The priest and evolution

November 22, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Father Stanley L. Jaki is a passionate Hungarian-born priest, a snowy-haired man with coal-black eyes set in a handsome pink face, eyes that flash dismissive anger or hint at conspiratorial mirth.

He is combative. He has a penchant for imaginative gesticulation; he wields his forefinger like a dirk. He is a papal Gurkha living in America, prepared to impale anyone who would confuse the crucial questions: How life began on Earth, and how it advances.

Which is why he appeared this week at Mount Saint Mary's College in Emmitsburg, to clarify Pope John Paul II's much-discussed Oct. 22 letter on evolution, and perhaps repair the damage done by what he calls the media's mangling of its message.

Jaki is more than a defender of the faith, or at least brings more to that task. He is a physicist, one of 17 Americans in the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences, of which only a third are Catholic. He studied under the Austrian Nobel laureate Victor F. Hess, the discoverer of cosmic rays. He has been a visiting fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, Einstein's old haunt. He is a prize-winning author of 35 books on religious/scientific matters. (His latest, which came out in July, is "Bible and Science.")

His criticisms, for the most part, are aimed at the unprovable claims of evolutionary scientists, as well as simplistic reporting on complex matters by the media.

In the case of the pope's letter last month, newspapers, magazines and broadcast networks around the world had interpreted it as an acceptance, even an endorsement, of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection.

To many, it seemed any papal reference to evolution would signal the next step in a perceived process of reconciliation between religion -- or at least the Roman Catholic Church -- and science.

John Paul took the first step in 1992. In a statement to the Academy he vindicated Galileo, who was persecuted in 1633 for asserting that the Earth circled the sun, instead of the other way around.

But the pope's letter this October contained nothing about reconciliation, said Jaki (pronounced "yaki"). In fact, the letter suggested that in the area of evolution, no such reconciliation is required. The Vatican has never formally opposed evolution, though neither has it embraced it in its entirety. It has been taught in Catholic schools for decades.

Darwin was never persecuted by the Catholic Church. Unlike Galileo, he was a Protestant living in a Protestant country, England. And 150 years ago, when he came out with his great work, Europe was friendlier to science than it was in the 17th century.

"In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950) my predecessor Pius XII had already stated there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man," John Paul wrote last month. "Humani Generis," the pope continued, "considered the doctrine of 'evolutionism' a serious hypothesis, worthy of investigation and in-depth study equal to that of the opposing hypothesis."

So why the worldwide commotion about these comments?

"The media consistently distorts what is said by the Holy Father," Jaki told about 200 priests, students and other interested people who braved the chill mountain mist to hear his hourlong discourse Monday night.

Jaki, 72, a professor at Seton Hall University in East Orange, N.J., who also has done research and lectured at Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley, has his own ideas about the relationship between religion and science. Though he asserts that Christianity created the climate in which modern science grew, their continued mutual health, he believes, depends on the distance between them.

"What God has separated," he says, "no man should put together."

Jaki speaks a fluent, accented English, enhanced by a vivid body language. He is even a bit garrulous, perhaps because he was rendered almost dumb for 10 years, owing to a surgical accident in 1950, and might be making up for time lost. His talk was full of sarcastic humor, aimed not so much at the science of evolution as at the camp-following ideologues of Darwinism, who are always asserting the truth of the unprovable.

Among these unproved and unprovable "truths," he said, is that matter is eternal: It changes form, but never goes out of existence; always was, always will be.

Another is that the evolution of species is random and undirected. That is, unguided by any overarching intelligence.

Some scientists, who otherwise accept evolutionary theory, are uncomfortable with this. One such is Michael J. Behe, author of "Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution."

He is an evolutionist, but one who believes Darwin's mechanism -- "random mutation paired with natural selection" -- is flawed. Cells, he wrote, "are simply too complex to have evolved randomly. Intelligence was required to produce them."

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