Archbishop Denounces Evolution as 'Unguided'

A recent opinion column in The New York Times by Cardinal Schonborn, the influential archbishop of Vienna, denounced evolution as "an unguided, unplanned process." The column is a departure from the Catholic Church's more ambivilent stance on evolution. Madeleine Brand discusses Schonborn's comments with John Haught, professor of theology at Georgetown University and author of God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand. Alex Chadwick is on assignment.

In a few minutes, how Starbucks is blending into Vienna's coffee culture.

But first, the Catholic Church has long been friendly towards the theory of evolution, but recent comments by an influential cardinal with close ties to the pope could change that. In a recent Op-Ed comment in The New York Times, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna said that belief in evolution may be incompatible with Catholic teaching.

With us to discuss this is John Haught. He's professor of theology at Georgetown University and the author of "God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution."

And welcome to the program, Professor.

Professor JOHN HAUGHT (Author, "God After Darwin"): Thank you very much.

BRAND: Now the cardinal's comments caused quite a stir, but do they amount to an outright condemnation of evolution?

Prof. HAUGHT: Well, he does distinguish between evolution as common ancestry, which he accepts, and the so-called mechanisms for evolution as these are understood by what he refers to as neo-Darwinism, and he rejects these mechanisms as incompatible with Catholic faith, as he understands it.

BRAND: The mechanisms being the sort of unguided, unplanned process...

Prof. HAUGHT: The--random variation and natural selection are the two concepts that evolutionists appeal to when they try to explain the diversity of life over the course of time.

BRAND: Now as I understand that, this is a departure from what Pope John Paul II said.

Prof. HAUGHT: Well, Pope John Paul II did not endorse any particular theory of evolution, but what he did say quite clearly and firmly was that scientists have every right and should pursue truth no matter where it takes us, and that the research relating to evolution seems very, very strongly in favor of the theory, and so the whole spirit of John Paul's statement was one of strength and support for science, whereas I think the statement by Cardinal Schoenborn was fearful and defensive.

BRAND: And so what have been the ripples of his statement, both within the Catholic Church and within the scientific community?

Prof. HAUGHT: Well, I think most scientists, and especially Catholic scientists, would be very disappointed by this statement because Catholic scientists have been very comfortable with neo-Darwinian explanation because they realize that science really has no business commenting on ultimate questions. Science leaves out considerations of purpose, God, design, some divine mind behind things. These are things that science is not equipped to talk about. So when science--evolutionary science in particular--talks about how life came about, it has to resort to naturalistic categories, and among these would be concepts such as random variations and natural selection.

BRAND: Now Cardinal Schoenborn is quite close to the new pope. Could it be significant in that sense, that this statement by the cardinal might provide a window into what the new pope is thinking?

Prof. HAUGHT: Well, that's a good question, and we can only speculate here, but I recall that in the pope's inaugural papal address, he came down very firmly against what he called relativism, the view that there are no absolutes, and there are a number of people, most of them religiously conservative, and I think, in a sense, scientifically uneducated, who think that evolutionary biology, evolutionary science has become sort of the intellectual underpinning of a kind of relativistic outlook on life.

And I suppose that there are some biologists and some philosophers who would agree with that statement, but that's not inevitable, and there are many who think that evolution is quite compatible with a kind of universe which is oriented toward a horizon of absolute truth and meaning, but as long as the world and the universe remains unfinished, as evolution implies it does, any particular grasp of truth or the absolute--it has to be a fragmentary and conditioned one--and humility requires that we admit this.

BRAND: John Haught is a professor of theology at Georgetown University. He's the author of "God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution." Thank you for joining us, Professor.

Prof. HAUGHT: Thank you very much.

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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