I love Chris Matthews. He has an uncanny ability to locate his interlocutor’s jugular and go for it. So it was the last two nights when he was discussing the GOP’s credibility, or lack thereof, on scientific issues.
Tuesday night, in a discussion with GOP Conference Chairman Mike Spence, Matthews was asking Spence if the GOP’s proposals on climate change were credible, and after Spence suggested that "the science is very mixed" (it is not), Matthews said he thought the problem was deeper, that the Republicans are perceived as hostile to science. Then, in classic Matthews’ style, he looked at Spence and asked, "Do you believe in evolution?" Spence flailed for a bit, but he could only repeat the mantra, "I believe that God created the heavens and the earth and the seas and all that is within them" and said he could not comment on how that creation was accomplished. Spence hedged and dodged, invoked "Inherit the Wind," but he refused to answer Matthews’ question.
The moment recalled a debate during the GOP primaries when Jim VandeHei asked Sen. John McCain if he believed in evolution and McCain paused. The pause did not permit McCain time to consult the scientific evidence, only the political evidence. McCain, to his credit, answered, yes. Several of his colleagues asserted that they do not believe in evolution.
Wednesday night, former Congressman Tom Tancredo took the hot seat on Hardball. He ran to the position that he supports Intelligent Design but then failed to accurately characterize it. Tancredo said he believed what science taught about the processes by which the world was created but that he believed God was capable of working through those processes, but that is not what Intelligent Design argues. Intelligent Design theory argues that the complexity of life, such as the human eye, is such that it could not be achieved through the processes of natural selection as Darwin argued, and indicates direct Divine intervention or planning. Tancredo also suggested that advocates of both theories are roughly equally divided, which is not true.
Note to GOP candidates: Start your answer by pointing out that the question is wrong. No one, repeat no one, believes in evolution. The whole point of science is that it is demonstrable and not dependent upon belief. Science, as I have argued in these pages, has recently been invoked to justify positions that are not scientifically arrived at: scientism is not science when it seeks to displace ethics and philosophy. Is it really that hard to grasp that science can only study "the planet," but that most human beings are saying something profound, and we believe profoundly true, when we refer to "Creation." Science can tell us the how of the planet, but only faith can tell us the why of Creation.
Of course, the GOP is dependent upon its conservative, evangelical base, but we Catholics are not so confined. Recently, at the premiere Roman university, the Gregorian, there was a conference on "Biological evolution: facts and theories." A group of Intelligent Design advocates asked to participate and they were refused: Sorry, this is only for scientists, philosophers and theologians, not advocates.
Faith and reason must always find ways to work together. As Pope John Paul II said, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.” Religion and science ask different questions about the same subject matter, humankind and our world. They will inevitably come into conflict occasionally but that is only because our knowledge is still fallible. There can be no inherent conflict. The great “et, et” as Pope Benedict XVI never tires of saying characterizes the catholic approach to the world.
We Catholics, unlike some GOP leaders looking to their base, can pray with our eyes open. We know how to answer Chris Matthews’ question: No one believes in evolution Chris; we demonstrate it. We do believe in the God who animates Creation, all of it and all of its processes. The beauty of the world only reinforces our belief in God’s goodness. We study the planet. We inhabit Creation. We praise the God who made it all.