A pilgrim’s progress: Being Catholic

Of late I have been grappling with a new theology that seeks to reconcile evolution and advances in scientific knowledge with Christianity. I did so with some trepidation, concerned that what I might learn would undermine the faith upon which I depend.

A few months ago I met a BC High classmate at a school event. A Jesuit and former university president, he had spent many years in the Middle East. After a lively discussion, I sent him an email asking for a list of books he could recommend. I received a list of 32, most of them dealing with science and religion.

So began my journey into theology, cosmology, evolution, and quantum physics. I do not pretend to understand all I have read but I learned enough to know that some of what I had been taught during 16 years of Catholic education was, in light of what we now know, misleading, and occasionally false.

Within the context of what was known at the time, that education was a sincere effort to convey the history and fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine. However, the church cannot exist as a closed fortress. It cannot ignore the extraordinary achievements in science and technology over the last century that offer compelling evidence that evolution continues and that the “truths” of yesterday must be evaluated in a new light.

Fortunately, there are a number of theologians, male and female, who are the new missionaries of the scientific age. They explore the boundaries of religion and science in an effort to first identify, then reconcile, and finally adapt discoveries to what we now know. Their message is clear: The church is not frozen in time, stuck in the “medieval cosmos.” Like everything else, the church must accept its place in dynamic evolution and re-examine its teachings while learning from science and other religions.

The “new age” theologians do a remarkably good job of seeing God and Christ in the unfolding of the universe. They identify the essential elements of Christianity and explain how they blend into evolution. They see a God of love and mercy, beckoning mankind forward as evolution continues. They describe the need for essential changes in our understanding of God, divine action, Christ, and salvation.

The father of the movement was the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a paleontologist/scientist/philosopher who urged Christians to embrace dynamic evolution as part of God’s plan for salvation. His views were at first rejected by the church, but they gathered momentum after his death in 1955. They were favorably commented upon by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. With his emphasis on love, understanding, and mercy, Pope Francis has moved closer to Fr. Teilhard de Chardin’s observation: “We are one after all, you and I; together we suffer, together exist, and forever will recreate each other.”

The church that sent missionaries to the far corners of the world has been reluctant to explore a “new wilderness” that is fast becoming known, understood, and accepted. It fears that to do so will require it to abandon long-held convictions, which action will undermine the confidence of the faithful. To cling to untenable beliefs, to suggest that all we need to know about God and creation is known is to ignore God’s word as it continues to be revealed in the unfolding of evolution.

The good news of evolution as preached by these new missionaries challenges old beliefs, suggesting the elimination of some and the revising of others. They offer insights, encouragement, comfort, and a new purpose, none of which conflict with the fundamentals of Christianity. As Catholics, we must be willing to accept the new cosmic reality and apply ourselves to understanding its implications.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.