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Issue Date:  March 25, 2005

Catholic schools steer clear of anti-evolution bias


The heated evolution versus creationism controversy is one battle in the culture wars that U.S. Catholics can watch from the sidelines. As church officials recently put it: “The church does not need to fear the teaching of evolution.”

That clear evaluation came in a letter from Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo of Richmond, Va., chair of the Committee on Science and Human Values of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Dec. 6, 2004, letter, sent to all U.S. bishops, said: “The media report with some frequency attempts to eliminate the teaching of evolution in public schools or to introduce the teaching of ‘creationism’ … or other theories without scientific standing as part of the science curriculum. Sometimes ‘creationism’ is placed on a par with evolution.

“The church does not need to fear the teaching of evolution,” he continued, “as long as it is understood as a scientific account of the physical origins and development of the universe.

“I hope that this will be helpful to you in the event that debates regarding ‘creationism’ arise in school districts or state legislatures within your dioceses and raise questions among Catholics. At the same time the committee would be most interested in learning of any experiences that you may already have had in this regard.”

More than three months later, a spokesman for the committee said, they have heard nothing.

In fact, the controversy surrounding the matter of how to teach evolution to high school students -- or whether to teach it at all -- is one controversy in which the Catholic church is not steeped.

The engine for the debate has largely been Protestant evangelicals. The position of the Catholic church for more than a half-century has been on an arc from neutrality to firm acceptance.

Pope Pius XII set the tone in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis. “The teaching authority of the church,” he wrote, “does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution.”

Pius XII’s appeal for discussion of the “doctrine of evolution” and its implications came with a Cold War era caution. “Some imprudently and indiscreetly hold that evolution, which has not been fully proved even in the domain of natural sciences, explains the origin of all things, and audaciously support the monistic and pantheistic opinion that the world is in continual evolution,” he wrote. “Communists gladly subscribe to this opinion so that, when the souls of men have been deprived of every idea of a personal God, they may the more efficaciously defend and propagate their dialectical materialism.”

By century’s end, Pope John Paul II would take a much firmer stand on evolution in a 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. “New knowledge,” he said, “leads 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.”

DiLorenzo, in his letter, cites Pius XII and John Paul II. He quotes at length a 2004 document from the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, which accepts, with John Paul II, “converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences” but also echoes Pius XII’s materialism warning: “With respect to the evolution of conditions favorable to the emergence of life, Catholic tradition affirms that, as the universal transcendent cause, God is the cause not only of existence but also of causes.”

DiLorenzo’s letter picks up on this theme, taking vague aim at “scientists and other commentators.”

Some of them, DiLorenzo wrote, “have strayed beyond the proper realm of science to insist that evolution requires a materialistic and atheistic understanding of the human person and of the entire universe. They attempt to use the theory to buttress a conception of the universe as entirely governed by mechanism without any sign of intelligent order.

“Scientific knowledge,” DiLorenzo added, “does not extend beyond the physical.”

DiLorenzo’s bottom line is clear. The church, he wrote, affirms “an understanding of evolution that is open to the full truth about the human person and about the world. Assured that scientific truth and religious truth cannot be in conflict, Catholic schools should continue teaching evolution as a scientific theory backed by convincing evidence. At the same time, Catholic parents whose children are in public schools should ensure that their children are also receiving appropriate catechesis at home and in the parish on God as Creator. Students should be able to leave their biology classes, and their courses in religious instruction, with an integrated understanding of the means God chose to make us who we are.”

Mark Wilkins, a religion teacher at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, heads the Committee on Religious Education -- representing teachers -- for the Jesuit Secondary Education Association.

For more than a decade, Wilkins has team-taught an extensive course on bioethics with a colleague from the science department. Evolution as established and creationism as myth is a key component of the course.

For guidance, Wilkins said, “we rely basically on the teachings of Pope Pius XII and John Paul II. Both said, hey, teaching evolution is all right as long as you keep God somewhere in the picture.”

He added, “We do have some students that come from an evangelical background, and they struggle with it.” Still, he said, protests are few.

For his relative academic freedom, Wilkins credits what he sees as the nature of Catholicism. “Catholic high schools have never really had a problem with the teaching of evolution because of the Catholic tradition of taking more of a contextual approach to scripture.”

At the U.S. bishops’ conference, said secretary for education, Dominican Sr. Glenn Anne McPhee, “it’s basically not controversial at all. The only time it’s controversial is when you’ve got parents who are very opposed. But it’s certainly not a pressing issue in my life.”

Still, there are warnings. In a recent issue of America, David Byers, who staffed the Committee on Science and Human Values at the bishops’ conference from 1984 to 2003, wrote: “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 an essentially modern couple, and the Garden of Eden as a real paradise.”

Though he told NCR his characterization of Catholic educational leadership as “slow” on spreading church teachings on evolution was merely “an impression,” he said he worries about its implications.

“For most people,” Byers said, “religion is more a matter of the heart than of the head. For people who are looking to integrate what they know from science or from other fields of knowledge in general with their religion then it becomes a difficulty.”

However, to the extent that the church succeeds in extending its teachings on evolution from aging encyclicals and special assemblies in Rome to American Catholic classrooms, it is performing a key function when science wrestles with theology. It can only help to strengthen the church, Byers said, for it to be open and lucid in its relationship to science.

“I think it’s a service to young people,” Byers said, “to present the faith in such a way that it’s not jarringly at odds with what they get from other sources.”

Jeff Severns Guntzel is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 25, 2005

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