The priest and evolution

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."

Another unprovable assertion popular among Darwinians, according to Jaki, is the assertion that there is no such thing as "spirit" or "soul" in human beings. This runs contrary to virtually all religious teaching.

Science, Jaki argues, is about quantifying, measuring. What cannot be quantified or measured cannot be proved: There is no proof that matter is eternal; no proof that spirit does not exist.

"There is no scientific experiment that can measure eternity," he says. "It is that simple."

In other words, there is no proof that time will not end.


Many scientists are too willing to step beyond what he calls the "quantitative parameter" of science to assert propositions that are not proved. "Much of the ruination of society is coming from science. It is affecting sociology, political science, psychology."

Jaki also denigrated a population of information-consumers for their credulousness before the pronouncements of scientists, and in doing so proved himself an adept of the sound-bite quote.

"There are in our society three S's of modern culture: sports, sex and science," he said. "You wrap anything, marketable or unmarketable, in sports, sex or science, and it is a runaway best seller."

So what, then, did the pope's letter offer? According to Jaki, it was recognition of the great advances in the physical sciences over the century since Darwin propounded his theory on the origin of species. This advance has been especially rapid in the ++ 46 years since Pius XII addressed the subject of evolution. It has come mainly in the area of genetic research and investigation of the structure of DNA.

Jaki's assertion about media distortions notwithstanding, it's clear that the turbulence caused by the pope's letter reflects a continuing preoccupation in all levels of society over the question of how man came to be.

The Old Testament was there before Charles Darwin, and still has many adherents. These people constitute "the opposing hypothesis," those not swept away by the juggernaut of Darwinian science. They are still around, arguing that the world is not much more than 10,000 years old, that the premier catastrophe of history was the Great Flood.


Though creationism is not likely to overturn the orthodoxy of evolutionary science, it has re-emerged as a point of view in the debate over human origins, articulated mostly by conservative Protestants. In at least two states, lawsuits have been brought to impose the teaching of creationism in public schools.

One is Tennessee, where in 1925 the question was fought out in the Scopes "Monkey Trial," and the creationists won. John T. Scopes, a high school teacher, was fined for breaking the Tennessee law against teaching Darwinism. It was the creationists' last victory, and as the pope pointed out in his letter, over the years evolutionary theory "has been progressively accepted by researchers."

Interest in human origins is not confined to biologists, priests and fundamentalists. It has become a mainstream interest, as reflected in the popularity of Bill Moyers' televised conversation among writers, theologians and academics about Genesis, the Bible's opening book. To some this book holds the creation myth Christianity, to others the literal truth.

But to Father Jaki, the first chapter of Genesis is not about creation, at least not primarily. Its main purpose was to guide the Jews away from their increasing penchant to do trade on the Sabbath, and to re-assert the observance of that day as commanded in the tablets brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses.

The observance of the Sabbath was one of the two major tenets of Judaism being emphasized at the time Genesis I was written, he said. (The other referred to circumcision). Its link to the activity of the creation was designed to enhance its importance by offering a pre-eminent role model for the observance of the Sabbath.

If even God rested after six days' labor, who is man to do otherwise?


Pub Date: 11/22/96