Pope Francis, Evolution and How “Dear Galileo” Began

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“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.” –Pope John Paul II

“This indeed is man’s creative gift, to find or make a likeness where none was seen before — a likeness between mass and energy, a link between time and space, an echo of all our fears in the passion of Othello.” –physicist Jacob Bronowski

We’re all talking a lot this week about Pope Francis and evolution.  For non-Catholics on the moderate-to-progressive side, his definitive statement that “God is not a magician” and that evolution is fundamentally connected to Catholic doctrine is a reassuring sign that the Church has entered, if not the twenty-first century, at least the twentieth.  For non-Catholics on the fundamentalist side, it’s another indicator that all those godforsaken Papists are getting left behind when the Rapture comes.  And for many Catholics, it’s decidedly . . . not news.  Because the legitimacy of evolution, the value of science, the compatibility of reason and faith are not revolutionary new ideas in the official teachings of Catholicism.  They are, however, frequently misunderstood and misrepresented in maddening ways.

There’s a commonality of purpose regarding many social and moral issues like abortion, contraception and gay marriage that has created strong bonds over the past few decades between many Catholics and members of other, more fundamentalist Christian denominations (including some that used to hate us and think we were all going to hell).  One of the dangerous side effects of that has been the slow absorption into the furthest right-wing fringe Catholic population of some decidedly non-Catholic ideals.  The notion that just BEING gay is evil, for example.  The idea that “man’s dominion over nature” means there’s no need to give a shit about environmental stewardship.  A fairly un-Christlike worship of capitalism and the American dollar.  And, most troublingly to me personally – and the reason I’m writing about this now – a knee-jerk reflexive distrust and hatred of science.

For about eight years in my twenties I was the High School Youth Minister and Confirmation Coordinator at All Saints Catholic Church in Northeast Portland.  (You can find more detailed stories about what that was like here, here, here and here.)  I left the job a few years ago not because I stopped loving it, but because juggling a full-time grantwriter job plus a half-time youth ministry job plus a writing career was making me tear my hair out with anxiety.  But the deeply satisfying thing about choosing to quit youth ministry to pursue writing is that I didn’t actually leave youth ministry behind when I left.  I wrote a play called Dear Galileo which has been workshopped by Artists Repertory Theatre, Pasadena Playhouse and Willamette University, and will be produced next summer by Playwrights West, and if I had not been a youth minister that play wouldn’t exist.  This play is dedicated to two young women named Molly McMahon and Ariel Anderson, who were once high school students in my youth group.  This is the story of why.

In summer 2010, I was in Spokane, Washington along with my colleague Monica (the parish Director of Youth Ministry) and about a dozen high school students for a conference called Steubenville Northwest.  (Steubenville is a town in Ohio with a large Catholic college whose annual summer youth rally/conference events have spread nationwide over the past several years).  The featured keynote at the event was given by a well-known national speaker named Paul George.  His opening talk was great, so we decided during the Saturday breakout sessions that we would try to make it to his.  This is how I ended up sitting in an auditorium full of hundreds of teenagers and several dozen other youth ministers alongside a group of girls from my group at a session entitled “Lies Our Culture Tells Teens Today” (or something like that).  I was excited about this one and wanted to bring the girls to it because my understanding from the conference brochure was that it would address really major topics we talked about with our kids all the time, like the myth that money is the only barometer of success in our culture or that a woman’s worth is measured by having a nice ass and learning how to please her man.  And when Paul George walked out onstage carrying a stack of women’s magazines, I felt confident that this was going to be a good one.

It took less than ninety seconds for the wheels to come off the wagon.

As a kind of icebreaker, to warm up the room a little, he asked the audience to raise their hands and just shout out their answer to this question: “In your opinion, what is the biggest lie American culture tells teenagers today?”

And right out of the gate, the very first two people he called on said:

“Evolution!”

and

“The Big Bang Theory!”

And noted national Catholic catechist, evangelist and public speaker Paul George did not correct them.

I had not had to bust out my Grumpy Liberal Face (GLF) since I attended the previous year’s Steubenville conference where an enthusiastic elderly woman in a lime-green “Prayer Team!” t-shirt had given the youth ministers step-by-step instructions on how to cast out demons, so let’s just say the GLF was ready with a quickness.  I was so immersed in my own simmering irritation that two adults in a position to catechize and educate the youth of tomorrow were so clueless about the teachings of their own faith that it took me a second to notice the girls sitting next to me.

They looked stricken.

If you’ve never had the president of the Saint Mary’s Academy Science Olympiad, a smart-as-fuck high school sophomore who is struggling to figure out if Catholicism is really for her and was only kind of medium on this whole youth rally thing to begin with look at you with panic on her eyes like she just realized she was the victim of a sixteen-year con job and had to figure out what to say to her, you’re lucky.  She was FREAKED. OUT.  They all were.  It was like someone had stood up and yelled “Surprise!  We’ve been creationists all along!  SO ARE YOU!  P.S. Witch-burning in the quad after lunch, pass it on!”

All I could do was whisper, “It’s fine, guys.  It’s fine.  You’re right.  They’re wrong.  We’ll talk later.”

And we did talk about it later.  We talked about it a lot.  For months.  It was clear that those two women and that keynote speaker had inadvertently uncovered something that was a real struggle for a couple of these girls.  They believed in science – they loved science – and they were suddenly afraid that wasn’t okay.  Maybe they would get kicked out of Jesus Camp for liking the Discovery Channel or maybe the Science Club kids would give them shit for believing in God.  I told them what I believed – as the daughter of two parents who had like five science degrees between them and were also the most deeply faithful people I knew – but I wanted to back it up.  I wanted them to know.  I wanted them to be sure.  I wanted them armed to bitch-slap anyone who came at them – from either side – insisting that they weren’t allowed to be the people they wanted to be.

So I took to Google and decided to become as much of an expert on the relationship between Catholicism and science as I could in the two weeks until we had youth group again.  I consulted the Catechism.  I read papal encyclicals. I learned that a Franciscan friar invented the scientific method and a Belgian Jesuit coined the term “the Big Bang theory.”  It wasn’t just that the Church had eventually come to a grudging acceptance of science; it was, in fact, the home of some of the greatest scientific thinkers of our time.  Here are some famous Catholics you may have heard of – Blaise Pascal. René DescartesGregor MendelLouis Pasteur.  Erwin Schrödinger.

It was in digging around through piles of internet research on Catholic scientists that I discovered something that changed my life forever: in a tiny town called Swift Trail Junction, in the middle of the Arizona desert, the Vatican Observatory had a U.S. outpost staffed by Italian Jesuit astrophysicists, home of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope.  And so, partly because I realized OH MY GOD SOMEBODY NEEDS TO SET A PLAY THERE, partly because I was still angry at those two women, partly because I realized not every kid at that youth conference who heard that misinformation had a youth minister willing to hand them a stack of internet research and give them permission to keep loving Neil DeGrasse Tyson with impunity, and partly because it felt significant to me in a way I couldn’t quite name that all these conversations about faith and science I kept having were with girls, the play that became Dear Galileo began to take shape in my head.

I’m grateful to Pope Francis for so many things, but decisively and inarguably declaring the Church’s position on evolution is high on the list.  Evolution has been accepted church teaching for decades, so he isn’t stating something new as much as he is clearly restating something we need to be reminded of.  Because it was also accepted church teaching four years ago in that Spokane auditorium.

I did not love science in high school.  I came from a family of science nerds but I had a literature brain.  Math and science were struggles for me.  I was perfectly competent at them, I got A’s and B’s, but it wasn’t effortless and organic like it was for my brothers and parents.  So I came to a humanities major’s love of science as an adult, through books and TV.  I loved Star Trek and the Discovery Channel.  My dad loaned me Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe and the whole family read Freakonomics the year I gave it to him for Christmas.  We forwarded each other interesting New York Times articles about creativity and the brain or new discoveries in space.  And the idea that began to take shape in my head, imperfectly but earnestly expressed over the past four years of bringing this play to life, was the notion that all of us – scientists, artists, people of faith – are about the same task.  We see things too big for us to understand and we want to know why.  We want to know what love is and what’s living at the bottom of the Marianas Trench and what happens after we die.  We’re people on quests.  We’re searchers.  We want to understand.  Not everyone is wired like this.  Not everyone is comfortable giving themselves permission to ask those big questions. Women in particular, I think, have historically not been welcome in that room.  So I sat down and I wrote a play.  About faith and reason, about fathers and daughters, about girls asking hard questions about science and God and life and meaning and the way the world works, and how they feel about the answers they do or don’t get.  And as thrilled as I’ve been by the way the play has been received by audiences, as flattered as I am by the kind things some Very Fancy People have had to say about it (Mars Rover Mohawk Guy!  Brother Guy Consolmagno from the Vatican Observatory!  Robert Picardo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine!), at the end of the day this play will forever be for those teenage girls in that auditorium, asking me to reassure them that it was okay for them to be who they were.

The answer now, as it was then, is YES.