During the nearly 20 years I served as staff director of the Catholic bishops’ Committee on Science and Human Values, I frequently made the case that the annual dialogues the bishops conducted with scientists were a form of evangelization. The proposition usually provoked blank stares. According to Go and Make Disciples, issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1992, evangelization has three goals: to inspire Catholics to share their faith with others; to invite all Americans to hear the message of salvation and join the church; and to foster Gospel values in society. In dialogue, the bishops certainly have shared their faith with scientists, though without any intention of making Catholics of them. They also have fostered Gospel values in discussing such science-related subjects as genetically modified foods.
From my perspective, however, the religion/science dialogue, whether it involves bishops or not, is most important for the second goal of evangelization. Dialogue helps prepare the church to invite all Americans, including Catholics, to hear the message in ways compatible with their understanding of reality, conditioned as it is by science.
Eric Fischer, a biologist formerly with the National Academy of Sciences and now at the Library of Congress, recruited dozens of scientists to take part in the dialogues sponsored by the bishops’ conference. Over the years these discussions dealt with a variety of issues: evolution, cloning, stem cell research and the relationship among brain, mind and spirit. Eric frequently mentioned how impressed the scientists were with the bishops’ receptivity. With few exceptions, the scientists, very few of whom shared our faith, began our weekend dialogues in a skeptical frame of mind, prepared to resist Catholic perspectives. By and large, they left convinced that Catholicism has something valuable to say about the issues raised by basic and applied scientific research. While few accepted the Catholic position on the moral status of the early embryo, for example, most found the church’s insistence on respecting human life at every stage serious and substantive.
Benefits of Dialogue
While lowering intellectual barriers between bishops and scientists is valid evangelization, dialogue benefits ordinary Catholics even more. Belief in science is automatic in our culture. Americans believe reflexively that science offers an accurate, if limited, account of the way things are. They can hardly doubt it. All our 21st-century technological marvelswhich will seem primitive 100 years from noware based on solid knowledge obtained by the scientific method. Many Catholics are less certain that their religion is similarly in touch with reality. Dialogue between religion and science can help assuage their doubts, clearing away obstacles to a vital faith. It can also make that faith more reasonable for those who may be considering joining the church.
For most Catholics, admittedly, religion is largely a matter of the heart. It consists in relationships: vertical ones with the Father, Jesus, Mary, the angels and saints; horizontal ones with fellow creatures. Parish life, the ordinary practice of faith, is equally relational: chatting after Sunday Mass, collaborating on meetings and ministries, gathering comfortably around the Eucharist. For them, doctrine may be little more than background, requiring scant conscious attention. Affective Catholics may feel instinctively that God is love is a sufficient basis for belief and motivation for behavior. One achieves holiness by observing the two greatest commandments and living the Beatitudes, worshiping, observing church law and ritual, doing good, living virtuously. However sinful one may be, there is always the chance, through repentance, of returning warmly to grace.
That religious sensibility is not sufficient for Catholics or others who seek a faith that makes sense. They are not attracted by a rational Deism, devoid of Revelation, devoid of tradition, devoid of feeling, devoid both of divinity and humanity. And they are generally horrified by literalism, recognizing the role that sacrament, symbol and metaphor play in conveying religious truth. These people would probably agree, for example, that it is relatively unimportant whether Jesus actually walked on water, but they want coherence. They need a creed that does not seem to contradict what they believe to be true on nonreligious grounds.
Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., captures the point nicely. Since the Council of Orange in the 6th century, he writes, the Church has consistently taught that even the first beginnings of faith depend on the working of the Holy Spirit. But the Councils of the Church assure us that even so, faith is not a blind leap into the dark but an act fully consonant with reason (First Things, May 2004). The wisdom gained from dialogue between religion and science helps make that leap of faith as confident as possible. It enables thoughtful believers to inhabit an integrated intellectual universe.
Brain, Mind, Spirit
Often enough, however, the lack of connection between the ordinary Catholic account of reality and the scientific account is quite glaring. The topic of the committee’s dialogue in February 2001, held at Notre Dame University, was Brain, Mind, Spirit. It explored the mechanism and meaning of consciousness, bringing the research of neuroscientists into contact with the reflections of philosophers, theologians and church leaders. As a result of two days’ discussion, the group agreed that every act of human consciousness has a neuronal correlate, a material substrate. This raised questions about how the soul as a spiritual entity is capable of existing apart from matter. And how, if every act of human consciousness has a material substrate, can people be said to be conscious after death?
Moreover, the Last Judgment at the end of time may occur millions or billions of years after my death, and by then the atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and other elements that made up my particular brain may have been recycled through many other human bodies (or through rocks or volcanic gases or the flowers on another planet, for that matter). How can my brain be reassembled without rendering these subsequent physical structures impossible? On the face of it, these observations challenge the body-soul duality that underlies much popular Catholic piety.
Of course, a discrepancy between ordinary Catholic thinking and what science holds does not invalidate any official teaching. It creates the need for a satisfactory reconciliation. As the theologians at the Notre Dame dialogue pointed out, life after death and the Last Judgment are both creedal, and the believer cannot discard them. But he or she can ask, if the conclusions of modern science are plausible, how these creedal positions are to be understood and formulated. Some theologians suggest, for example, that early Christian language, which speaks of resurrection, is better able to accommodate the contemporary scientific consensus than traditional theses about the immortality of the soul that have been derived from natural philosophy. They would also point out that the resurrection of the glorified body does not require continuity with the physical body. Likewise, traditional theology would emphasize the incommensurability of time and eternity, with human afterlife pertaining to eternity, not to the indefinite extension of finite history.
Contemporary culture wars have made evolution, the subject of the committee’s dialogues in September 2001 and 2002, one of the hottest battlegrounds between science and religion. Recent church pronouncements have cooled the controversy, for Catholics at least. Pope John Paul II acknowledged in his well-known statement to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 that evolutionary theory is as well supported as any general scientific description of nature: Today, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical [Humani Generis, 1950], new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.
In September 2004, the International Theological Commission issued a document, Communion and Stewardship, devoted to explicating the notion of the human being as imago Dei. The commission quotes the papal statement with approval and offers what seems a fair summation of the current scientific consensus: Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism [the first microscopic life, 3.5-4 billion years ago]. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on Earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution (No. 63).
Naturally, the commission rejects any account that denies God’s role in designing, creating and sustaining the universe, thus excluding the materialism that writers like Richard Dawkins intimately link with evolution. It also argues for special divine intervention in the creation of the first human beings, interestingly identifying this event not with the appearance of the genus Homo 2.5 million years ago but with the emergence of Homo sapiens in a hominid population of common genetic lineage 150,000 years ago. This implies that humanity did not arise directly from apes, as popularly believed, but from an existing hominid species. The commission suggests that the development of our large brain and the expansion of its powers (self-consciousness, intentionality, etc.) made the defining difference.
In any case, Communion and Stewardship properly recognizes evolutionary theory as firmly grounded in fact. Evolution is at base a massive set of empirical observations about natural objects and their relationships. In itself, the theory does not necessarily support any philosophical or theological generalizations. Arguments that evolution disproves God’s existence or humanity’s spiritual dimension are simply wrongheaded. Debating the implications of evolutionary theory, as the commission does with regard to human origins, is a healthy exercise in aligning science and religion, however the discussion turns out. By contrast, denying that humans evolved seems by this point a waste of energy.
Even though the official church sees little danger in evolution, our educational leadership has been very slow to correct the anti-evolution biases that Catholics pick up from prominent elements in contemporary culture. Homilies and religious education materials, for example, routinely describe Adam and Eve as if they were an essentially modern couple, and the Garden of Eden as a real paradise, even though it is reasonable to suppose that the first humans, whatever their stature in the eyes of God, looked and lived like other hominids of their time. While the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church with regard to Adam and Eve is careful (see Nos. 375 and 390), it is nevertheless open to literalist interpretation: The account of the Fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man (emphasis in original).
The Genesis stories are wonderfully concrete ways of expressing deeper truths, like humanity’s origin in divine intent, our relationship to God, our inherent moral instability, our responsibility to behave ethically and our integration with the natural world. But they are stories, after all. As has been argued for centuries, it is wise to encourage an understanding of Scripture consistent with what we know (or think we know) in the 21st century. Otherwise, Catholicism may begin to seem less and less realistic to more and more thoughtful people. That dynamic is a far greater obstacle to religious assent than evolution.
Illuminating the Ambiguity of Progress
The religion-science dialogue has a whole other dimension not explored here. It can serve to shine the light of faith on the moral dilemmas that scientific advance poses. Over the years, the bishops’ dialogue group discussed cloning, stem cell research, bioengineered foods, genetic testing and genetic screening. These conversations yielded practical conclusions that were always interesting and sometimes wise. They were also responsive to the third goal of evangelization, to foster Gospel values in society.
For me, though, the dialogues’ greatest value lies not in solving particular ethical puzzles, important as that may be. An ongoing engagement with science helps the church present its venerable creed in a form that justly challenges the modern Western mind. Doing so might not make much difference to people whose faith is grounded in sentiment or even in purity of heart. It is critical evangelization, however, for fides quaerens intellectum.