Pop Culture
Feb 11, 2009, 10:51AM

The Catholic Church’s Bizarre Public Relations Week

Darwin is officially good, indulgences are back, and the Holocaust is still up in the air.

Splice Today’s Matt Poland already examined the Vatican’s recent decision to reinstitute their medieval policy on indulgences, but that adorably backward-looking decision (which strikes me as sort of a religious take on Throwback Uniform Day) has been matched by the Church’s apparent widespread acceptance of Darwin’s evolutionary theory:

Ahead of a papal-backed conference next month marking the 150th anniversary of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, the Vatican is also set to play down the idea of Intelligent Design, which argues a "higher power" must be responsible for the complexities of life.

Before we give the Vatican too much credit, however, we have to look at the careful wording of this announcement. Far from saying that Darwin was right and Creationism has been disproved, the head of the Pontifical Council for Culture Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, has merely claimed that Christian myth and Darwinian theory can peacefully coexist. More annoyingly, Catholics now claim that, in fact, St. Augustine knew about evolution waaaaaay before Darwin was even born!:

Father Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti, Professor of Theology at the Pontifical Santa Croce University in Rome, added that 4th century theologian St Augustine had "never heard the term evolution, but knew that big fish eat smaller fish" and forms of life had been transformed "slowly over time". Aquinas made similar observations in the Middle Ages.

However they go about covering their asses, it’s heartening to see the famously, stubbornly conservative Vatican make this kind of acknowledgement publicly, even if, as The New Republic’s Alvaro Vargas Llosa notes, it was Darwin’s theory of natural selection that made The Origin of Species so groundbreaking, not his affirmation of evolution. But this shows that the Vatican is slowly, albeit grudgingly, moving into the 21st century. Or at least the mid-20th. So they must be fuming at recently re-communicated Bishop Richard Willliamson, who, despite being recently allowed back into the fold, is clinging steadfastly to his long-held denial of the Holocaust:

The Vatican is demanding that you retract your denial of the Holocaust, and it is threatening to not allow you to resume your activities as a bishop. How will you react?
Throughout my life, I have always sought the truth. That is why I converted to Catholicism and became a priest. And now I can only say something, the truth of which I am convinced. Because I realize that there are many honest and intelligent people who think differently, I must now review the historical evidence once again. I said the same thing in my interview with Swedish television: Historical evidence is at issue, not emotions. And if I find this evidence, I will correct myself. But that will take time.

No doubt there are progressive Catholics who are excited by the Church’s embrace of Web 2.0 and their extension of the naturally-selected olive branch to Darwin. Maybe the Vatican can make life a little more bearable for these sane folks by, say, not re-communicating unrepentant Holocaust deniers in the first place.

  • I think it's the "adorably backword-looking" nature of the Catholic church I was raised in that has kept me from wholeheartedly rejecting it, despite having become an unrepentant secular humanist. But I guess staying Catholic for the weird old practices is like staying Jewish for the jokes, as Seinfeld so artfully pointed out. As Christian denominations go, Catholicism is relatively progressive, though their official stances on contraception and apparently on Holocaust-denying bishops keeps them pretty far behind mainstream Anglicanism.

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