John Paul II

Praying with (or to?) John Paul II

Sister Marie Simon-Pierre was a soft-spoken nurse in the south of France when her life was changed by what the Vatican has decided was an answered prayer.

She was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2001 and, with other nuns in France and Africa, immediately began prayed for healing. However, her symptoms worsened after the death of Pope John Paul II in April of 2005. That was when Simon-Pierre and her supporters began seeking the help of the pope, who suffered from the same disease in his final years.

Simon-Pierre awoke on the morning of June 3, 2005, with her hands steady and no other signs of the incurable neurological disease.

"It is the work of God, through the intercession of Pope John Paul II," she told reporters in 2007. "I came across a sister who had helped me tremendously and I told her, ... 'look, my hand is no longer trembling.' John Paul II cured me."

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree confirming that this "scientifically inexplicable" change in her health can be attributed to the intercessions of John Paul II, meaning that his predecessor can be called "blessed" and, thus, has moved closer to recognition as a saint.

While scientists debate what did or did not happen, journalists have struggled to clearly describe an event that is rooted in an ancient and modern mystery. Simply stated, what does it mean to say believers can ask saints to pray on their behalf during the trials of daily life or in times of crisis?

Father Arne Panula has faced this kind of question many times, especially as director of the Catholic Information Center a few blocks from the White House.

In press reports, this mystery is reduced to an equation that looks like this -- needy people pray to their chosen saints and then miracles happen. It's that simple. The problem, stressed Panula, is that this is an inadequate description of what Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and some other Christians believe.

"What must be stressed is that we pray for a saint to intercede for us with God. Actually, it's more accurate to say that we ask the saint to pray 'with' us, rather than to say that we pray 'to' a saint," he said.

"You see, all grace comes from the Trinity, from the Godhead. These kinds of supernatural interventions always come from God. The saint plays a role, but God performs the miracle. That may sound like a trivial distinction to some people, but it is not."

When describing this process to non-Catholics, especially to Protestants who are critical of the church, the priest offers a metaphor from -- believe it or not -- local government.

There is this citizen, he explained, who has a problem. His sidewalk is so messed up that it has become dangerous. This citizen can, of course, call city hall and seek help. It would also be appropriate to directly call the mayor. However, this particular citizen also has a good friend, or perhaps it is even a loved one, who works in the mayor's office. Why not ask for this close friend to intercede, as well?

"That is what intercessory prayer is about," said Panula.

The problem is that some people, Catholics included, tend to omit a key element when describing this mysterious process. They spend so much time talking about the intercessory role of the saints that they forget to mention the reality that unites Catholics and other believers -- their belief that it is God who, in the end, hears prayers and performs miracles.

The key is the word "intercessor," which is often used, but rarely explained, in reports about John Paul II, Mother Teresa and others who are being considered as possible saints. An "intercessor" is a mediator who works with others, helping them find favor with a higher authority who has the power. The bottom line is that it isn't the intercessor who acts on their behalf.

Leaving God out of this picture, said Panula, "has become part of our culture, today. It's one thing for journalists, to describe the process that leads to the beatification of John Paul II. They may not mind that. But it's something else to write that there is a God who loves us, who is concerned about our welfare and who hears our prayers and those of his saints."

A Catholic education flashback

The young pope was friendly, but blunt, as he faced the 240 college leaders from across the nation who gathered at Catholic University to hear his thoughts on faith and academic freedom.

"Every university or college is qualified by a specific mode of being," said Pope John Paul II, who was only 57 on that day in 1979. "Yours is the qualification of being Catholic, of affirming God, his revelation and the Catholic Church as the guardian and interpreter of that revelation. The term 'Catholic' will never be a mere label, either added or dropped according to the pressures of varying factors."

It is especially crucial, he said, for theologians to realize that they do not teach in isolation, but are part of a body stretching from the local pews to the Vatican. Working with their bishops, theologians are charged with preserving the "unity of the faith," said John Paul, sending a shock wave through many Catholic schools that lingers to this day.

"True theological scholarship, and by the same token theological training, cannot exist and be fruitful without seeking its inspiration and its source in the word of God as contained in Sacred Scripture and in the Sacred Tradition of the Church, as interpreted by the authentic Magisterium throughout history," said John Paul.

While embracing "true academic freedom," he stressed that the work of truly Catholic theologians must take into "account the proper function of the bishops and the rights of the faithful. ? It behooves the theologian to be free, but with the freedom that is openness to the truth and the light comes from faith and from fidelity to the Church."

It was a word of encouragement and warning. A few years later, the Vatican revoked Father Charles E. Curran's authorization to teach theology at Catholic University, after public debates about his views on birth control, abortion and homosexuality. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith noted that this censure was the result of his "repeated refusal to accept what the church teaches."

That public letter was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a theology professor from Germany who, nearly two decades later, would become Pope Benedict XVI. And now, Benedict has called the leaders of more than 200 Catholic institutions of higher learning back to the Catholic University of America to hear another address about the state of Catholic education.

The pope will almost certainly use this forum next month in Washington, D.C., to discuss the further implementation of "Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)," John Paul II's urgent 1990 call for reform in Catholic colleges and universities. It took the U.S. bishops nine years -- amid fierce protests by many academics -- to approve any guidelines seeking to enforce this Vatican document.

"To understand what all of this means, you have to look at the whole sequence of what has happened in the past few decades," said Patrick Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society, a pro-Vatican think tank on education. When John Paul II made his 1979 visit, "Catholic University was known as a center of dissent. Now, we see Pope Benedict coming to a campus that -- from the viewpoint of Rome and the bishops -- has completely turned around. Catholic University will greet him with open arms."

Meanwhile, many Catholic campuses keep making headlines.

There was, for example, that University of Notre Dame performance of "The Vagina Monologues" and the teen pregnancy conference at the College of the Holy Cross featuring speakers from Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League. On some campuses it's easier to find free condoms these days than it is to obtain guidance on how to become a nun or a priest.

During a recent meeting of the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome, Pope Benedict included five clear references to current and future educational reforms in his speech -- making it clear these issues are on his mind.

"Today, the ecclesiastical disciplines, especially theology, are subjected to new questions in a world tempted on the one hand by rationalism which follows a falsely free rationality disconnected from any religious reference, and on the other, by fundamentalisms that falsify the true essence of religion with their incitement to violence and fanaticism," he said. "Schools should also question themselves on the role they must fulfill in the contemporary social context, marked by an evident educational crisis."

The popes and evolution, part II

It would be hard to name two more radically different men than the late Pope John Paul II and New York Times columnist Frank Rich.

Nevertheless, the acerbic culture-beat scribe did his best to say something positive when biding the pope farewell. At least, said Rich, John Paul II had seen the light on the "core belief of how life began."

"Though the president of the United States believes that the jury is still out on evolution," he wrote, "John Paul in 1996 officially declared that 'fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis.' "

America's newspaper of record underlined this in its obituary, claiming that the pope believed "the human body might not have been the immediate creation of God, but was the product of evolution, which he called 'more than just a hypothesis.' "

Thus, the cultural powers were flummoxed when Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, an editor of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, wrote a recent New York Times essay that included this statement: "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense -- an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection -- is not."

Schonborn emphasized 1985 remarks by John Paul about the "evolution of all things" in which he said it is impossible to study the universe without concluding there is "a Mind which is its inventor, its creator."

John Paul II continued: "To all these indications of the existence of God the Creator, some oppose the power of chance or of the proper mechanisms of matter. To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements and such marvelous finality in its life would be equivalent to giving up the search for an explanation of the world as it appears to us. In fact, this would be equivalent to admitting effects without a cause."

In the wake of Schonborn's essay, a circle of scientists petitioned Pope Benedict XVI seeking a clarification. The letter was written by Case Western Reserve University physicist Lawrence Krauss, author of an earlier New York Times essay on the compatibility of Christian faith and Darwinian orthodoxy.

"The Catholic Church," the letter said, must not "build a new divide, long ago eradicated, between the scientific method and religious belief." It was especially crucial to reaffirm that "scientific rationality and the church's commitment to divine purpose and meaning in the universe were not incompatible."

Part of the problem is the 1996 papal address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, with its familiar quotation that "new knowledge leads us to recognize that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis."

The question is whether John Paul said "theory" or "theories." According to official translations, the pope said: "Rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based."

The pope then rejected all theories arguing that humanity is the product of a random, unguided process of creation. Thus, he said that "theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man."

At the time John Paul II spoke these words, the National Association of Biology Teachers had officially defined evolution as an "unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process ... that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments." Critics said this definition veered beyond science into theological speculation. Thus, in 1997 the association's board reversed itself and removed the words "unsupervised" and "impersonal."

This is still the crucial issue today, said Michael J. Behe, author of ``Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.'' He is a Catholic who teaches at Lehigh University.

"The problem is that people can't agree on what 'evolution' means," he said. "Common origins are not the problem. What the church has never accepted is the idea of a blind, random, meaningless process of creation. The church cannot accept that, because that would be atheism."

The popes and evolution, part I

Editor's note: The first of two columns.

Vatican watchers pay close attention to the sermons a pope preaches during the historic rites that immediately follow his election.

Yet few flinched when Pope Benedict XVI made the following comment on the origin of human life during the Mass marking the inauguration of his pontificate.

"The purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men," he said, in St. Peter's Square. "And only where God is seen does life truly begin. ... We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary."

That sounded innocent. But a direct statement about evolution later inspired howls of outrage when it appeared in the sacred pages of the New York Times. Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, a member of the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education, said he was trying to stop what he believes are media attempts to plant Rome firmly in the Darwinist camp.

"The Catholic Church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world," he wrote. "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense -- an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection -- is not."

Scientists -- Catholics and non-Catholics alike -- on both sides of the Darwin wars said it was crucial that Schonborn claimed to have written his essay after consulting with Pope Benedict, at that time an influential cardinal. The new pope, he told reporters, shares his concern that many are confused about the church's stance on an "unguided," "random" approach to evolution. It was also significant that the cardinal was, in part, responding to a Times essay by Case Western Reserve University physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, who posited the compatibility of Christian faith and Darwinism.

In that May op-ed, Krauss wrote that the Roman Catholic Church "apparently has no problem with the notion of evolution as it is currently studied by biologists. ... Popes from Pius XII to John Paul II have reaffirmed that the process of evolution in no way violates the teachings of the church. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, presided over the church's International Theological Commission, which stated that 'since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism.' "

The problem, according to Schonborn, is that this quotation is only part of the commission's statement on philosophical questions linked to Darwinism. In particular, its statement warned that a much-quoted -- and misquoted -- 1996 letter on science by Pope John Paul II cannot be "read as a blanket approbation of all theories of evolution, including those of a neo-Darwinian provenance which explicitly deny to divine providence any truly causal role in the development of life in the universe."

The commission's verdict was especially blunt: "An unguided evolutionary process -- one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence -- simply cannot exist."

Once again, stressed Cardinal Schonborn, the crucial distinction for Catholic believers is that they are not supposed to embrace versions of Darwinism that teach that evolution was and is an impersonal and random process.

Thus, he noted, the doctrinal bottom line is stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance."

What infuriates the church's progressive wing, according to liberal Catholic critic Andrew Sullivan, is the possibility that this public effort to argue that God guided evolution represents another initiative by traditional Catholics to join forces with cultural conservatives.

"Now we have Benedict in charge and the rush back to the Middle Ages, already seen in fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Protestantism, looks as if it is going to be endorsed in the Vatican," wrote Sullivan, in an online commentary. "I expected reactionary radicalism from Benedict. But this kind of stupidity? ... And so we return to the 19th century."

NEXT WEEK: What did Pope John Paul II say and when did he say it?