Friday, July 08, 2005


Is the Catholic Church About to Reverse Course on Evolution?

Christoph Schönborn, the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Vienna, published an Op-Ed in the New York Times yesterday in which he writes:

... neo-Darwinists recently have sought to portray our new pope, Benedict XVI, as a satisfied evolutionist. They have quoted a sentence about common ancestry from a 2004 document of the International Theological Commission, pointed out that Benedict was at the time head of the commission, and concluded that the Catholic Church has no problem with the notion of "evolution" as used by mainstream biologists - that is, synonymous with neo-Darwinism.

The commission's document, however, reaffirms the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church about the reality of design in nature...

Furthermore, according to the commission, "An unguided evolutionary process - one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence - simply cannot exist."

As you might imagine, Christoph Schönborn's Op-Ed is seen as a thrilling prospect in ID circles. William Dembski assures us that "Schönborn is both a close personal friend of the pope and philosopically on the same page with him."

Michael Behe, himself Catholic, writes:
Having the weight of the Catholic Church publicly behind ID and against Darwinism will make it much harder for the Scopes Trial caricature to stick to ID. Now it isn't just the proverbial band of yahoos from Tennessee (and a tiny number of confused academics) who don't get it. Now it's the largest Christian denomination in the world, one that makes distinctions between the entirely separate issues of the age of the earth, common descent, and Darwinian randomness.

As a product of the world's greatest transmission belt to skepticism, Red State Rabble takes an interest in Church's position on evolution. Just yesterday, we put up a post citing an article in the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, The Catholic Telegraph, "Creationism Talk Suggests Need to Revisit Catholic Education."

That article quotes David Byers, the former executive director of the U.S. Bishops Committee on Science and Human Values, as calling on Catholic educators to "develop better teaching programs 'to correct the anti-evolution biases that Catholics' are hearing, in light of community conflicts about creation and evolution popping up in the United States."

So, at the very least there are differences in the Church over evolution, creationism, and intelligent design.

One aspect of Schönborn's Op-Ed doesn't get much ink in either Dembski or Behe's blogs.

"Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true," writes Schönborn, "but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not. "

At first blush, this statement would appear to support the ID position perfectly. However, as we learned from the Kansas science hearings, common ancestry is not only a big problem for Behe's "yahoos from Tennessee," it is a big problem for the leadership of the ID movement as well.

Nearly all the expert witnesses brought to Kansas by the Discovery Institute said they did not believe that all living organisms had descended from a single common ancestor. Likewise, nearly all doubted that human beings had descended from pre-hominid ancestors.

In answer to a question from pro-science attorney Pedro Irigonegary, Michael Behe said he agreed with the answer given by Warren Nord:
NORD: Secondly, descent from a common ancestor, the question here is: What does descent from mean? If that means that neo—if Neo-Darwinian mechanisms are adequate, fully adequate for the explanation, I don't believe that. But if design or theological explanations are allowed to account for explaining at least part of what happens in evolution, then I accept that.

The position outlined by Schönborn in his Op-Ed is not exactly friendly to evolution in it's tone, but when you get right down to it, it's not that different from the position taken by all theistic evolutionists. God was there at the beginning, he set everything in motion and evolution is the way he did it.

This position will not be popular with the biblical literalists who are fighting evolution at the school district and state legislature level. They have already shoved the Discovery Institute to the sidelines in the Dover, Penn. intelligent design case. Legislation in Pennsylvania and Utah that would mandate teaching intelligent -- or divine -- design has also been oppposed by the Discovery Institute in a sign that the leadership of the ID movement is slipping out of the hands of the boys in Seattle.

There is more to this story, and RSR will be writing more about it. In the mean time, readers may want to look at an article by Stephen Jay Gould "Nonoverlapping Magisteria" here.

See also, Humani Generis, a 1950 encyclical by Pope Pius XII which says in part:
For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter - for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith.[11] Some however, rashly transgress this liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question.
Readers might also want to take a look at Pope John Paul's Message to Pontifical Academy of Sciences delivered October 22, 1996 which received world-wide publicity for going beyond the 1950 encyclical (Cardinal Schönborn, by the way, glosses over the significance of this event and the importance placed on it by Pope John Paul):

Today, almost half a century after the publication of the Encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of more than one hypothesis in the theory of evolution. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favour of this theory.

What is the significance of such a theory? To address this question is to enter the field of epistemology. A theory is a metascientific elaboration, distinct from the results of observation but consistent with them. By means of it a series of independent data and facts can be related and interpreted in a unified explanation. A theory's validity depends on whether or not it can be verified, it is constantly tested against the facts; wherever it can no longer explain the latter, it shows its limitations and unsuitability. It must then be rethought.

Furthermore, while the formulation of a theory like that of evolution complies with the need for consistency with the observed data, it borrows certain notions from natural philosophy. And, to tell the truth, 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. Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist and spiritualist interpretations. What is to be decided here is the true role of philosophy and, beyond it, of theology.

If Cardinal Schönborn's Op-Ed truly reflects the thinking of the new Pope, this is an enormously complex and potentially important development, but that doesn't mean that ID will be embraced overnight or that it can necessarily be done without convening another plenary assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, as Pope John Paul did in 1996.

The memory of what happened to the Church's reputation after Galileo's trial is still fresh in Catholic thought.


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