Twice each month we briefly feature here on Sacred Space Astronomy an item from the Faith and Science Resource Center here at VaticanObservatory.org. But today we continue an in-depth look (that we began last Saturday) at something from those pages: the book Negotiating Darwin: The Vatican Confronts Evolution, 1877-1902, written by Mariano Artigas, Thomas F. Glick, and Rafael A. Martínez and published by Johns Hopkins University Press (2006).
The subject matter of Negotiating Darwin is evolution, of course, focusing on six cases of the Vatican confronting evolution when various Catholic writers wrote controversial works on the subject of Darwin’s theory. But astronomy, or its history, also shows up in a very important way. And what shows up? Galileo, of course! He pops up on page 5, and appears many times thereafter. In a sense, he should pop up even more than he does, because of certain parallels between The Galileo Affair and the Vatican confronting evolution in the late nineteenth century. These parallels fall in the area of science.
The authors discuss matters of science. They emphasize (pages 20-21 of Negotiating Darwin) how the late nineteenth century saw an “eclipse of Darwinism”: scientists at that time did not agree on a mechanism for evolution; “Darwin himself, in successive editions of Origin… retreated on his claim that natural selection was the sole mechanism of evolution”; “the death knell of Darwinism was sounded at the highest levels of British biology”. The authors write that,
Three outcomes of the eclipse of Darwinism are important to our story. First, the abstract quality of evolutionary discourse in the 1890s made it an obvious target for the kind of Catholic apologetics that we observe in the six cases [discussed in Negotiating Darwin]. Second, the absence of consensus on how competing hypotheses might be tested created a climate propitious for Catholics to advance their own hypotheses…. Third, the lack of agreement among scientists on evolutionary mechanisms gave rise to one of the great shibboleths of religiously based anti-evolutionism, both among Catholics and Protestants: the disagreement of scientists was interpreted as proof of an inherent weakness of the general theory of evolution.
This third item, the supposed weakness of the theory of evolution, pops up throughout the book. Throughout the book critics of evolution from within the Church are seen bringing up its scientific weakness:
- Negotiating Darwin describes Adolphe Tanquerey, the author of widely read theology textbooks, as saying that “the traditional meaning of the Bible should be maintained if there is no prudent reason to abandon it [page 25]”
- Negotiating Darwin describes Luigi Tripepi, a consultor for the Congregation of the Index (see last Saturday’s post for a discussion of this Congregation) as arguing that “the literal meaning of Scripture should not be abandoned, unless it leads to a patently absurd conclusion [p. 86]”
- Negotiating Darwin quotes Enrico Buonpensiere, consultor, rector of the Dominican Studium in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva: “But it remains to be demonstrated in the present case whether the conclusions of the Church Fathers or that of the moderate evolutionists accord with the truth. And so long as the contrary is not clearly demonstrated, it seems very just to me that Catholics should follow the understanding of the Fathers, based on what Scripture says ”; likewise Negotiating Darwin tells the reader that Buonpensiere argues that “the interpretation of the words of Genesis, based on the hermeneutic rule that the obvious, natural sense of biblical words should not be abandoned unless it leads to absurd conclusions, which does not happen in this case ”
- Negotiating Darwin describes Francesco Salis Seewis, a Jesuit journalist, as seeking “to persuade his readers of the lack of scientific arguments in favor of evolutionism ”; and quotes him as saying that when the theory of evolution arose:
Catholic apologists displayed unanimity and took the position that the subject required, staying within the compass of science and from there relentlessly unmasking the emptiness of that hypothesis and its ostensible demonstration…. Science having declared that evolutionism… is a myth, has only us believers to sustain it against the crude dogmatism of the unbelievers…. [R]eligious feeling, at least in the way we and most believers experience it, rebels against the idea of denying both science and the doctrines taught by the Church in order to base the concept of Creation upon the dream of minds agitated by incredulity 
- Negotiating Darwin quotes Salvatore Brandi, another Jesuit journalist:
The first impediment to accepting evolution for educated Catholics comes not from the fear of contradicting the Bible, but from the scientific insufficiency of that system, that is, the absolute lack of evidence that confirms it, whether as a theory or as a hypothesis. In this situation, it seems to me that whoever stubbornly defends the theory of the human body’s descent from a monkey or any other animal, against the traditional views of the Church Fathers, can with good reason be called rash [228-229]
- Negotiating Darwin describes the Reverend Jeremiah Murphy as saying “that it is not necessary to abandon the literal meaning of Scripture when speaking of the creation of man, unless the evolutionists show there is sufficient reason to do so ”; it quotes Murphy:
The Fathers and theologians, who are the best qualified to interpret such texts, tell us, with the most extraordinary unanimity, that the literal sense is the true one… And what is the ground for contradicting it here? The evolution theory—a theory, however, confessedly not proved, not even provable, but pointed out as “scientifically probable” by “analogy”—“a misleading guide.”… “We have very strong reasons—conclusive reasons—for assenting to the literal meaning of Gen. ii. 7; but have no reason, or at best a “misleading” one, for dissenting from it; then I say, we cannot reasonably abandon that meaning: to abandon it would be against reason, as well as against faith…. [N]ow that the evolution theory is known, it has been, as Dr. Elam says, “weighed in the balance, and found wanting” [246-247]
Thus the authors of Negotiating Darwin state that “evolutionism was viewed by many Catholic theologians as a materialist and agnostic ideology based on a scientific theory that had no serious foundation ”. Here the authors see similarity between evolution and Galileo:
An evident similarity between the two cases is that both were theories that were not as yet firmly established among scientists. In the case of Galileo, in the seventeenth century, the eleven theologians of the Holy Office whose opinion was sought began by saying that the theory (that the Earth moved) was absurd; once this proposition was introduced, it was easy to dismiss it from the theological point of view. In the case of nineteenth-century evolutionism, theologians presented a whole series of scientific objections, supported by references to, and statements by, scientists, to make the point that it was not logical to base an appeal to theology on such a weak foundation. In both cases, as the scientific arguments grew stronger, theological resistance decreased .
Negotiating Darwin seems to be telling us that what held for evolution and Darwin in the late nineteenth century held for heliocentrism and Galileo two and one-half centuries earlier. That makes some sense. Certainly parallels are visible—a discussion of evolution by Salis Seewis (138-139) certainly contains echoes of what Robert Bellarmine said about heliocentrism.
However, Negotiating Darwin says that “there was no calm, objective discussion of heliocentrism ”, in contrast to the situation with evolution. But one of my areas of research is the scientific opposition to heliocentrism (discussed often here on Sacred Space Astronomy), and I have found that opposition to be objective, calm, and scientifically strong. In Galileo’s time many viewed heliocentrism as a scientific theory that had no serious foundation.
Of course, in Galileo’s case, Pope Urban VIII, Galileo’s one-time “brother” who wrote poetry in his honor, got angry with him, and launched into a papal hissy fit. Urban had Galileo tried and sentenced to house arrest, and thus the science side of the Galileo story has been overshadowed by the story of his mistreatment. But the science side is still of interest, and important. Negotiating Darwin suggests that we can learn more about the science side of The Galileo Affair by looking at how the Vatican confronted evolution in the late nineteenth century.
More than that, Negotiating Darwin suggests that we consider how the Vatican should have confronted evolution in the late nineteenth century, or heliocentrism in the seventeenth century. As we saw in last Saturday’s post, its mechanisms for studying such ideas are as inefficient and ineffective as an academic committee. And scientific ideas can be both wrong and consequential: “scientific racism” and “polygenism” arose in the nineteenth century, claiming that we could weigh human beings in the balance and determine who was truly human and who was really more akin to ape, and that people of differing appearances might have differing origins, so that human beings were not all of the same family—not all “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve”, as C.S. Lewis called human beings in the Narnia Chronicles. Should the church then say nothing about scientific ideas, even if its mechanisms for analyzing those ideas are less than perfect?
Negotiating Darwin is a pretty cool book. It is a great item, I think, to have on the Faith and Science Resource Center here at VaticanOservatory.org. There are other things like it on the Resource, so click on the Resource link and spend some time exploring.