Fortunately, we're having a unity problem these days. For those
who are upset by it, it may be that they have confused unity of heart with
uniformity of mind. Pity.
The Roman Catholic charism of unity is an effective and
admirable trait. It gives the church clarity. It gives the church great
social power, too. When Rome speaks, the world assumes, six million
Catholics around the world march. Certainly their bishops do.
That makes it easy, from era to era, to burn heretics at stakes,
or condemn scientists, writers, and theologians or to leaflet for political
candidates in church parking lots, maybe, after the local pastor reads the
local bishop's moral evaluation of a candidate's moral mettle. And all of
that in defiance of all other history and writings of the church to the
That kind of unity makes the church a clear sign, a political
force to be reckoned with. It also too often, too many times, makes it an
institution to be feared or ridiculed. As a result of its singular social
impact, in ways few other religions experience, Catholicism easily becomes
overly identified with public issues and intellectual underdevelopment.
In fact, Catholic Christianity is a most unique religion where
religions are concerned. Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims all embrace
common sets of values, common practices, common concepts of God and
morality, of life and death, many of them not unlike our own. At the same
time, unlike Catholicism, they have no global command center that purports
to speak for all of them, let alone to give all of them orders.
The difference is anything but neutral in its effects.
Protestant churches, history records, commonly split when they
have a disagreement. They simply go away and leave one another in peace.
Catholic congregations, on the other hand, commonly shift into
silence. Catholic parishioners who disagree with the current theological
interpretations of the church, often move to the margins of the institution
to wait for better days, still Catholic but skeptical of immediate postures.
Scientists agreed with Copernicus and Galileo, for instance, but ceased to
say so after Galileo's trial. Some Catholics, on the other hand, simply
leave the church entirely when they themselves cannot reconcile the
tradition they love with the demands of their own conscience. As many did in
recent decades, for example, over the laws of the church on marriage and
As a result of such organizational impact on the civil society
around it, the public face of the church is an imposing one to some, a clear
beacon in the dark; to others, a danger to the common good.
Clearly, unity -- the strength and the glory of the church --
has its dark moments.
Riven by the reformist debates of the 16th century, the Roman
Catholic church learned the hard way to prize unity. Then it learned at
Trent how to impose it to the point of unthinking conformity. It learned to
discipline and excommunicate and punish those who raised new questions too
soon or new answers too confidently. Unlike the Greek church which weathered
the iconoclasm controversy without schism simply by living through it for
generations, Rome has always had a penchant for answers. Quick ones.
As a result, guidelines, guesses, by-gosh-and-by-golly get short
shrift in Rome. We have answers. Let the rest of the world wonder and worry
about new ideas, new trends and tendencies, but not us.
That's why a little ferment in the church of Rome is such a
fascinating, such an interesting, and maybe, such a healthy thing. The
notion that we might admit we have questions and allow experts in each field
to work out the answers in public before declaring them to be "what we have
always taught" gives the world a model of search and discernment long
overdue in a church that preaches a theology of the Holy Spirit.
If so, we seem to be in the middle of it now. Cardinal Christoph
Schonborn of Vienna, purportedly a personal friend of Pope Benedict XVI, has
publicly declared -- in an op ed piece in The New York Times of all places
(July 7. 2005) that neo-Darwinian evolution as taught now is contrary to
Catholic doctrine. And this in the face of the almost universally
acknowledged findings of science that evolution is now established science,
not mere speculation.
What's more, Schonborn dismissed the statements of Pope John
Paul II to the Vatican Academy of Science that evolution is no threat
whatsoever to Catholic doctrines of creation and the nature of God, as
"vague and unimportant." The findings of the International Theological
Commission, under the presidency of then Cardinal Ratzinger, that saw no
incompatibility between God's providential plan for creation and the results
of a truly contingent evolutionary process in nature he does not even
Instead, Schonborn rests his position on a 1985 document on
creation and counsels that "intelligent design," a variation of the
fundamentalist position on creationism as a direct act of God, should be
taught to all Catholic children. Or to put it another way: he suggests, as
far as the scientific community is concerned, something tantamount to
arguing that the Providence of God is better understood if we teach that the
world is flat, circumnavigation or no circumnavigation.
But all of that, however important, is not what's newsworthy
about the incident. In fact, we've had centuries of situations where
traditional church thought has been challenged by emerging experience,
What's important in this case is that George J. Coyne, S.J.,
head of the Vatican Observatory, a 73 year old scientist of international
repute, has answered the op ed piece, also in public and with even more
pointed and professional comments. (See God's chance creation.)
Coyne says, "If they respect the results of modern science and,
indeed, the best of modern biblical research, religious believers must move
away from the notion of a dictator God or a designer God, a Newtonian God
who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly." We cannot, he
argues, go on attempting to deny the findings of science to fit older
theological formulations of doctrine.
Theology is not science and cannot afford to sound as if it is.
The fact is that theology has no better definitions of God than science
does. God is God. Above human definition. Beyond human analysis. Outside of
human understanding. None of our theological formulations will ever
accurately define that, will never adequately tell us how God works. Or why.
Not if God is really God.
It looks like we're in another one of those crossover moments in
time when quick answers could doom us.
From where I stand, it also looks as if "The Tablet," the
London-based English Catholic weekly that released Coyne's article this week
might be making the same point about the relationships between Catholic
theology and Catholic journalism.
The loss of Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese (See NCR May 20, Editor of
Jesuits' America magazine forced to resign under Vatican pressure and From
Where I Stand May 12, Do not weep for me, weep for yourselves.) as editor of
the U.S. Catholic publication America, for presenting both sides of a
subject -- the very nature of good journalism --rather than simply the
official Catholic position, brings the whole notion of the role of the
church in the operation of secular disciplines into question. The
differences between the way the two deal with any given topic ought not to
be automatically seen as either a weakness of the faith or a sign of
infidelity in the discipline.
See what I mean? Uniformity and unity are not synonyms. Thank