The fundamentalists are yelping with glee over Cardinal Schönborn’s July 7 New York Times Op-Ed piece, in which he writes:
“The Catholic Church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things. Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.”
I welcome this statement. Biological science may get by with the categories of “chance and necessity” (Monod) and see the universe as a blindly produced purely accidental formation. But to assert that these categories exhaustively account for the splendour of creation is a stance of reductive materialism comparable to that which would reduce human thought, feeling, ethics and religion to some motion of brain cells. The scientistic mentality is not only blind to religion, it suffers from what Heidegger diagnosed as blindness to Being.
The Church may have wrong-footed itself in its earlier reactions to evolutionary thinking, in Humani Generis and the monitum directed at Teilhard de Chardin. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church in its rather literalistic approach to original sin and to eschatology is based on a rejection of evolutionary insight. Christian apologists such as Keith Ward often resort to a “God of the gaps” thinking whereby various thresholds or leaps in the evolutionary process are identified and are declared to be inconceivable, inexplicable without the active intervention of God.
The challenge of evolution cannot be met in this way. Rather, we must cultivate a metaphysical vision, which recognizes the irreducibility of the transcendental realities which emerge in the evolved universe -- the realities of cosmic order, intelligibility, creative abundance, beauty, goodness, truth, and the givenness of being itself. Listen to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, nourished by the springs of cosmic order and creativity, sustained on that abundance as on a mighty flood, and you will hear the Christian response to the cosmos, the recognition of purpose and design and the active collaboration in that design. This issues in a hymn of praise.
There is a tension between this vision and the details of cosmic evolution, which are not always edifying, and which betray no obvious divine fingerprints. The metaphysical vision is not one in which we can complacently rest. It is challenged by many surds, which writers such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett put challengingly before us. Yet the total picture is one of mighty advances from threshold to threshold, testifying to a force of creation that the machinery of natural selection does not account for.
Schools must present the scientific picture, but they should also indicate the possibilities of metaphysical reflection based on intellectual, ethical, aesthetic and religious receptivity to the depth dimension of the phenomena that lie before us. Theories of “intelligent design” intended to thwart science on its own terrain succeed only in bringing this metaphysical vision into discredit, much as fundamentalist literalism in regard to the resurrection narratives casts discredit on the apostolic witness to the resurrection as eschatological event. The frenzy about orthodoxy and the panic about perceived threats to the faith gets in the way of the cultivation of the broad vision that is required today.