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Dominicans reconcile evolution with Catholic faith

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Dominicans at ThomisticEvolution.org reconcile evolution with Catholic faith

BY C.S. MORRISSEY

St. Thomas Aquinas, as painted by Carlo Crivelli (c.1435-c.1495) as part of the Demidoff Altarpiece intended for the Church of San Domenico in Ascoli Piceno in Italy (currently housed at the National Gallery in London), is centered within the Circle of Life, a depiction of the evolutionary phylogenetic tree based on the ribosomal RNA of 3,000 living species, first drawn this way by biologist David Hillis at the University of Texas in Austin. (Photo: ThomisticEvolution.org)St. Thomas Aquinas, as painted by Carlo Crivelli (c.1435-c.1495) as part of the Demidoff Altarpiece intended for the Church of San Domenico in Ascoli Piceno in Italy (currently housed at the National Gallery in London), is centered within the Circle of Life, a depiction of the evolutionary phylogenetic tree based on the ribosomal RNA of 3,000 living species, first drawn this way by biologist David Hillis at the University of Texas in Austin. (Photo: ThomisticEvolution.org)

A fanatical fear of evolution and a cultural bias against science were two things lamented by an ecumenical gathering of Christian scholars at the “Creatures of God” one-day symposium in Toronto, Ontario at Wycliffe College on January 23.

This fascinating symposium was co-sponsored by the BioLogos Foundation. Another admirable recent feat of BioLogos was to help four brilliant Dominicans build one of the most helpful science and religion Web sites I have ever seen: ThomisticEvolution.org.

ThomisticEvolution.org, “Thomistic Evolution: A Catholic Approach to Understanding Evolution in the Light of Faith,” is the work of Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., Fr. James Brent, O.P., Bro. Thomas Davenport, O.P., and Fr. John Baptist Ku, O.P. At this resource, they are developing a series of parish bulletin inserts with answers to “Disputed Questions.”

While these Dominicans were not speakers at the Toronto symposium, other similarly stellar Catholic thinkers were included among the impressive group of academics and pastors gathered there. Rather than the focused Thomistic approach that is the special charism of the Dominicans, the symposium instead fostered ecumenical Catholic and Evangelical dialogue towards a Christian theological anthropology informed by evolutionary science.

Conservative evangelicalism, many participants noted, tended to be the most anti-evolution and to wrongheadedly make denial of evolution a litmus test of faith and of confidence in Scripture. A panel discussing, “How should theologians and pastors speak about evolution and human nature?” included Shiao Chong, a Christian Reformed Chaplain at York University, who related his experiences dealing with students from an anti-evolution background. Chong described how there are many tensions, anxieties, fears, and even much outright animosity to deal with in such students.

These days even a few Catholic voices are bent on imitating the worst trends in Evangelical thought when it comes to the evolution issue. While feigning innovative reasonableness, they in fact skew science and faith with a divisive, ideological approach. They insist on reading Scripture in a confrontationally literal fashion, in the same way favored by the evolution-denying creationists and “Intelligent Design” (ID) proponents found mostly in Protestantism.

Wherever it comes from, such misguided discourse poisons student minds because it turns them against real science. As Fr. Nicanor Austriaco likes to observe, the explanatory framework of the theory of evolution is to modern biology what the doctrine of the Trinity is to Christian theology: i.e., one simply cannot rationally practice the discipline without adopting it.

Thankfully, Dominicans like Father Nic and his confreres offer a salutary antidote to the science-denying discourse. I share their heartfelt conviction that Thomistic thought is one of our very best resources to show students how to embrace all of God’s truth.

Father Nic has an insightful analysis of “Intelligent Design” on the ThomisticEvolution.org site. Like other critics of ID’s dubious notion of “irreducible complexity” (the alleged evidence of an “intelligent designer”), Father Nic points out how ID’s half-baked science embroils it in a half-baked theology as well. He uses a great example in his “Thomistic Response to the Intelligent Design Proposal”: namely, “the molecular machine used by the HIV virus to infect a human cell,” which happens to fit ID’s definition of “irreducible complexity.” 

Because the evidence points to the fact that “HIV first appeared in the 1930s in East Africa,” Father Nic is able to reduce the entire ID proposal to absurdity with his devastating question: “Did the designer creatively introduce the genes for CD4 and CCR5 in the human species in the distant past in anticipation of his introducing the genes for gp120 and gp41 in the HIV viral species in 1930?”

Obviously, the whole ID scheme is bizarre and unworkable, scientifically and theologically, since in both fields it creates more problems than it purports to solve, as the HIV example highlights. What kind of God is the ID God, who deliberately removes chance to craft irreducibly complex molecular mechanisms to kill people?

The ThomisticEvolution.org Web site proposes instead that we understand evolution by using St. Thomas Aquinas, whose “answers transcend and reconcile the dichotomies – for instance, the oft-cited dichotomy between chance and design – that shape the contemporary science and religion debate.” It affirms instead with Aquinas, “God designs with chance! Unfortunately, the Thomistic responses to these disputed questions in science and religion are neither well known nor well understood.”

As Father Nic writes, “from the Thomistic perspective, the ID proposal is a misguided distraction. ID proponents claim that irreducible complexity is a sign for intelligent design. It is a sign of God’s creative hand.” But by opposing design to chance, ID advocates are exactly “like their counterparts pushing an atheist and a naturalist account of the world”; that is, “they mistakenly assume that God works in His creation primarily by pushing and pulling atoms and molecules like a force, generally, and by assembling and disassembling living systems, more specifically.”

“This god of ID is a small and puny god!” Father Nic emphasizes. Instead, as Aquinas allows us to appreciate, thanks to his classical account of double agency (divine and natural), “the Creator God revealed in the Sacred Scriptures creates through evolution primarily by giving existence to His creatures as individual members of a natural kind with specific capacities directed to a final end.”

“Existence and not irreducible complexity is the sign par excellence for God’s work!” insists Father Nic. “That these molecular machines even exist with their capacities directed towards a final end: This is the sure sign that they were created by an intelligent Designer.”

C.S. Morrissey is an associate professor of philosophy at Redeemer Pacific College. This semester he is teaching an upper-level philosophy course on “The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.”

Last Updated on Saturday, 31 January 2015 23:39  

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