Sometimes Contradiction Is The Most Catholic Thing

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

birth control.

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.

Immediate 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,

however unhappily.

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


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