The Rev. George Coyne, S.J., director of the Vatican Observatory, has a penchant for theologically risqué statements. In a recent talk he asked, about life’s origins, "Do we need God to explain this? Very succinctly, my answer is no." Well, very succinctly, that is absurd. Of course we need God to explain it. Nothing would exist without God, and there would be no laws of nature without a divine Lawgiver. Looking more closely, it appears that Coyne did not mean to deny these elementary truths of the faith but only that we shouldn’t use God to supplant the natural "secondary causes" that scientists study. Nevertheless, his formulation was needlessly (and therefore, in this context, inexcusably) provocative, and not all of Coyne’s statements can be given benign interpretations.

In the June issue of Touchstone magazine, Martin Hilbert puts his finger on a real problem with Coyne’s views on evolution. On the one hand, Coyne says that science is "completely neutral with respect to philosophical or theological implications that may be drawn from its conclusions." On the other hand, he says, "If we take the results of modern science seriously, then what science tells us of God must be very different from God as seen by the medieval philosophers and theologians." One cannot have it both ways. What Coyne means by "medieval" conceptions are the doctrines of God’s omniscience and what theology calls God’s "immediate providence" over all events in the universe. These are clearly de fide teachings of the Catholic Church, and someone who has the word Vatican in his job title, even if he has no magisterial authority, should really be more careful.

Coyne feels that the newfangled God who does not direct the course of events, but plays a more advisory role, is both more biblical and more scientific. He is wrong on both counts. The Bible asserts both the role of chance and that God directs all things: "The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from the Lord," says Proverbs 16:33. Nor is there a single thing modern science has taught us that would force us to abandon those supposedly "medieval" notions of God (which, in fact, were clearly and unanimously taught by the Church Fathers). On the contrary, the process theology that Coyne seems to embrace is notoriously at odds with the insights modern physics has given us about the nature of time (many of which were brilliantly anticipated by St. Augustine).

As Hilbert points out, the medieval Scholastics well understood the role of chance in the unfolding of events. Online one can read an excellent lecture on this subject by Prof. Michael Tkacz of Gonzaga University entitled "A Designer Universe: Chance, Design, and Cosmic Order." Tkacz observes, "One of the reasons Thomas Aquinas thought it was necessary to acknowledge the chance element in nature is that it is the way that novelty is introduced into nature." He cites the following passage from St. Thomas: "Nothing prevents the generation of something to be in itself designed when referred to one cause and, nevertheless, accidental and chance when referred to another cause. . . . This is because it belongs to [the divine] intention that all forms which are in the potentiality of matter be drawn into act" (i.e., realized). This conception of chance and contingency drawing forth novel forms is certainly consistent with the role chance plays in neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. One might also consult the very impressive chapter 74 of book 3 of the Summa Contra Gentiles , where St. Thomas explains why "Divine Providence does not exclude fortune and chance."

There are a few points where I might take issue with Dr. Hilbert’s article. He attacks neo-Darwinism as giving a reductive account of human nature and its origins. However, any biological theory, were it applied to man and taken as a complete view of him, would be objectionable on the same grounds¯and that includes theories of Intelligent Design. The strictly biological question is how God made man’s body from the dust. Was it immediately, as biblical literalists say? Was it through Lamarckian evolution? Neo-Darwinian evolution? By the kinds of extraordinary interventions in evolution posited by the Intelligent Design movement? However it was done , it would not explain man’s spiritual nature. As Genesis 2:7 tells us, the formation of man’s body from the dust is one thing, the origin of man’s spiritual soul is quite another. A biological theory can only tell us about the first, and it is no objection to any biological theory that it cannot tell us about the second.

Dr. Hilbert also wonders whether Darwinism can be consistent with Church teaching about the Fall of Man and its consequences. How can death be a consequence of the Fall if life-and-death struggle was a force that shaped the first man? To this, one need simply reply that the immortality of the first man and woman were always taught to be a "preternatural gift"; with its loss, man reverted to the subjection to death that was the lot of his forebears. Hilbert also wonders how lust and violence can be a consequence of the Fall if they were bred into us by evolution. The answer is simply that "concupiscence" is not to be identified with the sexual instinct and such passions as anger, which are in themselves not evil, and which we undoubtedly have in common with animals, who are also not evil. Rather, concupiscence is the disorder whereby the control of reason over these passions was weakened. So it is quite consistent to say that the passions themselves had a biological origin, while their subjection to reason (like reason itself) was a gift from above, a gift partly lost through sin. Whatever one thinks of Darwinism as science, it is very hard to prove (I would say impossible) that as a mere theory of biology it conflicts with Catholic teaching. The great John Henry Newman had it right when he stated in 1868, "The theory of Darwin, true or not, is not necessarily atheistic; on the contrary, it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of divine providence and skill." Larger than the ideas of some, I would add, but not necessarily larger than those of St. Thomas.

(Click here to email the author about this item. Stephen Barr is a theoretical particle physicist at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware, and a member of the editorial board of First Things .)


In addition to which :

Christianity, and the Catholic Church in particular, have never been indifferent to, nor unaffected by, earthly powers. In the June/July issue of First Things , Russell Hittinger helps us to think through the promise and danger of such political entanglements by examining the argument of Michael Burleigh in his new book Earthly Powers . The upshot of the argument is that history teaches us that the Church will until the end of time, and not least in these United States, have to contend with courage and imagination for libertas eccleseiae —the freedom of the Church to be herself. Isn’t it time you subscribed ?

blog comments powered by Disqus