Evolution conference off to roaring start

ROME — Normally when the Vatican or a pontifical university sponsors a conference within its walls, you’d be pretty lucky to see any footage of it on the nightly news.

Mostly it’s just us Catholic journalists who haunt those halls, sitting hunched over our notepads scribbling down highlights from the talks and tracking down participants to interview. And if you’re the proud reader of Catholic News Service and her client newspapers and magazines, then you’d get to read about the event sometime later.

But this time was different. This time an audience member came armed with his own video camera so he could bring a slice of academia immediately to the wider world.

Dr. Oktar Babuna, a Turkish neurosurgeon, and a colleague of his attended Tuesday’s opening day of a five-day international conference dedicated to the critical appraisal of Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution.

According to Babuna, he tried to pose a question asking where the scientific evidence was for evolution — specifically, where are the fossil records of transitional forms that link the evolution of one species to another? But he told news agencies he was censored because he was challenging the veracity of evolution.

Babuna’s colleague captured the five-minute episode on camera and contacted news media about it soon after. Babuna said they uploaded the footage onto YouTube and the Web site of Harun Yahya, a Turkish author who opposes Darwinian theories as being unscientific. God created the world, but not according to evolutionary processes, Babuna said.

When I asked him by phone today about what happened on Tuesday, he said he had not been allowed to complete his question and had been rudely pushed back to his seat. He said he felt “the atmosphere was very undemocratic.”

He said he believes Darwinism denies the existence of God and that it’s an ideology meant to keep atheism alive in modern society,

He said he was sorry a pontifical university would sponsor such an event because “Rome is the center of Christianity and to get involved with that kind of people — they are all atheists.”

Unfortunately, I got to the conference an hour after the filmed event on Tuesday and can’t give my impressions. But after talking with some organizers and participants about it today, they said the episode hadn’t seem like “that big of a deal,” in the words of one.

They said Babuna had been cut off because there was a limited amount of time dedicated to the question-and-answer segment after each talk, and he was not using his time at the microphone to ask a question but instead “to make a big statement.”

According to people I spoke with, the moderator repeated his request several times for Babuna to ask a question and when it didn’t seem like a question was being posed, the microphone was eventually taken away. When Babuna did not leave the floor, he was asked to return to his seat.

Here’s the YouTube footage. The sound quality is extremely poor, but toward the end you can see Douglas Futuyma, a professor of ecology and evolution at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, at the front of the room behind a microphone explaining to Babuna the scientific evidence for evolution and transitional forms.

Two Vatican officials I spoke with told me they spoke with Babuna afterward, listened to his views and accepted from him a copy of Yahya’s Atlas of Creation.

Proponents of intelligent design and creationism had not been invited to give presentations at the conference because these positions are considered to be ideologies and do not reflect good science, theology or philosophy, according to Jesuit Father Marc Leclerc, a philosophy professor at the Gregorian University and member of the organizing committee.

He told reporters today that a purely ideological position “makes dialogue very difficult, maybe impossible.” Instead they wanted to invite people who had made clear contributions to the fields of science, theology or philosophy to discuss the implications of and open questions left in Darwin’s theories.

More from Archbishop Naumann on the Sebelius HHS nomination

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., has been questioning Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic, for her support of legalized abortion for a year and a half now, and he has asked her on at least two occasions not to present herself for Communion in Kansas.

In his latest public comment, he now says her nomination by President Barack Obama as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services is “troubling” because of her abortion stance.

The archbishop offered his most recent comments about Sebelius — summarized in a Catholice News Service report — in his column in the March 6 issue of The Leaven, the archdiocesan newspaper.

In an interview with Our Sunday Visitor, he further explains his stance.

While calling Sebelius a gifted leader who represents Catholic social teaching well when it comes to concerns such as the development of affordable housing and increasing access to health care for poor children, Archbishop Naumann strongly takes the governor to task for her long-held support for abortion.

In the interview the archbishop said he can understand why Sebelius was nominated to the federal post but reiterated that he finds it troubling. An excerpt:

“But I think from the church’s point of view, it’s sad because it places another high-profile, pro-abortion Catholic into national leadership along with Vice President (Joe) Biden and Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi and a raft of others that are in the Congress. And so I think it makes our job as bishops more challenging, because we have to be even more clear that this is not acceptable for a person in public service to say that they are Catholic and then to support these policies that are anti-life, you know go against the most fundamental of all human rights, the preservation of innocent life.”

Center enriches lives of medically fragile youngsters

“Medically fragile, but spiritually powerful: Center enriches kids’ lives” is the headline on a story this week in the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore.

Laughter and social interaction for the youngsters under their care are top priorities for staff members at the Center for Medically Fragile Children. “This is the picture of a village raising the child,” says recreational therapist Elizabeth Sullivan.

Got any good Dorothy Day letters?

Marquette University special collections archivist Phil Runkel is looking for original letters from Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day.

He’s collecting the letters for possible inclusion in a volume being edited by Robert Ellsberg, who published “The Duties of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day” in 2008. Publication of the new book is set for August 2010.

“Our concern is that there are letters in people’s attics that they’re unaware of or may not be aware of the significance of them,” Runkel said of the effort to widen the search beyond Catholic Worker circles.

So far, Runkel has collected about 600 letters. But he believes thousands more exist.

“Considering the number of people who wrote to her and the number of people she did respond to, it’s just a fraction,” he said.

Of course, not all of Day’s letters have been saved. Runkel tells of an heir of a friend of Day who didn’t approve of her public actions to protest war and injustice and threw her letters into the trash.

Runkel has letters from Day dating back as far as 1923. He’s looking for earlier writings, especially from the World War I era when Day lived the bohemian life amid the New York literary scene. Correspondence from the early days of the Catholic Worker in New York’s Bowery District in 1933 also are being sought.

If you’ve got any letters you’d like to share, Runkel would be happy to hear from you. He’ll help arrange to get the originals or copies if you call (414) 288-5903 or e-mail him at Phil.Runkel@marquette.edu.