Passing off bad, old news as “good as new”

Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno stands near the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope located on Mount Graham in Graham County, Ariz. (CNS file/Judith Britt)We all know recycling is a good idea, but let’s save it for glass and plastic.

An old news story on Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno was recently reheated and served up as new on the Internet. Why? Who knows. Maybe because the media seem driven to whip up headlines that smack of scandal. And if it worked first time … well, try, try again.

One digital outlet stirred up a blogging flurry last week with its headline: “Vatican astronomer likens creationism to superstition.” A day earlier, another online agency had led with “Vatican astronomer: God didn’t create the universe in six days.” The coverage was enough to create its own Big Bang chain reaction in the blogosphere, generating comments that ranged from expressing surprise to indignation.

What was wrong was “the story is completely false,” Br. Guy wrote me.

Both agencies reported the U.S. Jesuit astronomer’s remarks were from a talk he purportedly gave “this week” or “on Tuesday” (Dec. 4) in Glasgow, Scotland. Br. Guy was on the road that week, but he was not in the British Isles but in a different England known as New England — specifically, Connecticut.

A simple Google search shows at least one of the “new” reports was based on a story in May 2006, when Br. Guy was indeed in Scotland to give a talk to the Glasgow Science Centre. That particular coverage created its own Internet buzz back then, so much so that it prompted Br. Guy to dedicate one of his regular columns in the Catholic weekly, The Tablet, to the affair.

“I was as surprised as anyone,” Br. Guy wrote in The Tablet’s May 20, 2006, edition, to see he had apparently said, according to the Scottish paper, “Believing that God created the universe in six days is a form of superstitious paganism.”

“Though I do worry that creationism can tend towards paganism, I don’t remember being so blunt,” he wrote in The Tablet.

Br. Guy, who also has been known to explore fun topics like whether space aliens have souls, told me in an email yesterday he felt the Scottish agency’s May 2006 report was “a rather muddled version of an interview I gave” based on “some of my own rather muddled comments.”

But as for the Jesuit brother’s general comments about creationism, well, it’s not new the Catholic church does not consider Genesis to be a science manual. The book of Genesis tells us God did create the universe, but it’s science that tries to tell us how.

“It’s hardly news that Catholicism is not creationist,” Br. Guy wrote in an unofficial statement he circulated among friends who had seen the stories last week on the Web.

Church fathers like Aquinas and Augustine specifically refuted the kind of literalism we see in the creationist vision. Br. Guy said there have been many papal speeches supporting scientific findings. One in particular, a 1952 address  by Pope Pius XII to the International Astronomical Union “is essentially an Astronomy 101 lecture on the size and history of the universe, as best known by astronomers at that time.”

Br. Guy writes in his email statement: “The bit about science protecting religion from superstition is not mine; it is from Pope John Paul II, in a widely available ‘letter to the director of the Vatican Observatory’ that outlines his views of the relationship between science and religion. Again, it should be read in its context.”

Also, Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical, “Humani Generis,” stated there is “no opposition between evolution, correctly understood, and Catholic doctrine about humanity.”

In 1996, Pope John Paul II told members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in an October address that “new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.” That statement generated a huge media buzz back then, even without the help of the Internet. 

PHOTO: Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno stands near the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope located on Mount Graham in Graham County, Ariz. (CNS file/Judith Britt)

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