An Evolving Debate

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

The Doctrinal Bottom Line

“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. Christoph Cardinal Schönborn 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 Schönborn 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 Schönborn, 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 Schönborn, 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.”

Back to the Middle Ages?

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.”

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 bidding 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.'”

News Flash: The Church Rejects Atheism

Thus, the cultural powers were flummoxed when Christoph Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna, an editor of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, wrote in his above-mentioned essay that “evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense — an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection” is not true.

Schönborn 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 Schönborn's essay, a circle of scientists petitioned Pope Benedict XVI seeking a clarification. The letter was written by Lawrence Krauss, the author whose essay on the compatibility of Christian faith and Darwinian orthodoxy Schönborn was answering.

“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.”

Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Atlantic University and is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

(This article combines two of his columns)

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage