Parsing a cardinal: Are Roman Catholics to give up on evolution?
Jul 15, 2005
For many Roman Catholics, the question was raised–or possibly re-raised–last week when Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna and the lead editor of the official Roman Catholic catechism, published a provocative op-ed in the New York Times ["Finding Design in Nature"].
(usnews.com, 7/12/05) Saying that 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," the cardinal seemed to be forging a link between the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the newest, most sophisticated refinement of creationist thinking–intelligent design.
Was this a new position? Did it muddy what many thought was the church's clearly established stand on Darwin's theory of evolution? Or was it simply an example of a prominent Roman Catholic theologian working within the legitimate wiggle room of that stand?
Intelligent design, as put forward by scientists like Michael Behe and championed by such groups as the Discovery Institute in Seattle, proposes that there is simply too much complexity in living organisms to be wholly accounted for by random chance. To arrive at something so astonishing as, say, the human eye, a guiding intelligence, they contend, is necessary. This position–possibly because it goes along, to a point, with much orthodox Darwinian thinking about natural selection–drives hard-core naturalists crazy. They say that it cannot be a legitimate theory because there is no way to prove or disprove it.
Judged by the content of Schönborn's op-ed and by subsequent reporting on the intellectual sympathies between the cardinal and the Discovery Institute, it does appear that the cardinal finds the intelligent design argument compatible with his understanding of Roman Catholic teaching. But despite outcries of many scientists and others that this represents a dangerous break with the church's far more "enlightened" stance on evolutionary theory, it is possible to see Schönborn's views as being largely, if not entirely, consistent with the past 55 years of Roman Catholic teaching.
Consider Pope Pius XII's 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, the document that officially made peace (or, arguably, a qualified peace) between the church and Darwin. The relevant lines:
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.
Note that Schönborn endorses the same part of Darwinian theory that Pius XII did: the evolution of the physical form of the human species from pre-existing species. He does not, at least in his op-ed piece, emphasize the Roman Catholic position that God immediately creates the soul, though he could have argued so by drawing on a lively Roman Catholic intellectual tradition that includes Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin and his theory that consciousness–a crucial part of the soul–was itself the highest realization of divine intelligence in the physical cosmos.
Schönborn's interpretation of Roman Catholic teaching as being consistent with belief in purposeful and guided evolution could also have drawn on theologian Jacques Maritain's 1966 (pre-intelligent design) argument for a Thomistic-Aristotelian view of guided purpose behind the evolutionary process. In Maritain's view of evolution, simpler physical forms are "intended" to become more complex physical forms, culminating in man and his soul. "The ultimate end of all generation is, therefore, the human soul, and matter tends to this as its ultimate form," Maritain wrote.
But Maritain was not a pope, or even a cardinal. How do his thoughts bear on official church teaching? Well, in fact, Maritain's line of Thomistic thinking does seem present in the teaching of Pope John Paul II, which Schönborn points to in his op-ed. First of all, Schönborn notes that too much is made of the former pope's 1996 comment praising scientific research that "has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis." He was, Schönborn implies, simply giving science its due. Schönborn could have added that John Paul II, in those same comments, gave no ground on the matter of soul. In fact, to the dismay of biologist Richard Dawkins, who wrote critically of the pope's comments, John Paul II insisted that theories of evolution (and he used the plural) that "consider the mind as emerging from forces of living matter . . . are incompatible with the truth about man."
Schönborn emphasizes the former pope's 1985 pronouncement on evolution in which he gave his own convictions about a purposefully ordered direction to the process. "The evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality which arouses admiration. This finality which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge obliges one to suppose a mind which is its inventor, creator."
Obliges one to suppose. Note the words carefully. John Paul II was as much as saying that the world appears to have an order and design that can only oblige the faithful to be open to seeing the possibility of purpose and intention in the world. As a matter of faith, he was saying, he believed that science would lead to the confirmation of a belief in a purposefully created world, and in its creator.
Schönborn concludes that "scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as a result of 'chance and necessity' are not scientific at all, but as John Paul II put it, an abdication of human intelligence." That may be too harsh a view of the work of scientists who do not share Schönborn's faith and convictions. But it is true that positing the nonexistence of order and design to the universe is no less a matter of faith–a very different faith–than positing such an order and design to the universe. Science, whether it will ever confirm either faith, proceeds by established methods to explain, among other things, the causes of phenomena. And as long as scientists do not ignore the method or fudge the findings, they will continue to do the science that may, or may not, confirm their ultimate beliefs.
In the meantime, though, despite much hand-wringing to the contrary, it does not appear as though Roman Catholics have been ordered to desist from contemplating or exploring the elaborate mechanism of evolution. They have been asked to keep an open, even hopeful, mind about the answers to which such exploration might lead.