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Aug. 25, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 50

John L. Allen Jr.

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Creation and evolution; A ‘new phase’ in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue?; More Mozart; How a Satanist became the ‘Man of Mary’; John Paul’s ‘miracle water’; Background on Benedict’s admonishment against working too hard


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Europeans are fond of saying that they have no equivalent of the American "creationist" movement, indirectly implying that they're too sophisticated for the anti-intellectual tug of religious extremism. (One might cattily respond that it's sometimes difficult to detect any religious pulse in Europe, extremist or not, but that's beside the point.)

In reality, while there may be no European movement that bears the "creationist" label, there are forces critical of the theory of evolution, however much of a minority they represent.

In the Catholic world, one prominent example is the Centre d'Etude et de Prospectives sur la Science ("Center for Studies and Prospectives on Science" or CEP), a group of 700 European Catholic scientists and intellectuals based in France. It's directed by a Catholic metallurgist and philosopher named Dominique Tassot, and it enjoys ties to some European bishops.

Tassot illustrates the forces gathering around Pope Benedict XVI as he takes up the question of "Creation and Evolution" in a Sept. 1-3 meeting with his former doctoral students in Castelgandolfo.

Tassot believes that recent experiments by a French colleague on sedimentation support a quasi-literal interpretation of Genesis regarding the physical age of the earth. This brings him close to a view known as "Young Earth Creationism," although Tassot says he is not a creationist.

Last week, I interviewed Peter Schuster, president of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, who will speak at the upcoming meeting with the pope. Schuster, a microbiologist, regards the evidence for evolution as beyond dispute. Tassot, who will not be at the meeting but who hopes to influence the pope's thinking, believes that scientists are wedded to evolution largely because they're trapped inside a "paradigm" and are unwilling to think outside that box.

I'm obviously not competent to judge the scientific discussion, but one observation I can make is that for Catholic intellectuals such as Tassot, the debate over evolution is a stalking horse for a much larger question.

What's at stake, as they see it, is the post-Enlightenment triumph of secular science over philosophy and theology as the dominant "frame" for construing reality. Tassot wants Catholic intellectuals to retake the initiative, so that alien worldviews do not set the borders within which Catholic thought moves.

The same concern shows up in other areas. It's the same impulse that has led thinkers such as Robert Kraynak, for example, to critique John Paul II's use of the vocabulary of human rights. Doing so, Kraynak worries, unintentionally smuggles a selfish Enlightenment-era assertion of one's rights into Catholic discourse, as opposed to more properly Christian concepts such as charity and sacrificial love.

At bottom, all this is about reasserting Catholicism's capacity to shape culture, rather than simply trying to carve out a modus Vivendi with secularity.

In that sense, Tassot's critique of evolution represents one front in a much larger battle. The full text of my interview with Tassot can be found on the Special Documents section of Excerpts appear below.

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Have you communicated your views to Pope Benedict?
Through Bishop Henri Brincard of Le Puy-en-Velay, I was able to get a letter directly on the pope's desk.

What did you say?
First, I reminded him that Pius XII in Humani Generis in 1950 suggested a debate inside the Catholic church on evolutionary theory, but it has never happened. I said that it's now time to open the debate, because in each discipline we can find people on both sides, which was not the case in the 1950s.

Second, I said that the impact of this debate is not just scientific. In itself, evolution is a scientific question, but it has consequences on a much larger scale. It opens a possibility for the church to regain the initiative in the field of culture. Right now, Catholic intellectuals spend their time explaining that such-and-such a theory is or is not compatible with the faith, which means that the initiative is always coming from other groups or movements. … If you accept that only science gives the truth, inevitably intellectuals will move inside a scientific worldview which is actually foreign to Christianity.

What was the pope's response?
He responded very positively, offering a blessing for our members and encouraging us to continue our contacts with the scientific world. He didn't say anything about the idea of launching a debate.

What was your reaction to the piece by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in the New York Times last July?
Schönborn didn't say that Darwin is or is not compatible with the Christian faith, but that Darwinism is wrong. From a theoretical point of view, that's quite different. He affirmed that it's possible for philosophy and theology to attain certainties which are higher than scientific certainties. That's something new from theologians. For three or four centuries, theologians have generally taken their lead from the sciences. This is a question of intellectual authority, and of course it stems from the Galileo case and so on. Little by little, authority has shifted from theologians to the scientists.

How should Benedict pursue the question?
I advised him that he should remain the master of this debate. By that I meant that he shouldn't delegate it to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, even though I couldn't quite say it that way.

What's wrong with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences?
It's not a Catholic academy. Instead, it's the place where the scientific worldview can enter inside the Catholic church. Two-thirds of its members are not Catholic. It's also the pontifical academy with the greatest number of Noble Prize winners, who are well known in their disciplines. I'm not questioning the quality of these people, but the meaning and use of this academy. … It exists almost by itself, and I'm not sure it's the tool for the pope that it should be.

Are you a 'creationist'?
No, because we arrived at our position before we even knew about creationists. Our position is different, first of all because we're Catholics. From what I can see, creationism is mainly a movement of evangelicals. … On scientific grounds, good relations with the creationists are possible, but it's a different position. We are not committed to a literal reading of the Bible. Catholics read the Bible in terms of church tradition, the fathers of the church, and so on.

You distinguish between 'micro-evolution' (development within a species) and 'macro-evolution' (development from one species to another), accepting the former but rejecting the latter.
This is what makes the book Truth and Tolerance (2003) by then-Cardinal Ratzinger so interesting, because he's one of the few theologians who understands this distinction.

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In his New York Times piece, Schönborn said something fairly incredible about the 1996 statement of John Paul II, in which the pope termed evolution 'more than a hypothesis.' Schönborn called it 'rather vague and unimportant.' People were surprised to hear him talk about it that way, but it's actually easy to understand. 'Evolution' is never defined in John Paul's statement. In philosophy, we're supposed to define everything, but that was not the case. As such, it's meaningless. What does it mean, for example, to be 'more than a potato?'

Do you think Benedict XVI will make a formal statement on evolution?
I think it's too early. I think he's using the meeting of his Schülerkreis to give a broader extension to the debate. Even if he knows where he wants to go, and I believe he does, it will take time. Most Catholic intellectuals today are convinced that evolution is obviously true because most scientists say so. To show that debate is possible on scientific grounds, and also on philosophical and theological grounds, is more than a question of a few months.

Where do you think the pope wants to go?
In the past, Cardinal Ratzinger was convinced that evolution was true, and being an intelligent man, he devised a way to make it compatible with theological truth. Today I think his view is different. … He grasps that micro and macro-evolution are not the same, and I think he believes people accepted an atheistic world view in relation to evolution because they accepted the confusion between micro and macro-evolution. He wants people to understand this important truth.

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In a system where so much depends on the man on top, who has the pope's ear is always important. Tassot derives some of his confidence about the pope's position from the fact that Benedict is on friendly terms with a leading anti-evolution European scientist, and a member of CEP, named Guy Berthault.

Berthault claims to have turned the science of dating sedimentary remains upside-down. The reigning assumption is that the deepest levels of remains are the oldest, and that the formations took shape over long periods of time. Berthault argues that sediment is formed by density, speed and geometry, not time. He performed experiments to test his theory at the University of Colorado in Boulder, using equipment capable of simulating powerful water currents.

As a result, Berthault says, the conventional methods of dating fossil remains could be off by millions of years, and the earth could be substantially younger than presently believed.

These claims, it should be noted, have been contested by other scientists.

As Tassot tells the story, Berthault and Ratzinger met by chance. Berthault was a director of a non-profit association that operates a conference center in the Alps, which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger occasionally used for theological gatherings. They got to know one another, and Berthault told Ratzinger about his research.

"I think that has had some influence," Tassot said. "It was an opportunity for Ratzinger to see that even on the scientific questions surrounding evolution, debate is possible."

On Aug. 6, Berthault wrote to Schuster to bring his research to the attention of the Schülerkreis. (I have a copy of that letter). It will be interesting to see if it has any echo in the seminar.

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Christianity is supposed to provide an "optic" for reading the world that is different from purely human logic. If that's true, one would expect Christians to make choices that defy conventional wisdom.

Traditionally, this has been the role of the martyrs. Less dramatically, however, one can also see it in ecumenists who are still committed to the vision of full, structural unity within the divided Christian family. Despite a fairly persuasive case for futility, ecumenists keep plugging away.

They go once more into the breach Sept. 18-25, when the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church meets in Belgrade, Serbia, after a hiatus of six years.

The last session, held at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, in 2000, ended in near-disaster after disputes over both papal primacy and the status of the Eastern-rite churches in communion with Rome. The original plan had been to treat these issues last, but the Orthodox demanded they be put on the table -- leading, predictably, to acrimony.

To be frank, there's not much evidence that the fundamental options of the two sides have shifted in the meantime.

While Catholics may be open to a more collegial expression of the papacy, they're still committed to a "primacy with teeth," meaning real authority, while most Orthodox seem interested in little more than a "primacy of honor." Similarly, while struggles between the Eastern rite churches and the Orthodox have calmed down on the ground, the theological evaluation of what the Orthodox pejoratively call "Uniatism" is likewise still polarized. (Orthodox often regard these churches as "Trojan horse" attempts to bring Eastern Christians into the Roman fold).

Still, Pope Benedict XVI has optimistically called the gathering in Serbia a "new phase in dialogue." Some 60 theologians are slated to take part, with representatives from 10 Orthodox churches, including the Russian Orthodox.

Paulist Fr. Ron Roberson, the U.S. bishops' expert on Orthodoxy, told me this week that despite the "big chill" in the international dialogue, there's evidence the climate has improved.

Roberson pointed, for example, to an exchange of delegations between the Vatican and the Serbian Orthodox Church, traditionally one of the most guarded members of the Orthodox family. There has also been, he said, a "warming of relations" between the Serbians and the Catholic hierarchy in Croatia, a rather stunning accomplishment given bitterness surrounding the wars of the Yugoslavian succession.

Roberson also pointed to growing cooperation between the Vatican and the Patriarch of Constantinople on environmental issues, and to a recent proposal by Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion of Vienna for a Catholic/Orthodox alliance in Europe on issues such as same-sex marriage.

Still, Roberson said that on the question of the papacy, he doesn't expect "earth-shattering changes in the next few years."

"For some Orthodox, rejection of the papacy is an article of faith," he said. "It's been that way for almost 1,000 years, so that it's become part and parcel of Orthodox identity."

Nevertheless, Roberson said he detects "some movement" among Orthodox theologians, calling it "the first steps toward a common understanding."

Asked what he will look for to determine the success of the meeting in Serbia, he mentioned three things:

  • Who shows up? In the past, he noted, not all Orthodox churches have been represented, and even those who say they'll come don't always materialize. "You never know until you get to the airport," Roberson said.
  • Will the meeting return to a document prepared for the 1990 session, titled "Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Status of the Church: Conciliarity and Authority in the Church"? Roberson said it may offer a new approach to the primacy.
  • Will the subject of the Eastern-rite Catholic churches be set aside, so that the dialogue can return to the original theological agenda set in the 1970s?

Roberson struck one other optimistic note, observing that the former Orthodox chair of the dialogue, Archbishop Stylianos of Australia, has been replaced by Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, Greece, a widely admired Orthodox theologian. http://johnallen.ncrcafe.orgJoin the Conversation
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"He knows Catholic theology extremely well, and that should avoid a lot of pitfalls," Roberson said.

Yet even here, dangers lurk. Zizioulas is suspected by some Orthodox of pro-Roman sympathies. A bit of gallows humor in Orthodox circles when Zizioulas became a metropolitan was that they had to give him the honor, because otherwise the Catholics would have made him a bishop.

Zizioulas will have to balance his ecumenical openness with a convincing defense of Orthodox principles, and it will be interesting to see him walk that tightrope in Belgrade.

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I noted last week that L'Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference, recently quoted Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna to the effect that Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was not a Mason.

"There's no foundation for his frequently mentioned membership in the Masons," L'Avvenire cited Schönborn as saying.

The statement was puzzling, since it's a matter of established historical fact that Mozart was initiated into a Masonic lodge in Vienna at the age of 28, and eventually became a Master Mason.

Speaking from Vienna, Schönborn spokesperson Erich Leitenberger told me this week the cardinal was misquoted. Schönborn's comment came in a brief interview shortly before a Mass in Chieti, Italy, Leitenberger said, and was misunderstood.

"The cardinal told me that the young lady from L'Avvenire obviously did not understand what he explained to her," Leitenberger told NCR.

"He said that all historians are of the opinion that Mozart was a Mason, there is much evidence for this. But at the same time it is necessary to understand that Freemasonry in the 18th century was a completely different thing from Freemasonry in the 19th or 20th centuries. There was no problem to be a deeply convinced Catholic and a Mason -- as is illustrated by the examples of many priests, abbots, etc. [who were Masons] in the late 18th century."

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The Feast of the Assumption was Aug. 15, and to mark the occasion thousands of pilgrims gathered at the Sanctuary of the Holy Rosary of Pompei, one of the world's most famous Marian shrines. Among other things, the pilgrims celebrated the 100th anniversary of the gift of the shrine to the Holy See in 1906 by Blessed Bartolo Longo, its founder and a tireless advocate of the dogma of Mary's Assumption.

Beatifying Longo in 1980, John Paul II called him the "Man of Mary."

If every saint (and near-saint) has an interesting story, some are more interesting than others, and Longo's may be close to the most interesting of all. He holds the singular distinction that he was once a priest -- but not of the Catholic church, or even of the Christian God.

Improbably, Longo was a priest of Satan.

He grew up in a Catholic household, but fell in with a different crowd when he went to Naples for law school. Attracted to the 19th century "Spiritist" movement, he began attending séances, and eventually became involved in a Satanic cult. He was formally made a priest, and regularly conducted Black Masses and other Satanic rituals for the better part of a decade.

Eventually, however, Longo came under the influence of a Dominican who brought him back to Catholicism. Longo became a lay member of the Dominicans' Third Order, taking the name "Brother Rosary."

Longo organized a petition drive for world peace from 1896 to 1900, collecting more than four million signatures in dozens of countries. For his efforts, he was nominated for the 1902 Noble Peace Prize.

At the same time, Longo also led a petition drive supporting the dogma of Mary's Assumption. More than 120 bishops signed, and the petition was given to Pope Leo XIII. Some questioned the idea of a layperson meddling in theology, but Leo declared that the Holy Spirit can speak through any of the baptized.

Longo did not live to see the proclamation of the Assumption by Pius XII on Nov. 1, 1950. Forty years later, however, John Paul acknowledged him as the father of "the promotional movement of the definition of the dogma."

The moral of this story? If a former Satanist can become the architect of an infallible papal declaration, maybe there's hope for us all.

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Catholicism has always been ambivalent about "popular religion." Church leaders point with pride to Marian devotions, Corpus Christi processions, and celebrations of saints' feast days, as evidence of the faith's deep roots in popular sensibility. Yet the same leaders often look askance when popular devotion erupts (think Medjugorje, Garabandal, or Bayside), concerned about the border between charisma and chicanery.

Thus it is that church officials have watched busloads of pilgrims arrive at Wadowice, the hometown of Pope John Paul II, drawn to the pope's "miracle water," with a certain weary caution.

The phenomenon began shortly after Pope Benedict XVI's May 27 visit to Wadowice, when Benedict referred to seeing John Paul soon raised to "the glory of the altars." Shortly afterwards, reports began to circulate about water forming at the base of a statue of John Paul in Rynek Square.

At first, people thought the appearance of the water was itself a miracle, but the mayor indicated that city officials simply thought the statue would look better with water at the base and had installed a pipe. Attention then shifted to whether the water had miraculous properties, regardless of where it came from. That's what draws pilgrims today, who fill water bottles from the statue in the conviction that, like the waters of Lourdes, it can bring some blessing.

Youth who flocked to John Paul were known in the Italian press as the "papa-boys," so Corriere della Sera has dubbed these pilgrims "tappo-boys," tappo being Italian for "cork."

Whatever its supernatural merits, the water is certainly a blessing for Wadowice, positioning it to become the Polish equivalent of San Giovanni Rotondo, the massively popular shrine of Padre Pio. Recently, a Polish company launched a gold-painted train, emblazoned with the John Paul motto Totus Tuus, to carry pilgrims from Krakow to Wadowice. With space for 155 disabled people, the train shows videos and photographs of John Paul on television monitors.

Devotion to the late pope in Poland remains fierce. Recently a film festival was cancelled in Lublin, where Karol Wojtyla taught, because its gift shop carried a T-shirt with the words, "I never cried for the pope."

All this suggests that when crowds chanted Santo Subito! during John Paul's funeral, they weren't really asking for a formal declaration. They were asserting a popular conviction that, like the tides, couldn't be held back even if officialdom tried.

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Summers in Rome have a sleepy quality. Even by that somnambulant standard, however, this summer has been strikingly devoid of papal activity.

Last Sunday, Benedict XVI supplied a theological rationale, citing St. Bernard, 12th century abbot of the famed Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux. He recalled Bernard's admonition to Pope Eugene III that excessive activity leads to "suffering of the spirit, turbulence of intelligence, and dispersion of grace."

"This warning is valid for every kind of occupation," Benedict said, "even those concerned with the government of the church."

I spoke to Cistercian Fr. Luke Anderson, Prior of St. Mary's Monastery at New Ringgold, Penn., for background.

What led St. Bernard to give spiritual advice to a pope?
Eugene had been Bernard's disciple at Clairvaux, and therefore he was amenable to correction from his former abbot. Bernard told Eugene that even if he had been raised to the highest level in the church, he should not abdicate his principles as a monk. He should hold on to his ascetical and mystical aspirations. Eugene had great respect for Bernard, who was probably the most prominent man of the 12th century.

Did Eugene follow Bernard's lead?
He took the advice, but like any reformer, he could only reform with the cooperation of those people he was trying to reform. Eugene took it seriously, but the results were mixed.

From what you can see, does Benedict XVI reflect Bernard's model?
Sure he does. Even though he was a diocesan priest, Benedict has a lot of monastic sympathies. He understands that no activity is valuable unless it's supported by the supernatural basis of faith. This is tough for any priest, because at the end of a day no one asks, 'Did you pray today?' The questions are always, 'Did you go to the hospital?' 'Did you take care of the bills?' and so on. Benedict understands the importance of contemplation. The Vatican is a busy place, and before becoming pope he had a very controversial role in the church as its defender of faith. You have to be a man of prayer to deal with all that.

As a Cistercian, is it encouraging to hear Pope Benedict cite St. Bernard?
Very much so, because it verifies that prayer is more important than action. Obvious activity is important, but its wellspring in prayer is what's fundamental.

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