Have you browsed the Faith and Science Resource here at VaticanObservatory.org recently? On the first and third Wednesdays of each month we briefly feature on Sacred Space Astronomy an item from the Faith and Science pages.
Today, however, we begin an in-depth look at something from those pages: the book Negotiating Darwin: The Vatican Confronts Evolution, 1877-1902. Those interested in the topic of Faith and Science will learn a lot from reading this book, which was written by Mariano Artigas, Thomas F. Glick, and Rafael A. Martínez and published by Johns Hopkins University Press (2006). The book’s subject matter is evolution, of course—that topic that always features so prominently in so many “faith and science” discussions. But Negotiating Darwin also touches on astronomy, or astronomy’s history, in a very important way.
Negotiating Darwin introduces its readers to six cases of controversy that arose in the late nineteenth century. Each case popped up because of what one Catholic writer or another had to say about Darwin’s theory of evolution. The book treats each case with a chapter. Some chapters are much longer than others, owing to the varying complexities of the different cases.
But the book’s authors emphasize how in all these cases what is notable is how little action the Vatican took in each of them, and how the Vatican had no set approach, agenda, nor policy regarding evolution. The title of the last chapter, in fact, is “The Church and Evolution: Was There a Policy?” It quickly answers that question: no, there was not.
And as the Vatican confronted evolution in this time, it issued no official pronouncements or judgements on the subject. Nevertheless, lots of people both within the Vatican and without had lots of opinions on the subject; lots was said; lots was published in various journals and magazines; lots of individuals did lots of things. The authors of Negotiating Darwin note how—because there were so many opinions and so much written and done, and yet so little official action—over the past century various secondary and tertiary writers have stepped forward to discuss, based on no first-hand information, what the Vatican was “really” saying about Darwin and evolution.
The authors contrast their work to the work of those secondary and tertiary writers. Negotiating Darwin is based on archival materials that the Vatican opened to scholars in 1998. These materials, the authors point out, show that those secondary and tertiary writers have often been mistaken or imprecise in their assessments. Often the mistakes and imprecisions of these writers were passed on, especially through textbooks, to “generations of seminarians, priests, and professors the world over” who “studied Catholic theology textbooks in which it was explained that the Holy See had acted against evolutionism in these cases [page 24 of Negotiating]”. Yet the archival records “clearly show that no official doctrine existed in the Catholic Church regarding the issue of evolutionism [page 123]”. Thus the authors emphasize “the need to present the new archival data objectively. Only in this way is it possible to get beyond erroneous ideas that have held sway for more than a century and to prevent the emergence of new myths [p. 31].”
Understanding this archival data requires understanding something about the various functioning bodies within the Vatican. One of the more engaging sections of Negotiating Darwin is found within the first chapter (“New Documents”). Here (7-14) the authors discuss both the Holy Office and the Congregation of the Index and how these bodies functioned.
The authors give their readers only basic information about the Holy Office. It was once also known as the Roman Inquisition, now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It had and has a broad and important role regarding matters of faith and morals.
The authors give readers much more information about the Congregation of the Index and the Index of Prohibited Books that it published from 1596 to 1917. Compared to the Holy Office, the Congregation of the Index was much less important in function and rank; its decisions were less important; its mission was much more concrete and modest (277). Negotiating focuses on the Congregation of the Index because, when there was Vatican action in the six cases that the book discusses, it was the Congregation of the Index that acted. This is despite that fact that those previously-mentioned secondary and tertiary writers have often implicated the more-important Holy Office in the proceedings of these cases, something the authors point out repeatedly (e.g. on pages 203, 234-235, 277, 279, etc.). But the authors state directly: “the Holy Office played no role in any of these cases ”.
What is more, while there were “official acts of the Congregation of the Index” in these six cases (in contrast to the Holy Office), there were never “public acts ”, or at least none recognizable as such. The competence of that Congregation “was ordinarily limited to examining publications and determining whether they should be listed on the Index of Prohibited Books”. But when the Congregation condemned a book to the Index, “the decree of condemnation [of a book] was all that was made public” and “the reasons for the condemnation were not specified ”.
The only book to be so condemned for its treatment of evolution was the 1877 book, New Studies of Philosophy: Lectures to a Young Student by Fr. Raffaello Caverni, who had served as professor of physics and mathematics in the seminary of Firenzuola. But the authors of Negotiating Darwin note that “the only decision made public was the prohibition of the book. One might equally conclude that the book was condemned for its critique of the ecclesiastical world, or for the criteria it proposed for scriptural interpretation ”. Since the book’s title made no mention of evolution, “no one not directly involved in the matter would even have suspected an intent to condemn Darwinism ”. Thus “the condemnation was hardly noticed and, even today it has been supposed that Caverni was condemned, in good part, for his critique of the ecclesiastical world ”. What is more, “when actions of the Holy See adverse to evolutionism have been discussed, the case of Caverni is almost always omitted ”. In the other five cases, the Congregation of the Index took no public action of any sort.
Negotiating Darwin reveals the workings of the Congregation to be remarkably haphazard. When there was a complaint against a book, the secretary of the Congregation “was obliged to examine it and to name referees, called ‘consultors’, to do likewise”. Then “a written report was prepared for presentation at a meeting with the consultors and, afterward, at another meeting of the full Congregation of the member cardinals, who composed a definitive resolution submitted for the pope’s approval .” If a book was founding wanting, “a decree was published whereby the book was added to the Index ”.
But new editions of the Index were not issued with any regularity (10). And the consultors and cardinals who were members of the Congregation of the Index did not attend meetings regularly. The Congregation consisted of twenty to thirty cardinals during the time covered by Negotiating Darwin, but meetings were usually attended by five to ten (11). There might be multiple reports sought from different consultors, with the views of the consultors not agreeing with each other at all: in the case of Fr. Dalmace Leroy and his 1891 book The Evolution of Organic Species, Congregation consultors/referees wrote six different reports over time. The consultors themselves knew the weakness of the process: one of the consultors writing on Leroy’s book suggests that the cardinals not prohibit the book, but rather just warn the author through his superiors to issue a retraction on his own; this would show consideration for the good intentions and the good intellectual and moral qualities of Leroy, “who would not see his book explicitly condemned, while other books like it, that have not been denounced, circulate freely ”.
Thus Negotiating Darwin paints a picture of the Congregation of the Index that resembles an academic committee. Members have other priorities than attending meetings. Reports can be heavily reflective of the views of the referees and thus inconsistent. The Congregation does not attempt a broad review of books in general, and so the only books to get reviewed for listing on the Index are the ones about which someone complains. It is no surprise that in the twentieth century popes by steps dissolved the Congregation and then the Index itself, the last edition of which was published in 1948 . It is also no surprise that in five of the six cases discussed in Negotiating Darwin, the Congregation took no official action, and opted to either privately communicate with authors or to take no action of any kind.
The lack of much action by bodies such as the Holy Office or the Congregation of the Index means that the bulk of Negotiating Darwin deals with the actions of individuals: members of the Congregation of the Index, people who reported books to that Congregation, authors of the books in question and their friends and critics. Most of this material is interesting and relevant. However, at certain points the authors diverge into material not so clearly important to the subject of the Vatican confronting evolution in the late nineteenth century.
This is especially true in the lengthy (79 pages) fourth chapter, “Americanism and Evolutionism”. This chapter covers the case of Fr. John A. Zahm, CSC, a professor at the University of Notre Dame in the United States. The authors of Negotiating argue that in Zahm’s case the idea of “Americanism”—which they describe as “not a movement… but rather an attitude that initially sought to ‘Americanize’ the Catholic Church in the United States ”—significantly influenced events. Americanism was about “conceding great importance to American values and adapting the Church to the social and political context of the United States”; it “placed special emphasis on everything related to democracy and the separation of church and state…. [and] supported modernizing the Church to adapt it to the ideas of the epoch”.
A substantial portion of the chapter, and thus a noticeable portion of the book, focuses on Americanism. There is much discussion regarding an Americanist book, the 1891 The Life of Father Hecker by the Paulist priest Fr. Walter Elliott (161-164, 169-177). When the reader is deep into the discourse on Elliott’s book, which is in turn deep in the broader discussion of Americanism, with the narrative jumping back and forth in time in a dizzying fashion, the science of evolution seems very far away.
Negotiating Darwin could have given material such as Americanism a much briefer, more focused treatment, leaving plenty of room for its authors to spend more time on other things that they touch on—such as some matters of science, and of course, such as The Galileo Affair. Unsurprisingly, Galileo pops up on page 5 of Negotiating Darwin, and appears many times thereafter. Galileo, and the whole subject of science, will be the subject of my post for next Saturday! (click here for that post)