Theology and evolution

Cristina Odone had an interesting conversation with Richard Dawkins in last week’s Guardian.

There’s quite a lot to pick out, Cristina seems to be on a mission to please Richard Dawkins, no mean feat and whilst I would agree that an aggressive approach is counter-productive when engaging in dialogue with non-Christians, I think we all need to learn that affability should not supersede doctrine. In Cristina’s attempt to appear reasonable and open-minded she overlooked a few key points.

Whilst alluding to the creation myths, Odone states that our children are now being taught about religion in a metaphorical way. Actually this way of thinking is not particularly new, in the forth century, St Augustine of Hippo, one of the great doctors of the Church, held that Genesis must be read allegorically or figuratively and was not a literal account. He even wrote a book, The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, in which he expounded the theory that the six days laid out in Genesis was a logical framework, not a specific passage of time. According Augustine we should remain open-minded about the creation story and prepared to change our interpretation as new information became available. One can surmise that Augustine probably would not have had much time for the literal creationists who seem to be prominent in American politics.

“It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.”

Writing to the Pontifical Academy in 1981, the Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote the following:

“Cosmogony and cosmology have always aroused great interest among peoples and religions. The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The Sacred Book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and make-up of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven.

So whilst Odone is correct in terms of creation being taught metaphorically, this certainly isn’t a new or modern development, and one might hope that in a Catholic or Church of England school, religion is not taught metaphorically per se. Jesus is a verified historical figure and not a literary metaphor.

Dawkins remains unconvinced, stating that one has to decide which bits of the bible are metaphorical and that he would like to consult further with a catholic theologian. He has been invited to debate with Dr William Lane Craig on several occasions, most recently at the “Is God a Delusion” lecture at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on 25 October, but has so far refused the invitation. I am sure that there are plenty of Catholic theologians with both a small and a capital C who would be only too pleased to answer his questions nonetheless, so do feel free to invite them to contact Professor Dawkins.

The aspect of the conversation that concerned me the most was Odone’s pronouncement on birth control.

Look at birth control. The pope has said there are no ifs or buts, this is doctrine – we must never use birth control. But how many Catholics do you think go to confession and say, “I’m sorry, I’ve used birth control”? Well here we are, and this is part of the evolution of theology.

Though I sometimes find myself agreeing with Cristina, I found this remark incredibly disappointing. On a technical note, whilst attempting to engage with Dawkins and use his terminology, she applies the concept of evolution to theology. Actually evolution is an erroneous term when discussing theology, as evolution implies that a doctrine becomes obsolete or defunct and is replaced by something superior. A more accurate way of conceptualising how theology may change, would be to think about organic growth, not replacement. One of the things that attracted me back to the Catholic Church is the fact that doctrine is always intellectually coherent and logical – never contradictory. Doctrine is not policy and subject to changes on the whim of public opinion. Doctrine is never replaced with something completely contrary, rather it grows organically as our scientific understanding increases. Changes are always consistent with what has gone before.

Odone implies that Catholics are using birth control and not confessing it, therefore the theology has changed or evolved. I’m not quite sure that I understand her thinking. Disobedience is not the same as organic growth is it? Either fewer instances of that sin are occurring, or as Odone suggests, more people are considering that it is no longer a sin to use birth control. Sorry Cristina, but it is. Doctrine doesn’t change along with public opinion. One cannot assume Cristina is correct, and I would doubt that she is, after all how does she know, has she conducted a study of penitents or is she judging by social chatter? She has absolutely no way of gauging what people are saying in the confessional unless she has somehow managed to persuade confessors to break the seal for her back of an envelope calculations, so this is pure speculation. Supposing her assumptions are correct then this does not mean that the doctrine is misguided, simply that people need a reminder. Fewer people may be confessing all sorts of different things, I might not think that coveting my friend’s gorgeous new Mulberry handbag constitutes a sin, after all it is beautifully soft leather, highly on trend and just well, gorgeous, it’s perfectly natural that I would want one too, but it’s still every bit as unhelpful spiritually, no matter how normal or understandable.

Comments like this are incredibly unhelpful to normal Catholic women like myself. Although the physical practicalities of Catholic family planning take a little getting to grips with, the teaching itself is wonderful. We need to hear more women advocating NFP, shouting out the benefits, of which there are many, talking about how chastity (behaving in a sexually appropriate manner towards another, not to be confused with celibacy) within a marriage is a great thing. We need women to be honest about NFP, to extol its virtues, not buy into the whole contraceptive mentality which is fundamentally misogynist in nature. When Cristina Odone and her ilk makes comments such as this, it sells out ordinary catholic women trying to live lives of faith and witness. When I was having difficulty with getting to grips with it last year, so many people attempted to claim that catholics don’t really use it, are not expected to use it and its only extreme fundamentalists who attempt to observe church teaching. The reality is different; all the catholic women I know could not be described as fundamentalists or even traditional catholics and they find far from detracting, NFP enhances and improves communication and intimacy within a marriage.

As a high profile and influential Catholic, Cristina Odone risks reinforcing existing error as well as leading people into sin. Sometimes I wish we could have more authentic female catholic voices in the media and not just the privileged catholic aristocracy. As a mother juggling three young children with a full-time degree and recovering from 2 cesarians in as many years, we are not able to consider adding to our family at this time and yet I am able to manage perfectly well with NFP. Furthermore I am not ruling out adding to my family in a few years time, despite the fact that our household income is under half what Cristina spends on school fees. It’s called being open to life.

This could have been a great opportunity for apologetics, but in an attempt to placate the implacable, she ended up reinforcing the same old negative perceptions. I’m sorry she finds the teaching on birth control unacceptable. Perhaps, like Dawkins she needs to consult with a catholic theologian, as well as a passionate advocate of NFP. Can someone give her my number?

6 thoughts on “Theology and evolution

  1. Re evolution – absolutely. I’d also note Augustine knew exactly what he was talking about. He was interested in Manicheaism but they has a cosmology which was to be accepted literally and clashed with the best understanding of the time. That insistence precipitated Augustine’s disenchantment with Manichean thought.

    I also find it interesting that non-literal readings of the Bible predate the New Testament (eg Philo). Fun to throw out when people attempt to argue non-literal readings are a new (and sneaky) development.

  2. I read Odone’s quote as meaning that some Catholics are using birth control and confessing it (there may also of course be some who are using it and not confessing it). I’m not sure that the fact that some Catholics are using birth control for whatever personal reasons or weaknesses in their ability to do as their faith requires should weaken the fact that it remains part of the teachings of your faith and is adhered to by a large proportion of its believers.

    I’d always thought that one of the appealing features of Catholicism was its realism and embrace of people’s imperfections. Someone pointing out that some Catholics are imperfect and do serious things which should compel them to confess would tend to strengthen this impression rather than weaken it. It would only be if the implication was that in fact hardly any Catholics did anything other than transgress such rules and worse, when doing so, routinely did not even consider them worthy of confession that there would be something objectionable in Odone’s point.

    As for the use of “evolution”, perhaps it was infelicitous, or a conscious or unconscious attempt to placate Dawkins, but there’s no reason to cede the word to Dawkins and strip it of all other meaning. It has been in usage, at least according to my dictionary since the early C17th – well before Darwin and Dawkins. If theology did not evolve in the literal rather than Darwinian/biological sense it would be a very rigid thing, wouldn’t it? Even in the Darwinian sense it would not bear the meaning you suggest as the time scale for anything other than the tiniest incremental changes under evolutionary theory is way beyond the time since Christ. If there ever are wholesale changes to theology they aren’t going to be capable of being described as evolutionary in the Darwinian sense.

  3. In this interview Odone is very disappointing and her points unclear and weak.

    The point about theology evolving gives the wrong idea. Pope Benedict in his book Jesus of Nazareth describes the dynamic nature of Scripture (different, I know, from Theology)

    “One could say that the books of Scripture involve three interacting subjects. First of all, there is the individual author or group of authors to whom we owe a particular scriptural text. But these authors are not autonomous writers in the modern sense; they form part of a collective subject, the “People of God”, from within whose heart and to whom they speak. Hence, this subject is actually the deeper “author” of the Scriptures. And yet likewise, this people does not exist alone; rather, it knows that it is led, and is spoken to, by God himself, who- through men and their humanity- is at the deepest level the one speaking.” (from the Forward pages XX and XXI.)

    He goes on to describe how this interaction is transformatory for the People involved in this process. They become the People of God becasue of this interaction. Theology comes out of Scripture and is therefore a revelation not evolution. At the centre of Christianity is Christ. You can read people from all through the last 2000 years who have encountered Christ. Whatever their tradition- Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant- historical setting, language you discover- they are talking about the same thing. Lady Julian of Norwich, St Ignatius, St John of the Cross, Corrie Ten Boom, Simeon the New Theologian,St Teresa, Alexander Schmeman, Sts Augustine, Peter, Paul- when I read them, however they describe their encounter with God, they are describing the same incredible thing. This is the heart of our theology. This doesn’t evolve, it changes as we realise the words we were using aren’t adequate. It deepens as we spend time in the presence of the God who loves us. So why, oh why didn’t Odone say so?

  4. I respect Terry Eagleton’s writing and thinking generally but was dumbfounded by his critique of The God Delusion. The crux of his argument seemed to be that Dawkins had no right to criticise religion because he was ignorant of theology. Why would Dawkins need expertise about theology if he thought the whole thing was rubbish? Similarly, Odone, in her pick-and-mix Catholicism, is unreasonable to expect Dawkins to take her seriously. I also do not see the point of Dawkins debating with Dr William Lane Craig. I am prepared to be persuaded.

  5. Here in Britain you hear very little about NFP, I think that is the problem too. When my husband and I had our marriage preparation weekend, in 2000, NFP wasn’t even mentioned, neither was the Church’s stance on using birth control. I didn’t find out about it until years later, when after the birth of our eldest daughter I joined a few Catholic web-forums. It turns out that in the US it is discussed far more, and from what I understand more Catholic women use it. Personally, we’ve always hoped for a pregnancy rather than trying to prevent it (as we were older when we got married, we felt any blessing God was willing to send us, we’d be only too happy to receive, and we have 2 daughters now) but I do think NFP is a great way to decide on a month-by-month basis, through prayer and looking at your circumstances, whether you want to be open to conception that month WITHOUT using barriers or drugs.

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