And it begins...

So there's currently a minor tempest-in-an-espresso-cup over remarks made by Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn of Vienna on evolution in last week's New York Times. The discussion continues all over the place; basically Schoenborn seems to be throwing his weight, and attempting to suggest the Catholic Church has already thrown its weight, behind an "intelligent design" theory of creation.

Other Catholic theologians and scientists are better equipped to challenge the questions of evolution at issue; suffice it to say that, from a non-specialist perspective, Schoenborn's comments seem to be quite the opposite of the most common trend in recent teaching. One might want to consult Rahner and others on the controversies surrounding monogenism earlier in the past century.

Ecclesiologically, what is fascinating (and what the title of this post refers to) is that this may be the first marginalization of John Paul II that I've seen so far in print. Friends asked me how much influence John Paul, particularly through his copious theological and spiritual reflections, would have after his death. After all, particularly in curial and in some theological circles, no speech, essay, or paper was complete without a heavy seasoning of references to John Paul's encyclicals and audiences. But if one looks back at the late 1970s, one finds exactly the same pattern of references to the writings of Paul VI, which continued, unabated, for a few years after his death. But, as times moved on, references to Paul declined and to JPII increased. As the old saying goes, no one is more dead than a dead pope. So, cautiously, one might expect to see the same pattern with regard to John Paul II; his encyclicals will continue to be studied, no doubt, and there are many stronger institutions and think tanks to directly keep his memory and thought alive. But, as these things happen, history will begin sorting out where his writings make a real contribution and where a reference to Augustine, Aquinas, or, perhaps, Benedict XVI, might be clearer or politically preferable.

But Schoenborn goes one step further in beginning this process of sifting out John Paul's legacy. He writes, in regard to a letter outlining the Catholic position on evolution, "While his rather vague and unimportant 1996 letter about evolution is always and everywhere cited..."; he then contrasts this statement with remarks from a 1985 general audience. Hermeneutical issues aside about what John Paul "really" thought of evolution, it would have been unimaginable, even a few months ago, to describe any word that fell from the mouth of John Paul as "vague" or "unimportant", especially in public or in print. Again, no one is more dead than a dead pope. But rather than being a cause for yet more chuckling about those crazy Catholics, we who are Catholic might see this as a good chance to remember the relative unimportance of the papacy in the grand scheme of things. While secular culture and globalization, as well as elements in the church itself, might push us towards a cult of personality around our pope as a "worldwide bishop", the process of more critically evaluating John Paul's legacy might be a helpful warning to avoid our temptation to "papolatry" with regard to any of his successors.

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