The Cardinal, the Pope & the Scientists
ARCHIVE: The Cardinal, the Pope & the Scientists

ARCHIVE: The Cardinal, the Pope & the Scientists

Editorial FAITH Magazine November-December 2005


If they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world, how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things? (Wisdom 13,9).

Science And The Magisterium, A New Controversy

His Eminence Cardinal Schonborn managed to spark off a media storm recently when he published an article in The New York Times (Finding Design in Creation”, 7 July 2005) on the subject of Catholic doctrine and the theory of evolution. The primary focus of his piece was to correct the misinterpretation of statements made by Pope John Paul II on the subject of evolution at various times. These have apparently been taken by some as uncritical acceptance of the neo-­Darwinian version of evolution. The Cardinal wrote that the idea of a common ancestry for living things is not at all contrary to Catholic orthodoxy, but that the idea that life on earth has developed by pure chance and contingency is not compatible with Christian faith.

The reaction to this intervention in the secular and religious press has dramatically underlined the need for clarity and development in this debate. His remarks have been greeted with dismay by some scientists and theologians who see it as a retreat from what they had indeed presumed was acknowledgement by the Church of neo-­Darwinism in every respect. By the same token, the Cardinal’s views have been greeted with corresponding glee by some who espouse creationist views. They have taken his article as evidence of support for their position from Church authority.

In the secular media, especially in the UK, the Cardinal’s intervention has been portrayed as part of a supposed conservative backlash, even as some sort of distancing from the thinking and policies of John Paul II vis a vis modernity. This is not only invidious but clearly inaccurate, since the Cardinal quotes extensively from John Paul II’s own careful words on the subject. To any objective reading it is clear that the late Pope, indeed the present Pope, and the Cardinal are one on this matter.

Neither Creationism Nor Darwinism

The problem is that both creationists and neo-Darwinians take it for granted that the idea of common ancestry to living things and that of a fundamentally random and directionless world are inseparably intertwined. Creationists therefore reject evolution altogether as an un-Christian worldview, while neo-Darwinians insist that this is the only possible mechanism for evolutionary change. Both the Cardinal and the late Pope, on the other hand, clearly think that it is not only possible, but scientifically sound and philosophically coherent, as well as theologically acceptable, to hold a synthetic position that accepts evolution but not randomness. in fact they point out that the picture of a world that develops through pure contingency and randomness, with no overall purpose or direction,is not compatible with the vast interlocking unity of organic forms that have grown together in sequential and progressive development, which is what they seem to mean by “evolution” and “common ancestry”.

We have a great deal of sympathy with the Cardinal. In Faith Magazine we too have been seeking to expound and develop just such a synthetic view for decades. Not only do we regard such a Synthesis as possible, but urgently necessary. Once again, the current furore has highlighted how the issue of science and religion is not a theological side-show of special interest to a few, but at the very heart of the credibility of religion in the twenty-first century.

In Search of Synthesis: The Flaws In “Process Theology”

The debate has become further complicated in recent years by some emerging schools of thought which are prepared to give ground from either side of the Darwinian/Creationist divide, but which still fail to satisfy either doctrinal orthodoxy on the one hand or scientific and philosophical coherence on the other.

On the neo-Darwinian side we find theologians who are happy to concede that the material universe operates largely by randomness and indeterminacy. They argue that this leaves room for creaturely freedom and for God’s creative action. Some of these thinkers are much influenced by Process Theology - the idea that “God” changes and develops along with the Creation - God is not so much an omnipotent Creator as an orchestrator of energies, standing back and allowing creatures to experiment with their own existence, occasionally nudging and encouraging growth in more fruitful directions.

Teilhard de Chardin was more thoroughgoing and systematic than this. He saw the Godhead immersing Itself within the energies of creation as a “radial” principle of Upward yearning and developmental drive that runs through everything. He spoke of “directed chance” as the motor of creative evolution as it haltingly found its way into Progressively higher spheres of activity, culminating in the Omega Point of the “Christosphere”

In the end this will not do as a synthesis of Science and Catholicism. From the theological point of view it reduces to pantheism and it also makes nonsense of the mathematical sciences. If there is freedom of choice and personal ambition, however minimal in every sub-atomic particle, then there could be no mathematical formulae or physical laws to describe their activity, as we know there are.

Misunderstanding And Misuse Of Quantum Physics

Fans of this sort of thinking often cite Quantum Physics and the Uncertainty Principle and the more recent “chaos theory” as evidence of creative latitude and freedom at work in the foundations of matter. This shows a basic misunderstanding of these scientific insights, which are really about the inherent difficulty of measuring precise parameters of space and time when dealing with the very smallest energy/particle or with very complex systems. These particles are in fact part of highly ordered systems with precise - even if complex and hard to grasp - mathematically expressible boundary conditions. It’s not that subatomic particles have some level of freedom to do as they wish or be creative. Far from it! Any hint of real choice or absolute randomness at the heart of matter would make even Quantum Physics impossible. It’s just that below a certain threshold, these tiny energy packets are not really thinkable except as part of the bigger systems to which they contribute. As one of the fathers of modern physics, Louis de Broglie, wrote;

“In Quantum Physics the system is a kind of organism, within whose unity the elementary constituent units are almost reabsorbed When forming part of a system, then, a physical unit loses a large measure of its individuality the latter tending to merge in the greater individuality of the system ... To make a real individual of a physical unit belonging to a system, then, it is necessary to break the links which bind it to the total organism. If this is understood we can a/so understand the way in which the concepts of the individual unit and the system are complementary.. the particle cannot be observed so long as it forms part of the system, and the system is impaired once the particle has been identified.” (L. de Broglie, Matter and Light, eng.translation, Allen and Unwin, London1939)

De Broglie was one of those truly great scientific minds who are also philosophers He saw that the variables and therefore the variability which characterizes individual components do not mean that the system as a whole is based on randomness. Lower units build into unified systems and “law” runs through it all. These laws of science are far more than just our human way of accounting for regularity and repeatability in observed systems. They express - even if our grasp of them is only as partial approximations - the organisation and dynamics of matter/energy itself. They sum up the in-built relativities that specify the potentialities of material units towards each other and direct the combinations that bind them together into higher unities, as well as the further upbuilding of organisedsystems into yet higher systems.

False Evolutionary Philosophies And Moral Relativism

The point is that it is simply bad science to try to introduce some pseudo-mystical notions of freedom and creativity into the foundations of matter. Theologically speaking, this sort of world-view empties out historic and doctrinal Christianity too. For if everything - even God - can mutate in truly open ended ways, then there can be no absolutes, there is no fixed point against which truth or goodness - or even organic progress for that matter - can be measured. Nothing transcends the endless flow of restless change to define its limits and set its goals. It is no surprise that it is those inside the Church who wish to abolish the language of transcendence and absolutes who have shared the dismay of neo-Darwinians about Cardinal Schonborn’s publicly expressed views. They were happy tolive with the idea of indeterminacy at the heart of creation and were wrongly co-opting John Paul II to their cause, at least in the matter of evolution. They saw it as a way to bolster their vision of relativism in moral matters too.

“Intelligent Design”, A New Creationist Perspective

Then from the Opposing perspective, we have seen the recent development of the so called “Intelligent Design” school of thought, qualifying the creationist position. The name sounds appealing to true believers and is certainly an attempt to put in some much needed correctives to Darwinian theory without throwing out the baby with the bath water. However, we believe it to be equally inadequate as a synthesis, although orthodox in intention.

John Calvert of the Intelligent Design Network succinctly sums up the central thesis of Intelligent Design as follows:

“If a highly improbable pattern of events or objects exhibits purpose, structure or function and can not (sic) be rationally explained by the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry or some other regularity or law, then it is reasonable to infer that the pattern was designed - the product of a mind.” (Quotation at: http://www.intelligentdesgnnetwork.org/legalopinion.htm Section 2.32).

The main problem with this is the addition of the qualification about things that “can not be rationally explained by the laws of physics or chemistry”. Effectively this concedes the point to atheists that most of the operation of matter - that which is explicable on the ordinary functioning of the laws of science - does not exhibit intelligent design! Presumably, therefore, it is not ‘reasonable to infer that it is the product of mind’.

This way of thinking discerns God’s creative involvement only in certain exceptional structures, as if he intervened only at certain moments in creation and that the “design” produced by “intelligence” must somehow be outside the workings of “regularity” and law.

ID Misses The Bigger Picture

Ultimately therefore, this sort of thinking shows a remarkable similarity of principle to the sort of Process Theology which we criticized above. It is also really a God-of-the-gaps philosophy - only invoking God to deal with the inexplicable and irrational. It is really no wonder that scientists are dismissive of these theories. A fierce political and legal debate is currently raging in the USA as to whether “Intelligent Design” (ID) theory should be taught alongside neo-Darwinism in state schools and supporters of ID, such as Michael Behe, have not been slow to claim Cardinal Schönborn as one of their own. We think they are mistaken.

Schönborn spoke of the “immanent design evident in nature” as a whole, and of the “overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science”, not just in some especially complex structures. The key concept he highlights is not so much “design” in the sense of complexity and beauty, but rather that of “internal finality”, by which he means final cause, purpose and direction which is inherent in all being and throughout the creative process. He quotes John Paul II from a 1985 general audience as follows:

“All observations concerning the development of life lead to a similar conclusion. The evolution of living beings ... presents an internal finality which arouses admiration. This finality, which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose a Mind which is its inventor, its creator.

“To all these indications of the existence of God the Creator, some oppose the power of chance or the proper mechanisms of matter. To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements and such marvelous finality in its life would be equivalent to giving up the search for an explanation of the world as it appears to us. In fact, this would be equivalent to admitting effects without a cause. It would be to abdicate human intelligence

Notice that John Paul II speaks not of this or that structure within creation manifesting such a complex unity that it must be the work of mind, but rather of the entire universe. Also that the universe manifests a relationship to a creating Intelligence, not because it is an exception to the laws of science, but precisely because it is framed through laws that hold its elements and organisms together in such a “complex organization” and such “marvelous finality”.

A New Synthesis

This is a truly synthetic position which is neither Darwinian nor Creationist. It is also one that is
familiar to readers of Faith. Fr. Edward Holloway thought it out in considerable depth this perception that the universe and everything in it is organized as a complex of mutually causative unities towards a unified end. He called this truth the Unity Law of Control and Direction, and through this insight he saw that we can re-vindicate the transcendence of God and of a world made for Christ in this age of science. In Catholicism: A New Synthesis (1969) he wrote:

“Cosmic Evolution does not begin with life. It includes it, but begins with the development of the atomic elements, the molecule, the aggregation of molecules, the complex organic compounds such as amino-acids etc... If we wish to find a clue to the basic mechanism of the evolution of the living, let us begin in the beginning, because all the complexity that comes later is built up on these same building bricks. Let us look for a common underlying factor of process which underpins the structure of Nature.

“By no stretch of the imagination can one refer to the synthesis of the heavy atomic nuclei on the basis of the hydrogen nucleus (or whatever concept now refines that knowledge) as the ‘natural selection’ of ‘random mutations’. It is development through equational energy-relationships The law is mathematical and is reproducible in the laboratories of mankind... Yet they are part of the process of life, and it is very clear that they come into existence not by ‘chance’ but by the necessary environmental interplay of the stage immediately preceding them...

“In order to explain Evolution up to mankind we do not need to invoke animism, ... but it is neither atheist nor antithetical. It is the ‘Law of Control and Direction’... (which) is not truly distinct from the energies and natural forms of the universe themselves except in so far as it is the totality of them in their ever universal and causal relationship in which they are members one of another. As this totality, also, they are centred dynamically on an Absolute which is not part of the series... ie. the Absolute Being that is outside the series, outside of space and time, and whose Present Now, spans all spaces and all times because IT IS. So the Law of Control and Direction ... is the sum and concatenation of all material energy and its forms, one to another, ever centred uponGod...

“There is nothing ‘random’ about this process. At a first superficial glance there may appear to be, but this is because the total relationships of the universal law are not perceived. That which selects is itself ... a selecting principle. It is, in any case, too narrow a concept to speak only of ‘selection’, for the influence of being upon being under the equational law is
formative and creative also. It prompts the coming to be of new forms in evolution. The influence of the environment as a prompting influence is coming to be recognised. It will be found, I suggest, that neither Darwin nor Lamarck, nor Lysenko nor the Huxleys are entirely right or entirely wrong. A correct perspective will see elements of the theories of all in a total synthesis of equational law...

The equation could not begin unless it were poised meaningfully to its historic progress, but neither could the higher unity be there as a unity, ... unless at all times the Equation and its potential were relative to the Necessity whose other name is God. To make the universe intelligible and the progression of higher being up to and including man intelligible, we have to say that: GOD IS A NECESSITY NOT ONLY OF METAPHYSICS BUT OF MATHEMATICS.” (Catholicism: A New Synthesis pp. 63 - 66)

Attempts To Explain Away The Fine Tuning

Many physicists have been approaching this very conclusion from their study of the laws of the
Cosmos, noticing more and more the way they form a developmental unity. However some physicists, as Cardinal Schönborn also pointed out, have pulled back from the obvious conclusion by introducing ideas such as that of a “multiverse” - an infinite number of possible universes of which ours just happens to be finely tuned for the emergence of life. He also pointed out that it is an irrational hypothesis, which simply delays the conclusion
- for a multi-verse is just a bigger uni-verse after all - and for which there is no empirical evidence whatever.

However few biologists have yet challenged the neo­-Darwinian insistence on random mutation as the core of natural selection. Perhaps this is because biologists all too easily forget that their science rests on the foundation of the other material sciences. What they perceive as randomness is merely local variability within the vast, dynamic stability of the system as a whole.

Where There Is Control There Must Be Direction

Those biologists who do challenge neo-Darwinism, tend to enter the fray with the Intelligent Design Network. Perhaps this is for the same reason; that they fail to assess biology in the context of the total Cosmic picture. Evidence for transcendent intelligence and purposeful finality can be found through the whole of evolving matter. Neo-Darwinism is not just wrong in a few spectacular cases, but in its basic assessment of life and material being. The very idea of a “selection” process that is fundamentally “random” is surely oxymoronic, just like the idea of “directed chance”! In Catholicism: A New Synthesis Edward Holloway tackles this point too:

‘Chance’ properly and philosophically so ca/led. would imply that there was no meaningful link, no relationship of necessity or of finalism between one event or series of events, and what follows through them. In the true sense of the term then, the process of Evolution and the serial interdependence of complex natures cannot be ascribed to ‘chance’.

“This would make nonsense of experimental science. It would more obviously make nonsense of the exact, mathematical sciences, for chance in such a radical sense is incompatible with the notion of an equation in any sense of that word...

“This must be weighed when there is far too easy talk of evolution through ‘random’ mutation, because if constructive mutation is just as random as mutation through injury etc., then one must ask what sort of internal economy is it that guarantees the constructive mutation and its constant superiority and selection in survival?

“Natural Selection is invoked too much in the manner of the Fairy Godmother at the pantomime. The environment that selects is only other being, living and non living. It is always in movement and mutation itself, and surely as ‘random’ in its inner principle as the ‘other’ that it selects. If not, why not?

“The whole concept of the mechanism behind ‘random mutation’ needs more thinking through and testing for coherence. Constructive mutations - at least those which are species-causing reorganise and redeploy either the entire organism of the life form concerned, or major facets of it. If the form of life concerned is to be viable, let alone be selected preferably, such reorganisation must have a relationship to the species in its environmental relationships, not simply to the individual. It is a new thing that has evolved, not a stronger individual of the old thing. There has been too narrow an insistence on the selection of the preferred individual as an individual. We have to think and speak of the species-preferability of a mutation, which, in order to be preferred, involves a paralleland simultaneous mutation of the total environment. There must be mutation in step, perhaps prompted by previous or parallel change. Is it all just ‘random’? ... It means that we are back to the evolving equation and equations are not random. (ibid pp. 62 - 63)

The Challenge Of A New Way Of Thinking

Cardinal Schonborn has pointed out that there is no contradiction between evolution and Catholicism, because there is no contradiction between science and the concept of finality, for to exclude finality from a system is to undermine the whole basis of material and organic inter relationship and mutual causality which is at the heart of the scientific investigation of the world. Ultimately, he reminds us, that meaning and purpose are inseparable.

It makes no sense to invoke chance as the foundation of material processes, whether physical, chemical or biological, when science itself is born from the perception of finality - meaning, cause, purposeful behaviour determined by other beings. Neo-Darwinism admits at least the appearance of all this on the local level but denies any control and direction in the foundations of material being or in the totality of the evolving system.

Neo-Darwinism, therefore, is not just incompatible with sound faith, but also with the world that modern science is discovering, which displays such a remarkable unity and finality in its dynamic development - what is commonly called “evolution”.

Needless to say we whole heartedly agree with all of this, but there is much work to be done to elaborate this truth and deploy this synthetic position inside the Church, let alone among secular thinkers.

Converging Thought, A Time For Dialogue

In this issue of Faith magazine we are honoured to publish articles by three eminent Professors of science who are also Christian believers. These important essays, which include the text of this year’s Boyle Lecture, show an encouraging convergence of thought with that of Pope John Paul II, and indeed with our own school of thought.

We do not necessarily concur with Professors Polkinghorne and Conway-Morris in every respect - notably regarding the assessment of consciousness in relation to evolving matter - but we believe this is a time for serious and informed dialogue and we welcome these lucid contributions.

If nothing else, the current debate has focused even more sharply how Catholicism - indeed the whole of Christendom - desperately needs an updated philosophical and theological synthesis through which to expound the vision of God’s creative purpose in Christ to the modern world. In all humility we continue trying to offer such a synthesis and we would point once again to the work of Fr. Edward Holloway as the inspired beginnings of that work.

Faith Magazine

September-October 2016

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