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Coyne, George V., S.J. “Evolution and the Human Person: The Pope in Dialogue."

George Coyne presents an interpretive article for John Paul II’s preceding statements on evolution and the human person. Coyne sets the context by starting with the historical background of the Pope’s statement which he describes in terms of three approaches to science and religion. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Church attempted to appropriate modern science to establish a rational foundation for religious belief. Paradoxically, this led to the corruption of faith and contributed to the rise of modern atheism. The founding of the Vatican Observatory in 1891 signals the second approach. Here the Church attempted to combat anticlericalism by a vigorous, even triumphalistic, agenda. Finally, the twentieth century has seen the Church come to view science as offering rational support for theological doctrine. Coyne cites Pope Pius XII who, in 1952, took Big Bang cosmology as “bearing witness” to the contingency of the universe and to its creation by God.

Still, in three prior statements and in the current one, John Paul II has taken a new approach. Though the Galilean controversy was important to the first two approaches, what Coyne takes to be the key element is John Paul II’s call for a genuine and open-ended dialogue in which science and religion, though distinct and marked by their own integrity, can contribute positively to each other. Dialogue sets the context for John Paul II’s discussion of evolution.

The discussion is, in fact, mostly scientific, drawing first from research in the life sciences, next from molecular chemistry to life in the evolving universe, and finally to the possibility of early primitive life on Mars and the discovery of extra-solar planets. John Paul II stresses that, though evolution is an established scientific theory, philosophy and theology enter into its formulation, leading to several distinct and competing evolutionary world-views. Some of these - materialism, reductionism, and spiritualism - are “rejected outright.” Instead a genuine dialogue begins as the papal message struggles with two views which may or may not be compatible: evolution according to science and the intervention by God to create the human soul.

Thus dialogue risks dissonance between science and religion. Revelation is given an antecedent and primary role compared with scientific discovery. Yet the religious message struggles to remain open, perhaps through a reinterpretation of what science tells us. One possibility would be the body-soul dualism taken by Pius XII. Instead John Paul shifts from an ontological to an epistemological interpretation of the appearance of what he then calls the “spiritual” in humanity. The message closes by indicating that the dialogue should continue. Here Coyne adds that in doing so we think in terms of God’s continuous creation through the process of evolution. Rather than intervening, God gives the world freedom to evolve and participates in the process through love. Perhaps this approach can preserve what is special about the emergence of spirit without resort to interventionism.

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