FaithWorld

Vatican sees “urgent” need to review Darwin and evolution

Darwin dolls for sale at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, 15 Nov 2005/Shannon StapletonThe Vatican famously “thinks in centuries”. It’s useful to remember that when reading the announcement from its Pontifical Council for Culture about a conference it plans to hold in Rome on Darwin and evolution. Pope Benedict has shown a keen interest in the issue and debated it in a closed session with some former doctoral students in 2006. The Vatican now wants to hold a week-long public conference next March entitled “Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories — A Critical Evaluation 150 years after the The Origin of Species“.

The announcement (translated from the original and more florid Italian) said: “150 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is difficult to find a scientific sphere entirely free from direct or indirect influences of the theory of evolution. Especially in recent decades, this theory has experienced so many changes, and such significant changes, that a critical reflection is very urgent. Moreover, there are obvious philosophical and theological problems raised by the theory of evolution that cause many emotional and even ideological reactions.”

STOQ logoThe conference from March 3 to 7 will be organised by the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and the University of Notre Dame in the United States, as part of a wider project called STOQ (Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest). It will be attended, the announcement declared with a flourish, by “luminaries of science and famous philosophers and theologians”.

Some defenders of “intelligent design” might try to claim that this signals a Vatican rethink on evolution. Caveat emptor! After initially fighting Darwin, the Roman Catholic Church accepted evolution as a scientific theory while rejecting any materialist conclusion Darwinists might draw from it to reject the religious belief in God as the creator of the Hans Kueng’s Der Anfang aller Dingeuniverse. This puts Catholic teaching somewhere between the (often agnostic) Darwinists and the (often evangelical Protestant) anti-Darwinists.

Before concluding that the Vatican is shifting position, consider an interesting fact. The liberal Swiss theologian Hans Küng disagrees with some Church doctrines so much that he has been barred from teaching as a Catholic theologian since 1979. But he and Benedict agree on this issue (as he showed in his 2006 book Der Anfang aller Dinge — The Beginning of All Things — pictured right). In fact, as Küng told me after his meeting with Benedict in 2005, the pope urged him to speak out more frequently in public about the Catholic position on evolution.

What’s said and unsaid in French pre-visit pope cover

Le Canard enchaîné front page, 10 Sept 2008France wouldn’t be France if it didn’t satirise the high and mighty — especially when the target is none other than head of the Roman Catholic Church which once held so much power here.canard-headline-2.gif

With Pope Benedict due to arrive on Friday for his first official visit, the French satirical press is having a field day poking fun at him, Catholics, Church doctrine and anything else to do with religion. Being militantly anti-Catholic is a badge of honour for a certain type of secularist French intellectual, so this week’s editions of their favourite journals were bound to zero in on Benedict. But there’s an interesting twist…

Le Canard enchaîné (picture above), a weekly that mixes satire and investigative journalism, something like Private Eye in Britain, leads its front page with a spoof story claiming Benedict (Benoît XVI in French) has been listed in a controversial classified police registry dubbed Edvige. Pretty tame stuff. Its main scoop — the Canard is a must-read for Parisian political gossip — is the claim that President Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to attend just about every important event during Benedict’s stay in France. Like many other anonymously sourced Canard scoops, this may or may not be true. Sounds likely, though…

1.5 million euro bill for 24 papal hours in Paris

Altar for papal Mass being built outside Les Invalides, 9 Sept 2008/Tom HeneghanOne and a half million euros ($2.1 million) for 24 hours in Paris? No, we’re not talking about some luxury visit, but the stopover that Pope Benedict will make on Friday and Saturday on his way to the shrine at Lourdes. The pontiff apparently did not even plan to visit the capital on his first trip to France, meant to mark the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary there. But the city’s archbishop, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, argued for a stop in the City of Light and Benedict agreed.

The Archdiocese of Paris has offered an interesting peek into the costs of a papal visit as part of a public appeal it made to Catholics to help foot the bill. The archdiocese expects to cover all costs without having to dip into its own funds. At a media briefing on Monday, it presented pie-charts (which the French call “camemberts”) breaking down projected expenditure and income. The costs for security, which must be considerable, are assumed by the state and not included in these totals.

On the cost side, the largest chunk of the 1.5 million euro budget — 52% — will go for 15 giant screens that will be set up along the left bank of the River Seine on Friday to show live broadcasts of the pope’s activities during the day. They will then be switched to the Espalanade des Invalides, a spacious green in western Paris, to transmit his Mass to the crowd of 200,000 expected there on Saturday morning.

Low-key “first” as cardinal attends Paris iftar dinner

Cardinal André Vingt-Trois and Rector Dalal Boubakeur, 3 Sept 2008/Tom HeneghanSome “firsts” take place amid crowds and television cameras, others happen more quietly. The Grand Mosque of Paris chose the low-key approach when it received Cardinal André Vingt-Trois on Wednesday evening for an iftar dinner. It was the first that a Roman Catholic archbishop of the French capital had visited its leading mosque for the traditional meal breaking the Ramadan fast. After a short prayer by an imam and introductory remarks, they sat down to an North African-style dinner of spicy chorba (soup), chicken and olives and dessert of honey pastries and mint tea.

France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, about five million, and interfaith contacts often depend on the personalities involved, especially at the local level. Pope Benedict will meet a delegation of French Muslims — some national leaders such as the cardinal’s host, Paris Grand Mosque Rector Dalil Boubakeur, and some local leaders active in Christian-Muslim dialogue — when he visits Paris next week.

Grand Mosque of Paris courtyard, 3 May 2008/Tom HeneghanBoubakeur thanked Vingt-Trois for the support the Church had given its “immigrant brothers” over the years, especially help to integrate young Muslims. In one such project, the Catholic Institute of Paris offers courses on French politics, law and secularism for future imams studying Islamic theology at the Grand Mosque.

Pope’s students to launch Ratzinger Foundation in Munich

The sun rises over Munich’s cathedral, 9 Feb 2008/Alexandra BeierThe Ratzinger Schülerkreis, the group of Pope Benedict’s former theology students, plans to launch a foundation bearing his name this November in Munich. The group, which held its annual meeting with its former teacher at Castel Gandolfo last weekend, aims to promote theological studies “in the spirit of Joseph Ratzinger”. Reflecting the international character of the Schülerkreis, the Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI foundation has a board of trustees with former students from Germany, Portugal, Ireland, Benin and the United States.

The Schülerkreis itself, which has been meeting for 30 years, is slowly taking on a more organised feel. For years, the closed-door meetings of several dozen former students and their professor went on below the radar screen of the outside world. That changed, though, when Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict and the meetings were switched to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. There was still no media access, but diligent telephoning to participants yielded a rundown of the discussions. The 2006 discussion on creation was considered so interesting that the Schülerkreis decided to publish the proceedings the following year in a book Creation and Evolution.

Now they’ve even started issuing press releases after their talks. Rev. Vincent Twomey, an Irish Schüler who has written Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age, was the author and he’s sent me the text. Since we didn’t cover the meeting this year for the wire, here’s the press release:

Paris archdiocese restores medieval college as faith forum

Main hall of the College des Bernardins in Paris, 1 Sept 2008/Charles PlatiauOne of the largest medieval buildings in Paris reopens this week as a forum for discussion about faith in the modern world after more than two centuries being used mostly as a fire station and police training centre. The Collège des Bernardins was founded in 1247 by the English Cistercian monk Stephen of Lexington as a residential college for the order’s monks. After the French Revolution, it was taken over by the city.

The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Paris bought the building and spent five years renovating it to house its theology school and host debates, conferences, art exhibitions and evenings of film and music. Its first major event will be a speech on faith and culture by Pope Benedict, who will address an audience of 700 personalities from the world of French culture on the first day of his Sept. 12-15 visit to France.

The college, whose name comes from its original designation as St. Bernard’s College, stands on the Left Bank just off the Boulevard Saint Germain. The five-year restoration highlighted the building’s simple Gothic architecture while adding modern comforts such as heating, air conditioning and WiFi (see video). The college aims “to serve mankind in all its dimensions — its emotions, its intelligence, its liberty, its relations and its faith”.

Christians flee, leaders deplore religious violence in India

Car burns in church compound in Kandhamal district of Orissa, 26 August 2008/Stringer IndiaRaphael Cheenath, the Roman Catholic archbishop in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, calls the religious violence there “ethnic cleansing of Christians.” Pope Benedict, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Italian government have all called for an end to the killings in the eastern state. The death toll is now 13 and possibly up to 10,000 people — mostly Christians — have sought shelter in makeshift refugee camps. More than a dozen churches have been burned. Catholic schools across India closed in protest on Friday. Local officials say the week-long violence may be waning, but this remains to be seen.

The criticism from outside the state hinted the critics believed authorities in the state had not done enough to halt the violence. No names are named, but anyone who knows Indian politics can connect the dots. The violence by Hindu mobs broke out after a Hindu leader in Orissa, Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, was killed. The state is run by a coalition which includes the main Hindu nationalist opposition party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), so suspicions immediately fall on a party that has also been already accused of turning a blind eye to the deaths of about 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. The BJP’s Lal Krishna Advani, head of the opposition in the Indian parliament, has said Maoists were suspected of the killings.

Fire at Christian orphanage in Bargah, Orissa state, 26 August 2008/Reuters TVAs our correspondent Jatindra Dash in the Orissa state capital Bhubaneswar wrote: Most of India’s billion-plus citizens are Hindu and about 2.5 percent are Christians. In the Kandhamal area, more than 20 percent of the 650,000 people are mainly tribal inhabitants who converted to Christianity. Religious violence has troubled the tribal regions of Orissa for years, with Hindus and Christians fighting over conversions. While Hindu groups accuse Christian priests of bribing poor tribes and low-caste Hindus to change their faith, the Christians say lower-caste Hindus convert willingly to escape a complex Hindu caste system.

Pelosi’s abortion comments provoke Catholic criticism

Catholic leaders in Colorado and elsewhere have been swift to react to comments by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the Church itself had long debated when human life begins.

Nancy Pelosi kisses Pope Benedict’s ring in Washington as President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice look on, 16 April 2008//Larry Downing“… I would say that as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition … St. Augustine said at three months. We don’t know. The point is, is that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose,” said Pelosi, seen at left kissing Pope Benedict’s ring during his visit to Washington in April.

In Denver, the venue for this week’s Democratic party national convention due to annoint Barack Obama as its presidential nominee on Thursday, Archbishop Charles Chaput and his Auxiliary Bishop James Conley said in a statement on Monday that Catholic teaching on the subject was unequivocal — abortion is gravely evil — and that “Catholics who make excuses for it … fool only themselves.” Similar comments came from Washington D.C. Archbishop Donald Wuerl.

Does McCain see real faith factor in Russia-Georgia conflict?

Russian tank rolls through Georgian region of South Ossetia, 10 August 2008/Vasily FedosenkoRecognising when religion plays a part in a military conflict can be a tricky business. Its role can easily be overemphasized, underplayed or misunderstood. Having covered several such conflicts myself, I was curious when I saw Ted Olsen’s post at Christianty Today about how John McCain stresses Georgia’s Christian heritage when talking about its conflict with Russia. When Russian forces rolled into Georgia in support of pro-Moscow separatists there,  McCain’s reaction statement noted that Georgia was “one of the world’s first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion.” In his televised discussion with leading evangelical pastor Rick Warren on Saturday, he said “the king of then Georgia in the third century converted to Christianity. You go to Georgia and you see these old churches that go back to the fourth and fifth century.”

John McCain and Rick Warren, 17 August 2008/Mark AveryHistory is fascinating but McCain’s use of it here begs the question whether there is an actual faith factor in this conflict or just in his presentation of it. Russia, after all, is also a traditionally Christian nation, but he made no mention of that. After the fall of communism there, the Russian Orthodox Church has resumed its traditional role there — as has the Georgian Orthodox Church in the Caucasian republic after state-sponsored atheism lost out there too. There are no obvious doctrinal disputes that divide them.

Church-to-church relations also seem reasonable. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, senior officials of the two churches spoke by telephone last week and “declared their common peacemaking position and readiness to cooperate in this field.” Patriarchs of both churches have called for a ceasefire and condemned the violence among fellow Christians. “Orthodox Christians are among those who have raised their hands against each other. Orthodox peoples called by the Lord to live in fraternity and love confront each other,” Russia’s Primate Alexiy II said. “What is most important (is that) we (are) united with Christian faith and must live peacefully without blood,” Georgian Catholicos Patriarch Ilia II said.

“Something in the air” in Christian-Muslim dialogue

Yale Divinity School chapel, 25 July 2008/Tom HeneghanMeetings of theologians don’t usually make news. But trends can make news. A series of meetings can start to show some direction the participants’ thinking is going in. If it’s a new direction, and one with potentially positive results, then we journalists on the Godbeat take notice.

The “Common Word” conference now underway at Yale Divinity School in the United States is at the heart of a trend towards increasingly frequent and detailed discussions among Christian and Muslim scholars and leaders. This trend is a reaction to September 11 and other Islamist attacks in Western countries. To our 24/7 news culture, this sounds like a very slow-fused reaction indeed, but changing attitudes and building trust takes time.

Just about every conference participant I’ve spoken to has stressed that work towards greater understanding between Christians and Muslims was now moving ahead on several fronts. “There’s definitely something in the air,” remarked Miroslav Volf, a Protestant theologian who runs the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. As University of Cambridge theologian David Ford put it, “People were almost waiting for an initiative around which they could gather and which generally gave some way forward for Muslim-Christian engagement. Many initiatives were on the Christian side before but this was a Muslim initiative. It’s had the desired effect.”