I am back from Madrid where I gave the final address at the VII Congreso Católicos y Vida Pública¯the seventh congress on Catholics in public life. My theme was “The Catholic Case for the Secular State.” The lecture was apparently well-received by the thousands of participants who sense they are besieged by a left-wing government that is determined to create what someone has called a “naked public square.”

About 90 percent of Spaniards identify themselves as Catholics, but only 25 percent are found at Mass on Sunday. The history of the Church in Spanish public life is tumultuous, and is not limited to the civil war of the 1930s and the Franco regime. In recent days, a million (some say two million) marched in the streets of Madrid to protest the current government’s support for abortion and same-sex marriage.

The Franco regime ended 30 years ago, but militant secularists suspect Catholics long for something like a restoration. Catholic intellectuals and activists insist that is not so, that they are proposing a new way of thinking about the relationship between culture, morality, and religion in public life.

We think our politics are polarized. Compared with Spain, American political discourse is a gentle dialogue of sweetness and light. In Spain and elsewhere in Europe, the dominant idea of liberal democracy is shaped much more by the French Revolution of 1789 than by the American Revolution of 1776. For understandable reasons, that has also been true of Catholic social doctrine. Until, that is, the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus on the just and free society.

Since his election as pope, Benedict has several times emphasized the necessary “worldliness” and “temporal” character of the properly “secular state.” Given Spain’s long and conflicted history of Church-state relations, it is not surprising that the champions of a militant laicism are able to exploit fears of a Church eager to regain temporal authority and even impose a form of theocracy. Catholic leaders, on the other hand, fear what they perceive as the state’s desire to impose what John Paul the Great called “a thinly disguised totalitarianism” in the name of a democracy divorced from culture and transcendent moral truth.

Such were the issues addressed by the participants in the Congreso Católicos y Vida Pública. I was pleased to discover that many of them are careful readers of FIRST THINGS and regularly follow the postings on this website. To all of them I extend my thanks for their hospitality, and for a brief but intense immersion course in the tensions of religious and political life in Spain today.


There was a short time-out for a visit to Museo del Prado, my first. We skipped the El Grecos since they had recently been at the Met in New York. A discovery for me was the 17th century Spanish painter, José de Ribera. His “Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew” and “Archimedes,” along with other works, impressed me more than many of the works by painters generally more highly rated. Also impressive were eerie paintings by Goya I had not seen before. His “dark period” was much darker than I had realized. There are many reasons for returning to Madrid, including more time for the wondrous place that is del Prado.


A dinner one evening with the Cardinal Archbishop of Madrid, Antonio María Rouco Varela, and the former president of Poland, Lech Walesa, was both convivial and a bit confusing. There was a confusion of tongues between Spanish, Polish, and English, with the translators working overtime.

I asked Walesa about speculation that a vibrantly Catholic Poland might be secularized by its closer association with Western Europe in the European Union, and was struck by his articulately confident conviction that the next generation in the EU will reappropriate the Christian identity without which Europe has no future. One must pray that he is right.


Apparently, Intelligent Design (ID) is a bridge too far in building or maintaining conservative coalitions. In the same week George Will and Charles Krauthammer, both writing in the Washington Post , ripped into the ID movement.

Conservatives who do not consider themselves to be social or moral conservatives held their noses for a Bush-Rove strategy of building an electoral majority by including conservative Christians (mainly evangelical Protestants and Catholics). They go along on protecting the unborn and contending for the normative male-female understanding of marriage. But ID is just too much.

In his November 18 column, Krauthammer writes: “Which brings us to Dover, Pa., Pat Robertson, the Kansas State Board of Education, and a fight over evolution that is so anachronistic and retrograde as to be a national embarrassment.” Clearly, Charles Krauthammer is embarrassed.

“Dover distinguished itself this Election Day by throwing out all eight members of its school board who tried to impose ‘intelligent design’¯today’s tarted-up version of creationism¯on the biology curriculum. Pat Robertson then called the wrath of God down upon the good people of Dover for voting ‘God out of your city.’ Meanwhile, in Kansas, the school board did a reverse Dover, mandating the teaching of skepticism about evolution and forcing intelligent design into the statewide biology curriculum.”

If one wants to find out what ID is about, the website of the Discovery Institute, its very impressive promoter, is a better source than Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. It is a great disservice for usually clear-thinking conservatives to depict the likes of Michael Behe and William A. Dembski as knuckle-dragging kooks.

“Let’s be clear,” Krauthammer writes. “Intelligent design may be interesting as theology, but as science it is a fraud. It is a self-enclosed, tautological ‘theory’ whose only holding is that when there are gaps in some area of scientific knowledge¯in this case, evolution¯they are to be filled by God. It is a ‘theory’ that admits that evolution and natural selection explain such things as the development of drug resistance in bacteria and other such evolutionary changes within species but also says that every once in a while God steps into this world of constant and accumulating change and says, ‘I think I’ll make me a lemur today.’ A ‘theory’ that violates the most basic requirement of anything pretending to be science¯that it be empirically disprovable. How does one empirically disprove the proposition that God was behind the lemur, or evolution¯or behind the motion of the tides or the ‘strong force’ that holds the atom together?”

That is a misrepresentation worthy of the editorial page of the New York Times . The ID movement is challenging, on scientific grounds, the adequacy of neo-Darwinist orthodoxy as a comprehensive theory of the origins and development of life on earth, and especially of human life.

There is no doubt that many supporters of ID, notably among evangelical Protestants, are motivated by a desire to vindicate a literal reading of the Genesis account of creation. Any cause attracts people with diverse and sometimes conflicting motivations. The stated purpose of the ID movement, however, is to challenge the philosophical dogmatism that passes for science in the teaching of evolution in the classroom. There is a controversy, it is a controversy among scientists, and the controversy should be taught, precisely in order to defend the integrity of science.

Will and Krauthammer are upset by Pat Robertson, and Pat Robertson is frequently upsetting, but they do not mention the many science textbooks that more or less explicitly state that a scientific account of the origins of life precludes the necessity¯some say the possibility¯of a Creator. In short, they appear not to be upset that classrooms are being used for propagandizing, in the name of science, an atheistic and materialistic philosophy.

We are still in the early phases of the ID movement. The arguments are still in the process of being sorted out. That is being done with great care in a number of venues, and not least in the pages of FIRST THINGS. It is not helpful for mandarins of the conservative cause to declare the questions raised to be beyond the pale, lest the respectability of the cause be tainted by association with the great unwashed whose motivations they do not share.

The ID movement may go down in history as an attempted replay of Clarence Darrow vs. William Jennings Bryan in Inherit the Wind . That is obviously what the Left and the many philosophical materialists in the science establishment hope for. Conservative pundits should not help them by casting themselves as latter-day H.L. Menckens. (For an account of the flagrant dishonesty of Inherit the Wind and H.L. Mencken, see Carol Iannone’s “The Truth About Inherit the Wind ," February 1997). The questions raised by the ID movement are much too important to be dismissed because they are deemed to be politically inconvenient by Republican strategists.

Eighty years later, some fundamentalists, the political Left, and much of the science establishment are eager for a rerun of the “monkey trial” of Dayton, Tennessee. It makes no political sense for conservatives to accommodate them. More important, it is a grave disservice to a necessary intellectual challenge to the evolutionary fundamentalism that has for too long controlled the teaching of science in our classrooms.


I will be speaking Monday, November 28, on “The Catholic Politician” at the Church of St. Thomas More, 65 East 89th Street in Manhattan. 7:15pm. Admission free.

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

Loading...

Show 0 comments