Friday, May 04, 2007

Catholic Candidate Denies Evolution

Absolutely surreal. When asked who did not believe in evolution, three of the ten Republican candidates for president raised their hands: Mike Huckabee, Tom Tancredo, and Sam Brownback. Now, Brownback is a Catholic convert from evangelicalism, and a darling of the right. Clearly, some of his evangelical mode of thinking has not left him.

As I discussed recently, there is no inherent conflict between faith and evolution, as long as boundaries are respected. Therefore a person of faith should not castigate scientific findings about evolution that are accepted by all but a handful of quacks, and a scientist should likewise refrain from arguing that evolution proves the absence of a Creator (it proves no such thing). Way back in 1950, Pope Pius XII declared that there was no opposition between evolution and the Christian faith. While Pius was tentative, Pope John Paul II stated very clearly in 1996 that "new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis." Cardinal Schonborn, who has reflected a lot on the topic, sums it up: "I see no difficulty in joining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, but under the prerequisite that the borders of scientific theory are maintained." And Pope Benedict recently voiced similar thoughts: "The question is not to either make a decision for a creationism that fundamentally excludes science, or for an evolutionary theory that covers over its own gaps and does not want to see the questions that reach beyond the methodological possibilities of natural science."

The title of John Paul's 1996 address was "Truth Cannot Contradict Truth", which is quite apt. In other words, as Pope Benedict is fond of saying, faith and reason are perfectly compatible, because God's own word is Reason (Logos), who is God himself. Catholics believed God gave his own Word or reason so we could become one with him, and, in his essay, Pope John Paul appeals to Aquinas when be notes that "man's likeness to God resides especially in his speculative intellect, for his relationship with the object of his knowledge resembles God's relationship with what he has created". God is reason and infinte intelligence, and faith and reason are intimately entwined. We simply cannot appeal to faith to dismiss basic scientific tenets.

But if you believe that God's word is not reason incarnate, but a fixed text, then none of this holds. This explains why there is such a strong correlation between denial of evolution and American-style evangelical fundamentalism. After all, evolution conflicts with the literal text of Genesis. It is important to note that the American-created "intelligent design" does not merely postulate that God is the Creator of everything out of nothing and guides all of creation (sensible), but encroaches on scientific territory by holding that organisms appeared simultaneously (not so sensible). It is denial. But the argument is a little more nuanced than simply appealing to biblical literalism. At the heart of the issue is the relationship between faith and reason. Systems of text-based revelation veer away from an idea of God that is reason, truth and infinite intelligence, and toward a notion of God as pure will which leaves the door open to God' purposes being arbitrary. This is voluntarism. It also, by the way, is the point Pope Benedict was making about Islam that landed him in such hot water last year (see here and here). We must always remember that faith and reason are compatible.

In conclusion, Brownback, as a Catholic, should know better. In a sense, Tancredo's response makes more sense. He has left the Catholic church for evangelicalism. To have embraced a voluntarist God is therefore compatible with his conversion. But Brownback still has some distance to travel. Lest there is any doubt about this hypothesis, simply note that the denial of evolution is concentrated in a small group of American evangelicals. You do not see Christians around the world disdaining science in such a manner. And it goes beyond evolution. Just look at the global warming debate. In a recent poll, despite the overwhelming consensus of the evidence, only 13 percent of Republicans in Congress believe human activity is leading to global warming. And, as with Brownback on evolution, they have backers among the Catholic right. I'll have more to say about this soon...


BarbaraKB said...

You are becoming one of my favorite Catholic blogs. And whether I agree or not (and I agree with you about 90% of the time) I *thank you* for blogging about it.

Now, if only more of St. Blog's knew about you..!

Franklin Jennings said...

"Therefore a person of faith should not castigate scientific findings about evolution that are accepted by all but a handful of quacks..."

So not only do you stand as a magisterium of wider scope than the Catholic magisterium (dictating belief to all persons of faith) but you feel free to castigate skeptics (quacks)?

That is a handy thing to know. Thank you for being honest enough to admit it. although it seems like another hypocrisy on your part.

Morning's Minion said...

Thank you, Barbara, I appreciate the kind words. Feel free to inform St. Blogs if you so wish :)

Morning's Minion said...


You are missing the point. The acceptance of scientific reality is not part of the magisterium, not is it a more sweeping magisterium. It flows naturally from the fact that we are creatures of reason.

And yes, evolution deniers are quacks. There are people out there who think the earth is hollow, or that there aliens are conducting scientific experiments, or who believe smearing their bodies with oil makes them impervious to bullets... they too are quacks.

Franklin Jennings said...

No, you feel free to tell people of faith what they should and should not do. I'm comfortable leaving things to their freedom, even if I believe they are mistaken.

So does this mean you're going to keep insulting me rather than trying to determine if your infanitle insults are true?

I do also notice my two dollar bill is safe.

wanders01730 said...

As a rational, thinking person I see no reason to blindly accept the Creation story. At the same time I see no reason to blindly accept the pure evolution myth. The Creation story is, by almost irrefutable science, demonstrably untrue. On the other hand there are major problems with evolution: (1) where did the first organism from which everything else evolved come from? (2) why in the fossil record do species appear apparently from no where and then disappear thousands to millions of years later? (3) why did the Cambrian Explosion happen and apparently cause virtually all multicellular organisms? Etc. I don't think any of this precludes Darwin explaining a lot, but I think it's worth thinking that life really originated elsewhere and was brought here. This is actually an ancient Greek theory of the origin of life that was rejected by other Greeks who proposed spontaneous generation of life. This latter theory is what has survived from ancient civilizations, but that doesn't make it right! Go to to follow this alternative explanation of where life came from.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

It would seem that Brownback has yet to totally jettison his Evangelical baggage. Of course, Sam is from Kansas, which is currently the hotbed of "Creationist" intrigue.

S.G.E.W. said...

"... the denial of evolution is concentrated in a small group of American evangelicals."

Unfortunately, this is not the case. In a recent Newsweek poll, 48% of Americans believe that "God created humans pretty much in the present form at sone time within the last 10,000 years or so." That is not a "small group," nor is it limited to evangelicals. Apparently, 41% of Catholics do not believe in human evolution (and, strangely enough, 13% of agnostics/atheists don't either).

(scroll down to question #12)

Messrs. Brownback, Tancredo, and Huckabee were simply reflecting popular opinion. I'm actually surprised that more of the potential candidates didn't follow suit.

Chad said...

"I think it's worth thinking that life really originated elsewhere and was brought here"

This theory sounds like a gaps argument. By saying life was brought here by someone/something else, that just moves the question of the orgin of life to another planet/galaxy/universe.

It doesn't really answer anything but creates even more questions.

Anonymous said...

Brownback has connections with Opus Dei; he became a Catholic with the assistance of an Opus Dei priest, Fr. McCloskey. I know from my own contacts with Opus Dei during the 1980's and 1990's that there is a certain element in Opus Dei that challenges the theory of evolution. (I was never a member of Opus Dei. However, I attended some of their functions over the years and have friends who are members.) I suspect that this could be what is influencing Brownback's views, if not his own past as an evangelical.

Anonymous said...

As one who grew up believing Adam and Eve were dropped from the heavens like Barbie & Ken dolls into the Garden of Eden, I have no problem now accepting that humans are in all likelihood the products of evolution as are all life forms on this planet. I recently discussed this with a priest friend who said if God chose to create us through an evolutionary process, then so be it. There is no conflict with Catholic teaching. The heart of the matter is where the first spark of life originated that set everything in motion. Only a supreme being can make something from nothing.

Nebukanezer said...

>Only a supreme being can make something >from nothing.

Or maybe the Universe has always existed. If it is hard for you to imagine matter existing forever, think about energy existing for

The law of conservation of energy states that the total amount of energy in an isolated system (eg: the universe) remains constant. It may neither be created nor destroyed.

And since matter is just a different form of energy (e=mc^2), it seems possible, at least to me, that the universe is eternal.

Antonio Manetti said...

On the other hand there are major problems with evolution: (1) where did the first organism from which everything else evolved come from?

The following response is from the Talk Origins web site

"The theory of evolution applies as long as life exists. How that life came to exist is not relevant to evolution. Claiming that evolution does not apply without a theory of abiogenesis makes as much sense as saying that umbrellas do not work without a theory of meteorology.

Abiogenesis is a fact. Regardless of how you imagine it happened (note that creation is a theory of abiogenesis), it is a fact that there once was no life on earth and that now there is. Thus, even if evolution needs abiogenesis, it has it."

Regarding your other issues, evolutionary theory has no problem accounting for the "sudden" appearance and disappearance of species. These matters are also dealt with in detail on the web site.

mike said...

Thank you for this post.. I've said for a long time that the fundamentalist Evangelical right do not worship God as Jesus commanded or respect the Living Word, they are idolaters who worship a book whose physical manifestation is entirely a work of human hands.. to mistake the written word for the Living Word is a huge and fundamental mistake. And the thing is, is that they are so selective about what parts of the book they worship. One thing the written words make very clear are the fruits of the Holy Spirit - and Jesus said "By their fruits you shall know them."

Science Goddess said...

Hi everyone: I'm always dismayed at the way evolution is characterized by some: IMHO, you can't really criticize something unless you understand it. So, because I'm a scientist, I'd like to clear up a few misconceptions. One: evolution doesn't deal with the origin of life on earth, so to criticize it using that argument is incorrect. Two: Because we find fossils apparently far apart in time just means that each "epoch" lasted a very long time. Three: the "Cambrian Explosion" lasted 100 million years. That's 100,000,000 years. The fact that we call it an "explosion" just means that organisms evolved hard exoskeletons that would fossilize, not that there was no evolution before that. My experience with people who criticize evolution is that they either haven't studied it (and gotten all their info from religious sites), or that they can't understand the vastness of geological/evolutionary time. I can't conceive of 100 million years and I'm a scientist!


Anonymous said...

Avoiding the topic of evolution, isn't Brownback allowed to hold such a position? I'm not aware of evolution being Church dogma or even teaching. From a secular standpoint, his position is troublesome, but there's nothing I'm aware of wrong with him holding to it as a Catholic.


Antonio Manetti said...

I believe Brownback is a supporter of intelligent design, as are many other Catholics. As far as that goes, I suppose one could still believe the geocentric theory of the cosmos and still be a Catholic (or a follower of any other mainline religion) in good standing.

That aside, to me, the issue is the attempt to clothe opposition to evolutionary theory in the mantle of Church authority.

Of course, it doesn't help matters either when the pope misunderstands the science and equivocates on the issue.

Morning's Minion said...

Thanks for all the feedback.

Anonymous-- true, Brownback is not dissenting from any core teaching of the Church. The problem is, he is not thinking as a Catholic, he is not fusing faith and reason. Think of it like this: if you ask this question to a group of prominant Catholic politicians in any other country, would you get such an answer? Hardly. But in the US, it's the influence of the evangelical right and their literalism

Antonio-- I don't think the pope is equivocating at all. What concerns him is that a prominant group of neo-Darwinists are claiming that evolution proves there is no God. The late Stephen Jay Gould would never have stood for such nonsense. On the topic of "intelligent design" it's tautological that Catholics believe in such a designer. The problem, is "intelligent design" does not mean what it purports to mean. It denies evolution between species, which is just old-style creationism through the back door.

Antonio Manetti said...

With respect to whether or not the pope is equivocating, how are we to regard the following press report of the pope's views?

"The pope (John Paul) had his reasons for [asserting the validity of evolution]," Benedict said. "But it is also true that the theory of evolution is not a complete, scientifically proven theory."

Benedict added that the immense time span that evolution covers made it impossible to conduct experiments in a controlled environment to finally verify or disprove the theory.

To me, this statememt relegates evolutionary theory to the status of an unproven hypotheses. In doing so, the pope either misunderstands how science works or purposely ignores the fact that observational evidence overwhelmingly supports the theory.

According to the press account, the pope then goes on to criticize the theory because it

...does not want to see the questions that reach beyond the methodological possibilities of natural science," the pope said.

On what basis is the theory of evolution (or any other scientific theory) to be burdened with reconciling its assertions with the truth claims of religion?

More to the point, it's not clear how you can assert that the pope is criticising those who use the theory to discredit religion rather than the theory itself.

Antonio Manetti said...

I'd like to add the following coda to my previous comment.

I believe the pope's statements are politically calculated to do three things:

1) Discredit creationism -- A product of the biblical literalism that's espoused by fundamentalists and at odds with Catholic doctrine,

2) Weaken John Paul's unequivocal endorsement of darwinism by asserting that evolution is scientifically unproven,

3) Criticise evolutionary theory because (unlike intelligent design, one supposes) it doesn't leave room for supernatural agency.

Anonymous said...

The US correlation between evolution denial and anthropogenic climate change denial is probably not coincidence.

I look forward to your further comments.

James F. McGrath said...

What next? Will they oppose "seculat reproductionism" because it suggests human development in the womb is explicable in terms of the instructions in our DNA, rather than a literal "knitting together" by inexplicable divine agency? Either you can see God's hand in things that are explicable, or your faith must reject ALL science and not merely evolution.

Andy said...

There is no reason why Catholics should feel compelled to believe the theory of evolution. The church is not a scientific body, Senator Brownback can believe whatever scientific theory he wishes.

As for evolution, I know that scientists have all sorts of persuasive bits of evidence that makes the theory seem plausible, but until they can prove it beyond a doubt, I will not believe in it. After all, the church does still hold that Adam and Eve were real people and that humanitydescended from them.