February 20, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: God created the world

John F. Fink(Second in a series of columns)

In our Creed, we Catholics say that we believe in one God, “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” We believe that God created the world. However, we do not reject scientific facts as many people suppose we do.

In recent years, atheism has become our society’s latest fad. It started with the success of British atheist Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. American atheist Sam Harris also had a best-seller called The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. He argued, in effect, that religious beliefs are mainly responsible for most of the evil in the world.

These books assert that science and belief in God are incompatible. But Catholics insist that there cannot be incompatibility between science and religion because God is the author of both. It is true that Catholic Church officials were once wrong when they condemned the teachings of Galileo that the Earth revolves about the sun, but the Church has learned from that mistake.

The Catholic Church teaches that God created the universe, but not the way the Book of Genesis described the creation. Since at least the time of St. Augustine in the fifth century, the accounts of creation in Genesis have been seen as largely symbolic. The Bible is not a scientific textbook. If the congregation of cardinals that condemned Galileo in the 17th century had been more aware of that, the split between science and religion would not have occurred.

Some atheists who put all their faith in science want to give the impression that most scientists are atheists. That simply isn’t true. Atheists remain a small minority among scientists, just as they do in other fields.

Throughout history, our greatest scientists have tended to be believers, many of them devout believers. Sometimes that belief comes from recognition that there is tremendous order in the universe, an order that could not have occurred accidentally.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke about Christianity and science on Nov. 6, 2006, in a talk to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences. Among other things, he said, “Christianity does not posit an inevitable conflict between supernatural faith and scientific progress. The very starting point of biblical revelation is the affirmation that God created human beings, endowed them with reason, and set them over all the creatures of the earth…”

Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict’s predecessor, wrote in 1986, “The theory of natural evolution, understood in a sense that does not exclude divine causality, is not in principle opposed to the truth about the creation of the visible world, as presented in the Book of Genesis.”

Author Frank J. Sheed, in his book Theology and Sanctity, pointed out that Genesis “tells us of the fact but not the process: there was an assembling of elements of the material universe, but was it instantaneous or spread over a considerable space and time? Was it complete in one act, or by stages?”

The Catholic Church doesn’t pretend to know the answer to that question. †

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