Facing Facts

During the first week in March, an unusual event will take place in Rome. The Jesuit-run Gregorian University, with the help of Notre Dame University here in the U.S., and under the sponsorship of the Vatican’s Ministry of Culture, will host a four day long conference on “Biological Evolution: Facts and Theory.” During the conference, nearly thirty top scientists from around the world will discuss various aspects of evolution, ranging from the paleontological evidence, through the basics of biological science, to the latest findings in genetics. These facts will then be, in turn, evaluated in terms of the overall history of the evolutionary theory, especially as it has been synthesized since the publication, one-hundred and fifty years ago of Darwin’s epoch-making book on “The Origin of Species.” 

        While similar meetings are being held elsewhere this year, particularly by scientists, elsewhere in the world, this one, when one thinks about it, is quite extraordinary, especially when you consider its primary audience and setting. Philosophers, and perhaps even more, theologians from various parts of the Christian world, will be there, listening, pondering all the evidence, and asking questions. Not only that, follow-up meetings are being planned by the two universities which are promoting this event, in which the implications of all this will be discussed and debated, not only by philosophers and theologians, but even by social and perhaps political scientists.

        How extraordinary all this is, I think, can be seen when one contrasts this with the reception centuries ago, of another book that eventually proved to be the beginning of a new epoch in human knowledge and understanding. In 1543, the book written by the Polish priest, professor, and polymath, Nicolas Copernicus “Concerning the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres” was finally published. In it, Copernicus advocated the theory that the earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around, despite the fact that the Bible, and what seemed to be common sense both took a geocentric universe for granted. In fact, few seemed to believe this theory until Galileo began to supply evidence that is more concrete with the aide of his little invention, the telescope. In addition, we all know what happened to Galileo when he tried to present that evidence to the church’s philosophers and theologians.

While Galileo was sentenced in 1632 to what amounted to house arrest for the rest of his life, the Catholic Church’s reputation, and with it, much of the rest of Christianity, in turn, suffered what has turned out to be what seems to be irreparable damage. If apologies made by Pope John Paul II for the Church’s treatment of Galileo, even if they were over three centuries overdue, were accepted with gratitude by the scientific world, the present pope’s 1990 use of a quotation that attempted to explain and defend the Church’s actions way back then even if he went on to criticize it have met with so much derision that his scheduled appearance at the Sapienza University in Rome last year had to be cancelled.

        Seen from this perspective, what this big meeting in Rome signifies to me is that the Church which as we all know, takes a long time to adjust to new ideas has finally, after centuries of dragging its heels, decided to at least begin to accept reality.

R W Kropf    2/22/09                                   Facing Facts.doc         09-02-22.html