D. J. Mullan responds to letter by H. Owen and R. Bennett (NOR Sept. 2003)


More than half of the NOR letter by Owen and Bennett (hereafter OB) has to do with difficulties they express concerning the wording of my quotes from two encyclicals: Providentissimus Deus (PD) and Humani Generis (HG). Because OB cannot locate certain specific words of mine in the English translations to which they refer, they accuse me of a number of things: misquoting the Pope’s words, cavalier treatment of a papal encyclical, using a Protestant clergyman as a source, and using “a source unknown”. These accusations by OB can be refuted simply by citing the reference work I use for my translation of the encyclicals.


I use “The Church Teaches: Documents of the Church in English Translation” by John F. Clarkson et al. (of St Mary’s College, St Mary’s Kansas), first published in 1955 by Herder Book Company. The original book appeared with the Imprimi Potest and Nihil Obstat issued by religious superiors, as well as the Imprimatur of Edmund J. Hunkeler, Archbishop of Kansas City. The book was reissued by TAN books in 1973, and it is the TAN version that I use for my citations.


The words “irrefutable evidence” are not “source unknown”, contrary to the claim of OB. Instead, they appear on p. 50 (para. 106) of the TAN version of the English translation of PD.


Similarly, OB claim that the quotation I cite from HG “However, it is not right to judge them by modern standards of historical composition” is “CERTAINLY NOT IN HG  (my emphasis added). However, OB regard it as significant that “the phrase does appear in a fundamentalist commentary on HG by a contemporary English vicar”. OB claim that I deceive readers by “masquerading as a direct quotation from the encyclical”, with the implication that I rely on a Protestant clergyman for my source. But as any reader may verify, my quotation comes word-for-word from page 65 (para. 141) of The Church Teaches.


OB claim that I mislead readers by citing from HG some words that appeared originally   in a letter from PCBS to the Archbishop of Paris. OB suggest that I am quoting the words from that letter as if they were the Pope’s own words. This is not a serious charge: since the Pope refers directly to the PCBS letter in his encyclical HG, whether OB like it or not, the Pope is in essence making the words of PCBS his own.


OB also criticize me for changing the indefinite article “a” to the definite article “the”: this is entirely frivolous.  As members of the Roman Catholic Church, we believe that the official teachings of the Church are contained in the Latin documents in Acta Apost. Sedis. Now, there are no articles in the Latin language: therefore, definite and indefinite articles are both acceptable English translations.


OB charge me with altering the meaning of HG by choosing certain phrases. But I chose my abbreviated words so as to preserve the meaning of HG faithfully. OB have not demonstrated that my abbreviated version is in any meaningful sense a departure from the true meaning of the HG text.


Now let me turn to OB’s discussion of scientific subjects. Here the discussion of OB reveals a significant lack of scientific understanding.


The first step OB take is to fall back on a criticism of the uniformitarian principle, which, according to OB, is “indemonstrable”. But this is not true. In every star or galaxy that has ever had its spectrum taken, the spectral lines appear in certain patterns, occupying a series of wavelengths which are always in the same ratio to one another. There are identifiable lines of magnesium, carbon, calcium, hydrogen, silicon, and many other elements: although they may all be shifted to red or blue due to various physical effects, nevertheless the mutual ratios of the wavelengths of all these lines are preserved. This means that atomic structure in many different elements follows the same laws out to the edge of the entire universe that is accessible to our largest telescopes. This is surely an indication of the operation of the uniformitarian principle on the grandest possible scale.


OB refer to the decay of the Earth’s magnetic field, claiming that it is “impossible to explain within a gigayear framework”. This is a well-known canard that fundamentalists like to cite, but it merely reveals their ignorance of the temporal behavior of the Earth’s magnetic field. The field strength in fact is known to increase and decrease over the centuries. The canard arises because creationists concentrate on the measurements of the field over the last 100 years or so, and then they extrapolate these measurements to thousands and millions of years in the past. This is silly, as an analogy with the tides in the ocean can demonstrate. If one were to examine the incoming tide on a beach for a short period of time, say an hour or two, and then extrapolate over weeks or months, one could arrive at the conclusion that the ocean would rise to cover the Rocky Mountains.


OB say that the Earth may be the center of the Universe, because “no physics experiment has ever detected whether the Earth is stationary (at the center) or in motion”. OB do not say how they interpret the observations of regular patterns of stellar motion due to annual parallax and the aberration of light. Astronomers have been measuring these now for 2-3 centuries, and both of them are signs of Earth’s orbital motion. Nor do OB mention how they interpret what the twelve astronauts saw when they stood on the Moon and looked back at Earth: the Earth was not stationary, but rotated about its axis before their very eyes once every 24 hours.


OB claim that the “Earth is the focus of physical creation”, because Robert Bellarmine said that 400 years ago. This argument makes no sense. The fact of being a cardinal (or even a saint) does not confer infallibility concerning the physical world. Pope Leo XIII recognized in his encyclical PD that human understanding about the physical world changes with time. In choosing to espouse beliefs such as the fixity of the Earth at the center of the Universe, the Kolbe Center runs the risk of making itself a laughing stock in the eyes of reasonable people. In a society where people have watched spacecraft travel to the outer planets (based on the laws of Newton), how many people does the Kolbe Center think it can convince that the Sun is not the principal body which controls the motion of bodies in the solar system?


As regards the 15 points based on cosmic data in the talk at the First Kolbe Conference (June 2001), I stand by my claim that a correct interpretation of each point according to the laws of physics does not at all point towards a young Earth. If the Kolbe Center wishes to have a debate on the merits of the case, let’s find people who have demonstrated expertise in the 15 fields of science mentioned in the cosmic data talk and then see how best to interpret the data in accord with the laws of physics.


Dermott J Mullan, Elkton MD