You can tell that key journalists in the mainstream media are watching Pope Benedict XVI like a hawk right now. Everyone is waiting to see what he is going to say about the controversial question of whether God had anything specific to do with the creation of the world and, in particular, humanity. Yes, that is a slanted way of stating the issues that are out there at the moment.
However, this is one way of looking at this German theology professor's current private seminar with some of his former students, the subject of a report in today's New York Times by correspondent Ian "Crow's Ear" Fisher.
Most of us will, I am sure, watch the coverage as it unfolds. Let me, as always, state that I have close friends involved in this debate and, thus, I will simply try to underline one or two issues and then ask you to read the news for yourself.
My main concern is, of course, language. It is very important how journalists describe the people who are involved in these complicated debates about science, research, philosophy, theology and free speech. The most commonly used words divide the debate into two camps -- the "creationism" camp for religious people and the "evolution" camp for scientists. However, there are signs that this simplistic way of describing these debates is beginning to change.
Why is the lingo changing? The Vatican -- which contains some smart people -- has been forcing a change. That's why the mainstream media are focused so hard on what this pope is saying, like when he called creation an "intelligent project." And then there was that sermon in the Mass marking the inauguration of his pontificate:
"The purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men," he said, in St. Peter's Square. "And only where God is seen does life truly begin. ... We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary."
So what is the pope concerned about? What is the Vatican trying to do?
Here is the crunch section of Fisher's report, a place where all kinds of undefined words and, in one case, a serious oversimplification create a bit of a mess. Does the reporter realize it?
... (The) church has moved from neutrality to something like acceptance of evolutionary theory, though drawing a thick bottom line that God is the ultimate creator. In 1996, Pope John Paul declared evolution "more than a hypothesis," and in 2004 as Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict endorsed the scientific view that the earth is roughly four billion years old and that species changed through evolution. Indeed, there has been no credible scientific challenge to the idea that evolution, the foundation of modern biology, explains the diversity of life on earth.
Given that history, scientists and church experts say they cannot imagine the study session ending with any alignment of the pope or the church with intelligent design or American-style creationism, which often posits that Earth is only about 6,000 years old.
Once again, there is that infamous quote from the late Pope John Paul II, the quote that totally misses the point of this debate -- when seen from the point of view of Rome. Clearly, the Vatican accepts many ideas associated with the mechanisms of evolution, but, at the very least, the pope rejects the unprovable Darwinian doctrine that creation is the result of random and unguided changes. How would someone in a lab prove that changes are random? How could someone in a lab prove -- absolutely -- that they were guided and by whom?
At some point, research must be interpreted. This is where science becomes philosophy and that is precisely where the Vatican debate is focused. You can tell that by reading what John Paul II actually said. Here is a section of a column I wrote on this topic for Scripps Howard News Service. I would bet the moon and the stars that this is the issue being discussed right now by the current pope and his students.
Part of the problem is the 1996 papal address (by John Paul II) to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, with its familiar quotation that "new knowledge leads us to recognize that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis."
The question is whether John Paul said "theory" or "theories." According to official translations, the pope said: "Rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based."
The pope then rejected all theories arguing that humanity is the product of a random, unguided process of creation. Thus, he said that "theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man."
At the time John Paul II spoke these words, the National Association of Biology Teachers had officially defined evolution as an "unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process ... that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments." Critics said this definition veered beyond science into theological speculation. Thus, in 1997 the association's board reversed itself and removed the words "unsupervised" and "impersonal."
This is where the debate must focus. It all comes back to that quite religious, doctrinaire statement by George Gaylord Simpson in the famous The Meaning of Evolution. That faith-based statement of naturalism is: "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind."
Pope John Paul II disagreed. It appears that Benedict XVI does, too. Does that make this pope a stupid creationist? Does this put him "on the wrong side of science"?