June 23, 2005
-- Darren M. Henson
The evolution debate has once again taken center stage in Kansas, thrusting the state into the national spotlight. The situation at hand concerns a proposal before the Kansas Board of Education to adopt science standards that describe evolution as "merely a theory." By this construal, evolution is only one of a variety of ways to explain the diversity of life forms.
If this seems like déjà vu all over again, it is, almost. In 1999, Kansas became the focus of national scrutiny and the butt of many jokes when the Board of Education passed a resolution deemphasizing the role of evolution in state science standards. This was the work of several vocal conservatives and evangelical Christians on the board. After statewide elections changed the board dynamics, evolution was reinserted into the curriculum in 2001. Currently, board members have once again raised doubts about the worthiness of teaching evolution and are insisting on putting forth the concept of Intelligent Design (ID). The result has been statewide polarization.
The evolution skeptics want high school teachers to expose students to criticisms of evolution. Scientists object to the board's proposed inclusion of ID on the basis that it has not been subjected to scientific standards. They argue that ID is more of a "philosophy" and not specifically a science; scientific theories are subjected to rigorous peer review, repeated experimentation in different venues and laboratories, and are scrutinized in academic and scientific journals. Such has not been the case with ID, whose proponents have no intention of holding it to scientific standards.
Rather than admit to equivocations in defining "theory," last month the Kansas Board of Education organized six days of public hearings to debate the pros and cons of evolution. Two major problems arose. First, three board members of the subcommittee conducting the so-called debate publicly acknowledged that they already know how they are going to vote when the proposed recommendations come to the full board later this summer. To them, evolution is simply a theory without credible scientific evidence. Second, the scientists boycotted the hearings.
While the polarization in Kansas is deeply disturbing, what is even more disconcerting is the silence of pastors and bishops. At a time when much of the public perceives the Catholic Church as an unsympathetic moralizer and its bishops as less than glowing examples of moral rectitude, an opportunity presents itself for the Church to shine as a reconciler. The Church has a long history of addressing matters of creation, anthropology, science, and truth; church leaders can mediate in this unnecessary rift between creationists and evolutionists.
The reflections of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a Jesuit paleontologist, were highly influential in helping the Church weave the mounting scientific evidence supporting evolution with its tradition and understanding of creation. Teilhard postulated that in both the physical and spiritual worlds all living things partake of a common progress toward greater fulfillment, spontaneity, and consciousness. He described this as an upward spiral with all things culminating in the Omega Point.
While Teilhard's positions were suspect in his day, the underpinnings provided by Teilhard's thought can be seen in subsequent papal statements. Pius XII's encyclical Humani Generis (1950) was the first to mention evolution. He described it as a serious hypothesis with no opposition to human faith. John Paul II took a more notable step in 1996, in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He recognized that evolution is more than a mere hypothesis, and that years of rigorous research have mounted evidence in favor of evolution. John Paul spoke of various evolution theories and philosophies to support it.
It is regrettable that the Kansas bishops have yet to vigorously embrace this rich piece of Catholic tradition. While many bishops are eager to assume activist roles and make public announcements, the range of topics seems severely limited. It appears clear that one of the bread-and-butter theological topics, the interplay between faith and reason, does not quite fit within the scope of their PR campaign.
One might hope that the Spirit of unity will find its way to Kansas and the fifteen other states facing similar conversations. Bishops and pastors would do well to enthusiastically adopt a fundamental mission of the Gospel by helping two embattled sides seek peace, mutual understanding, and reconciliation.
Darren M. Henson is a pastor in the Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas.