Catholic vantages on Evolution

Fr. Nicanor Austriaco. news.providence.edu

Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory. — St. John Paul II’s 1996 Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

But the big problem is that were God not to exist and were he not also the Creator of my life, life would actually be a mere cog in evolution, nothing more; it would have no meaning in itself. Instead, I must seek to give meaning to this component of being. Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called “creationism” and “evolutionism,” presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such. But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man? — Pope Benedict’s 2007 Meeting with Clergy

Recent studies indicate that the Church’s pastors have not been effective in communicating and leading this mission. In her 2015 study “Catholicism and Science,” sociologist Elaine Ecklund notes that 62% of high-attendance Catholics think that the Bible and science can be in conflict, indicating a lack of awareness that, in the words of John Paul II, “The theological teaching of the Bible, like the doctrine of the Church which makes this explicit, does not seek so much to teach us the how of things, as rather the why of things.” This is especially true of younger Catholics; according to the National Study of Youth and Religion, 72% of 18-29 year-old Catholics see science and religion in conflict, and 78% of 18-29 year-old lapsed Catholics cite the “conflict” of science and religion to account for their departure, despite the teaching of the Youth Catechism that “there is no insoluble contradiction between faith and science” (#23). This data suggests that in order to effectively catechize and evangelize this and subsequent generations, Catholic priests must be prepared to address scientific topics in a way that weds faith and reason. — Dr. Chris Baglow, author of Faith, Science, and Reason Theology on the Cutting Edge

That last quote is by my colleague and dear friend, Dr. Baglow, introducing the timely importance of a course he offered this Spring at our Seminary called, The Emergence of the Image: Human Evolution from Scientific, Philosophical and Theological Perspectives. I wish I could take it! It offers seminarians the opportunity to become part of the solution to the crisis these statistics evidence.

Recently he invited microbiologist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., who teaches biology and bioethics at Providence College, to give a series of lectures on evolution. Fr. Nicanor received his Ph.D. in Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his doctorate in Moral Theology at the University of Fribourg.

One of his class lectures on “why would God choose to create through evolution” was recorded, and he wonderfully gave me permission to post his lecture for public consumption. I am so grateful! It’s over two hours long, the audio is not perfect, but I think it’s well worth your time. Enjoy…
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O Church: Serve the Sacred Secularists!

bookony.com

One very big obstacle to getting a significant number of lay Catholics to participate in missionary formation is the fact that, when this formation is complete, there will be no “job” for the “graduate” to perform. The current lay ministry formation processes run successfully on the hopeful premise that after lay students complete their formation they will be employed or given meaningful work by a pastor, or a hospital or a prison or some diocesan office. There is no such incentive for formation in the lay apostolate. This is a real hurdle to overcome if we are to attract larger numbers of parishioners to a formation in a theology of the laity. In short, after any education in the meaning of lay life is complete (if it ever really is), one will simply remain, for example, a plumber, a doctor, a truck driver, and will continue in the vocation of marriage, with two children, a dog, and a house payment. The missing incentive of getting to do pastoral ministry (e.g., being an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist or a visitor to the sick), cannot in itself abrogate the necessity of finding a way to offer such formation. To neglect this task is to neglect our duty to fill the world with secular missionaries. — Deacon James Keating

I met with some colleagues yesterday to discuss lay faith formation. You know, my same ole’ trope. Here’s my journal entry from last night. A collage of thoughts:

Every diocese, and every parish and Catholic institution in every diocese, should communicate unambiguously that their best energies are in service to lay Catholics called to live and move and have their being in the world, doing their secular things, and learning how to do them God’s way. In service to helping the lay faithful discover, embrace and carry out their noble secular vocations. Their best energies in service to the work of formation, catechesis, preaching, cultivating small faith communities, etc. All geared toward adequately resourcing those 99% of Catholics not called to church ministry but called to be salt, light and leaven in the lay apostolate. All geared toward illumining the specificities of people’s professional lives; the specificities of their life as faithful citizens in the ordinary, local, day to day worlds they inhabit; the specificities of their married/family lives; the specificities of their engagement with culture.

Those called and gifted for church ministry, ordained or not, need to be all about the specificities of these secular missionaries, experts in the actual details of the real people they are called to serve in the parish, school, nursing home, hospital, etc. under their care.

I remember when a reader of this blog 2 years ago wrote me and begged the church for this:

I am a cradle Catholic and a business owner. I have been very active in my parish for most of my adult life and I have had the benefit of having very orthodox priests and pastors in my life.

Here is my problem. A struggle every day with a whole variety of issues which challenge my ability to live my Catholic Faith in the business world, a world which is agnostic at it’s best and anti-Christian at it’s worst. I am dying for assistance on this, but what do I get at my parish? Homilies which deal with things too general to be helpful, from “do good and avoid evil” to immigration reform and abortion. Don’t get me wrong, I totally believe everything Mother Church teaches and I appreciate homilies which remind me of her teachings. But the Church also teaches us to live our Faith out in the world, and I am not getting any help on doing this.

So I beg you, Dr. Neal, to pursue your inspiration to find people who can speak to those of us in the secular world.

My business consultant friends tell me that if you want to find out how to improve service to your customers, you need to talk to the customers and ask how you can serve them. Even better, talk to former customers and find out why they left.

I’m not saying that the Church is a business, but I have never heard of a priest asking his parishioners for homily ideas. Actually, that is not quite accurate. I have heard many “church people” telling the pastor that he needs to deliver a strong message from the pulpit to the riff raff who show up late, are inappropriately dressed, leave early, etc. I’ve been on all the committees, so I know that the pastor is busy, but perhaps the pastor needs to talk to the riff raff to find out why they arrive late and leave early. And by “talk to,” I don’t mean send out a check-the-box questionnaire. I mean really get to know them, like a father knows his children.

Isn’t that how it is supposed to be?

I desire nothing more in my work as a theologian-catechist than to detonate this “lay apostolate” teaching of the Second Vatican Council in the midst of the ecclesiastical scene of America. I feel I am inept before such an immense task! I want to kiss the feet of those who are sent out into the world to live there, love there, work there, play there, witness there, struggle there, suffer there in order to bring every aspect of the secular life they inhabit into contact with the re-creating power of the living God.

The aggressiveness of anti-religious secularism begs for an equally impassioned religious secularism, an unleashing of the secular genius of the laity that does not withdraw into safe-zone ministries or world-renouncing enclaves insulated from society and culture, but a laity that boldly exits every Mass with a re-enkindled sense of their world-enhancing mission to imbue all-things-secular with the very earthy love of God.

In particular, two temptations can be cited which they have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world. — St. John Paul II

Those of us who are Baptized are living temples (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19), bearing within the fullness of a God who longs to take delight in His creation. As His image, we were created to be the locus of His delight in creation, the nexus of His love, the fire of His justice, the channel of His peace, the overflow of His mercy, a prism for the light of His Face to shine gloriously on all things He has made (Revelation 4:3). Man’s vocation is to reveal to all creation that His love for her transcends her finite longings. It is astonishing to think that it was by becoming man (John 1:14) that God chose to purify, reconcile (Isaiah 11:6-9), elevate, espouse (Isaiah 62:4) and reveal to all creation her final destiny of transfiguration in a New Creation where God will be all in all. The Incarnation was not just about us, but about the whole cosmos He entrusted to our care to cultivate and lift back to Him transformed and consecrated by means of our priestly hands (Romans 8:18-30; 12:1).

How God loves all He has made (Wisdom 11:24-12:1)!

St. Maximus says it beautifully:

…the Cause of all things, through the beauty, goodness and profusion of His intense love for everything, goes out of Himself in His providential care for the whole of creation. By means of the supra-essential power of ecstasy, and spell-bound as it were by goodness, love and longing, He relinquishes His utter transcendence in order to dwell in all things while yet remaining within Himself. Hence those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things; for he longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.

And the Word was made neurological, and dwelt among us

answering-christianity.com

Re-post from 2013

For all the good the Theology of the Body movement has achieved, there’s always more to be done. Recently, I was prompted to re-think what that might mean.

A friend of mine who is a psychotherapist and a woman of faith was sharing with me some of her research on the relationship between mental health and the body. More specifically, she’s fascinated by the interrelationship between biochemistry, neurology and emotional health. She said she’s always disliked the overly cognitive term “mental illness.” She said,

It makes people think that the problem is really just psychological, mental, that ‘it’s all in your head.’ But it’s very much a somatic problem, in your blood and your brain. The mind is a soupy web of bio-chemical and neurological tissues. That’s the stuff that hosts the soul. For me as a Catholic, when I examine the mind-blowing intricacy of all this I can see the human brain and body are really God’s masterpiece… Mental illness or wellness is inextricably rooted in biology … I’ve always hoped to see a more helpful coming together of brain science with the Catholic spiritual and moral traditions. Imagine if discussions of acquiring virtue interlaced with, for example, the research on neurochemicals. It would help scientifically minded people take more seriously church teaching, I think. Don’t you?

She shared with me some of her research into studies done on human emotion, and the various modes of treatment that can be used to help treat mood disorders or addictions. We talked more about how all this relates to the body-soul relationship and, after we spoke, I thought that any theology of the body that deals with sexuality must be open to understanding the meaning of sexuality not only theologically, employing sacramental-symbolic nuptial language, but also embrace its meaning as an organic mix of divinely fashioned fleshy-sinewy-hormonal complexity. To see divine artistry in our messy, oozing and fluid-secreting bodies is to see creation aright. God is the maker and lover of what we might call “clinical” or “gross.” I can’t help but think here of the words of Aidan Kavanaugh:

Human evolution began not in a neat suburbia, but in terrestrial swamps from which crawled not housewives in slacks and husbands in baseball caps but newts clothed in nothing but warts and slime…We began, Genesis says, not in the antisepsis of a laboratory but as a mud pie shaped by the same Force which either called or pushed the first newt out of a swamp…

Conversations about moral integration and chastity must be as attentive to the Book of Nature as to the Book of Scripture — to neuro-psychology as to the divine mysteries revealed in Genesis’ theologically charged creation narrative. Being made in the divine image, according to Genesis, includes the union of spirit and slime.

What evocative and engaging topics would arise from this exchange! The hypothalamus and chaste living. The medulla oblongata and the virtue of temperance. The frontal lobe and the redemption of erotic love. Clinical depression and the beatitudes. The hormonal dimensions of concupiscence. This talk of bio-virtue allows science, philosophy and theology to demonstrate the rich unity of truth. Imagine being empowered to connect the complex medical diagnostic jargon your doctor throws at you with St. Paul’s command to offer your body as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1).

Mrs. Jones, you’ve had a syncopal episode without any evidence of arrhythmia. I don’t think it was vagal but I ordered a 2D echo and holter. I still can’t rule out a vertebrobasilar event.

That’s the grit of what God wants you to offer to Him.

I’ve long thought we could capture this more “messy-soupy” and science-friendly approach to the Theology of the Body via the more graphic biblical word: flesh (basar-sarx). To me, this biblically rich word seems to evince human fragility in its concrete reality better than “body.” A Theology of the Flesh. This would complement the more abstract and idealized tendencies of much Theology of the Body literature.

Catholics celebrate the truth that human biology, divinized and transfigured in Christ, is forever glorified in the heart of the Trinity. In Christ, God assumed to Himself blood and nerves, tendons and bone marrow, hair and spit. In Luke 24:36-43 the risen Christ argues as much:

As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them. But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.

But there’s an even greater mystery here. God-made-flesh invites us not just to eat with Him, but to feed on His Flesh and Blood in the Most Holy Sacrament. And if the scientific tests on the Eucharistic miracles have any contribution to make to this topic, this great Sacrament reveals the glory of heart tissue. If you have 8 minutes, watch here:

Think about the Butterfly

imgion.com

A bit ago, I was sharing with my Confessor the story of how I came to meet my wife. {an aside: he’s a great Confessor, precisely because he asks really good questions and then follows the response with great interest all the way to the end, only to ask more great questions that take me deeper than I sometimes like} As I told him various “freeze frame” moments in our relationship, he kept taking me back further and further — even back to the time before we met. In fact, he had me think all the way back to the origin of my decision to leave Massachusetts and go to Florida State University (where I met Patti). I told him that decision originated in the office of the chief meteorologist at WBZ TV in Boston, Bruce Schwoegler. It was 1984 and I was myopic in my desire to be a weatherman. I went to “spend a day” with him. At the end of my time there, after he finished the 6 PM news, he told me that he highly recommended I consider FSU as it had a top notch Meteorology department. And it was, well, sunny Florida and not New England. From that moment on I worked to prepare myself for that journey south. My Confessor then said to me:

Do you think Bruce had any idea how many lives he had shaped by that one comment that day? For him, it was probably a throwaway piece of advice that he’s given to dozens of other weather aspirants. Yet, it was his comment that ultimately opened the door to your conversion to the faith, meeting your wife, having your children, your friendships, your jobs … Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect? It argues that the strength of a hurricane in the Caribbean is influenced by something as tiny as the flapping of the wings of a butterfly weeks earlier in Panama. That’s why we should never underestimate the effects our tiniest acts of fidelity can have on the future world; a future that filled with things that didn’t have to be this way. Just because we can’t see those effects or feel them, we often despair and say: “What good is the little I do? No one notices. No one cares. It doesn’t really matter.” But it all does matter. We tend to be so myopic and shallow in our judgment on the value of what we do, on what’s important or what’s not. On what God can do with our little nothings if we entrust them to Him with great love. The interdependence of all things is so staggeringly complex and intricate and delicate that just one decision, one smile, one sacrifice or one harsh word can change the course of history. For better or for ill. Even — I’d say especially — your interior life radiates out into the whole cosmos. Your most secret thoughts are, in fact, making it either easier or more difficult for those around you to follow Christ. Every day, begin with a prayer for the Spirit to guide your actions, that they will set in motion the uncountable goods that He wills. And at the end of every day entrust all your past actions to His mercy, asking Him to forgive the failures and bless the successes; and untangle any knots you may have tied up. On Judgment Day one of the things we will see — but then through God’s eyes — is this insanely complex web of impact we were part of. And we will be allowed to see our role in that web. I often think Jesus’ words, “I was hungry and you gave me food,” may come to us from people we’ve never even met. Though they weren’t fed by us directly, they were fed by the others we impacted, who in turn fed them. Generations later in the future. Think of that next time you feel your work is insignificant. When God chose Abram and Sarai, He didn’t say, “look at the ground in front of you and think of your next step.” He said, “Look at the stars in the sky and try to count! That’s the impact you will have on the world!” Their “yes” came and, holy cow, look at what’s happened. When God asked Abram to “Go!” He was thinking 1800 years in the future to Mary and Joseph and Jesus; or 3800 years later He was thinking of you. God’s plan is vaster than you could ever imagine, so discount the value of nothing.

What was amazing about this is that when I spoke with a friend of mine this last week, she unwittingly said nearly the same thing to me: “Tom, things you are doing now will only fulfill their purpose in your great great grandchildren.”

 

Co-hosting “In the Heartland”

Arinze

Bishop Pates, Cardinal Arinze and myself after the show. Photo by Lisa Bourne

Nick

Nicholas and Dad in 2009. Photo by Lisa Bourne

When I lived in Iowa, I served for three years as a co-host on a weekly radio show with Bishop Richard Pates which was aptly called, “In the Heartland with Bishop Pates.” The show was a real growing experience for me. I had zero interest in being a co-host when the Bishop asked me, but was grateful for the opportunity.

There were some embarrasing moments and some euphoric moments. Among the high points were interviews with the late Francis Cardinal George, Francis Cardinal Arinze, JP2’s close friend Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, and the day when my son Nicholas came to co-host with me at the Iowa State Fair while Bishop was away. My most embarrasing moment was on our fourth show, when Bishop Pates spontaneously asked me to explain my doctoral dissertation to listeners. I was thrilled as I had defended only a few weeks before. As I began to describe the dissertation thesis, the Bishop began to make frantic hand gestures toward me. Later I would discover that he was attempting to tell me I was speaking too loudly. Because his animated gestures continued throughout my whole explanation, anyone listening would have wondered how I got a PhD.

One of my favorite shows was a 2012 interview we did with a friend of mine, Dr. Damon Cudihy, Ob/Gyn. His personal story is a stark witness to the real costs associated with accepting and carrying out his call to holiness as a Catholic layman striving for moral and professional excellence. He’s a personal hero of mine. And he’s got an amazing family.

I include here the first 15-minute segment of the show. Pray for him and his family. Here’s his private practice in Louisiana. Listen here:

The Gospel of Math

Repost 2014 in honor of today’s feast

I used to have a t-shirt back in college that had this on the back:

I wish I had it again.

A physics professor I had in college once said, “If there is a God, his native language is math.” Adam Drozdek, in his Beyond Infinity: Augustine and Cantor, gave me my first deeper initiation into the frightening idea. He says:

To summarize, there are three important aspects of Augustine’s discussion of the problem of infinity. First, infinity is an inborn concept which enables any knowledge. Second, infinity can be found in the purest form in mathematics, and thus mathematics is the best tool of acquiring knowledge about God. Third, God is neither finite nor infinite and his greatness surpasses even the infinite. Augustine is original in combining these three aspects in his philosophy; some of them can be found in other philosophers and theologians, but also in mathematicians.

God’s infinity is of a higher magnitude, an infinity of different kind. God is able to comprehend [the sequence of all] infinities, as he is above infinity, he is the Absolute. His infinity is above all possible temporal (and spatial) infinity; it is an infinity of infinities, whose magnitude can be dimly imagined by means of mathematical infinity. It is an infinity of infinities also in that, as St. Augustine said in City of God, “all infinity is in some ineffable way made finite to God,” since no infinity is incomprehensible to God — he can count numbers without succession of thought. God is even able to count without numbers, which assumes that there is no number equal to the quantity of all numbers, that is, no number, to use modern parlance, expressing cardinality of integers (which is aleph zero). This is no hindrance to God who is able to see the entire sequence of numbers without looking at these numbers one by one. Infinity of these numbers can be grasped in one act of comprehension.

…The concept of infinity directs our eyes toward God, and in a sense the presence of infinity in us can be considered a proof of God’s existence: we, the finite and mutable beings, could not engender that concept ; who else could do it if not God? Also, infinity in us can be appreciated and known best through mathematics, through analysis of numbers. In that sense the existence of numbers can be considered a more fundamental proof of God than cosmological argument – since the world would not exist without numbers – and teleological argument – since the design and order in the world can be recognized only through numbers, since order and design are due only to numbers. Therefore, although ontological proof, announced already in Psalm 19:1 that “the heavens declare the glory of God,” has always been considered most important, Augustine could consider mathematical proof as the most fundamental: God exists since the number and infinity exist in our mind.

As a friend of mine aptly phrases it, reading Drozdek makes me feel like a dog watching TV: engrossed but uncomprehending.

With an eye to inciting some additional wonder, let me share two videos about math related to theological thinking. The first, about 4 minutes long, posits that the mind of God is mathematically, and so musically, inclined. The second, which my oldest son sent me, is about 9 minutes long and offers a persuasive approach to “falling in love with math.” I could never imagine such a thing. After watching it, I was convinced also that the speaker held a golden key to an effective catechesis seeking to awaken love in a people grown bored with (what they think is) Christianity. In St. Augustine’s Catholicism, faith-thinking is also good thinking that helps us navigate a world rife with fallacious reasonings. Faith opens to us an intelligible world in which faith and reason beat their wings in harmony, allowing our minds to soar in contemplating a world stamped by the mind of God, the divine Logos.

In the beginning was the Word [ho Logos],
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God;
all things were made through him,
and without him was not anything made that was made. — John 1:1-3

My son commented on this last video, “This is totally how the Church should approach its messaging.” Yes.

One:

Two:

In Summary…

wikimedia.org

This icon, when I posted it in 2013, was by itself (with no commentary) a complete daily Blog post titled, In Summary. The day after I posted it, I received an email from a long time friend. His reaction so moved me that I asked if I could post his email anonymously. I felt his reaction demonstrated eloquently the very point I was trying to make: the image of Jesus crucified surpasses all of my words, because it is truth, goodness and beauty perfectly fused into the one “word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18).

Here’s what my friend’s email said:

My dear friend!

I habitually open your blog when I feel hungry for inspiration in the morning. This morning I am preparing for a hard meeting amid a series of other difficulties that have made me cry out to God, “Basta! Enough!” out of dryness.

When I saw your simple post of the cross this morning my raw reaction was to let out an an expletive.

Then I started laughing. Then I started crying.

Ave crux, spes unica! Hail the cross, our only hope!

Keep teaching me from afar!

His email brought to mind the Peruvian St. Rose of Lima’s impassioned proclamation of the word of the Cross. She taught me through her words that the Cross is not only to be the supreme beauty that informs our contemplative gaze, but is to become the beauty that informs our whole existence. Here are her words, taken from the Divine Office for her Feast Day:

Our Lord and Savior lifted up his voice and said with incomparable majesty: “Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. Let them know that the gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase. Let men take care not to stray and be deceived. This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven.”
When I heard these words, a strong force came upon me and seemed to place me in the middle of a street, so that I might say in a loud voice to people of every age, sex and status: “Hear, O people; hear, O nations. I am warning you about the commandment of Christ by using words that came from his own lips: We cannot obtain grace unless we suffer afflictions. We must heap trouble upon trouble to attain a deep participation in the divine nature, the glory of the sons of God and perfect happiness of soul.”

That same force strongly urged me to proclaim the beauty of divine grace. It pressed me so that my breath came slow and forced me to sweat and pant. I felt as if my soul could no longer be kept in the prison of the body, but that it had burst its chains and was free and alone and was going very swiftly through the whole world saying:

“If only mortals would learn how great it is to possess divine grace, how beautiful, how noble, how precious. How many riches it hides within itself, how many joys and delights! Without doubt they would devote all their care and concern to winning for themselves pains and afflictions. All men throughout the world would seek trouble, infirmities and torments, instead of good fortune, in order to attain the unfathomable treasure of grace. This is the reward and the final gain of patience. No one would complain about his cross or about troubles that may happen to him, if he would come to know the scales on which they are weighed when they are distributed to men.”