Renewing the conversation between faith and science

Editor’s note: On April 30, as part of their annual trip to Rome, the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (Carol Zinn, Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia; Florence Deacon, Sisters of St. Francis of St. Francis, Wisconsin; Sharon Holland, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Michigan and Janet Mock, Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Pennsylvania), met with Cardinal Gerhard Müller and officials of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

During his opening remarks, which were posted on the Vatican website, Cardinal Müller criticized LCWR for a “focalizing of attention” around the “concept of Conscious Evolution,” stating that “the fundamental theses of Conscious Evolution are opposed to Christian Revelation.”

Last August, Ilia Delio, a Sister of St. Francis of Washington, D.C., gave the keynote address “Religious Life at the Edge of the Universe,” at the 2013 LCWR Assembly. Global Sisters Report asked Sr. Delio to respond to Cardinal Müller's remarks about conscious evolution.


In his recent conversation with leaders of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Cardinal Gerhard Muller, Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), expressed a concern about the LCWR focusing attention on the concept of conscious evolution, a concept fundamental to the work of Barbara Marx Hubbard who addressed the LCWR assembly in 2012. Cardinal Müller said that “such an intense focus on new ideas such as conscious evolution has robbed religious of the ability truly to sentire cum Ecclesia (to think with the Church and embrace its teachings).”

He continued: “The fundamental theses of conscious evolution are opposed to Christian Revelation and, when taken unreflectively, lead almost necessarily to fundamental errors regarding the omnipotence of God, the incarnation of Christ, the reality of Original Sin, the necessity of salvation and the definitive nature of the salvific action of Christ.”

While it is possible that the Cardinal’s words were extracted from a broader conversation, his concern offers an opportunity to say a few words about conscious evolution and, more broadly, the mutual engagement of science and religion.

The term “conscious evolution” was not coined by Barbara Marx Hubbard, although she has made significant contributions in understanding the implications of conscious evolution for our age. The term itself emerges from the sciences of evolutionary biology, quantum physics and cognitive neuroscience, among others. The term does not belong to science per se but is descriptive of our species, Homo sapien sapien: evolution brought to self-reflective awareness. To use the words of the renowned Jesuit Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “We are the universe become conscious of itself.” We are the ones “who know that we know” (Homo sapien sapiens); hence it is important to reflect on our choices and decisions for the future. Conscious evolution refers to the idea, expressed by Teilhard, that we humans are the arrow of evolution, the crest of the ongoing evolution of the universe. We are co-creators of an unfinished evolutionary process toward more being.

- Analysis by Tom Fox: LCWR vision builds on John Paul II initiative

To understand conscious evolution is to place it within the process of evolution itself. Teilhard described evolution as a movement toward greater convergence, complexity and consciousness. Life moves from simple isolated existences to more complex forms. He described the overall process of life by three major trends: convergence, complexity and consciousness. As elements come together, new degrees of relatedness form and consciousness rises. Teilhard described the process of evolution as fundamentally a rise in consciousness. He was influenced by the philosopher Henri Bergson who spoke of an élan vital in nature, as well as by the French physicist Louis de Broglie (of the famous double-slit experiment). Writing independently of Teilhard, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers in his 1949 book The Origin and Goal of History described the emergence of world religions in terms of a breakthrough in consciousness. He used the term “axial period” to refer to a new kind of thinking, including the monotheistic religions, which arose in the major areas of the world and “gave birth to everything which since then, the human person has been able to be.” Theologian William Thompson wrote that “what makes this period the 'axis' of human history, even our own history today, is the fact that the human emerged as 'individual' in the proper sense."

The question of what defines consciousness is hotly debated today among philosophers, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and computer scientists. It is still not yet clear what consciousness is, but that it is emerging in greater complexity, especially through technology and mass communication (what Teilhard called the “noosphere” or new level of mind), cannot be denied. The term “global consciousness” reflects this new level of awareness.

We are no longer living in the world of Thomas Aquinas or Anselm; it is the world of Darwin, Einstein, Lazlo, Damasio and Chalmers. Just as Aquinas grappled with the new Aristotelian philosophy of his time, today faith is seeking understanding in a world deeply informed by modern science. 

In 1988 Saint John Paul II wrote an impassioned letter to Jesuit Fr. George Coyne, then head of the Vatican Observatory, underscoring the urgent need to reconcile science and religion.

In his words:

As dialogue and common searching continue, there will be growth towards mutual understanding and a gradual uncovering of common concerns which will provide the basis for further research and discussion. What is important is that the dialogue should continue and grow in depth and scope. In the process we must overcome every regressive tendency to a unilateral reductionism, to fear, and to self-imposed isolation [emphasis added]. What is critically important is that each discipline should continue to enrich, nourish and challenge the other to be more fully what it can be and to contribute to our vision of who we are and who we are becoming.

John Paul recognized that a church out of touch with modern science could lead to idolatry in the same way that science without the depth of religion could lead to false absolutes: “We must ask ourselves whether both science and religion will contribute to the integration of human culture or to its fragmentation. . . peoples cannot continue to live in separate compartments, pursuing totally divergent interests from which they evaluate and judge their world. A divided community fosters a fragmented vision of the world; a community of interchange encourages its members to expand their partial perspectives and form a new unified vision.”

In John Paul’s view, a mutually enriching relationship between science and religion can contribute to a unified world.

He went on to say:

What, then, does the Church encourage in this relational unity between science and religion? First and foremost that they should come to understand one another. For too long a time they have been at arm’s length. Theology has been defined as an effort of faith to achieve understanding, as fides quaerens intellectum. As such, it must be in vital interchange today with science just as it always has been with philosophy and other forms of learning. Theology will have to call on the findings of science to one degree or another as it pursues its primary concern for the human person, the reaches of freedom, the possibilities of Christian community, the nature of belief and the intelligibility of nature and history.

As these findings become part of the intellectual culture of the time, however, theologians must understand them and test their value in bringing out from Christian belief some of the possibilities which have not yet been realized. The hylomorphism of Aristotelian natural philosophy, for example, was adopted by the medieval theologians to help them explore the nature of the sacraments and the hypostatic union. This did not mean that the Church adjudicated the truth or falsity of the Aristotelian insight, since that is not her concern. It did mean that this was one of the rich insights offered by Greek culture, that it needed to be understood and taken seriously and tested for its value in illuminating various areas of theology. Theologians might well ask, with respect to contemporary science, philosophy and the other areas of human knowing, if they have accomplished this extraordinarily difficult process as well as did these medieval masters [emphasis added].

If the cosmologies of the ancient Near Eastern world could be purified and assimilated into the first chapter of Genesis, might not contemporary cosmology have something to offer to our reflections upon creation? Does an evolutionary perspective bring any light to bear upon theological anthropology, the meaning of the human person as the imago Dei, the problem of Christology – and even upon the development of doctrine itself? What, if any, are the eschatological implications of contemporary cosmology, especially in light of the vast future of our universe? Can theological method fruitfully appropriate insights from scientific methodology and the philosophy of science?

John Paul concluded his letter to Coyne by saying that, “Christians will inevitably assimilate the prevailing ideas about the world, and today these are deeply shaped by science. The only question is whether they will do this critically or unreflectively, with depth and nuance or with a shallowness that debases the Gospel and leaves us ashamed before history.”

In light of John Paul’s efforts and the concern of Cardinal Müller, it is timely that “conscious evolution” draw our attention to the need for mutual enrichment between science and religion. The Vatican has been keenly attentive to the discoveries of modern science, with the Pontifical Academy of Science (begun in 1936) and the Science and Religion program within the Vatican’s Department of Culture, sponsoring numerous and excellent conferences on biological evolution, quantum physics, chaos and complexity and big bang cosmology. Although the Vatican has been listening to the insights from modern science over the last few decades, it has not “tested their value in bringing out from Christian belief some of the possibilities which have not yet been realized” (to use John Paul II’s words).

When does dialogue transform into new understanding? When does the Christian narrative change from its medieval metaphysical framework into a new narrative informed by modern science? I wonder if the church recognizes its own voice in the words of St. John Paul II: “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”

The goal of science and religion, drawing each other into a wider world in which both can flourish, was at the heart of Teilhard de Chardin’s teachings on conscious evolution. This is precisely what he hoped for, that science and religion could share their respective insights for the deepening of life ahead, the rise of the cosmic Person, the fullness of Christ.

Teilhard was Jesuit to the core, steeped in the Ignatian spirit of finding Christ in all things. His love of God, passion for the Gospel and devotion to the church led him to seek a credible understanding of faith in light of modern science. Without understanding the living God in a dynamic world of energy and consciousness, a world in evolution, Christianity, he indicated, would become empty of any real content.

Religious women and men around the world are catching Teilhard’s fire; it is igniting a new passion for the Gospel, new meaning of Christian life in a world of change. It is good that the Vatican has expressed concern about conscious evolution. We all need to be concerned because we are co-creators; our decisions do make a difference as to how all life and, in particular, Christian life will proceed in the future. I hope that Cardinal Muller’s words will evoke new conversations on faith and science in a way that understanding will deepen, insights will broaden, new horizons of faith will emerge and the Gospel will take on new meaning in light of conscious evolution. As St. John Paul II exclaimed: “Be not afraid, open, open wide to Christ the doors of the immense domains of culture, civilization and progress.”

[Ilia Delio, OSF, a Sister of St. Francis of Washington, D.C., is Haub Director of Catholic Studies and Visiting Professor at Georgetown University. Her recent publications include From Teilhard to Omega: Cocreating an Unfinished Universe and The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution and the Power of Love.]