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Catholic-evangelical ties not affected by papal statement

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The pope's words on evolution are likely to be accepted without much comment by U.S. evangelicals, who have increasingly found common cause with Catholics, according to two veteran evangelical writers.

David Neff, executive editor of Christianity Today, published in Carol Stream, Ill., and J.I. Packer, professor of theology at Regent College, Victoria, British Columbia, said John Paul's statement that evolution is "more than just a theory" would come as no surprise to evangelicals who are familiar with Catholic thought.

While many evangelicals have problems with Darwinian theory, he said, that doesn't mean that all share a fundamentalist interpretation of scripture that omits the possibility of theistic evolution.

Similarly, Charles Colson of Washington, founder of Prison Fellowship and an original signer of the 1994 "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" statement, said he doesn't believe the pope's comments will adversely affect the work that the two groups are doing together.

"Evangelicals are a kind of spectrum," said Packer. "There's a left wing and a right wing." Those on the right, he said, "cannot contemplate evolution as God's method of producing human bodies. They believe, I think mistakenly, that Genesis 1 makes statements that rule that out."

However, Packer said, such people "have no interest in the kind of building of cooperative platform that the "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" statement was attempting."

Among evangelicals on the left, Packer said, the attitude is likely to be one of welcome for the reasonableness of the pope's position and the feeling that this doesn't change anything, because Catholics have been saying this for some time.

While Packer generally agrees with John Paul's comments, he said that the pope's statement "that evolution is more than a theory, implication being that it's a near certainty, is overbold." In the realm of philosophy of science, Packer said, he sees "very grave objections" to the concept that random mutation produces increased order and value.

"Order out of chaos is just a very strange concept," he said. Neff, like Packer, noted that "evangelicals are a loose association. There's no formal structure, and they are quite varied on how they interpret Genesis 1 and how they relate that to science."

Although "there is a strong sense of critique of traditional Darwinism in the evangelical community," Neff said, "that doesn't mean that the community is 100 percent on the side of a literalistic interpretation of the seven days of creation."

Because this pope is seen as conservative, some evangelicals might have hoped to see him say something else, but what he has said is entirely in keeping with past Roman Catholic pronouncements.

National Catholic Reporter, November 8, 1996