'Hermeneutic of continuity' extends to reason and faith
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
Galileo’s scientific discoveries rocked the theological world. Today, with the astounding discoveries of genetic science about facts that don’t make sense without postulating evolution, we too are living through a similar paradigm shift.
The intellectual contribution of Catholic scholars has taken the form of a vast body of academic literature that practices a “hermeneutic of continuity”: i.e., painstakingly detailed interpretations of how new scientific discoveries need not be seen as contradicting the philosophical and theological truths affirmed by Catholic tradition.
The best Catholic minds have explained, in an intellectually enriching and exciting way, how the perennial principles of Thomas Aquinas are our indispensible resource for this project. My own mentor, from whom I learned my Thomistic understanding of evolution, was the great Dominican Benedict M. Ashley, O.P. (1915-2013).
There are many examples of great Thomists who rose to the challenge of modern science. They saw no need to practice a “hermeneutic of rupture”: i.e., they did not close their minds and deny any of the new truths discovered by science.
Instead, they practiced a “hermeneutic of continuity” reconciling Thomistic philosophy with evolution. To name just two outstanding examples among many, I think of Jacques Maritain’s brilliant work, “Toward a Thomist Idea of Evolution,” found in his book Untrammeled Approaches (1973), and also John Deely’s series on “The Philosophical Dimensions of the Origin of Species” in the academic journal The Thomist (1969).
The tradition continues today with the Dominicans writing at the superb Web site ThomisticEvolution.org, such as Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., who is not only an accomplished scientific researcher with multiple publications in his field, but also a celebrated theological thinker with an influential book, Biomedicine and Beatitude.
Another example of an excellent scholar is the Catholic philosopher Edward Feser, who has written outstanding books on Thomas Aquinas. Along with his criticisms of the “intelligent design” movement, Feser has shown how evolution can be understood in harmony with Thomistic metaphysics.
One of them is the French Catholic thinker René Girard, on whom I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation, and whom I believe has done important work synthesizing faith and reason about evolution.
A “hermeneutic of rupture,” however, would be an interpretation adhering to science-denying views. It is important to note that most people who are attracted to this way of thinking usually have good motives and legitimate concerns.
Their lack of the requisite scientific competence or expertise, however, leads them into elementary errors, like when they say the second law of thermodynamics disproves evolution.
“There’s a simple response to this, which is that the second law of thermodynamics says that things grow disorderly in closed systems, and the earth is not a closed system,” says physicist Sean Carroll of Caltech. “We get energy in a low entropy form from the sun. We radiate it out in a high entropy form to the universe.”
It is hard for me to see why past Church teaching about things like God creating Eve from Adam’s rib cannot be communicating the same thing whether that language is read figuratively or literally (i.e., literally in the historical sense, which means admitting the author had no intention of denying 21st-century genetic science).
It is hard to see why there is necessarily a magisterial discontinuity and a loss to the essential truth that such ideas express by taking them now, whenever they would contradict modern science, as speaking figuratively. Of course, we must still maintain that God has directly created every human soul.
The Adam’s rib story vividly communicates with its imagery that God intended man and woman to be intimately united in marriage. What is gained by insisting that theology is required also to read that story literally in an unhistorical sense?
Some interpreters see a doctrine of the special creation of Eve, soul and body, as necessitated by the text. Such views, to my mind, strongly encourage an unnecessary judgment of other interpreters (who decline to reciprocate the condemnation) as heretical or heterodox.
My conviction is that part of preserving a “hermeneutic of continuity” in the Catholic tradition must be to not deny the results of real science. The central conviction of Thomas Aquinas about faith and reason should guide us: i.e., if we deny what genetic science has demonstrated about human origins, then we do great harm to Christianity because, as Aquinas says (quoting Augustine), we would be offering “uncompelling arguments that would present non-believers with an occasion for ridiculing us.”
On that note, the detailed scholarly study, Creationism in Europe (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), in its coverage of the Polish priest who wrote recently in this newspaper, notes that his Polish “book is an exception, as many other Catholic publications present the Catholic Church as ‘evolution friendly.’”
A more representative example of the Catholic theological work from Poland on evolution is the excellent book God and Evolution, by Archbishop Jozef Zycinski of Lublin (1948-2011), first published in Polish in 2002 and then in English by Catholic University of America Press in 2006.
Archbishop Zycinski argues that both Christian anti-evolutionism and anti-Christian scientism are each regrettable fundamentalisms. The Archbishop rejects both extremes. Instead, he exhibits a “hermeneutic of continuity,” by reconciling scientific reason with faithful theology.
C.S. Morrissey is an associate professor of philosophy at Catholic Pacific College.