A response to James Colville’s recent article by John Whitty
As certain as I am that the internet does not need another flame war over religion, I am fed up with claims being made that the Catholic Church only embraced science on the 27th October 2014, and that it’s the source of so much evil in the world. In a recent article for this paper, it was claimed that the affirmation of the Catholic Church’s belief in evolution and the big bang theory by Pope Francis is a “new found enlightenment.” That claim is wrong.
The Church accepted the big bang theory in 1951. This wasn’t very long after it was hypothesized, so there is no question of this being an issue. It was accepted at the opening of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (yes, it exists, yes, it does fantastic research).
The first substantial discussion of evolutionary theory in the Church can be found in Humani Generis, a Papal encyclical from 1950. Humani Generis notes that there is nothing inherently contradictory between the theory of evolution and Catholic teaching. Indeed, the very same encyclical is keen to note that any discussion of evolutionary theory must be treated with “necessary seriousness.” The tradition of accepting evolution is not recently founded, and previous popes have seen the study of evolution as a necessary endeavour. In fact, by 1996, belief in evolution was actively and vehemently encouraged by the church.
Though the time between the publishing of On the Origin of Species and Humani Generis may still seem long, to argue that Darwin’s concept of evolution is exactly the same as our modern concept would be extremely naïve. The gap between micro- and macroevolution was only really reconciled in 1937, with Dobzhansky’s Genetics and the Origin of Species. It is not until 1942, in Mayr’s Systematics and the Origin of Species, that ‘a group of potentially interbreeding populations’ becomes the dominant definition for a species. In fact, it is only in the late 1940’s that we really begin to find a universal consensus in the scientific community on how evolution even worked (as natural selection through genetic variation).
The Church did not accept evolution or the big bang theory “too late,” then.
I also take strong issue with a tacit assumption at the very end of the article, namely that a non-literal interpretation of the Bible is relatively new to the Church, reluctantly admitted by the hierarchical élite. It’s not. Here’s a quote from one of the most influential thinkers in Christianity:
If God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.
Sounds quite modern, no? This is an extract from Origen of Alexandria’s On First Principles, and dates back to the middle of the third century CE. He very clearly made the distinction between ‘actual history’, and ‘fictitious history,’ which was written as allegory to convey certain moral and spiritual truths. Augustine of Hippo even posited that in the case of a contradiction between science and narratives in scripture, one should side with science. If these things have been a norm in the church for 1600 years, I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone thinks it’s too late.
In the article, the author infers that the Catholic Church is to blame for the state of “countries riddled with AIDS.” Disregarding the fact that this is incredibly insensitive language, no example of a particular country is given. In the case of South Africa (which is currently the country with the 3rd highest percentage of population with HIV), where significant studies on this issue have been carried out, it seems like a culture of rape is mostly to blame, not the Papal distaste for prophylactics. 17.3% of the population has HIV. 16.3% of men admitted to having raped a non-partner, 85% of which claimed to do it in a gang rape. In cases like this, I think working on ousting a culture of rape is more pressing and more directly effective. This is not to deny there are other factors, but that the spread of HIV is more complicated than simply due to a lack of access to contraception.
I am also shocked people still think the Church doesn’t give enough back. In 2010, in the United States alone, the Catholic Church spent an estimated US$170 Billion, of which $153 Billion went to improving healthcare, higher education, parish welfare (which includes schools), and to charity in general. In 2010, the worldwide earnings of Apple INC. were $65 Billion. How can you view twice Apple’s income in one country alone as too little?
The Catholic Church has its faults, and as a Catholic, I’m ready to admit there are some big ones, but to claim that the Church is doing ‘too little, too late,’ is frankly absurd.
Illustration: Mariam Hayat