Catholicism, evolution and intelligent design
by Darren G. Poley
Physicist Stephen M. Barr delivered the John Paul II Legacy Lecture 2006 March 28 in Falvey Memorial Library’s first floor lounge. Offered the week prior to the first anniversary of John Paul’s death, Dr. Stephen Barr’s talk, “Untangling Evolution: Catholicism, Evolution and Intelligent Design,” was the first in this new lecture series dedicated to exploring the many facets of the ministry and teaching of the late pope.
Given John Paul’s seemingly controversial statements on the relationship of science and religion (particularly his comments on evolution made to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996), and because of the timeliness of the recent Kitzmiller et al v. Dover (PA) Area School District case concerning teaching intelligent design as a scientific alternative to Darwinian evolutionary theory, scientist Stephen M. Barr was invited to speak on the topic.
Barr, a Roman Catholic, is the author of the book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (University of Notre Dame Press, 2003) and is a member of the editorial advisory board of First Things, a journal published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life.
Barr’s talk, which engrossed the large audience of students, faculty and staff, provided an understandable framework for knowing what is and is not at stake, particularly for Catholics, when it come to these issues. Early in the lecture Barr stated, “One can find many shades of opinion on the subject of evolution, but basically there are two major battles going on simultaneously that involve evolution and religion. The first is the creationism vs. evolution battle. The second is the intelligent design vs. neo-Darwinism battle.”
Barr went on to illustrate the arguments and concepts that commonly come into play. He traced the history of the debate, highlighting the Catholic Church’s traditional openness of to theistic evolutionary theory, concluding “the Catholic Church has never had a quarrel with evolution or the Darwinian theory of natural selection acting on random genetic mutations per se. These theories pose no danger to traditional Catholic belief or orthodoxy. Catholics are therefore free to follow the evidence wherever it may lead. That is what the Church has wisely taught and continues to teach.”
Barr remained for more than an hour afterward to answer questions from the engaged audience.
After earning his Ph.D. at Princeton University, in 1987 he joined the Bartol Research Institute, now a research center in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Delaware, where he is a professor specializing in elementary particle physics.
Rev. Daniel E. Doyle, O.S.A., S.T.D., an assistant professor of theology and religious studies, inaugurated the Legacy Lecture series with a short précis on the life and work of the former pontiff.
The Pope John Paul II Legacy Lecture 2006 was a collaborative effort co-sponsored by Falvey Memorial Library, the Office of Mission Effectiveness, the departments of theology and religious studies, physics and biology. In conjunction with Mission Effectiveness and other interested departments on campus, the Library anticipates hosting a lecture in this new series every year around April 2 to explore the resonating effects of John Paul’s twenty-six year papacy. If Pope John Paul II looms large in history it will certainly be because his ministry touched upon so many aspects of intellectual life.
Darren G. Poley is Falvey’s Coordinator of Programming and Outreach; photograph by Laura Hutelmyer