Pope Benedict’s evolution book finally comes out in English
An English translation of Pope Benedict’s 2006 discussion of evolution with his former students has finally come out and I recommend it to anyone who’s confused about where the Roman Catholic Church stands on this issue. It’s called Creation and Evolution and is publised by Ignatius Press in the U.S. The discussion was held in German and the original text, Schöpfung und Evolution, appeared in April 2007.
I mention the confusion about this issue because a 2005 New York Times op-ed piece by Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn prompted supporters of “intelligent design” (ID) to think the Church was embracing their argument. He denied that to me in an interview a few months later. So when it became known that Benedict would discuss evolution with his former doctoral students — his so-called Schülerkreis — at Castel Gandolfo in September 2006, there was considerable interest in what he would say.
The German publisher, Sankt Ulrich Verlag in Augsburg, sent me a PDF version of the book in German under embargo, so I wrote a news story the day it appeared. In the book, Benedict said science was too narrow to explain creation, which was not random as Darwinists insist, but has a rationality that goes back to God. He argued this on philosophical and theological grounds, not on the faith arguments that creationists use (“the Bible says so”) or the biology-based examples that ID prefers to argue that some life forms are too complex to have evolved.
This is classic Catholic teaching and it’s called theistic evolution. Benedict is not alone in advocating it either — it is accepted by most mainline Protestant churches as well. Francis Collins, the U.S. geneticist who will soon step down as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, advocated this view in his 2006 book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Sam Harris, the best-selling neo-atheist author of The End of Faith, predictably trashed it in a scathing review. But it did have a seven-week run on the New York Times bestseller list, which must mean it speaks to quite a few people.
My news story prompted one of the oddest reviews I’ve ever had to anything I’ve ever written. The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, the leading advocate of the intelligent design view, put the headline “Pap about the Pope” on its post and claimed the seminar entitled “Creation and Evolution” was actually about philosophy (despite all the scientists who spoke there). Their reviewer, Jay Richards, started off his comment on the report by announcing “I suspect there’s a translation problem here.” He then noted that Benedict had challenged scientism and called for a broader concept of reason than the strictly empirical view science uses. “That’s easy for classically informed philosophers to understand,” he wrote. “But you can be sure that exactly 0% of reporters and 1% of readers will understand that. What every reporter will take away is that all this talk about God, purpose, and design are private, since in modern parlance, only ‘science’ constitutes public knowledge.”
Hmmm… First, he claims to find translation problems even though he hasn’t seen the original and may not even understand it. Then he writes off all reporters and almost all readers as dimwits who can’t understand what he can. He then proceeds to twist the argument around so fully that he ends up saying the takeaway from all this is that the debate belongs to some realm “along with fairies and the Easter bunny.”
This intrigued me so much that I emailed him to ask for chapter and verse on where the mistranslations could be found and which improved translations he would suggest. Of course, he had none because he hadn’t read the book. I’m not sure he could even read the book, but that didn’t stop him from telling his readers he suspected some mistranslations. When challenged, he launched into an elaborate deconstruction of the word “translate” that basically concluded that a mere reporter could not explain Benedict’s views to an average reader. In the end, it was clear the purpose of the exercise was to cast as much doubt as possible on a report he didn’t agree with. In other words, shoot the messenger.
This theistic evolution view clearly rattles the ID camp. One of its main supporters, William Dembski, fired off a broadside last week in a post entitled Theistic Evolutionists Close Ranks — Let the Bloodletting Begin! Unlike Richards, Dembski didn’t mince words: “So here’s the deal, everyone. Theistic evolutionists are implacably opposed to ID … They are happy to jump in bed with Richard Dawkins if it means defeating ID. They are on the wrong side of the culture war. And they need to be defeated.” Science and Religion, a blog that widens the debate by also looking at the Islamic world, commented: “William Dembski has gone ballistic.”
Dembski at least writes clearly here, you have to say that. But I wonder about his conclusions too. If theistic evolutionists are as he says, that means that Pope Benedict would be ready to join forces with the man who wrote the bestseller pictured at left. This is as curious a conclusion as the one Richards drew. Creation and Evolution is now out — and in a fine translation by Michael J. Miller that improves the style but does not contradict the content of my quotes — so English speakers can now read it and judge for themselves.