith would be held ever more tenuously, in the face of an apparent triumph, by default, of Darwinism.

Put simply, either the Catholic Church is right, or the Darwinists are. Or neither is. Is the Catholic Church likely to decide that it is wrong about one of its central teachings?

But don’t just take my word for it. You can get and read the English-language version of Veritatis splendor for yourself.

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

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Is an encyclical an infallible teaching?

Some people have wondered whether the teachings in a papal encyclical such as Veritatis Splendor are believed by faithful Catholics to be infallible. Apparently, only the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception (1854) and the Assumption (1950), the latter promulgated in this century, are believed as infallible by the Catholic Church. However,
... , when the pope issues a teaching on a moral issue, the Church respects it as a true teaching guided by the Holy Spirit even though it is not technically declared "infallible" and may later undergo further clarification. For instance, our Church has moral teachings on euthanasia and bioethics which provide true guidance to the faithful, but probably will be further clarified— not changed—as the parameters of these issues evolve.
So, again, anyone who is looking for the Catholic Church to change a fundamental teaching in order to accommodate Darwinism is likely wasting their time. To read Veritatis Splendor and then turn and read Michael Shermer is to experience a sense of different moral universes. Reading Ken Miller, a Catholic Darwin advocate, I get the sense of someone who tries uneasily to inhabit a small and narrowing vacuum seal between them. More later.

Blog service note: Did you come here looking for any of the following stories?

- The op-ed by Catholic Cardinal Schonborn in the New York Times? Note also the Times's story on the subject, some interesting quotes from major Darwinists to compare with the Catholic Church's view, as expressed by the Cardinal, and an example of the kind of problem with Darwinian philosophy that the Cardinal is talking about.

- the Privileged Planet film shown at the Smithsonian, go here for an extended review. Please do not raise cain about an "anti-evolution" film without seeing it. If your doctor forbids you to see the film, in case you get too excited, at least read my detailed log of the actual subjects of the film. If you were one of the people who raised cain, ask yourself why you should continue to believe the people who so misled you about the film's actual content ...

- the showing of Privileged Planet at the Smithsonian, go here and here to start, and then this one and this one will bring you up to date.
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