Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Darwinism and the Catholic Church

In 1633, the Catholic Inquisition condemned Galileo as a heretic for endorsing the Copernican heliocentric theory of the Earth as moving around the Sun, because this seemed to deny those Biblical passages that spoke of the fixity of the Earth. Galileo was sentenced to house arrest, and his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was put on the Church's Index of Prohibited Books.

By contrast, Darwin's theory of evolution has never been officially condemned by the Vatican, and his books were never been put on the Index, although a book by his grandfather Erasmus Darwin was put on the Index.

The Catholic Church's condemnation of Galileo has often been cited by those who argue that there must be perpetual warfare between Biblical religion and modern science. But the Church's handling of the debate over Darwinian evolution shows that the Church's hierarchy learned a lesson from the Galileo affair--that it was a big mistake to interpret the Bible as contradicting modern science.

By the middle of the twentieth century, Pope Pius XII praised Galileo as an intellectual hero and declared in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis that there was no necessary conflict between Biblical faith and the theory of evolution. Pope John Paul II apologized for the condemnation of Galileo, and in 1996 he declared that the Church did not oppose Darwin's theory. A few years ago, I wrote a short essay on John Paul's statement.

We now have more information about the history of the Vatican's deliberations about evolution. In 1998, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) authorized the opening of the Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican. This congregation was originally called the Holy Roman Inquisition, which goes back to the beginnings of the Inquisition in 1231. This Archive includes the records of the Vatican's handling of the evolution debate at the end of the nineteenth century.

This archival material has become the basis for a book--Mariano Artigas, Thomas Glick, and Rafael Martinez, Negotiating Darwin: The Vatican Confronts Evolution, 1877-1902 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). The book studies the cases of six Catholic authors who argued for the compatibility of evolution and Christianity. Of these, the most fascinating case, I think, is that of John Zahm, an American priest at the University of Notre Dame who provoked controversy with his book Evolution and Dogma (1896), which defended theistic evolutionism. The case of Zahm was complicated by the fact that he was identified as a proponent of "Americanism"--a movement among American Catholics to celebrate the moral and political principles of American life (such as the separation of Church and State) as a guide for Catholics.

Zahm defends the theory of evolution as superior to the theory of special creation. God did not have to miraculously create each form of life, because He could employ the "secondary causes" of evolution to carry out His creative purposes. Against the view of many Catholic theologians that God had to miraculously create the body of the first man, Zahm suggests that the human body could have originally evolved naturally from primate ancestors. But then the human soul had to be created immediately by God. To defend his position, Zahm had to argue that the Bible should not be read literally as a text of science, and that the distinction between God as Primal cause and nature's secondary causes allowed natural evolution as a creative process.

The newly available archival material shows that while Zahm's book was condemned by Church authorities, this condemnation was not published or officially sanctioned by the Holy See, and his book was not listed in the Index.

What one sees in this and the other cases is that the Vatican was cautious in not wanting to publicly condemn evolution for fear of falling into something like the Galileo affair.

Pope John Paul II's statement in 1996 shows how far the Church has moved towards accepting Darwinian evolution. In effect, as I argue in my essay on the Pope's message, he adopted St. George Jackson Mivart's position that while the human body and all other forms of life might be products of Darwinian mechanisms, the human soul must have been created directly by a miraculous intervention of God into nature.

As I indicate in my essay, the next good step for the Vatican would be to recognize that even the human soul could have arisen by a natural process of emergent evolution in which differences in degree become differences in kind after passing over a critical threshold in the size and complexity of the primate brain.

As indicated in a recent article in Scientific American, comparisons of the genomes of humans and chimpanzees suggests that the uniqueness of human beings could have arisen from some uniquely human DNA sequences that regulate the development of the human cerebral cortex and neural mechanisms that control the human capacity for speech.

If our being created in God's image is manifested in our uniquely human capacities for reason and speech, the emergent evolution of the brain to support those capacities could explain the natural basis for that creative activity.


Steve Kellmeyer said...

Um, actually, the Church did NOT condemn Galileo as a heretic for holding to heliocentrism.

The Catholic Church initially celebrated Galileo's discoveries.
Cardinals, bishops and priests all looked through his telescope and marveled at what they saw.

The university professors, however, hated Galileo because his discoveries threatened the philosophical system they had built on Aristotle and Ptolemy. It was university professors who refused to look through the lenses, declaring the newly discovered moons a figment of overactive imaginations.

The academics used the tensions engendered by the Protestant Reformation to accuse Galileo of perverting Scripture. Only after relentless goading by these same academics did the Church reluctantly investigate the matter. Even then the first trial was not of Galileo.

Only in 1633, when Galileo actively made fun of the Pope in his Dialogues did the Inquisition come after him with any real fervor. Even then, he was only branded as a suspected heretic, not as a heretic proper.

He was never in a Church prison, never tortured and he retained his Church pension. Compare his treatment to that of Lavoisier by the French Revolution (the revolutionaries executed him), or Semmelweis by the medical establishment (Semmelweis was committed to an insane asylum for advocating handwashing prior to infant delivery and surgery).

I've never heard the scientific community formally apologize for how they dealt with Semmelweis, nor have the French apologized for Lavoisier.

John Farrell said...

There are some problems with Mr. Kellmeyer's comments.

As the Inquisition stated in 1633, Galileo was found "vehemently suspect of heresy" for holding to the Copernican view of heliocentrism. There is no argument about this among scholars. Prior to Galileo's condemnation, the Holy Office determined that Copernicus' book needed to be put on the Index until further revision, and another theologian's book, reconciling Copernicus with the Bible (1615), was condemned outright. (We have Cardinal Bellermine's letter to the unfortunate Fr. Foscarini).

Much as many Aristotelians did detest Galileo for his views, it was Cardinal Bellarmine who found Copernicus' heliocentism false and contrary to scripture. He summoned Galileo in 1616 and politely but firmly ordered him NOT to teach the view of Copernicus. A copy of their meeting at the time went even further, saying Galileo was ordered not to teach or hold it in any manner whatsoever. This is what doomed him.

Pope Urban's wrath was not based on wounded vanity regarding his treatement in the Dialogo. Let's give the much maligned pope a little credit. Rather, when a copy of the 1616 injunction against Galileo was found in the archives of the Holy Office in the summer of 1632, the Pope felt Galileo had betrayed him by not mentioning the existence of it during their several friendly discussions about the issue.

It's quite possible Galileo simply didn't remember it. But he was condemned by the Holy Office with the full approval of the angry Pope to house arrest for being 'vehemently suspect' of heresy, not just because the pope's pride had been hurt.

Urban never forgave Galileo, and was known to erupt in a rage when even his nephew, Cardinal Barberino, tried to defend Galileo. Urban stated flatly he thought Galileo guilty of the greatest scandal in Christendom.

Anonymous said...

"I've never heard the scientific community formally apologize for how they dealt with Semmelweis, nor have the French apologized for Lavoisier."

What "scientific community", pray tell, would you like to apologize for the treatment of Semmelweis? Should the Illinois Surgery Association say that they are sorry for the behavior certain Austrian doctors in the mid-nineteenth century? Incidentally, Semmelweis' teachings on hand-washing were not accepted by his peers during his lifetime, but that is not why he was put into an insane asylum. He was put away because he had become very ill over the course of several years, prompting his family and friends to seek serious treatment for him. Furthermore, he has been celebrated ever since for his teachings, especially in Hungary and Austria.

As for Lavoisier - I'm not sure that an institution like the Catholic Church is, strictly speaking, comparable to French Revolutionists (i.e. one is an institution with an ostensibly continuous tradition and the other was sometimes no more than an angry mob). Regardless of that, the French did apologize for what happened to Lavoisier. The government exonerated him less than two years after his death and sent a letter which admitted that he had been falsely convicted to his widow. None of this required the centuries that it took the Church to express regret over the handling of Galileo.

It is true that both Semmelweis and Lavoisier suffered considerable injustice during their lifetimes. This truth, however, only establishes that other persons and groups than the Catholic Church have sometimes behaved in cruel and narrow-minded ways. It does not establish that the Church was not cruel and narrow-minded with respect to Galileo, or anyone else.

Anonymous said...

I thought that Darwin's book WAS put on the index. Good jon though LOL

Larry Arnhart said...

As far as I know, none of Darwin's writings were ever put on the Index.

Anonymous said...

"Against the view of many Catholic theologians that God had to miraculously create the body of the first man, Zahm suggests that the human body could have originally evolved naturally from primate ancestors. But then the human soul had to be created immediately by God."

The reason I'm against theistic evolution is not that I think it contradicts the Bible, it's that there isn't enough evidence to convince me evolution is true.