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?