Media misses memo: Church not fundamentalist
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
Catholicism is not a fundamentalism. But the media coverage of Pope Francis seems confused about that fact.
St. Thomas Aquinas, writing in the thirteenth century, said we should not confuse “something to be held on faith” with what is “scientifically knowable.” When we confuse the two, we end up putting forth “uncompelling arguments that would present non-believers with an occasion for ridiculing us,” said Aquinas.
Aquinas was memorializing what St. Augustine had already written in the fifth century about scientific knowledge: “we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.”
Apparently, Pope Francis got the memo.
“God is not a demiurge or a magician,” said Pope Francis recently, with his characteristic flair, as he commented on Genesis. The media reported his embrace of evolution as if it were a break with his papal predecessors. But it was another bungled story because Benedict XVI also got the Aquinas memo.
Like Francis, Benedict is no fundamentalist. It didn’t make headlines, but Benedict XVI said in Paris in 2008, “the Catechism of the Catholic Church can rightly say that Christianity does not simply represent a religion of the book … the Bible issues a constantly new challenge to every generation. It excludes by its nature everything that today is known as fundamentalism. In effect, the word of God can never simply be equated with the letter of the text.”
Imagine if Pope Francis said this. The media would go bananas. They’d report it like he was repudiating centuries of Catholic teaching.
That’s because the media didn’t get the Aquinas memo. Why else would they react as they did when Francis spoke about Genesis?
You know what the funniest part of the story was? Sure, it was yet another feeble media attempt to oppose Francis to Benedict. But most outlets failed to appreciate Pope Francis’ remarks were addressed to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences… on the occasion of the inauguration of a bust in honor of Pope Benedict XVI!
In homage, Francis was beautifully echoing Benedict. Francis was explaining why there is no need to read Genesis literally, whenever a literal reading would contradict what is scientifically knowable: “When we read the account of Creation in Genesis we risk imagining that God was a magician, complete with an all powerful magic wand. But that was not so.”
Francis continued, in a Thomistic vein: “He created beings and he let them develop according to the internal laws with which He endowed each one, that they might develop, and reach their fullness. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time in which He assured them of his continual presence, giving life to every reality. And thus Creation has been progressing for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia, until becoming as we know it today, precisely because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives life to all beings.”
Then Francis reprised themes familiar to any reader of Benedict: “The beginning of the world was not a work of chaos that owes its origin to another, but derives directly from a supreme Principle who creates out of love. The Big Bang theory, which is proposed today as the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of a divine creator but depends on it. Evolution in nature does not conflict with the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings who evolve.”
In recent decades, science has made extraordinary progress in understanding the dynamic reality of our evolutionary universe. That’s why Pope St. John Paul II, for example, was moved to deliver his “Message on Evolution” of 1996, saying “new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence”.
The Pope Saint was using the word “theory” technically, in the same way as scientists like Kenneth R. Miller. (Miller is an award-winning Catholic professor of biology, who has written a famous Biology textbook and several excellent books on God and evolution, such as Finding Darwin’s God.)
As Miller says: “evolution is very much a theory, because scientific theories are used to explain facts. Scientific theories are not hunches or guesses, they’re explanations built upon facts and consistent with facts.”
The fundamentalist mindset, however, willfully denies evolution. Insisting on excessively literal readings of Scripture, it devises feeble substitutes for evolutionary science, like “Intelligent Design” (which posits a God acting like “a demiurge or a magician”).
Strangely, the fundamentalist mindset is stuck on one question: “if God actually created human bodies through a macro-evolutionary process, why did He inspire the writing of an ancient creation story that clearly implies just the opposite?”
No doubt God did so for the same reason he inspired the writing of scriptural passages that clearly imply the sun moves around a stationary earth.
“God’s revelation to us is culturally embedded,” writes Ted Davis, Distinguished Professor of the History of Science. God’s word is “accommodated to the ordinary understanding of the time in which it was written.” That’s why “God sometimes used ‘incorrect’ prescientific ideas about nature as vehicles for revealing profound theological truth.”
There’s no need to pit theological truths against scientific knowledge. That’s hazardous interpretation.
Just ask Galileo.
The earth moves, even if fundamentalists never budge.
C.S. Morrissey is an associate professor of philosophy at Redeemer Pacific College.