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In Praise of “Devout Catholics”

David Klinghoffer

Kenneth_R._Miller.jpg

I’m not a Catholic, and we stay away from commenting on political races here. But I can’t resist noting consternation in some quarters at the description of Democratic VP pick Tim Kaine as a “devout Catholic.” This is notwithstanding his position as a self-characterized “strong supporter of Roe v. Wade.” See, for example, Alexandra DeSanctis at National Review Online, “Is Tim Kaine a ‘Devout Catholic’?

What an interesting word. “Devout,” of course, is a habitual media label for anyone in public life who makes a display of loyalty to faith, while simultaneously slipping loose of basic ideas associated with his religious affiliation in favor of preferred liberal or secular ones. The day Senator Kaine was announced as Mrs. Clinton’s running mate, I recall listening to two NPR reporters gushing on and on about his devotion to his faith. It’s as if there were a script they follow.

Catholics, compared to Protestants or Jews, seem the most likely to come in for such treatment. Maybe that’s because only the Catholic Church has a Pope, with all that suggests about a uniform teaching tradition. A “devout” Catholic putting a stamp of approval on an idea contrary to that tradition has a special usefulness for propagandists.

Case in point? That would have to be Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, author of Finding Darwin’s God and a perennial presence in the debate about evolution and intelligent design. But if you follow our work at Evolution News, you knew I was going to say that. Look here for our ample coverage of his part in the ID controversy. Man, is he ever “devout”! A Google search proves it — in no particular order:

  • “Many religious people have found ways to reconcile their religious beliefs with acceptance of evolution — a prominent example being Kenneth Miller, …who both champions the teaching of evolution in public schools and is a devout Catholic.” (Washington Post)

  • “Biologist and author Dr. Kenneth Miller, evolutionist and devout Catholic, to speak on ‘Common ground between God and Evolution'” (Berea.edu)

  • “…a devout Catholic whose defense of science/evolution helped destroy Intelligent Design” (Friendly Atheist)

  • “A leading and outspoken defender of evolution is Brown University professor Kenneth Miller, who interestingly enough also happens to be a devout Catholic.” (busted halo)

  • “Miller has consistently staked out views recognizing that science and religion must remain separated — despite his own devoutly held Roman Catholic religious convictions.” (Amazon review of Finding Darwin’s God)

  • “Kenneth Miller — himself a devout Catholic…” (Amazon review)

  • “Miller proves you can be devout without poisoning scientific ideas…” (Amazon review)

  • “As a devout Catholic, Miller can sympathize with the religious motives behind creationism and ID.” (Amazon review)

  • “A self-described devout Catholic, Miller testified…” (“Speaker slams intelligent design,” The Athens News)

  • “…he is also a devout Catholic: ‘I believe that God is the author of all things…'” (The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything: Evolution, Intelligent Design, and a School Board in Dover, PA)

  • “…reported to be a devout Catholic…” (“Creationist Bugaboo Back Again,” Common Dreams)

  • “What I find particularly interesting that I didn’t know before watching the video was that Miller is a devout Catholic who finds no conflict between his faith and his opposition to Intelligent Design.” (Rationally Thinking Out Loud)

  • “To have someone step forward in his position in the scientific community and come out with this message and say that he is a devout Catholic is remarkable…” (“Notre Dame honors Brown cell biologist with Laetare Medal“)

  • “Just because you believe in God doesn’t mean you have to hold onto bronze-age fantasies about the origins of life on earth. Take it from devout Catholic…Dr. Kenneth Miller…” (Philadelphia Weekly)

There are synonyms for “devout.” For example, “practicing.”

  • “[Miller] is a life-long practicing Catholic and accepts church teachings on salvation, the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus.” (Karl Giberson, The Daily Beast)

  • “A practicing Catholic and author of Finding Darwin’s God…” (“Miller reviews Dover model of standing up for science,” Brown University)

  • “When … practicing Catholic Kenneth Miller teaches evolution, he also teaches that such a zero-sum mindset just isn’t warranted.” (“Teaching science to the religious? Focus on how theories develop,” Brown University)

  • “…cell biologist and practicing Catholic Kenneth R. Miller defends evolution.” (Boston Globe)

  • “Though [Pope Francis’s] remarks have been framed as big news, they are anything but, said Kenneth Miller, a practicing Catholic…” (Live Science)

  • “Kenneth Miller is a practicing Catholic…” (“Scientists Seek Vatican Clarification on Evolution,” NPR)

  • “As Brown University’s Kenneth Miller, a practicing Catholic, has put it, ‘The scientific community has not embraced the explanation of design because…'” (Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science)

And on and on and on. It’s like calling someone a “credit to his race.” Phrased as a compliment, that old cliché obviously reflects respect for neither the “race” in question nor the person who is a “credit” to it. Here too, it’s likely that few if any commentators who praise Miller’s (or Kaine’s) devotion have much interest in or respect for Catholicism.

Isn’t the sheer, naked manipulation of this offensive to the Ken Millers of the world? I guess not, otherwise he would have protested by now.

Look, I’m not here to judge anyone’s commitment to his or her faith, as I’d hope they would mind their own business and not judge mine. That’s one reason I don’t make a practice of calling people “devout” anythings. Devotion is a condition of the heart, not visible to the outside world, and certainly not to people you’ve never even met.

That having been said, religious traditions are not amorphous, undefined entities, without objective content. Of course they are not. For a serious treatment of Catholic tradition as it pertains to evolution, I recommend our friend Father Michael Chaberek’s new book Catholicism and Evolution: A History from Darwin to Pope Francis. Or see Jay Richards’s chapters in God and Evolution, which also includes essays on Protestant thinking and two by me on Judaism.

Photo: Kenneth Miller, by Gavin Sullivan [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
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