During the first week of March, the Vatican cohosted a conference examining Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The meeting, themed “Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories. A critical appraisal 150 years after The Origin of Species,” held at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, was a collaborative effort between the University of Notre Dame, the Science, Technology and Ontological Research Project and the Pontifical Council for Culture.
One of the chief organizers of the conference was Gennaro Auletta, professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University. At its conclusion March 7, Auletta discussed how it went, why he chose not to include speakers from the creationist and intelligent design movements, and why he believes evolution is compatible with Church teaching.
What has this conference achieved in terms of finding a compatibility between Catholic theology and evolution?
I would like to think that we’ve shown to the whole world that it’s possible to discuss these very relevant and critical issues in a way that is fruitful and at the same time open. We have no reason to force the subjects one way or the other. So I am obviously very confident — as John Paul II was and now also Benedict XVI has said — that the search of truth along any path, whether it be scientific, theological or philosophical, will lead in the long run to the same truth.
I am very confident of that. There can be tensions, which is quite normal. There can even be benefits from this because, obviously, we need to correct each other somehow. But we’ve shown it’s possible to have an experience of dialogue, and I think there were some very important speeches.
There was some controversy about excluding those in favor of intelligent design, Darwinists and creationists. What do you say to those who criticized this decision?
My point is simply the following: First of all, for me, intelligent design is not a scientific explanation. It’s not a scientific theory.
In my opinion, intelligent design mixes things that shouldn’t be mixed. We should never have recourse to a supernatural cause when we are dealing with rational matters.
Moreover, I think, in general, it is quite inappropriate to try to force into a scientific discourse things which are methodologically extraneous. Obviously, one should try to be a bridge between science, philosophy and theology, but, in my opinion, this bridge should be provided through philosophical means.
The work of philosophy is very important to clarify each field that’s involved here and where there could be convergence points. This is very important as a preliminary philosophical work. And then what I would try to show is which scientific results are very important for us as philosophers and theologians. This is very important.
You mean these groups cannot contribute to this discussion?
Yes, creationism and intelligent design cannot contribute at all to this discussion because they react to the traditional ideological interpretation of science in a way that, in the end, is not very fruitful. And we also cannot correct our enemies by doing the same thing.
What do you say to those who continue to dispute the fact that the Bible is compatible with Darwin’s theory of evolution?
First of all, God’s creation is not static. The Big Bang is static, but creation has a sort of ontological dependence on the creation of God.
Secondly, our own tradition in the Bible stresses that God’s creation is in creatio continua (that is, in a continual creation). So God’s action is everywhere present in our universe, at any moment, in any event and at any level.
But God’s actions never substitute the actions of creatures — never. When I act, I act myself. I can choose for good or bad. God knows me and could assist me, or I can call on God, but, in the end, this is my action. God will never cancel the fact that I am the only one responsible for my action.
But the question remains: Why would God allow evolution from soulless ape to ensouled human being?
First of all, let’s look at our own traditions. St. Thomas Aquinas and others say that even animals have a soul. Don’t forget that. This is very important because we’re accustomed to think that only humans have a soul. This is not true at all. [Aquinas does distinguish, however, between an animal soul and a spiritual soul as being essentially different.]
The soul for me — and I’m an Aristotelian — is the form of the body, because a man is a unity. I don’t believe that Descartes is right on this point — we don’t have two substances; we only have one role, as humans, as a person.
Take the whole universe: It is a growing emergence of different levels. You start with an atomic explosion; you move to matter and structure, then to biological systems, and then to human beings. When you have very important leaps, for instance, between living and pre-living systems, when you have the second leap between biological evolution and humans, you have a better realization of the way in which these systems deal with the world.
So biological systems, any organisms, deal in a way no other physical system can do. I mean: A cell is totally different than any other physical system in the world. So are humans.
Humans are symbolic animals. There is no other being in the world that is a symbolic animal. We can use numbers; we can make mathematical calculations; we can think about things like virtue, God, black holes, and so on. No animal on earth can do that.
A chimp can emulate, but it cannot imitate in the truest sense of the word. Emulation only means that he is able to understand the consequences of certain behavior.
To imitate means that I am able to understand the intention of another person. For instance, if a mother is speaking about a dog, a child immediately looks at the dog because the child understands immediately that is her intention.
Only humans have that capacity because we are symbolic animals. We are unique. We are rational, in the way I have explained, because we are symbolic. Because to be symbolic means to be something very elementary: to share something — intentions, desires, emotions, culture. No animal in the world can do that, only us.
This means something very essential. We are able to also share something with God, with Christ. As Christ is a mediator between God and human beings, so human beings themselves are mediators; symbols are mediations; our culture is a mediation.
What compatibility did you discuss between evolution and the Book of Genesis?
Genesis is a book written many thousands of years ago. God’s words always speak to people coming from a certain culture.
Take the words of Jesus, which we know better. They are addressed to people of a certain culture using analogies, examples drawn from his culture. This is no longer completely our own culture, but I think we are able to understand the core message of these parables — not to be taken in a literal sense.
Any cultured person would have had that sense and would have appreciated it very much. This is also very necessary because God’s word must address people in a certain culture.
But some might ask: Why is there no reference to evolution in the Bible?
How could there be? We are only starting to understand evolution right now. But I have another question. Do you think we already have a history of our salvation, that we have a history of salvation that has already ended with the Bible?
Do you know what Pope Leo XIII said in one of his encyclicals? He said even if the Fathers of the Church are more intuitive than any other person of today, the Church can correct the Fathers of the Church because she has a history of salvation.
So the history of salvation doesn’t end with the Bible. Why should there not be more? We are in evolution.
Edward Pentin writes