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Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Vatican and the Astronomer: Why George Coyne had to go

From what I can determine from recent pronouncements, the Vatican is not backing off the process of evicting Darwinism ("evolutionism") from its list of approved belief systems. Here's Cardinal Schoenborn proposing an evolution debate:
Cardinal Schönborn, who sparked a worldwide debate in 2005 with an article in the New York Times on the subject, called for clarification of the difference between the "theory of evolution" and "evolutionism," the latter understood as an ideology, based on scientific theory.

By way of example, the cardinal mentioned Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who saw in the publication of Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species," "the scientific foundation for their Marxist materialist theory. This is evolutionism, not theory of evolution."

The archbishop of Vienna warned against the application of this evolutionist ideology in fields such as economic neo-liberalism, or bioethical issues, where there is the risk of creating new eugenic theories.

[ ... ]

Cardinal Schönborn explained that the phrase meant that "the theory, as scientific theory, has been expanded with new scientific data, but of course that phrase cannot be interpreted as an 'Amen' of the Catholic Church to ideological evolutionism."

It should be obvious to any reasonable person that Schoenborn knows exactly what the issues around Darwinism ("evolutionism") are and he is not backing down.

Early last week ,the news broke that, as of August 19, Fr. George Coyne, 73, director of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory, had been replaced by Argentinian Jesuit Fr. José Gabriel Funes as the new director of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory.

Coyne, who had been director since 1978, had become well known to the news media in recent months because of his opposition to Cardinal Schoenborn who, with the apparent blessing of the Pope, has been attempting to put some distance between the Catholic church and Darwinism since July 2005.

Maybe too well known.

The background to the issue is that John Paul II had said that evolution was "more than a hypothesis" but immediately went on to disclaim any materialist interpretation of it, which certainly includes Darwinism. However, the pop sci media jumped on the first part of his statement like dogs on a rabbit, resulting in any number of essentially mistaken or misleading claims that the Catholic church "supports evolution." These claims are, of course, used by those who would foist Darwinism on an unbelieving public.

In the sense in which the Catholic Church supports evolution, Michael Behe, the much reviled ID biochemist, also supports evolution. (Behe is a practicing Catholic, by the way.) That is, Behe and Schoenborn accept that evolution happens. But so? That doesn't prove that Darwin was right about the power of natural selection or that the neo-Darwinists are right about anything at all. And those who revile Behe's views would be unwise to hope for much better from the Vatican.

Apparently, Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education (called by some here the "National Center for Selling Evolution") has attempted to spin Fr. Coyne's departure as a normal retirement. He told Dick Fischer at the ASA discussion group that a media account that suggested otherwise was tendentious:

... after all, Coyne is 73 years old, and his retirement could have been predicted in any case. And there's no reason to think that Coyne's successor's view differs from Coyne's ... "

Nice try, Glenn. But ... obviously, retiring Fr. Coyne just as the Vatican is seriously deliberating Darwinism and its effects is a message about acceptable avenues of dissent.

From what I can tell, B-16 is good at avoiding visible cow plops. So, however Coyne's successor may agree with his views, he will probably see that the Vatican observatory refrains from further direct conflict with Rome in a matter that does not even involve astronomy.

My own assessment (which appeared in part as a comment to an earlier story posted at Uncommon Descent):

The Catholic Church is many things, but one of them is - a large organization. Coyne was doing something that you just can’t do in a large organization - creating a public uproar around top management’s decisions.

Whether it’s GM or the RC church, you can’t run around implying to the press that the CEO is a yo-yo or the Pope is a dope. (I don’t, of course, mean that Coyne used those words, but … I think that if his opposition had been confined to lobbying scientists trusted by the Vatican, he would still have his accustomed telescope.

The Church is not North Korea. There are acceptable avenues of dissent. But the American media are not one of them.

Coyne's private theology is certainly a problem, but after all, he was not in the parish ministry. At his age, if he wasn't making a big deal of it, chances are others wouldn't either.

The problem is, he was making a big deal of it. At at time when the Vatican wants to and should want to blow clear of Darwinism, his actions implied that accommodation was possible. And he was b eng treated by science organizations as an authority.

Even that wouldn't have mattered much except that he started getting more media attention than the Pope and was treated as an authority by science orgnaizations.

Also, he was putting his institution on the public mental map in the worst way possible, short of a sex scandal. Most people did not know that the Vatican even had an observatory in Arizona.

Some might wonder why: "With all the suffering and social injustice in the world, how dare they take the donations of the faithful and use them for .... "

(Now, for my own part, I feel the same about the Vatican observatory as I do about its fabulous art collections: They are part of a culture and they serve a broader purpose. We always have the poor with us, and can help them whenever the opportunity arises. But I'd be naive to think that everyone sees the matter in this light ... )

So an institution like the Vatican observatory is best off to be respected by the editors of astronomy journals, and avoid involvement in an array of public controversies. Fr. Coyne seemed unwilling or perhaps unable to do that. It will be interesting to see how his successor fares.
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

A summary of tech guru George Gilder's arguments for ID and against Darwinism

A critical look at why March of the Penguins was thought to be an ID film.

A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove’s critique of Darwinism.

An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

O’Leary’s comments on Francis Beckwith, a Dembski associate, being denied tenure at Baylor.

Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.
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