Review: Negotiating Darwin

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Peter MJ Hess
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Negotiating Darwin: The Vatican Confronts Evolution, 1877-1902
Mariano Artigas,
Thomas F Glick, and
Rafael A Martínez
Baltimore (MD): The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. 336 pages

On both the popular and scholarly levels, the appreciation of the Roman Catholic Church’s stance with respect to the theory of biological evolution has been ambiguous. On the one hand, it is sometimes assumed that the Church that had rushed to judgment on heliocentrism in the case of Galileo would not have hesitated to pounce on a theory that both undercut a literal reading of Genesis and reduced human beings to the status of animals. On the other hand, it is well known that Roman Catholicism has not been at the forefront of organized opposition to evolution in the same way as fundamentalist Protestantism has been.

Was the Church fundamentally opposed to Darwin’s theory of descent with modification, or was it cautiously open to permitting discussion of the idea? Where along this spectrum should we expect to find the truth? Moreover, by “the Church” do we understand the Vatican and the ecclesiastical hierarchy, or Roman Catholic scholars, or the faithful in the pew? These distinctions are important to make for sorting out the degree of acceptance of evolutionary thinking within Roman Catholicism, since the response by Roman Catholic scholars and churchmen varied according to their region and to their degree of removal from the corridors of Rome. In our collective effort to defend and promote the teaching of evolution in public schools, readers of RNCSE will be well served by even a cursory reading of Negotiating Darwin. The book offers a nicely detailed elucidation of the delicate position in which the hierarchical Church found itself in the generation after Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859.

The authors of Negotiating Darwin — including the late Mariano Artigas — were among the first to study the archives of both the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition and of the Congregation of the Index. In principle it was within the jurisdiction of the Holy Office to examine and prohibit a book, with the decision being communicated to the Office of the Index for promulgation. In practice, however, it was the Congregation of the Index that handled both the examination of and the judgment about the books that had been denounced to it by church authorities. The authors examine six cases featuring Roman Catholic thinkers who were suspect of trying in varying degrees to incorporate evolutionary thinking into Roman Catholic doctrine in the generation after Darwin’s seminal work appeared. In the case of some, evolution was a relatively unimportant aspect of their thinking; with others it was central to their theological project. The principal objective of Negotiating Darwin is “to identify both the ideological and operational stance of the Church with respect to the reception of Darwinism.”

The first case studied is that of Rafaello Caverni, whose New Studies of Philosophy: Lectures to a Young Student (1877) reconciled divine creation with the active intervention of God by leaving humans out of the process of evolution. Caverni countered the predominant literalist hermeneutic by distinguishing between the divine and human aspects of Scripture. Rejecting an evolutionary theory that denied purpose, he insisted upon a theistic vision of evolution attracting the world forward by final causes. The influential Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica reviewed Caverni’s book harshly, leveling the twin objections that evolution is an atheistic and materialistic philosophy explaining matter without reference to God, and that, however much Caverni wanted to exclude humans, materialism would be the inevitable result of the incorporation of humans into the evolutionary scheme. The book was denounced and condemned. The authors note, however, that since Caverni’s title did not mention evolution, this indirect condemnation of Darwin’s theory was ultimately ineffectual.

The episode of French Dominican Dalmace Leroy offers further evidence that the Church had no official doctrine regarding evolution. Leroy published The Evolution of Organic Species in 1887, and critical reviews prompted him to issue an expanded edition under the narrower title Evolution Limited to Organic Species (1891), in which he carefully excluded Adam and Eve from consideration in the evolutionary story. The book was denounced to the Index in 1894 and Leroy agreed to retract, but with reservations. He sincerely believed that in its steadfast refusal even to consider the evolutionary preparation of the human body for reception of the infused soul, the credibility of the Roman Catholic Church was at stake in an increasingly scientific world. Leroy retracted his book, but the episode shows that there was disagreement about the subject even among the theologians of the Index. Even while forbidding the reprinting of the book, they did not publish the decree of condemnation.

The heart of Negotiating Darwin is the extensive treatment of the case of John Zahm (1851–1921). A priest in the Holy Cross Order and Professor of Physics and Chemistry at the University of Notre Dame, Zahm argued in Evolution and Dogma (1896) for the harmonization of evolutionary theory with Roman Catholic doctrine. Zahm’s grasp of contemporary evolutionary theory was remarkable, particularly in his understanding that Darwinism was not equivalent to evolution but only one of numerous attempts that had been made to explain the modus operandi of biological change. Recognizing the paucity of fossil transitional forms, Zahm noted that Darwin himself had acknowledged the current incompleteness of the geological record. Zahm was confident that although the production of variation on which selection works was not yet understood, understanding would eventually arrive. He critically reviewed the controversy about Lamarck’s theory of the transmission of acquired characteristics, concluding that a comprehensive theory of evolution was not yet attained.

Zahm was well aware of the baggage Darwinism carried in being associated with atheism, and he was alert to the evolutionary controversies raging in Europe. However, he retained a serene confidence that revealed theology could validly be integrated with progressive science.

The Vatican’s attention to Zahm’s book must be read in light of Pope Leo XIII’s campaign against “Americanism.” New World political values were often regarded with suspicion by conservative 19th-century Europeans. American Catholics who had adopted the values of freedom of the press, liberty of conscience, and the spirit of free scientific inquiry were less likely to follow Vatican dictates meekly. The appearance of the French and Italian editions of Evolution and Dogma provoked the Congregation of the Index to issue an injunction against further publication and distribution, although apparently this was never enforced. Zahm was a faithful Catholic, and when friends in Rome warned him that the book was about to be placed on the Index, he immediately wrote to the publisher of the Italian edition to slow its distribution. Convinced that the truth for which he had worked would in due time be manifest, he had made his point and was content to follow the orders of the church he loved and served. The decree of condemnation was not published, and Zahm never issued a retraction.

In the remaining three cases examined in this book, evolution played a less direct role. Geremia Bonomelli, Bishop of Cremona, was quite taken with Zahm’s book, adding an appendix discussing evolution to his own Seguiamo la raggione (Let Us Follow Reason, 1898). Bonomelli’s enthusiastic endorsement led the Index to examine Zahm’s thought more closely, and Bonomelli’s book was a casualty. Because he was already controversial for his proposal that the Vatican should recognize the new Italian state, Bonomelli believed that a voluntary retraction of the evolutionary appendix would be in his and the church’s best interest. Bishop John Hedley of England came under fire for favorably reviewing Zahm’s book, and he issued a letter of retraction in the English Catholic magazine The Tablet. Also in England, lay scholar St George Jackson Mivart, author of The Genesis of Species (1871), was condemned not for his evolutionary views but for his challenge to traditional doctrines about sin and punishment.

Rome never formulated an explicit condemnation of evolution as a doctrine and seems to have taken a rather pragmatic approach to the issue. The debates internal to the Congregation of the Index reflect a general concern for rejecting evolution when applied to the human body, but the only condemnation ever issued was internal, the decree was not published. None of Darwin’s books was placed on the Index, nor were any of Huxley’s, Spencer’s, or Haeckel’s. The six cases under review all involved books written by Roman Catholics who had attracted ecclesiastical attention, presumably because their works had greater potential to disturb the life of the Church. Participants on both sides appear to have remembered the Galileo episode, and the Church was careful not to overstep its bounds.

It is hard to find serious fault with this book, both for the meticulousness of its scholarship and for its engaging style. It might have been useful to pursue the history into the 1930s, but the authors have wisely sacrificed breadth for depth. Historians will enjoy its meticulous scholarship, and even non-historians will find this a useful book, as it offers sound historical perspective on a foundationally important and often misconstrued period in the history of the relationship between ecclesiastical authority and the social osmosis of evolutionary theory.

About the Author(s): 
Peter MJ Hess
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477

Peter MJ Hess is NCSE’s Faith Project Director. He is the coauthor, with Paul L Allen, of Catholicism and Science (Westport [CT]: Greenwood Press, 2008).