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Issue Date:  July 29, 2005

Catholic experts urge caution in evolution debate

Scientists, theologians take issue with Schönborn's op-ed article


A recent article by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in The New York Times, asserting that “unguided, unplanned” evolution is inconsistent with Catholic faith, should be read with caution warn a number of Catholic scientists and theologians, including the head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Most of the experts interviewed said the article can offer a useful alert if taken at a theological level. Evolution, they point out, has sometimes been invoked to justify atheism, as well as immanentism (that God is a vague life force) or deism (that God set the universe in motion and has nothing more to do with it).

To the extent Schönborn’s point is that Christianity cannot accept a universe without an active, personal God, they say, there’s little to dispute.

If taken as a scientific statement, on the other hand, these observers warn that Schönborn’s insistence on seeing “purpose and design” in nature could steer the Catholic church towards creationism in the bitter cultural debate, especially prominent in the United States, between evolution and intelligent design. Doing so, they say, risks overstepping the bounds of the church’s competence, as well as reopening a divide between science and the Catholic church that had seemed largely overcome.

Several said Schönborn’s July 7 piece should be read in the context of a 2004 document of the International Theological Commission, an advisory body of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the most recent Vatican document to treat evolution.

The document, titled “Communion and Stewardship,” argues that Catholic theology does not commit the church to one side or the other in the strictly scientific dispute between evolution and design. Even if evolution appears “random” and “undirected” from an empirical point of view, the document asserts, it could still be part of God’s providence.

That view is welcomed by many Catholic scientists, who say the problem with evolution is not so much the theory itself, but the philosophical applications some make of it.

“The theory of evolution can be disturbing to Christians because it seems to clash with the idea of divine creation,” said Nicola Cabibbo, president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a 78-member body of academics who advise the pope on scientific matters. Cabibbo is a professor of particle physics at Rome’s La Sapienza University.

“However, this clash is false. What clashes with divine creation is an extension of the theory of evolution into materialistic interpretations, so-called ‘evolutionism,’ ” Cabbibo told NCR July 18. “That’s not science, it’s metaphysics.”

This distinction between evolution as a scientific hypothesis, and “Darwinism” or “neo-Darwinism” as a philosophical system, is crucial, observers say, to understanding Catholic thought on the subject.

Long history of compatibility

Cabibbo’s confidence in the compatibility of evolution with Catholic faith reflects a long history.

In 1950, Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Humani Generis, signaled acceptance of the basic principles of evolutionary theory.

“The church does not forbid that… 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 preexistent and living matter,” Pius wrote.

Commenting on the creation accounts in Genesis during a 1986 general audience, Pope John Paul II extended this idea.

“The theory of natural evolution, understood in a sense that does not exclude divine causality, is not in principle opposed to the truth about the creation of the visible world as presented in the Book of Genesis,” the pope said.

John Paul went further in a 1996 message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, referring to evolution as “more than a hypothesis.”

“It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge,” John Paul wrote. “The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.”

Yet in conservative Catholic intellectual circles, critics for some time have been questioning this formula. They argue that it is not so simple to separate evolution from its philosophical applications -- that atheism, in effect, may be part of the genetic code of evolutionary theory.

One voice making that argument has been Philip Johnson, a law professor at the University of California in Berkeley. Though a Presbyterian, Johnson’s work has been featured in First Things, an influential journal of American Catholic opinion.

“It is the alleged absence of divine intervention throughout the history of life -- the strict materialism of the orthodox [Darwinian] theory -- that explains why a great many people, only some of whom are biblical fundamentalists, think that Darwinian evolution (beyond the micro level) is basically materialistic philosophy disguised as scientific fact,” Johnson wrote in First Things in 1997.

Another important contributor to a Catholic reappraisal of evolution is Michael Behe, professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and author of Darwin’s Black Box, perhaps the most-read scientific challenge to evolutionary theory.

Behe is a Catholic, and a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a think tank that supports the intelligent design argument. A public relations firm associated with the Discovery Institute, according to reporting in The New York Times, helped place Schönborn’s piece in the newspaper.

Schönborn’s July 7 article, therefore, did not come out of the blue.

“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, including the world of living things,” Schönborn 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. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.”

Schönborn referred to the 1996 statement of John Paul II as “rather vague and unimportant.” He cited other statements of the pope to the effect that evolution presents an “internal finality” that leads one to suppose the existence of a creator.

Weighing Schönborn’s words

In the wake of the Times piece, some observers have noted that there are 181 cardinals in the world, which means that Schönborn’s views on evolution, while they may be interesting, are not determinative of the church’s stance. Indeed, just four days after Schönborn’s piece appeared, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington told an audience at the National Press Club that as long as scientists leave room for God in the evolutionary process, the church can “work with that and accept that in principle.”

Yet Schönborn is not just any cardinal. A polyglot intellectual, a Dominican, and the scion of old Bohemian nobility, he is widely regarded as one of the leading theologians at the senior levels of the church, and served as general editor of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church. He is also a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s doctrinal agency.

Perhaps more to the point, Schönborn is a close friend of Pope Benedict XVI. He did postdoctoral work with then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger at the University of Regensburg in Germany in the late 1970s, and was one of the “grand electors” in the April conclave that made Ratzinger pope.

His views, therefore, could be influential in shaping the thinking of Benedict’s pontificate.

Charles Townes, a Nobel laureate in physics at the University of California in Berkeley, has been a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Science for more than 20 years. A Protestant, Townes told NCR July 18 that he found Schönborn’s piece “disappointing.”

“Some materialists may use evolution in the sense Schönborn talks about, but there’s no necessary connection,” he said.

Behe, however, disagreed.

“Most people don’t realize that Darwinian evolution makes a very radical claim,” Behe said.

“Not only does evolution work by natural selection, but it was totally unintended by anyone or anything. … I think that any Christian, any theist, would have to say that life was intended by God,” he said.

Behe hints at the key question -- does the theological affirmation that life comes from God also obligate Catholics to insist, as a scientific matter, that intelligent design is evident in nature?

Townes said that things are not so clear-cut. Even processes that appear random, he said, can have an underlying logic.

“The idea that calling something ‘random’ means that it’s without direction is a mistake,” Townes said. “In a gas, for example, random interaction among particles ensures uniform distribution and temperature. In other words, an unplanned process produces an orderly outcome.”

“Evolution,” Townes said, “is like that. It’s a random process that produces spectacular things.”

Jesuit Fr. George Coyne, head of the Vatican observatory, agreed.

“Chance is the way we scientists see the universe. It has nothing to do with God. It’s not chancy to God, it’s chancy to us,” Coyne said.

Coyne told NCR in a July 20 interview that far from implying atheism, evolution “can equally well be interpreted to the glory of God.”

“I see a God who caresses the universe, who puts into the universe some of his own creativity and dynamism,” Coyne said. Cabbibo said he would call evolution “self-directed” rather than “undirected.” The point is that random genetic mutation, coupled with natural selection, does not require anything external to direct the process.

This does not exclude, Cabibbo said, the faith conviction that God arranged things this way.

“As a scientist, what I can say is this: If the will of God was to create man, he certainly organized things in a beautiful way to do it,” Cabibbo said.

Some Catholic theologians point to “Communion and Stewardship,” issued with the approval of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, in 2004, as offering a different approach.

The debate between evolution and intelligent design, the document notes in paragraph 69, “involves scientific observation and generalization concerning whether the available data support inferences of design or chance, and cannot be settled by theology.”

“But it is important to note,” it says, “that according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. … Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation.”

The document then warns against philosophical abuse of evolutionary theory.

“Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so,” it says. “An unguided evolutionary process -- one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence -- simply cannot exist.”

The document, according to experts such as Cabibbo, provides a basis for Catholics to accept evolution as it is understood by modern scientists, without thereby surrendering belief in God as the ultimate cause of life.

One Catholic scholar who worked on “Communion and Stewardship agrees.

“There’s quite a strong element in the natural sciences who simply don’t approve of any transcendental cause as a matter of philosophy,” said Jesuit Fr. Shun ichi Takayanagi of Sophia University in Tokyo.

“That doesn’t mean, however, that evolution as such is incompatible with Christianity,” Takayanagi said in a July 17 phone interview. “We are not against evolution as such, but the materialist use of evolutionary theory.”

Even Behe, who believes the scientific data does not support evolution, nevertheless said he believes a faithful Catholic could accept evolutionary theory.

“I’m a biochemist, not a theologian,” he said. “But it seems to me that belief in mutation and natural selection is compatible with Catholicism, as long as the underlying premise is that God set it up that way. That seems to me an orthodox Catholic position.”

“I’m critical of evolutionary theory not because it’s unorthodox,” he said, “but because it can’t do what it purports to do.”

What does the pope think?

A final question about Schönborn’s piece is the extent to which it reflects the thinking of Pope Benedict XVI.

Schönborn told The New York Times that he wrote the article after being encouraged to look into the issue of evolution by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prior to his election as pope. Moreover, the new pope himself struck a note not dissimilar to Schönborn’s in the homily at his April 24 installation Mass:

“We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution,” Benedict XVI said. “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.”

Yet “Communion and Stewardship,” which clearly distinguishes between a scientific and a theological analysis of evolution, was published in 2004 with Ratzinger’s authority. That permission was given in forma specifica, which generally means the one giving permission makes the conclusions his own.

Cabibbo also pointed out that as prefect, Ratzinger opened the archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to scientific research, and chose to announce the move during a meeting of a secular scientific academy in Italy. Moreover, Cabibbo said, Ratzinger himself had been a member of the Pontifical Academy of Science since 2003.

“He certainly seems to have an appreciation of science,” Cabibbo said. “I’m optimistic.”

In the end, Cabibbo argued, the trick is for both scientists and theologians to respect the limits of their competence.

“We know that God wanted to create man by revelation,” Cabibbo said, “but we don’t know how he did it. This is what science attempts to explain. There should be no clash between science and religion, because they do different things.”

John L. Allen Jr. is the NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

Keeping ‘divine causality’ in the process

Excerpt from the Vatican’s International Theological Commission document, “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God.”

69. The current scientific debate about the mechanisms at work in evolution requires theological comment insofar as it sometimes implies a misunderstanding of the nature of divine causality. Many neo-Darwinian scientists, as well as some of their critics, have concluded that, if evolution is a radically contingent materialistic process driven by natural selection and random genetic variation, then there can be no place in it for divine providential causality. A growing body of scientific critics of neo-Darwinism point to evidence of design (e.g., biological structures that exhibit specified complexity) that, in their view, cannot be explained in terms of a purely contingent process and that neo-Darwinians have ignored or misinterpreted. The nub of this currently lively disagreement involves scientific observation and generalization concerning whether the available data support inferences of design or chance, and cannot be settled by theology. But it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation. According to St. Thomas Aquinas: “The effect of divine providence is not only that things should happen somehow, but that they should happen either by necessity or by contingency. Therefore, whatsoever divine providence ordains to happen infallibly and of necessity happens infallibly and of necessity; and that happens from contingency, which the divine providence conceives to happen from contingency” (Summa theologiae, I, 22,4 ad 1). In the Catholic perspective, neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science. Divine causality can be active in a process that is both contingent and guided. Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so. An unguided evolutionary process -- one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence -- simply cannot exist because “the causality of God, Who is the first agent, extends to all being, not only as to constituent principles of species, but also as to the individualizing principles. ... It necessarily follows that all things, inasmuch as they participate in existence, must likewise be subject to divine providence” (Summa theologiae, I, 22, 2).

National Catholic Reporter, July 29, 2005

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