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Evolving Darwin?

I have over the years followed the writings of Stephen M. Barr on evolution and intelligent design. I do not have the scientific training that Barr has, but I’m usually able to follow his arguments, even when I disagree with them. But in his most recent article (“The Miracle of Evolution,” February), he lost me. Barr goes beyond science to ask, dismissively, “What baleful philosophical implications would this [the scientific claims of neo-Darwinism] have?” He then answers his own question, “Absolutely none.” Anticipating my reaction, he adds, “Some people are concerned about naturalism,” but attempts to explain away that concern by saying, “If one is happy with natural explanations of the formation of stars and planetary systems, why not of plants and animals?” This kind of thing could give sophistry a bad name.

Is it possible that a man of Barr’s education really wonders why some of us would not accept a natural explanation for the formation of stars and planets in light of discoveries made possible by the Hubble telescope? A Big Bang presupposes a force that brought all this into being (that is, God).

People who believe there is a natural explanation for the formation of stars, the planetary system, plants, and animals are, by any definition, naturalists. Neo-Darwinists have made it clear that they presuppose a natural beginning of the universe (that is, no God). Does Barr really want to know why I don’t agree with that?

Barr goes on to argue that “all natural explanations obviously presuppose a natural order that is lawful.” The neo-Darwinists I have listened to do not presuppose any such thing. Even if they did, I’d be less than satisfied: If there is a totally natural explanation for the formation of stars and planets, where does the evidence of design come from? And as for humans, how do they end up with an imago Dei planted in them?

This convoluted argument, an attempt I suppose to appease the neo-Darwinists, falls short. There are indeed “baleful philosophical implications.” Naturalism by any other name is still naturalism.

Charles W. Colson
Prison Fellowship
Washington, D.C.

Stephen M. Barr’s article makes some good points, but in the end it is unsatisfactory because it ducks the main issue. For me, the trouble started with this sentence: “In the case of neo-Darwinism, we must start with what it really asserts as science.” Is neo-Darwinism a science at all? Almost all Darwinists hold that biology is a material science, like physics. But the main feature that makes physics a science is verification by controlled experiment. That is impossible in biology; we cannot isolate instances of “evolution” in the laboratory and test them. Darwinists claim that every species derives directly from an earlier species. Yet Darwinists cannot demonstrate, as opposed to assuming, a single example. That seems to be a considerable liability. As science, neo-Darwinism has no standing, or at least no standing greater than that of Intelligent Design.

Robert Ghelardi
Joliet, Illinois

I read with great interest, and largely agreed with, Stephen M. Barr’s article. In particular, I agree with the need to “draw as clear a line as possible between science and philosophy.” I am concerned, however, that the article leaves the impression that the proper place to draw the line puts neo-Darwinism on the scientific side of the line and the statement “Man is reducible to matter” on the other side. The motivation to draw the line there seems to be a religious one. Design-debunkers such as Dawkins will point out that religious people draw the line there for reasons of “irrational” faith rather than science. After all, if we “swallow the camel” by not challenging the notion that unplanned natural forces gave rise to all living things, starting from nothing but nonliving chemicals, and “strain out the gnat” of man’s consciousness as the sole exception to an otherwise completely natural explanation, are we not allowing religious beliefs to interfere with scientific explanation?

Theories that attempt to explain how human consciousness can be rooted in material causation alone are indeed highly speculative—but so are theories for the origin of life. Why draw a line between these? It seems to me that the line must be drawn where science itself tells us to draw the line: at the edge of what science, without the prop of naturalistic philosophy or the influence of religious belief, can tell us at present. This line is likely to shift with time. Agnostics or atheists are free to express their confidence that the line will eventually shift to encompass within science all phenomena, including the origin of life, consciousness, and the universe and the physical laws governing it. Christians will differ in how far they think the line will eventually move. The debate will involve detailed discussions of scientific evidence and not religious issues or metaphysical naturalism. We should likewise insist, however, that science draw the line based on evidence currently in hand, not on naturalism or evidence that could theoretically be acquired in the future.

Ron Larson
Ann Arbor, Michigan

In “The Miracle of Evolution,” Stephen Barr concludes by saying, “We need not pit evolution against design, if we recognize that evolution is part of God’s design.” While I believe that evolution in the neo-Darwinian account proposed by Dawkins and others could be part of God’s design, the scientific evidence shows that it is not. In Evolution Under the Microscope (2002), David Swift argues for intelligent design. He seems to have been ignored by the scientific establishment. Swift maintains that evolution occurs, but is limited; that many cases of evolution of species have been observed, but these can be explained by gene segregation guided by natural selection. The process is analogous to the way in which one can artificially “evolve” a species by selective breeding. In both cases, one is not creating new genetic material but selecting from genetic material that already exists.

How does one create new genetic material, which would be required for the evolution of more complex organisms from simpler ones? Swift shows that this cannot be done by random mutations: Biological processes require enzymes that are composed mainly of polypeptides, which in turn are composed of amino acids. Each amino acid is coded by a sequence of three DNA nucleotides. A mutation in DNA could cause a change in the amino acid sequence in a polypeptide. However, a polypeptide needs to have at least seventy amino acids in order to fold, and only then can it function as an enzyme. Since a short polypeptide cannot function at all as an enzyme, you cannot “evolve” an enzyme from it by natural selection.

This is just one example of the many problems that must be overcome in order to find a “natural” explanation for the evolution of complex organisms from simpler ones. Concerning the evolutionary explanations put forth by Dawkins, Dennett, and others, I would have to call myself an agnostic.

James F. Nugent
Salve Regina University
Newport, Rhode Island

Congratulations to Stephen Barr for drawing a distinction between science and philosophy in “The Miracle of Evolution.” Rarely has this subject been addressed so clearly. I take issue with Barr, however, when he makes the transition from self-organizing properties of nature (crystals and planetary orbits) to the ability of randomness to bring about plants, animals, and biological evolution.

The clearest boundary between nondesigned and designed things is the presence of code—abstract symbols that represent real objects. Neither I nor any naturalist I’ve ever talked to has been able to identify a single instance of a naturally occurring process that matches Claude Shannon’s model of encoding and decoding in The Mathematical Theory of Communication (1948). Whether the code in question is computer code or the genetic code, all codes we know are designed.

Design by definition means that an idea precedes its embodiment; I know of no simpler or more rigorous argument for intelligent design than the very existence of codes and language. Norbert Weiner, father of cybernetics, said almost fifty years ago that “Information is information, neither matter nor energy. Any materialism that fails to recognize this will not survive the present day.” Information itself is an entity on par with matter and energy.

So if the information in DNA defies naturalistic explanation, then what about the evolution of that information? I’m personally open to the possibility of common descent, and, like Barr, I’m quite certain that if life evolved, the mechanisms that caused it to do so are miraculously elegant. But randomness itself offers no answers—natural laws cannot produce symbolic language.

Microbiologist James Shapiro of the University of Chicago has done fascinating research into what he terms “a twenty-first-century view of evolution.” He has documented the ability of protozoa to segregate their own DNA into over 100,000 pieces and rearrange them to produce more-fit progeny. Our immune system adapts to a variety of threats through this same process.

If this is how evolution happens, then it is nothing like the “random variation” that Darwin, Dawkins, and Dennett have described: It’s an intelligent process. As Barr eloquently said, “It is incomparably greater to design a watchmaker than a watch.” Equally impressive is a watch that gives birth to watches more fit than itself.

Perry Marshall
Berwyn, Illinois

Stephen Barr fails to understand how the word random is really used by neo-Darwinists. Their trick is to place the engine of evolution into events (mutations) that are unpredictable, which allows their imaginations to spin tales of ever-more-advanced mutants. Barr points out that randomness can exhibit higher-level order, but neo-Darwinians are not asserting the existence of a stochastic (random) mutational process. But if the laws of mutation were found, their creative engine would run into combinatorial limits and neo-Darwinism would collapse.

Barr errs again when he applies a double standard to inferences of a designer in science. He acknowledges that, by finding order in nature, science has strengthened the design argument without threatening the distinction between theology and science. But then he insists that the Intelligent Design movement is inserting a supernatural designer into science when it explicitly acknowledges design. It should be perfectly acceptable and even advisable in both cases to be “metaphysically modest” about who or what the designer might be. No one denies that some evolution happens; the question is the type and extent. There is nothing unscientific about affirming limits to evolution.

Furthermore, Barr fails to see the exclusion of formal and final causes as a defect that undermines the ability of science to properly characterize the natural world. If science were merely an academic exercise, there would be no concern. But in our time, as Phillip E. Johnson points out, the authority to describe “the way things really are” belongs to natural science. If science allows no purpose in the natural world, which contradicts reason, its influence becomes harmful.

Ralph Gillmann
Burke, Virginia

Despite its scholarly and objective tone, Stephen Barr’s defense of neo-Darwinism relies on a series of invalid arguments. Barr tells us that “the neo-Darwinian mechanism is one of trial and error, and we know that trial and error can achieve impressive results if enough trials are allowed.” But embedded in those two dozen words are several flawed concepts: A dictionary definition describes “trial and error” as “finding the best way to reach a desired result by trying out one or more ways and eliminating the causes of failure.” But evolution as presented in neo-Darwinism lacks a desired result and an intelligence to judge which trials are successful. Barr’s statement is a form of anthropomorphism, attributing human characteristics to the blind forces of nature with no logical justification.

Barr continues, “The question of the adequacy of neo-Darwinism, then, is ultimately one of numbers.” But one can never determine whether a past event did occur solely on the basis of probabilities. Many things that are possible, or even probable, do not happen.

On a metaphysical level, Barr fails to recognize the essential difference between animate and inanimate objects. Cardinal Schönborn was explicit in discussing biology; Barr countered with an analogy about the formation of crystals—an unrelated phenomenon. Crystals form naturally all the time, but no one has observed the formation of a new eye, a new wing, or any other organ.

Science tells us that each living cell contains as much information as one hundred volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Information theory tells us that information content cannot increase through random changes. Does Barr really believe that the DNA code resulted from “random mistakes,” as neo-Darwinism requires?

Joseph H. Gehringer
Manahawkin, New Jersey

Steven M. Barr replies:

Charles Colson asks whether I “really wonder why” and “really want to know why” he thinks certain things. I certainly do, and perhaps the readers of FIRST THINGS do; and so it is a shame that he did not spell out his reasons more clearly. It falls to me, therefore, to reconstruct Colson’s line of argument as best I can from the sketchy indications he has given.

Some people see in the word natural simply an antonym of supernatural or divine, and so they see “natural explanations” of phenomena as excluding the divine.

Consequently, they imagine that proofs of God’s existence or activity must be based on events that either defy natural explanation or are naturally impossible. I think this explains Colson’s rather vehement negative reaction to the idea that modern astrophysics provides “natural explanations” of anything and his appeal to the Big Bang, in which he apparently finds the all-important naturally impossible or naturally inexplicable event.

To be sure, one can make arguments for the existence of God based on naturally inexplicable events, such as miracles or fulfillments of prophecies. Such arguments have a long and distinguished pedigree, and they certainly strengthen my own faith. There is also a certain kind of “design argument” that is based on phenomena that are purported to be naturally inexplicable. For example, Newton pointed to the stability of the solar system, and the Intelligent Design movement points to the origin of life and to irreducibly complex structures in biology. Such arguments also have their place, though they can backfire badly, since they are vulnerable to refutation by later scientific developments, as Newton’s argument was notoriously refuted by Laplace.

The older, more traditional, and more robust kind of design argument, however, does not look to things that contravene the order of nature but to the order of nature itself. The classic design argument points to the beautiful, providential, and harmonious structure of the world, its orderliness, and its lawfulness. Whereas natural explanations can undermine arguments based on miracles or design arguments of the kind used by the Intelligent Design movement, they have actually strengthened the more traditional design argument by showing that the order of the universe is more profound and subtle than had previously been thought. It is precisely the intelligible structure of the world, which natural science has elucidated with such spectacular success, that points to its being the product of intelligence.

I don’t know what neo-Darwinists Colson has listened to, but I have never come across any scientist who doubts that there is a lawful natural order. Why then do so many of them not recognize design? Probably spiritual blindness, as suggested in Wisdom 13:1-9 and Romans 1:19-22.

Since the Big Bang as a naturally inexplicable or naturally impossible event seems to play a crucial part in Colson’s thinking, some cautions about it are in order. First, while the Big Bang undoubtedly occurred, it cannot yet be said with any certainty that it was the beginning of the universe. There are reasonable and well-motivated scientific hypotheses in which it is not. Second, we are not even sure yet (from a strictly scientific standpoint) that the universe had a beginning in time. Third, the beginning of the universe (whether it happened at the Big Bang or earlier) may very well have been perfectly “natural” in the sense that the processes involved were in accordance with, and perhaps necessarily entailed by, the fundamental laws of physics. There is no scientific reason to suppose otherwise.

Some might think that such a “natural beginning” contradicts the Christian and Jewish teaching on creation. But as St. Thomas Aquinas well understood, the metaphysical argument for creation ex nihilo does not depend on there being a beginning in time at all, let alone one that violates the order of nature. As the well-known quantum cosmologist Don Page (a devout evangelical) has said, “God creates and sustains the entire universe rather than just the beginning. Whether or not the universe has a beginning has no relevance to the question of its creation, just as whether an artist’s line has a beginning and an end, or instead forms a circle with no end, has no relevance to the question of its being drawn.” Finally, whether the universe had a beginning in time, whether the Big Bang was that beginning, and whether that beginning was “natural” are questions that have nothing directly to do with the theories of how stars and planets formed. From all this, one can see that Colson’s appeal to the Big Bang to show that astrophysics cannot yield “natural explanations” of star and planet formation is utterly unfounded in science, philosophy, or theology.

Let us accept, however, Colson’s view that the accounts of planetary and stellar formation provided by modern astrophysics do not qualify as “natural explanations.” How would that affect the point that I made in the passage he quotes from my article?

Not at all, as can be seen by replacing the words “natural explanations” with the words “scientific accounts”: “If one is happy with scientific accounts of the formation of stars and planetary systems, why not of plants and animals?” I have never heard any anti-Darwinist give a coherent answer to this question.

Colson says that “naturalism by any other name is still naturalism.” And yet, what we have here is not one idea going by different names, but one name being used for different ideas. What “naturalism” means to philosophers is the acceptance of only natural explanations. Colson uses it to mean the acceptance of any natural explanations. Thus he says, “People who believe there is a natural explanation for the formation of stars, the planetary system, plants, and animals are, by any definition, naturalists.” Wrong. Not by any definition, not by the standard definition, only by his definition. Since the whole business of natural science is to study natural phenomena and discover the natural explanations of them, Colson’s rejection of naturalism as he defines it is tantamount to a rejection of all natural science.

It baffles me that Colson asks where I think the imago Dei comes from. In my writing, which Colson professes to have followed “over the years,” I affirm in many places that man has a spiritual soul not reducible to matter, one that is conferred on him directly by God and is responsible for his spiritual powers of intellect and will. I have quoted Calvin’s Institutes: “God [exalted] man above all the other animals to separate him from the common number, because he has attained to no vulgar life, but a life connected with the light of intelligence and reason—[this] at the same time shows how he was made in the image of God.” Calvin was referring to the same “ontological discontinuity” between man and other living things that Pope John Paul II spoke of and that I affirmed clearly in my article.

Finally, the fact that I treat with respect an idea that has much in its favor, that is believed by the great majority of scientists, that has no decisive arguments against it, and that may well turn out to be true—I am speaking here of the scientific theory called neo-Darwinism—is not “appeasement” but intellectual humility and honesty.

I thank Robert Ghelardi for his letter, but I must disagree with him that what makes something a science is verification by controlled experiment. There are areas of scientific study where one cannot perform controlled experiments but rather must infer things about the unrepeatable and uncontrollable past from the traces it has left in the present. This is true in much of astronomy and geology, for example, as well as in evolutionary biology.

Ron Larson makes some interesting points, with which I am largely in agreement.

James F. Nugent seeks to show by scientific argument that neo-Darwinism is inadequate. I am quite open to being persuaded of that. I have not been claiming that neo-Darwinism is necessarily true, merely that it is compatible with traditional Christian faith.

Perry Marshall is correct that “randomness itself offers no answers.” It is the combination of randomness and the winnowing process called natural selection that is offered as an answer by neo-Darwinists.

Ralph Gillmann is mistaken about my double standard. I see nothing wrong with basing design arguments on scientific facts and theories. As he says, I have done it myself, and have no objection to “Intelligent Design theorists” doing it. But a philosophical argument that is based upon science is one thing, and a scientific hypothesis is something else, as Robert T. Miller explained so lucidly in these pages in his article “Darwin in Dover, PA” (FIRST THINGS, April).

Joseph H. Gehringer is right that natural selection differs from ordinary examples of trial and error. As far as using probabilities to determine whether past events did occur, I think that can sometimes be done with a great deal of confidence. One might decide in that way, for instance, whether someone has been cheating at cards. In any case, I would point out that it is the Intelligent Design theorists who are using probabilities to say that things must have happened in a certain way. Gehringer is right that we do not see the evolution of new organs take place before our eyes. It takes too long. That is also why we don’t see stars form or mountain ranges rise before our eyes. As for his final question, I don’t pretend to know how the DNA code developed. I am not an advocate for any biological theory.

The Church Body

In his article “From Ratzinger to Benedict” (February), Avery Cardinal Dulles writes, “in [Joseph Ratzinger’s] earliest observations he contends that [the dogmatic constitution on the Church] did well to subordinate the image of the Mystical Body to that of People of God. The Mystical Body paradigm, much in favor under Pius XII, makes it all but impossible to give any ecclesial status to non-Catholics and leads to a false identification of the Church with Christ her Lord.” I find this a puzzling assertion on its own terms, and also as a view attributed to Joseph Ratzinger.

In Dominus Iesus, Ratzinger uses the image of the Church as the Body of Christ several times, and he asserts, “Just as the head and members of a living body, though not identical, are inseparable, so too Christ and the Church can neither be confused nor separated, and constitute a single ‘whole Christ.’” On this point Ratzinger cites Thomas Aquinas, and throughout Dominus Iesus he seems entirely in accord with Thomas’ affirmation that Christ is the head of all men and therefore the Mystical Body is coextensive with humanity. As Thomas puts it, all people “can be classed as members of the mystical body because of their potentiality, and not merely when they are actually in it. Some members have a potentiality that will never be actuated. Others are eventually actuated, and this in three degrees: The first is by faith, the second by charity on earth, the third by the enjoyment of heaven.”

I would certainly agree, as Eric Voegelin put it in his lectures on Hitler and the Germans, that Aquinas’ understanding of the corpus mysticum was subsequently, tragically, overshadowed by a “ghettoizing” conception of the Church among both Catholics and Protestants and that Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis Christi represents “the most severe contraction of the membership of the Church that it had ever received.” Recognizing this, however, does not, as Dulles claims, implicate the Mystical Body image itself as the cause of the subsequent contractions.

Dan Knauss
The New Pantagruel
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., replies:

In a booklet published during Vatican II, Joseph Ratzinger wrote that the notion of the Mystical Body, as expounded in Pius XII’s encyclical of 1943, “made it all but impossible to give any status to Christians separated from Rome” and that it “easily led to a false identification of the Church with Christ.” At the time Ratzinger rejoiced that the Council was complementing the image of the “Body of Christ” with that of the “People of God.” He later found it necessary to correct abuses of the concept of “People of God.” All images, including the great biblical images, have their limitations.

Dan Knauss is correct in what he says about Thomas Aquinas. Pius XII in his encyclical combined the patristic theology of the “whole Christ” with Bellarmine’s societal concept of membership. Thomistic commentators on the encyclical, drawing on the Angelic Doctor, proposed to modify the pope’s conclusions by introducing subtle distinctions among different kinds of membership: potential, virtual, and actual. Instead of following this route, Vatican II chose to speak of different ways of being ordered to, joined to, and incorporated in the People of God. Ratzinger supported the Council’s approach rather than that of Pope Pius or his commentators.

Vatican II by no means rejected the image of Body of Christ, or Mystical Body, but it subordinated all the images, including “People of God,” to the theological concept of the Church as sacrament, which Karl Rahner called the Grundidee of Vatican II’s ecclesiology. The notion of sacrament allows for partial realizations of the Church.

The declaration Dominus Iesus was not written until 2000. An official document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it is not a personal statement of Cardinal Ratzinger. But it seems more Thomistic in its ecclesiology, as Knauss suggests. In its fourth chapter it speaks of the Church as Body of Christ, citing both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. One might perhaps be justified in inferring that Ratzinger senior has become more favorable than Ratzinger junior to the Body of Christ as an image of the Church. 

The Evangelical Spirit

Timothy George, in his article “Evangelicals and Others” (February), offers the insight that “ecumenism is a central portion—a core concern—of the evangelical faith and the evangelical church.” I was left wondering, however, about the corporeality of ecumenism in evangelicalism today. Clearly there is an ecumenical spirit, but are the hard materials present that can allow evangelical churches to progress toward Christian unity?

The reports about evangelical churches are not so encouraging. Use of the ancient ecumenical creeds is lacking. Current evangelical trends are moving further away from historic Christian patterns of worship: a service of the preaching of the word and administration of communion. In this way, evangelical churches have grown far from their Reformation roots. The magisterial churches of the Reformation, while protesting the Roman church, continued to recite the ancient creeds. Calvin, Luther, Bullinger, Cranmer, et al. contested the worship of Rome, but they reworked and did not discard this form of worship. Hugh Oliphant Olds, in The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship, has shown the diligent attention given to the early Church Fathers by Reformed leaders as they sought to reconsider Christian worship. Such determination is not apparent in evangelicalism.

The conversation among churches today already has a starting point—the Spirit of God has been at work in the Body of Christ, as fractured as it may be. Evangelicalism does not have to retain an incorporeal spirit fluctuating between personalities who are prominent for the moment. It has recourse to the great resources of the historic Christian church, which can mark evangelical worship every week.

Rev. Jeffrey B. Wilson
Providence Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Royal Oak, Michigan

Timothy George replies:

I acknowledge the need for evangelicals to recover more fully the riches of the wider Christian tradition, including the Reformation heritage. But the situation is not as dire as Jeffrey B. Wilson allows. There is a growing appreciation, especially among younger evangelicals, for a more muscular Christianity—one that is grounded in the trinitarian and christological consensus of the early church, the historic creeds, and God-centered worship. This evangelical movement ad fontes is not a tidal wave yet, but it is more than a trickle. I take it as a sign of hope.

Further, it is well to remember that forms and structures alone do not produce visible unity among Christians. Roman Catholic and Orthodox believers have shared similar liturgical traditions for more than a millennium but this has not prevented division. Just so, the spiritual descendants of John Knox claim a noble heritage of Reformed confessions and catechisms, and beautiful psalmody, but whoever can sort out the many schisms and sects of Scottish Presbyterianism deserves an honorary doctorate in church history!

When I say that ecumenism is a central evangelical concern, I refer to the fact of evangelicalism as a global missionary movement intent on preaching the Gospel to every person in the world. This was evident at Amsterdam 2000, a conference convened by Billy Graham that brought together some twelve thousand evangelists from 210 countries, more than belonged to the United Nations at the time. The only other Christian community of comparable international reach is the Catholic Church. The Great Commission and Christian unity belong inseparably together, for Jesus himself linked the two indissolubly: “that all of them may be one . . . so that the world may believe” (John 17:21). However far the modern ecumenical movement may have strayed from its founding purpose, it was born on the mission field, and evangelicalism was its midwife. Perhaps evangelicals today, with their zeal to know Christ and to make him known, can play a part in the birth of a new ecumenism for the twenty-first century.

Garbering Shakespeare

In the Public Square (February), Richard John Neuhaus takes a moment to thank Marjorie Garber for her new book, Shakespeare After All. It is, we read, a “marvelous book,” not least because it avoids the pitfalls of “postmodernist deflations” and “feminist revisionisms” and “Marxist deployments” that have so damaged the humanities in recent times.

But there is something flatly wrong with giving Garber credit for bypassing the sins of the past—since she has been one of the worst sinners. Here are a few of her books: Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety, Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life, Dog Love (on how humans interact with their pets, including sexually), Sex and Real Estate (on how buying a home is like seduction).

These are trite overinterpretations that trade in transgressive phenomena and ridicule the narrow-minded bigotry of middle-class folk who just can’t handle the cutting edge. That Garber has written a competent and straightforward study of Shakespeare is a good thing, but her participation in the vulgarities of cultural studies and queer theory is not thereby cancelled.

Mark Bauerlein
Emory University
Atlanta, Georgia

RJN replies:

I was not aware of Professor Garber’s checkered past. All the more reason to be grateful for Shakespeare After All.

The Times They Aren’t A-Changin’

Oh, dear. I think my friend Richard John Neuhaus does not realize how deeply he wounds me. In his defense of Peggy Noonan’s book on John Paul II, Father Neuhaus asserts that I came “of Catholic age in the debased excitement of the 1960s.” Neuhaus knows full well that no one, Catholic or otherwise, ever came of age in the 1960s (witness our only Boomer presidents, numbers 42 and 43, and their long if different migrations toward maturity).

As it happens, I was married and the father of two, with more on the way, before Vatican Council II opened and before the Beatles first landed on Ed Sullivan’s show. I am, therefore, a proud 1950s Catholic, who mastered the Latin responses to the Mass in the fourth grade, imbibed Ignatian spirituality in high school, and was mentored in the Catholic Imagination by the famous Frank O’Malley at Notre Dame. I’m still inclined to believe “Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries” and steadfastly sing the classic Latin hymns I learned in choir—albeit alone in the shower, because our crazed liturgists have decreed “Amazing Grace” fit for corporate worship.

If Noonan was moved in middle age to discover her faith through John Paul II, and tingled when this most mobile of popes appeared on our shores, so did I admire Pius XII, who modeled perfectly the “Spiritual Father” as Unmoved Mover by staying put. Because I reached maturity before the wretched Age of Rock, I was never impressed, as was Noonan, a recovered 1960s Catholic, by John Paul’s rock-star status.

As for Humanae Vitae, it was not we 1950s Catholics who refused to let that sleeping dog lie, but John Paul II, who sought to prop it up with the hopelessly strained “theology of the body” that Noonan finds so revelatory. No other papal document more succinctly belies Neuhaus’ contention that “the pope believes what the Catholic Church believes and the Catholic Church believes what the pope believes,” and he cannot evade responsibility for dropping this glib nugget of erroneous ecclesiology on the impressionable Noonan.

Knowing the canonization process as I do, I can assure you that Noonan’s testimonial will be included as evidence of the pope’s reputation for holiness. Postulators collect published encomiums from figures like her, even when they are downright mushy. Alas! Where is the Index of Forbidden Books, now that we need it?

Kenneth L. Woodward
Briarcliff Manor, New York

RJN replies:

Who would have known that one so young in spirit has been around so long? My apologies.

Marriage and Homosexuality

In “The Truce of 2005?” (February), Richard John Neuhaus expressed his disappointment and concern over my appointment by Pope Benedict XVI as archbishop of San Francisco. Conscious of my own unworthiness I will not dispute his evaluation. I should, however, correct some misinterpretations of what I have done and said.

Neuhaus says that I “broke with other religious leaders in opposing a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.” I strongly support and consistently teach the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

Here are some details about that November 2004 ballot proposal: 1) there was already in place a Utah law strictly banning same-sex marriage, which I fully supported; 2) all three candidates for the office of attorney general of Utah (the chief law-enforcement officer in the state) opposed the amendment, including the LDS (Mormon) Republican incumbent, Mark Shurtleff, mostly because they considered it a poorly drafted amendment; 3) I refused to endorse the amendment, but I did not urge people to vote “no”; 4) the leadership of the LDS Church, which has a record for being as strongly opposed to same-sex marriage as the Catholic Church, did not issue a statement urging its members to vote one way or the other; 5) inasmuch as two thirds of Utahans belong to the LDS Church, this means that the leadership of at least 80 percent of Utah churchgoers did not urge a “yes” vote on the amendment. It is not clear to me which “other religious leaders” I “broke with.”

In the face of my admonition that priests should follow the moral teachings of the Church, Neuhaus worries about what I did not say. Using that approach, one could express disappointment with Christ’s teaching of the two great commandments because of what was left unmentioned.

Neuhaus is astonished by my contention that homosexual orientation was not the cause of the sexual abuse crisis. He goes on to say, “One can agree that it was not the cause, meaning the only cause.” That is exactly what I was saying. Each year, most of the crimes of sexual abuse of minors are committed by married men or men who have been married. Many of those crimes are referred to as incest. Few people would contend that the cause of these criminal and sinful acts is heterosexual orientation. Is sexual orientation a factor in those heinous actions? That’s very likely. Is it the cause? No.

In the charter adopted in Dallas in 2002, the Catholic bishops of this country promised to sponsor two extensive studies of the recent crisis, one to consider its nature and scope, the other to consider its causes and context. The former study has been completed, while the latter is underway. It seems prudent to me to wait until this study is complete before we make up our minds about the matter.

Most Rev. George Niederauer
San Francisco, California

RJN replies:

I thank Archbishop Niederauer for his letter. According to multiple news reports, many religious leaders supported the constitutional amendment. I should have written that then Bishop Niederauer declined to join religious leaders who supported the amendment. He writes that he meant to say that homosexual orientation was not the cause of the sex-abuse scandal. Of course, the italicized emphasis did not appear in his printed text. Neither was it in any way suggested in his published interview on these questions. Yes, most sex abuse is committed by heterosexuals. It would be very strange if that were not the case. Homosexuals are a small part of the population, and homosexual priests a much smaller part still. The subject of the commentary to which the archbishop objects was not sex abuse in general but sex abuse by priests. The first study commissioned by the bishops found that more than 80 percent of that abuse was with teenage boys and young men. Whatever the second study turns up, it is unlikely to claim that such abuse was not related to homosexuality. Again, we are agreed that homosexuality was not the cause. As I wrote, the scandal would not have happened without negligence, complicity, and, I would add, evasiveness on the part of bishops. True, one should not be criticized for not saying everything that might be said on a topic. In the earlier interview and in his letter, the archbishop does not state the Church’s teaching on homosexuality or offer his view of the recent instruction from Rome on homosexuality and the priesthood. It is important to keep in mind that silence, however puzzling, does not imply dissent.

Breaking the Truce

In his thoughtful essay on homosexuality and the priesthood (“The Truce of 2005?” February), Richard John Neuhaus presents the chilling possibility of a “truce” in which the magisterium would fail to enforce the directive against gays entering the seminary. The truce would be an attempt to avert schism. Father Neuhaus suggests, but does not quite say, that the problem with this sort of tiptoeing is that it’s already too late. The schism already exists, just beneath a not-so-smooth veneer of cooperation and bonhomie, in the Church community and even in diocesan curiae. There exists a sharp split between those who receive the Catholic faith as it is and those who “receive” their own revisions of the faith. One might crudely say that the division is between those who were cheered by Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as Pope Benedict XVI and those who were in mourning. At ground level, the two sides know who they are and are not in doubt as to the split between them.

As most parents and teachers would attest, teaching consists in more than offering written or spoken words: Words must be reinforced with example and action. Children are always watching to see if parents “really mean it.” The children of Mater et Magistra are watching as well. Documents, sermons, and speeches are certainly not enough. Our magisterium may finally have to realize that risking open schism may be necessary to retain even minimal credibility as teachers. If the split were in the open, at least some clouds of confusion would disperse and the splendor of truth could shine more brightly.

Joe DeVet
Houston, Texas

Richard John Neuhaus reports that the Church wants to ordain manly men.

I hope that is not a call to give favored spots in the assembly to those “beautiful people” who are already rich in the world’s esteem. I did not read Bishop D’Arcy’s comments as calling for more sermon references to golf and the Super Bowl. Holiness is needed, not some artificial manliness quotient or requirement of normalcy.

Charles Roth
Chicago, Illinois

Richard John Neuhaus’ essay points out the difficulties that the pope will encounter in implementing the instruction on homosexuality. I would suggest the onus of putting the directive into effect rests on the shoulders of the American bishops. Whereas the bishop in Rome has the task of clarifying doctrine, the good shepherd for each diocese is its own bishop.

When Athanasius was fighting Arianism in fourth-century Egypt, he did not expect Pope Sylvester to bring down that heresy: He suffered much persecution for resisting compromise on the essentials of the faith. That was his job as bishop.

In Rise, Let Us Be on Our Way, which he wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of being ordained a bishop, John Paul II said that courage is the most important quality expected of a bishop. He quoted these strong words of Cardinal Wyszynski: “Lack of courage in a bishop is the beginning of disaster. Can he still be an apostle? Witnessing to the Truth is essential for an apostle. And this always demands courage.”

Peter Dowbor
Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

In his essay on homosexuality and the priesthood, Richard John Neuhaus expresses astonishment at Bishop Niederauer’s remark that it is a mistake to regard sexual orientation as the cause of the sexual abuse scandal. Father Neuhaus supposes that because 80 percent of the cases of abuse were with teenage boys and young men that sexual orientation is a cause of the abuse.

It is the duty of all Catholics—laypeople, religious, and clergy—to control their sexual behavior and resist impulses to engage in immoral sexual behavior. There have been scandals involving sexual relationships between priests and women. In those cases, is it worthwhile to speak of the cause, or a cause, of that sort of problem as the priest’s heterosexual orientation?

I believe that when Bishop Niederauer and many others caution against thinking of homosexual orientation as the cause of sexual abuse, they are asserting that we, and the Vatican, would do better to focus less on the content of a person’s sexual fantasies and more on his or her ability to control his or her sexual desires.

Dale Wisely
Birmingham, Alabama

Traduttore, Traditore

I agree with Richard John Neuhaus that the New American Bible and its variants leave a lot to be desired (“More on Bible Babel,” January). But even if we could switch to the Revised Standard Version or the English Standard Version for our lectionary, with whom would we share these translations? Catholics in Canada were using the RSV but are now using, as long as they can, the New Revised Standard Version. Catholics in the rest of the English-speaking world use the Jerusalem Bible.

Mainline Protestants use the NRSV, while most evangelicals use the New International Version. Then there are those Protestants who still hold to the King James Version.

It seems that there will never be one common Bible shared by all Christians. Even when the King James Bible was dominant, it was never accepted by English-speaking Catholics, who stuck with the old Douay-Rheims and its later revision by Challoner.

Perhaps it’s time for all of us to come together and make a new translation of the Bible from the original languages. Until then, it’s every man for himself.

Michael Demers
Phoenix, Arizona

As a contributor to the revised New American Bible, I must respond to Richard John Neuhaus’ unfair attack. Slamming NAB for rendering Psalm 23:6, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come,” rather than “forever” with RSV or “for length of days” with Douay-Rheims, Neuhaus makes the extraordinary claim “that there is nothing in the Hebrew that requires or even suggests a change” of the traditional translation “forever.”

That claim is baseless: Israel at that stage had no belief in life after death in a modern sense. Even if some Christians later understood “eternal life” in a “fuller sense,” one cannot push later interpretations on early texts. And does the Hebraism “for length of days” convey anything in English, let alone long life?

Neuhaus criticizes the NAB for rendering Genesis 1:1-3, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,” rather than “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” on the grounds that much Christian interpretation presupposes the latter translation. But tradition should not determine biblical translation. In any case, NRSV and NJPS (the Jewish Publication Society version) translate similarly, persuaded by the related Hebrew syntax of Genesis 2:5-7, the phraseology of comparable Near Eastern cosmogonies, and the Masoretic vocalization of verse 1 that seems to allow for either translation.

Neuhaus’ annoyance spills over into what most people would consider minor matters. In Luke 15, the prodigal son should have gone to “a far country” rather than “a distant country” and have “come to himself” rather than “come to his senses.” Such egregious mistranslations, Neuhaus grandly concludes, demonstrate that the translators are “indifferent” to the great traditions of the Bible in English, the history of scriptural interpretation in the Church, and to good English usage. I doubt it.

Any scholar who works every day with original texts sees that even the best translations can falter. They do not on that account deserve to be called “mangled” or “banalized.” Translators, it should be remembered, attempt to put an imperfectly known ancient language into an ever-changing modern one.

Two of Neuhaus’ criticisms of NAB are flat-out wrong: Nowhere does NAB say, “The fear of the Lord is the first stage of wisdom.” Also, the revised NAB’s Luke 18:9 contains the word “righteousness,” not “self-righteousness.”

Neuhaus yearns for a simpler time when there were only two major English translations, both sharing a similar style: For Protestants it was the King James Version or an American version (the ASV and then, after World War II, the RSV), and for Catholics it was the Douay-Rheims (from the Vulgate). But that style of translation had already begun to erode by the 1920s with the appearance of the Moffatt and Goodspeed translations. Since then, translations—literal and free—have multiplied. The American Catholic bishops showed excellent pastoral judgment in commissioning the New American Bible. First published in 1970, then updated (New Testament in 1986 and Psalms in 1991), it will be published in a full revised version within the next two or three years. Multiple translations of the Bible are here to stay, and no amount of peevish complaints and indiscriminate personal attacks will make it otherwise.

Richard J. Clifford, S.J.
Weston Jesuit School of Theology
Cambridge, Massachusetts

RJN replies:

I am pleased that Father Clifford and I are agreed on the need to eschew peevish complaints and indiscriminate personal attacks. His statement regarding Israel’s belief in eternal life is, to say the least, disputed among scholars. Although I admit that I’m not sure what he means by “life after death in a modern sense.” As I wrote, Christian interpretation does have a legitimate bearing on translation. It is the Church’s Bible, not the Bible of the academic guild. The two examples that Fr. Clifford says do not appear in the NAB were cited from a Mass guide that employs the NAB. Perhaps this reflects one of the problems with having revisions of revisions knocking about.