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VATICAN LETTER Sep-24-2004 (920 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

Creative tension: omnipotence of God vs. dynamism of a universe

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A recent Vatican document analyzed evolution in the light of faith, stepping into an area that has long been a religious and scientific minefield.

The document, prepared by the International Theological Commission and made available in mid-September, examined man's relationship with the created world.

Why bother to get into evolution? Because, as the text said, Catholics have a responsibility to "locate" the scientific understanding of the universe within a Christian vision of creation.

That's an assignment that challenges even the experts, however.

"That's a very big task, and a very complicated issue. It's not settled yet, by any means," said U.S. Jesuit Father George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory, who has closely followed the evolution debate.

The theological commission operates in conjunction with the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, and its document is remarkable in several ways.

First, it accepts as likely the prevailing tenets of evolutionary science: the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in a "big bang"; the earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago; all living organisms on earth descended from a first organism; and man emerged some 40,000 years ago with the development of the larger, human brain.

Second, the document does not argue for a "divine design" in specific processes of evolution. While acknowledging that some experts do see a providential design in biological structures, it says such development might also be "contingent," or dependant on chance.

"True contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence," it said.

In other words, God's plan may have allowed for all kinds of variables to play out. Or, as the document put it, "any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so."

But is the emergence of man one of these chance results? Or did God play creationist in this instance?

That's the crux of the current debate, said Father Coyne.

"Most people would pose the question this way: 'Did we come out of a necessary process or a chance process? If it's a necessary process, God did it. If it's chance, why do you need God?'" Father Coyne said in an interview.

"But I think the question itself is wrong. It's not just necessity or chance, it's also opportunity. We live in a universe that statistically offers so many opportunities for the life-building processes to work together," he said.

"In a universe so fertile in opportunity, it was inevitable -- I say inevitable, not necessary -- that human beings emerged," he said.

Pope John Paul II made headlines in 1996 when he told the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that the theory of evolution was "more than a hypothesis" and had been widely accepted by scientists.

But in opening a dialogue on the subject, the pope insisted that man was not just a link in the evolutionary chain. He said the emergence of man marked an "ontological leap ... the moment of transition to the spiritual" that cannot fully be explained in scientific terms.

Expanding on that argument, the theological commission's recent document said the appearance of the first members of the human race must be attributed to some form of divine intervention. It spoke of God acting through "causal chains" from the beginning of cosmic history to prepare for the "special creation of the human soul."

It also emphasized the "personal character of creation" and said man, fashioned in the image of God, responds to a personal creator, not an impersonal force or energy. It cited the teaching of the Second Vatican Council: "Man is the only creature on earth that God willed for his own sake."

In a paper presented last year on the subject, Father Coyne said this argument raises the question: "Are we forced by revealed, religious truth to accept a dualistic view of the origins of the human person -- evolutionist with respect to the material dimension, creationist with respect to the spiritual dimension?"

Father Coyne and others have suggested that a case could be made for a type of divine creation that did not pre-ordain human beings, or which might have even produced thinking beings different than humans.

Does that contradict religious truth?

"Not, it appears to me, if theologians can develop a more profound understanding of God's continuous creation" that allows for "freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process," Father Coyne said.

Father Coyne said the wider discussion on evolution between religion and science is marked by misunderstandings. He said the term "creation," for example, is about existence itself, not the "chain of events which bring about a specific kind of being."

Likewise, when religions speak of God "creating out of nothing," scientists often equate it -- incorrectly -- with the vacuum of quantum mechanics, Father Coyne said.

Among believers, Father Coyne said, there's an unfortunate tendency to "latch onto God" when scientific explanations fall short.

"One gets the impression from certain religious believers that they fondly hope for the durability of certain gaps in our scientific knowledge of evolution, so they can fill them with God," he said.

Father Coyne argues that God should not be understood as a dictator, who has fine-tuned the universe to run like a watch. But he said it will take considerable dialogue and reflection by Catholic thinkers before a central tension is resolved: between the omnipotence of God and the dynamism of a universe in evolution.


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