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Evolution and the Faith, Revisited

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 20, 2005

The feedback I received on my recent column concerning evolution reveals the deep divide which separates Catholics on this issue. Over 30% of respondents expressed passionate disagreement, often insinuating that my position proved I was not a good Catholic. These particular writers clearly refused, under the claim of Faith, to give the matter careful consideration. For their benefit, a few more distinctions are in order. First, those who thought I was defending the theory of evolution are quite simply mistaken. I am not competent to judge the strengths or weaknesses of that theory, as I have not done nearly enough reading and research in this area. My very limited purpose was to explain that the scientific notion of randomness does not undermine the concept of Divine Providence. Therefore, Catholics need not fight evolution as if it were based on scientific findings which contradict the Faith.

One correspondent argued that my refusal to say clearly whether I was for or against evolution betrayed the false supposition that one must somehow be especially qualified to express a judgment. I confess that I regard this supposition as neither false nor debatable. The theory of biological development through uncorrelated mutations and natural selection is not philosophically impossible and it does not contradict Revelation, as the Church has made clear. Therefore, its truth or falsity must be settled on scientific grounds (as Intelligent Design theorists rightly assert as well). A serious academic effort is required to sift the evidence and come to an informed conclusion. I have not made this effort.

Second, I was not defending any of the philosophical nonsense which has been perpetuated in evolution’s name. Too many correspondents argued that the harmful effects of evolutionary theory require all sound Catholics to oppose it. For them, my whole column was a sort of dereliction of duty. But I must insist that such obfuscation cannot serve any reasonable purpose. The scientific merits of any theory must be separated from its impact on the popular mind, especially if some proponents are unwilling to make the distinctions needed for proper understanding.

Consider a parallel case: Many who witnessed the infancy of modern astronomy found the claim that the earth was not the center of the universe to be both theologically significant and spiritually upsetting. Scriptural arguments were advanced to condemn it. But this did not mean that Copernicus and Galileo were wrong, nor that the information they provided was in conflict with the Faith. Several popes and a number of prominent theologians saw at the time that there was no conflict, and nobody at all has trouble seeing this today. In the same way, the spiritual problems often attendant upon evolutionary theory prove neither that the theory itself is false nor that the spiritual difficulties are necessary.

The failure of some scientists and secular publicists to present the theory properly is no excuse for Catholics to make the same mistake in reverse. As I stated in my column, there are many good reasons to handle evolutionary theory with great care. But this caution cuts both ways. Among the best reasons for care is a desire to serve the cause of light, as opposed to heat. In this, those of us who claim to be servants of the Light have the very first obligation to lead.

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