When Charles Darwin was born 200 years ago this month, no one could have guessed the impact his Origin of Species (1859) would have not only on science but on religion as well.
"The name Darwin symbolizes a massive transition of our self-understanding," Boston College Professor Stephen Pope said in a recent talk at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. "Instead of descended from a primal couple specially created by God about 10,000 years ago, we now regard our species as the product of an evolutionary stream of life that has been running at least 4 billion years."
But for many Catholics, science and faith are often competitors, and sometimes even official church teaching doesn't do enough to bring them together.
"There's a way of talking about the doctrines of the Christian faith without treating Adam and Eve as historical figures," Pope says. "But right now we have a parallel theology, with official statements that endorse evolution but a Catechism that completely ignores it."
Still, Pope says, final responsibility rests with individual Catholics to integrate faith and science for themselves. "We all have an obligation to deepen in our faith," he says. "I'm not saying everybody should be a Darwinian or a theologian, but I think there is a call to take faith more seriously and become more reflective people."
The editors interview Stephen Pope
Why should Catholics be interested in Charles Darwin?
Darwin's theories of how life evolves provide the most powerful and persuasive explanation right now of how human beings appeared on the scene. I think Catholics should read Darwin to understand who we are in our biological nature, including some of the capacities that we have for responding to God in our lives.
But more than 40 percent of the American public believes that humanity is just 10,000 years old as a species, and you have to figure at least a quarter of them are Roman Catholic. A recent poll found that 79 percent of Catholics in Florida would vote not to teach evolution in the classroom.
This is despite the fact that Pope John Paul II officially acknowledged that "evolution is more than a hypothesis." Pope Benedict XVI has dismissed the debate over evolution as "an absurdity" that flies in the face of "much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such."
But beyond evolution's scientific validity, Catholics regard the world theologically as a sacramental expression of God's love. The world itself is a symbol of God's grace, God's goodness. It's our habitat, and through it we are given the opportunity to move toward God. So it's important we understand how creation functions.
Do you think Catholics have integrated evolution into their understanding of the faith?
Catholics, like Christians generally, tend to compartmentalize their world into their professional life, their church, their golf game, and we don't often make connections between those things.
Darwin asks us to put together all the different parts of our lives and think about how we're connected to other people as members of the same species. He asks us to look back to discover where we come from. He asks us to look at ourselves now as members of a species that is growing rapidly and doing serious damage to the planet because we don't live responsibly. And he asks us to look forward, because if we're not responsible in the future, the human race is going to be harmed and possibly eradicated if environmental catastrophes pile up.
Evolutionary theory and Christianity have often had a tense relationship. How have believers responded to Darwin?
There are a number of different approaches Christians have taken to evolution. The first, the strategy of rejection, tends to insist that religion is our primary authority, and information about evolution is either irrelevant or a threat. …