This article appears in the Feb 2006 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

A Reply to Lord Winston

In medical practice it is the consultation that reveals the personality of the patient; in journalism it is the interview. But there are categories of interviews, the interrogative form pursued by Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys, or the leisurely sofa dominated event conducted by David Frost. It is the latter variety that achieves greater penetration. Such a one recently reported by Catherine Pepinster in The Tablet with Lord Winston revealed many of the confusions of one of the best known commentators on health and medicine in Britain today. He revealed his bitterness about times when, he said, Catholics picketed his offices, wrote abusive letters, and attempts at debate were fruitless. `The reason why the churches are so empty' he says, becoming quite agitated `is that they are very poor at adapting to modern knowledge. They talk shallow nonsense to a highly literate society'.

Such an assertion might be a useful subject fora review of the policy of the CMQ over the years; particularly in view of the letter we published in our last issue. Our policy has always been to include comment and articles examining current bio-ethical issues, either as they arise from the latest medical technical advances or the policies approved and enacted by the government of the day. The aim has always been to engage in debate, without bitterness or agitation, and to present the alternative judgement according to the traditional teachings of the Church. Above all, pace Winston, it has been recognised that we were discussing with a highly literate fraternity.

Unfortunately, one of the common notions in modern society is that scientists and believers are in perpetual conflict. Today's culture is blatantly scientistic and deeply manipulative, its aim being deeply utilitarian, to control the world in a way which will benefit humanity; any agency which dares to obstruct it must be sidelined.

Indeed, Winston himself does not believe there has to be a conflict between believers and science. He says it may be summarised in the view that `it is clear that what people have moved away from is not so much God, but organised religion'.

But organised religion is surely a necessary antidote to the suppression of truth. His own faith has convinced him that 95% of the universe cannot be explained. To state that the Church is not adapting to modern knowledge belies what its communicators have already been trumpeting over the years in outlining the ethical and medical dangers of abortion, euthanasia, the contraceptive pill and human cloning, to name the more prominent current medical insights. This is hardly shallow nonsense.

The latest storm in this presumed lack of conformity is in the study of Catholic doctrine and the theory of evolution. It is also an example of the way in which the Church responds to scientific theories. Many scientists have presumed there has for some time been an acknowledgement by the church of neo-Darwinism in every respect. For some time it has been a misinterpretation in certain academic circles that may of the statements made by John Paul II on the subject of evolution were an uncritical acceptance of the neo-Darwinian view of evolution. Cardinal Schonborn in an article in The New York Times (`Finding Design in Creation', 7 July 2005) wrote that the idea of a common ancestry for living things is not at all contrary to Catholic orthodoxy, but the idea that life on earth has developed by pure chance and contingency is not compatible with Christian faith. In the secular media, particularly in the UK, the Cardinal's views have been portrayed as part of a supposed conservative backlash, even as some sort of distancing from the thinking and policies of John Paul II vis a vis modernity. This is not only invidious but clearly inadequate, since the Cardinal quotes extensively from John Paul's own careful words on the subject. It is clear that the late Pope, indeed the present Pope, and the Cardinal are at one on this matter.

The basis of this problem lies in the belief of the neo-Darwinians that the idea of a common ancestry to living things and that of a fundamentally random and directionless world are inseparably intertwined. Such a theory is anathema to the Creationists who consequently reject evolution altogether as an un-Christian world view; while the neo-Darwinians believe this is the only possible mechanism for evolutionary change. But the Cardinal and the late Pope think that it is theologically acceptable to hold a synthetic position that accepts evolution but not randomness. They point out that the picture of a world developing through pure contingency and randomness, with no overall purpose or direction, is not compatible with the vast interlocking unity of organic forms which have grown together in sequential and progressive development.

There are theologians who do support randomness and argue that it leaves room for creaturely freedom and God's creative action: God not so much an omnipotent creator as an orchestrator of energies, standing back and allowing creatures to experiment with their own existence, occasionally nudging and encouraging growth in more fruitful directions. Teilhard de Chardin saw the Godhead immersing itself within the energies of creation as a ‘radial’ principle of upward energy and developmental drive that runs through everything; as the motor of creative evolution as it haltingly found its way into progressively higher spheres of activity culminating in the Omega point of the ‘Christosphere’.

This will not do as a synthesis of science and religion. If there is freedom, however minimal, in every sub atomic particle, there could be no mathematical formulae or physical laws to describe their activity. As we know, there are.

We are deeply grateful to Fr Hugh MacKenzie for much of this editorial as it is largely based on a piece he contributed to ‘Faith’, a journal of which he has recently been appointed editor. As always, we are confident it will be appreciated by a highly literate audience.