Moral Priorities in the Scientific Debate

Recently we at The American Catholic have debated, over the course of 140 posts, the topic of evolution. It doesn’t surprise me that a topic as controversial as evolution would generate so much discussion, but I do believe there is something missing from it, and which is partially addressed by fellow contributor Darwin Catholic.

What I notice, first of all, is that the comments fall into two categories: those in vigorous support of the theory of evolution, and those who just as vigorously reject it. In my view neither group is taking an approach to the question that I think is appropriate for Catholics. The problems with those who reject evolution are more obvious – the Church has declared that there is no necessary conflict between the theory and the faith, provided that philosophical materialism is removed as the only possible foundation for the theory. This is a good thing, for the scientific evidence for evolution is quite strong. While it is difficult for some opponents of the theory to think of it apart from materialism, I do believe it is possible.

The problems with some of those who support evolutionary theory, however, also need to be addressed. The very first problem is that “scientific consensus” is not a divine stamp of approval with the word “Truth” on it. We have an obligation to take the discoveries and claims of the scientific community seriously, but we do not have an obligation to defend them as if they were the dogmas of the Church.

Secondly, about those dogmas – they are, in the eyes of atheist scientists and intellectuals, as absurd, unscientific, and worthy of ridicule as the theories of young-earth Creationists. From where they place themselves, at the height of the intellectual summit of humanity, all non-materialist suppositions are nothing but insignificant specks on the landscape below. You will not be more respected by them on the whole because you reject YEC if you still believe in transubstantiation.

Thirdly, and this is the most important point, a person does not need to accept the theory of evolution to be a good person or a good Christian. It works the other way around as well – a person who accepts it is not necessarily a bad person. To read and hear the two sides argue, however, one would hardly know it. YECs are convinced that Darwinists are pawns of a scientific conspiracy to undermine the faith, while Darwinists look at YECs as if they were hillbillies from the Dark Ages. This hostility boils into conflict to the point where one’s position on evolution almost becomes more important than one’s position on the basic tenants of Christian morality.

For my part, though I believe that the evidence for evolution can be reconciled with belief in God and the teachings of the Church, I also understand why so many people reject the theory. At the bottom of it is a rejection of the materialism that appears to be the necessary support for the theory, a materialism which, to quote the Catholic Encyclopedia, “has shown God the door.” Consequently man is reduced to an animal with no greater value than any other animal. It also doesn’t help that totalitarian movements of the left and right have drawn, and continue to draw, inspiration from Darwinian evolution. This shouldn’t discredit the theory, but it should provide us with a reason to approach it with more caution. If God has been shown the door, so has any objective foundation for human dignity.

In the end, when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, Matt. 25 tells us that we will be judged on the basis of how we loved or failed to love the least of our brothers. There is nothing in there about our stance on the scientific controversies of the day. And I find it hard to take seriously a strenuous rejection of YEC by anyone who believes in a virgin birth, walking on water, multiplying fish and bread, spontaneous healing, raising a man from the dead, angels, demons, the parting of a sea (is that one still acceptable?), and so on, and so forth. At the very least, those who support Darwinian evolution can listen to what a YEC has to say without implying or declaring that they are an imbecile or an idiot.

It would also help if YECs would stop asking “show me the evidence” – it isn’t the burden of someone on a blog to bring you up to date on all the latest or even the first discoveries. Read a book and learn to use Google.

54 Responses to Moral Priorities in the Scientific Debate

  1. Tito Edwards says:

    Good post Joe.

    It’s difficult to provide evidence that Adam was a chimpanzee and Eve was an orangutan who bore forth baboons.

    It may seem that both sides would fall under “invincible ignorance” since we both are putting our faith into a theory/mystery.

  2. Actually, quite a bad point. Anti-intellectualism at its heart.

    No one has been discussing whether or not one needs to know scientific information. One doesn’t even need to be able to read the Bible to be a good Christian (as many saints were illiterate). The question is not whether or not one is a good Christian, but whether or not one, presenting some sort of argument, is doing so in a valid fashion, which actually follows the data or not.

    And while we are not required to know much to be a good Christian (one does not have to have a theology degree), knowledge is a good.

  3. Joe Hargrave says:

    Here we go again.

    It is precisely the problem that “no one has been discussing” – they have simply been ranting as if. It should be the issue and it should be discussed. Hence the word “priorities” in the title.

    To prioritize is to place items in order of importance.

    The tone in which we speak of an issue ought to be appropriate to its place in that order.

    Hence, the tone in the evolution debate ought to be a little less fierce than what it is among Christians.

    I’m glad you think knowledge is good. It is one thing I think everyone, from the most hardcore YEC to the most ardent evolutionist agrees upon. I certainly agree.

    As for the charge of anti-intellectualism – whether that was directed at me or Tito – it is certainly a safer fault to possess than scientistic arrogance. On which side would you rather err? That said, I am not anti-intellectual – it is a lack of philosophical clarity and an overemphasis on interpretation of empirical data that I see as the problem.

  4. Nathan Harder says:


    Very interesting post. I tend to agree with much of what you write.

    I think it’s funny that most people are convinced that the rather offensive message found in a note from the Governor of California to the legislators of that state could not have been an accident, while the origins of all life are up for debate. Go figure.

    In Christ,


  5. Joe,

    It’s funny to have an argument over tone, when the tone of your whole piece is “I am better than you are, for you are rude.” It is also ignoring the overall tone of those who argue against evolution.

  6. Blackadder says:

    Belief that the earth is 6,000 years old is not a moral failing. Agreed. The problem comes when people claim that such a belief is required by Christianity. This is not only a distortion of the faith, but as St. Augustine noted long ago, it is “disgraceful and dangerous” because it creates stumbling blocks for believers and potential believers who know better.

  7. Joe Hargrave says:

    Well Henry,

    It would be even funnier if I had an argument over tone without explaining what I think the tone ought to be.

  8. John Henry says:

    And I find it hard to take seriously a strenuous rejection of YEC by anyone who believes in a virgin birth, walking on water, multiplying fish and bread, spontaneous healing, raising a man from the dead, angels, demons, the parting of a sea

    I take your point that it’s important to be civil, Joe. But if you’re suggesting that a belief in miracles (for which we have some documented medical evidence, and which cannot be disproven empirically) is just as implausible as the idea that the earth is only 6,000 years old (which is contradicted by all the available evidence), then I think you’ve overstated your case. Granted, in principle an omnipotent God could create the stars, and the fossil record, and carbon dating, and most of modern physics as an elaborate test to see if we’ll take Genesis literally…but that requires a very different understanding of God and an entirely different plausibility structure than what is required by traditional Christian belief. The reason many people object so strongly to the YEC claims is that they presuppose a different understanding of God, the relationship between God and man, the pursuit of truth, etc., than what has traditionally been proposed by the Church. It’s not primarily a debate about fossils, but about the nature of God, revelation, and reason.

  9. John Henry

    It’s not merely “overstating the case,” but it is the exclusion of reason, the kind which Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out as dangerous to the Christian faith. That is the issue and why it is an important issue. It’s not merely because atheists will look at us and say, “Christians are idiots,” but because, once reason and its value is entirely rejected so it is all about God’s fiat, the nominalistic end of this is a reduction of the human person as a slave to divine will.

  10. Joe,

    The overall point is, I think, the important thing to keep in mind. No scientific theory is a matter of salvation.

    For my behavior I’ll say two things, one rational and the other subjective:

    Rational – I do very much object when creationists start saying things like, “If the universe is billions of year old than Genesis is a lie.” I’ve known several atheists or agnostics who found themselves falling away from Christianity (Evangelical background) when they studied enough biology to discover that a lot of what they’d been fed as truth in creationist circles was not merely inaccurate, but willfully misleading in some cases. Making the truth of Christianity dependant on something which a bit of learning will prove to be false is, I think, doing other believers a very grave disservice.

    Subjective – I used to spend a fair amount of time on issues regarding evolution, both explaining evolution for a Catholic audience and explaining Catholicism on blogs populated primarily by atheist science fans. After a while, I pretty much burned out on it. The evolution debate is one of those in which the same controversies come up again, and again, and again and people don’t really listen to each other very much. In particular, many athiest science types have very little interest in understanding what Catholicism actually teaches (they prefer their stereotypes) and some creationists take rather flagrant advantage that one can put out five false claims in 100 words that it would take 5000 words to adaquetly address (and which they generally nitpick or ignore if one goes to the work anyway). So I must admit, I’ve gotten to where I’m often rather more abrupt in addressing people I perceive to fit into those types than I used to be. Which is why I mostly try to leave the topic alone these days.

  11. John Henry says:

    Henry – Our comments overlap a bit now. I was updating my comment for clarification, and meanwhile you posted a response (which I did not see before re-posting my comment). I think we agree that lurking in the background of the YEC position is a flawed conception of the human person and reason. I’m not sure if ‘slave to divine will’ is the best way to describe that error, but it is not surprising to me that YEC emerged in a culture in which the doctrine of total depravity has some theological purchase.

  12. Joe Hargrave says:


    “the nominalistic end of this is a reduction of the human person as a slave to divine will”

    Talk about “overstating the case”. YECs and other critics of evolution are neither discarding reason or making themselves slaves of divine will.

    I don’t agree with their conclusions but I don’t think they are motivated by anything malicious either. You speak often of Pope Benedict’s approach to these issues – at what point has he, or any other Pope for that matter, castigated in the same manner you and others have those who do believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis?

    Also, what about Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn? I think his view of this controversy comes closer to my own. In any case, it would be nice if you and others could emulate the style as well as the content of the Pope and grant creationists the benefit of the doubt with regard to their intellect and intent.

    I’ve never seen a creationist disavow science or the scientific method as such. What they typically believe is that the materialist scientists are purposefully disregarding ‘gaps’ in the theory and other evidence that would support their own view. It would be a negation of reason to claim that this cannot happen.

  13. jh says:

    I generally hate the Evolution versus “Creationist” debates. I never know why this becomes such a national issue.

    Part of the problem I have is the terms are loaded and mean so many things to different people.

    Sort of Like the term Captialism. Captialism to some means being to the right of Ayn Rand. While others see Captialism in the scope of Govt regualtion. Looking at some recent discourse on this here and there one would think I as a “captalist” endorsed child labor in Coal mines in many peoples minds and with their accusations.

    But in the evolution debate terms such as Creationist and Evolution are about as fluid as terms like Socialism and Captialism. All are in the eye of the beholder.

    As one living smack dab in the middle of the Bible belt the reality is that the most observant Protestants and Christians have a wide varied view on the subject.

    For instance some people might cringe at the term evolution but these same folks think a Young Earth theory is nonsense. In fact I have to say for all the talk of “Young Earth” I don’t know many people that believe that.

    So when a person labels themselves as being a “Creationist” or believing in Evolution chances are you would have to sit down with them for a hour to really figure out the varius nuances they hold as to that system.

    Therefore it just seems we are talking past each other.

    It is true that believing in a Young Earth is not Dogma. But on the other hand it is not Catholic Dogma that one has to believe in every facet of Evolution. Nor is it a rejection of reason. Again in reality I think the vast majority of people are incorporating both systems into their viewpoint.

    I was raised in a pretty conservative Baptist Church and after the Creationist debates of the late 70’s and early 80’s things settled down. I can’t recall too many serious sermons on it. It was sort of believe what you wnat to believe. But to look at the media one would think we were all Seventh Day Adventist down here in belief and our preoccupation with the subject.

    True it comes up in some material as to intelligent design and there is a debate there. But my State has not become a raging theocracy where evolution is banned.

    In the end the media does it soundbites and the very slim minorities that care about this issue greatly dominate the news.

    I mean in the last Presidential election was it really that important for the amount of questions asked and ink spilled over what Huckabee, Brownback , and Palin thought on the subject.

    But that shows the power of the debate is not so much about “science” but often has a unrelated political purpose.

  14. Joe

    Funny how Pope Benedict thinks “creationists” are following through with a reduction of reason, the kind which he was criticizing at Regensburg, the kind which he saw doing exactly as I stated: reducing humans to the irrational will and dictates of God. That is exactly what Pope Benedict said in the debates between pure, literalistic creationism vs evolution. He said the answer is reason via science shows the fact of evolution, while philosophy and theology interpret the data. Hence, as he said at Regensburg:

    “In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God’s voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.”

  15. Joe Hargrave says:

    John Henry,

    I personally don’t put YEC and other miracles on the same level – my point is that materialist atheists do.

    I was an atheist for a long time, and a materialist. I have to say that from that point of view, it ALL looks absurd.

    I’m not saying that this is a reason to embrace YEC, as that would be an abrogation of reason. But I also just find it a little silly to bend over backwards and go out of our way to demonstrate how down we are with modern science. That is what I detect in some Catholic defenders of evolution.

    It’s a little like disavowing your awkward or socially-inept brother or cousin in front of your sophisticated friends and acquaintances. Blood is thicker than water, and a common belief in God and rejection of philosophical materialism is thicker than a shared interpretation of empirical evidence in my book.

  16. Eric Brown says:

    Joe, the point you make, particularly on facebook is solid. However, my issue is that freedom to disagree–because either view does not contradict our faith–does not mean that each, of course, is equal. If one is closer to the truth, then I think it is more revelatory and it can illuminate other truths more clearly. It is like political issues of “prudential judgment.” Sure, we can disagree, but between two people, one position or neither position is more in accord with the Gospel, more practical, and/or more ethical. It is like a quasi-relativist smokescreen; the issue is not whether or not a Catholic can hold this view or that view — should they? That requires a philosophical debate to convince someone of your convictions, or at least enough of them. That’s just my two cents.

  17. Tito Edwards says:


    Now I’m confused.

    This whole time I thought JH was John Henry taking shortcuts on the keyboard. So JH is someone separate from both Joe Hargrave and John Henry?

  18. Joe Hargrave says:


    I guess I missed the line where Pope Benedict explains that he is talking about modern creationists, which I am not convinced hold the same theological premises as Duns Scouts.

    I also missed the part where he contemptuously dismissed the view he didn’t think was accurate.

    It is one thing to criticize, which is good and necessary. It is another thing to sneer. That is what I think you do. I think there is a great difference in the way Pope Benedict addresses intellectual disputes and controversies, and the way you do. And I think you could learn something from him, as could I and all of us.

  19. Eric Brown says:

    There is a jhchristian — or am I hallucinating? I’m not even sure if it is the same person. I just respond.

  20. jh says:

    YEs I am a different jh LOL

  21. Eric Brown says:

    That is all the clarification I need. Glad you’re here 🙂

  22. Tito Edwards says:

    Talk about two universes colliding.

    I have to go back and reread some posts now.

  23. “Benedict XVI: I think you have just given us a precise description of a life in which God does not figure. At first sight, it seems as if we do not need God or indeed, that without God we would be freer and the world would be grander. But after a certain time, we see in our young people what happens when God disappears. As Nietzsche said: “The great light has been extinguished, the sun has been put out”. Life is then a chance event. It becomes a thing that I must seek to do the best I can with and use life as though it were a thing that serves my own immediate, tangible and achievable happiness. But the big problem is that were God not to exist and were he not also the Creator of my life, life would actually be a mere cog in evolution, nothing more; it would have no meaning in itself. Instead, I must seek to give meaning to this component of being. Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called “creationism” and evolutionism, presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such. But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man? I believe this is of the utmost importance. This is what I wanted to say in my lecture at Regensburg: that reason should be more open, that it should indeed perceive these facts but also realize that they are not enough to explain all of reality. They are insufficient. Our reason is broader and can also see that our reason is not basically something irrational, a product of irrationality, but that reason, creative reason, precedes everything and we are truly the reflection of creative reason. We were thought of and desired; thus, there is an idea that preceded me, a feeling that preceded me, that I must discover, that I must follow, because it will at last give meaning to my life. This seems to me to be the first point: to discover that my being is truly reasonable, it was thought of, it has meaning. And my important mission is to discover this meaning, to live it and thereby contribute a new element to the great cosmic harmony conceived of by the Creator. If this is true, then difficulties also become moments of growth, of the process and progress of my very being, which has meaning from conception until the very last moment of life. We can get to know this reality of meaning that precedes all of us, we can also rediscover the meaning of pain and suffering; there is of course one form of suffering that we must avoid and must distance from the world: all the pointless suffering caused by dictatorships and erroneous systems, by hatred and by violence. However, in suffering there is also a profound meaning, and only if we can give meaning to pain and suffering can our life mature. I would say, above all, that there can be no love without suffering, because love always implies renouncement of myself, letting myself go and accepting the other in his otherness; it implies a gift of myself and therefore, emerging from myself. All this is pain and suffering, but precisely in this suffering caused by the losing of myself for the sake of the other, for the loved one and hence, for God, I become great and my life finds love, and in love finds its meaning. The inseparability of love and suffering, of love and God, are elements that must enter into the modern conscience to help us live. In this regard, I would say that it is important to help the young discover God, to help them discover the true love that precisely in renunciation becomes great and so also enables them to discover the inner benefit of suffering, which makes me freer and greater. Of course, to help young people find these elements, companionship and guidance are always essential, whether through the parish, Catholic Action or a Movement. It is only in the company of others that we can also reveal this great dimension of our being to the new generations. ”

    Pope Benedict brings the creation/evolution debate into the Regensburg lecture, and points out this is exactly what he was discussing, why there needs to be faith and reason (with reason having room for faith). And he pointed out that evolution is, in science, that kind of reason, but it cannot produce meaning, which is where faith comes into play. It’s quite connected, if you understand the issue at play at Regensburg.

  24. Joe Hargrave says:


    I understand your point as well. And certainly when there have been deliberate falsifications, we have a duty to confront those with the truth.

    I believe creationism is more of a cultural movement than some sort of parallel scientific theory. As a science it is terribly flawed. As a cultural movement I believe it has a kernel of truth to it – that materialism as a philosophy and a world view have destructive consequences.

    This is what happens when you don’t have a Church and tradition to guide.

  25. Eric Brown says:

    Well, if that is your point then, Joe–as usual–I don’t disagree. I thought you were trying to make a different point. You are have been pushing the edges here trying to make me disagree with you. I won’t select you as my running mate if you keep this up.

  26. Tito Edwards says:


    I thought I was the running mate?

  27. Eric Brown says:

    Notice: I have decided ultimately, whether you like it or not, that I’m the one with the greater electoral strength who should be the top of the ticket 🙂

  28. Joe Hargrave says:

    I don’t want to be number 1 anyway. I do think I would make a good speech writer, though 🙂

  29. Eric Brown says:

    Tito, I am going to offer Joe the position of Secretary of State as well as Vice President. I’ll let him decide what he wants.

    Hmm…now why does that sound familiar?

  30. Eric Brown says:

    I have a really good idea.

  31. Tito Edwards says:

    What a balanced ticket. One left-winger balancing out an extreme left-winger.


  32. Eric Brown says:

    HA! I’m going to email the both of you. Tito, I warned Joe I wouldn’t tolerate any socialist comments.

  33. Eric Brown says:

    I just wanted to come back and clarify: Joe isn’t a socialist.

  34. American Knight says:

    Thanks for this post. I beleive I tried to make this point although not nearly as eloquently in one of the other threads. Plus my sarcasm tends to get in the way.

    It is a difficult topic and the view that I am comfortable with seems to have the ‘creationists’ attack me for my lack of faith and the ‘evolutionists’ attack me for my ‘superstition’. I suppose when you are being attacked from all sides you have probably stumbled onto the truth.

    It is easy to sterotype and I know I’ve been guilty of it becuase it seems that YEC are fairly ignorant about science and Darwinists are overwhelmingly athiestic-materialists. This prejiduce is what often clouds the discussion before it even starts.

    Since this issue has nothing to do with salvation we can respectfully disagree. I tend to think biological evolotion is a mechanism God designed for us but that doesn’t explain the origin of life nor does it necesarily eliminate the YEC position. It seems the only thing this discussion tends to foster is disunity. Satan is a subtle serpent.

  35. R.C. says:

    Observation: As early as 400 AD St. Augustine was writing about the non-literality of the first two chapters of Genesis.

    Observation: A particular understanding of the first two chapters of Genesis is nowhere mentioned in any of the Creeds.

    From these two things, one may conclude what one wishes; for me, a certain relaxation is the result.

  36. R.C.

    The non-literal nature of Genesis far precedes Augustine which is the point. Indeed, one can say the founder of Biblical Theology proper, Origen, made it clear why Genesis could not be literal (he pointed out the contradictions in the text itself and indicated that this was the clue not to take it literally). Other Fathers followed Origen, though it is to be said, some disputed him and thought he went way too far (if one reads Origen, however, I think later Fathers far exceed him).

  37. Ivan says:

    The quotation from the Pope inadvertently obscures the real problem that afflicts all evolutionary narratives; viz that the Darwinian mechanism is too weak and cannot account for the diversity and complexity of living things. The pattern of the debate between Darwinians and the sceptics is invariably of this form: The Darwinian will claim that evolution accounts for living things in all their complexity, the sceptic says show me how wings (or lungs or eyes) are formed (and just as crucially maintained) by your mechanism. The evolutionist will then regale him with stories of Kettlewell’s moths or the Galapagos finches’ beaks or the everchanging viral coat of the influenza virus. In each of these cases, however no novelty is produced, no new organs are created. The darker-hued moths displace the lighter-shaded moths because birds pick off lighter-shaded moths more easily, the beaks change shape according to the availabilty of different types of food, the viral coat changes but the influenza virus remains a virus, it cannot even take the next step up the ladder of life to bacteriahood. This type of evolution was never in dispute, it is merely a change in the proportions of a population with a desirable attribute. The evolutionist will then proceed with a snow job claiming that organs and entities of mind-boggling complexity can be produced in the same way given enough time. As an explanation it has the same status as a kid claiming that he can build a Saturn V rocket on the basis of having fired a cracker.

    It is long past time, for the Darwinians to exchange gold for their promissory notes. The technology already exists to manipulate matter down to atoms, please demonstrate the efficacy of your mechanism by creating a simple functioning entity. Absurd computer programs do not count.

  38. Joe Hargrave says:

    I am going to be spending my time reading “Scientific Insights into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life”, the documents produced by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences – papers by some of the leading scientists of our time and commentary from leading theologians as well. I’ve read part 1 and I can’t wait to read the rest.

    You can find it somewhere in here (just ctrl+f the title):

  39. There were hillbillies in the dark ages?!?!?!?!

  40. Matt Glassman says:

    Well said, Ivan.

  41. American Knight says:


    “There were hillbillies in the dark ages?!?!?!?!”

    Yes. They are called Gallegos and they live in the norther part of Spain above Portugal named Galicia. It is a very mountainous and rough terrain. Spaniards refer to them as Hillbillies to this day and use them as punch lines in jokes similar to they way Poles are used for jokes here or Irish in Great Britian.

    However, the joke is on the rest of the Spaniards becuase during the 770 year Reconquista the Moors never infiltrated Galicia and they were the heartiest defenders of Spain and the Catholic faith.

    We could use some more hillbillies today, of course, we call them Tea Party Protesters.

  42. brettsalkeld says:

    “Granted, in principle an omnipotent God could create the stars, and the fossil record, and carbon dating, and most of modern physics as an elaborate test to see if we’ll take Genesis literally…but that requires a very different understanding of God and an entirely different plausibility structure than what is required by traditional Christian belief. The reason many people object so strongly to the YEC claims is that they presuppose a different understanding of God, the relationship between God and man, the pursuit of truth, etc., than what has traditionally been proposed by the Church. It’s not primarily a debate about fossils, but about the nature of God, revelation, and reason.”

    Just when I think I have something to say, John Henry has already said it. And this isn’t the first time. Creationism, even ID, has dangerous theological presuppositions. in either case, God becomes one object among many, rather than ground of being. To promote these ideas, promotes the belief in a being which atheists rightly reject. We don’t believe in a being, but in being itself. As my wonderful Archbishop Thomas Collins once stated, “I don’t believe in the God that Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in either.”

  43. Matt Glassman says:


    “Creationism, even ID, has dangerous theological presuppositions.”

    I’m not sure what these would be. It would seem that evolution would pose more difficult theological presuppositions than YEC or ID, not to mention seemingly insurmountable exegetical difficulties.

    “in either case, God becomes one object among many, rather than ground of being.”

    This doesn’t make sense to me. It would seem that both theistic evolution and creationism would share the same presupposition that God is distinct from the world, and that He is the creator of the universe, the only difference being that in theistic evolution, God accomplished this using more intermediary steps. Unless one is an atheist I don’t see how proponents of YEC and proponents of evolution wouldn’t both adhere to this same presupposition.

  44. Brett says:


    I think that dealing with both of your questions together makes the most sense as the second sentence you take from me is an answer (if brief) to your questions about the first.

    The theological presuppositions start with a God that is much more consistent with the God atheists reject than the God Christians affirm. That God, even if distinct from creation, is still understood as another ‘thing’ alongside other things. Karl Rahner writes:

    “That God really does not exist who operates and functions as an individual existent alongside of other existence, and who would thus as it were be a member of the larger household of reality. Anyone in search of such a God is searching for a false God. Both atheism and a more naive form of theism labor under the same false notion of God, only the former denies it while the latter believes that it can make sense out of it.”

    Once the concept of God is off, others things follow. For instance, the typical Catholic solutions to issues like divine omnipotence and free will, or divine beneficence and the presence of evil (theodicy) are predicated on a radical distinction between beings and being. YEC and ID erase that distinction. They amount to giving the atheists a stick to beat us with.

    As to the “insurmountable exegetical issues”, I’m really not sure what those could be. Reading poetry as poetry, myth as myth, and history as history is pretty basic exegesis. Reading all of Scripture like a science textbook might give one some problems, but why would a Catholic feel the need to do that?

  45. Joe Hargrave says:


    I’m certainly no theologian, but I must say, this looks like an almost irrelevant distinction to me. Of course God is not limited to “function[ing] as an individual existent alongside of other existence”, but I don’t see why he couldn’t do it – wasn’t that kinda what his incarnation in human flesh was all about? God was here, as an individual, functioning like one, beside us. Perhaps I am completely misunderstanding the meaning of these words?

    It seems to me that the more dangerous supposition is that God wouldn’t bother himself with matter and flesh, that he is really the God that most of primitive humanity and Gnostic religions said he was.

    I really don’t believe YEC and ID have the practical consequences you attribute to them. There are valid reasons to oppose them, but not this. All ID supposes is that scientific methods can reveal the mark of a designer – I have to say, in more complicated language, this is precisely what Cardinal Schonborn seems to be arguing (again to my untrained mind – perhaps there are some ever-so-subtle distinctions I am missing?)

    As for YEC, I don’t think it causes, but is caused by, a certain conception of God. In any case I think it serves as more of a retreat from modernism than anything else, but it is an irrational retreat. The real problem is that these people come from a tradition that says “Scripture Alone” instead of a Tradition that offers interpretations. We are seeing the errors of the “Reformation” (ironically titled here) played out in science.

  46. brettsalkeld says:


    Thanks for your questions.

    I think that the Incarnation is actually the exception that proves the rule. It says, precisely, that, in order to function like one other existent in the world, God had to become a creature. Catholic theology, especially soteriology, is absolutely dependent on the claim that Jesus was fully human. If he was not, he could not have worked in history the way he did.

    This, I suggest, overcomes the ‘dangerous supposition’ you point out in the next paragraph. God ‘bothers’ himself with matter and flesh not by fidgeting with creation from the outside, by but entering into it and communing with it.

    As for ID and Schonborn, some distinctions need to be made. Schonborn initially supposed that ID simply claimed that observation of nature can reveal the presence of a creator. He supported this insofar as it goes and his op-ed piece in the Times was along these lines. (He takes the backlash with good humour: See, especially from 2:00 on.) Any good Thomist, heck any Catholic, would agree that one can reason from creation to creator. Being a European intellectual unfamiliar with all of the connotations of ID in the US he initially backed the movement.

    But it is not exactly accurate to say that “scientific methods can reveal the mark of a designer.” In as much as they are reflected on by philosophy, they can, but the conclusions are not scientific conclusions, they are philosophical ones. Science, qua science, can neither prove nor disprove God as it is concerned solely with the natural world. It must, as a matter of sound method, abstract from the question. When ID suggests that God can be the result of a scientific conclusion, it is no longer compatible with the traditional Christian view of God (nor with a coherent understanding of the proper limits of science).

    It is on this point that Schonborn parts with the ID school. (They felt betrayed and were quite furious: The Discovery Institute, which was involved in getting Schonborn op-ed piece published, calls this review, “spot-on.” )

    In his book he claims that a misunderstanding of the nature of God is at the heart of ID’s errors:

    “Here, in my view, lies the most profound cause of many misunderstandings – even on the part of the “intelligent design” school in the U.S.A. [He adds this to include it with other forms of creationism.] God is no clockmaker; he is not a constructor of machines, but a creator of natures. The world is not a mechanical clock, not some vast machine, nor even a mega-computer, but rather, as Jacques Maritain said, “une republique des natures”, “a republic of natures” . . . All natures have their own unmistakable form of activity and influence, with which they are endowed by the Creator, and which lets them grow out of themselves and be active. They reach their goal or attain their purpose not by a force applied from outside them, but by one from within them, working outward.”

    If ID is simply an affirmation of natural theology, and thereby a simple rejection of materialism, Catholic theologians will have no qualms. When ID means that God is used as a scientific explanation (and one among many at that!) they will balk. It comes down to a confusion between what Aquinas called primary and secondary causality. God operates within the parameters of the first; science can study nothing but the workings of the second.

    As to your final paragraph, I think we are in much agreement, except that I would say that YEC and ID both cause and are caused by a certain conception of God. At the least, they reinforce it. Also, to be fair to our separated brethren, some traditions that affirm “Scripture Alone” do not insist on reading Scripture like a science text.

  47. Matt Glassman says:

    “the typical Catholic solutions to issues like divine omnipotence and free will, or divine beneficence and the presence of evil (theodicy) are predicated on a radical distinction between beings and being.”

    I’m not really sure what you’re getting at here, but if Aquinas is right about the analogy of being (which I think he is), Being cannot be “radically” different than beings or else God would not be able to impart being to us. Contingent beings must at least be analogous to the necessary Being.

    “As to the “insurmountable exegetical issues”, I’m really not sure what those could be. Reading poetry as poetry, myth as myth, and history as history is pretty basic exegesis. Reading all of Scripture like a science textbook might give one some problems, but why would a Catholic feel the need to do that?”

    The real question is still the authorial intent. Just because the sacred writer didn’t intent to write a scientific text doesn’t mean that the text is mythical or poetic. The specificity of the language is consistent with what one would expect from someone relating literal history.

  48. brettsalkeld says:

    “The faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason, there exists a real analogy, in which – as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated – unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language.”
    Benedict XVI (Regensburg address)

    I agree with you about Thomas, but would qualify your conclusions with reference to Lateran IV. My main point is that God does not relate to creation in the way that different parts of creation relate to one another. YEC and ID both presume that he does. Making God one scientific cause among many, as ID does, is unconscionable in Catholic theology.

    As to authorial intent, I really have no idea how one harmonizes the two creation stories to the point where one could conclude that the author was trying to relate literal history. It looks to me that the author’s total lack of concern for consistency in chronological and other such details is a big hint that he didn’t expect it to be read as anything less than myth. Literal history has its uses, but myth is by far the better candidate for setting basic cosmological and anthropological premises for future generations.

    Nevertheless, I don’t doubt that some have done such harmonizing to their own satisfaction. In my view, they must have started from the position that such harmonization was desirable, because I just don’t see one getting there from the texts themselves.

  49. Matt Glassman says:


    Once again, on the first point I just don’t see a divergence between evolutionists and YEC. Whether God created all things immediately and miraculously in their forms as we read in Gen., or whether He created in some other fashion, we must agree that He created the physical world out of nothing. I actually think you are presuming I’m using God as a scientific explanation. I’m not, and actually think that the literal reading of Genesis speaks more to God’s substantial otherness and miraculous creative power than evolution.

    Here’s how to harmonize the two accounts: get a more accurate translation of the Bible. I would suggest the Douay-Rheims, which can even be read online, because it is the most accurate. The RSV injects chronological indicators into Gen. 2, and the NAB…well, if you’re reading the NAB then please just find another Bible.

    Gen. 2 is an anthro-centric inset of the creation of Gen. 1. It differs because it focuses primarily on Adam, but the chronological problems should be resolved simply by consulting a more accurate text.

  50. Tito Edwards says:

    …get a more accurate translation of the Bible. I would suggest… …and the NAB…well, if you’re reading the NAB then please just find another Bible.

    Amen to that brother!

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