Catholics Confront Faith and Evolution

While debate rages in this country over teaching science and so-called "intelligent design," the Roman Catholic Church is in the midst of a renewed discussion over the compatibility of evolution and faith.

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While there are battles in schools and courts over whether intelligent design is incompatible with science class, the Catholic Church is grappling with the question: Is evolution compatible with God? Pope Benedict XVI has made ambiguous statements about evolution, which has caused some to worry that the Vatican may be rethinking its stance. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has more.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

The theological bombshell dropped on July 7th in an op-ed article in The New York Times. It was written by Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, the archbishop of Vienna and one of the new pope's closest friends. In it, he raised questions about evolution or neo-Darwinian theory. Many Catholics thought the Vatican had long ago made its peace with Charles Darwin. So it's no small thing when Cardinal Schonborn says this about evolution.

Cardinal CHRISTOPH SCHONBORN: If neo-Darwinism is understood as a mere unplanned, unguided process of random variation and natural selection and nothing else, then I must say that neo-Darwinism is incompatible with Christian faith.

HAGERTY: One reason he wrote the article, he says, was because he felt that Catholic scientists were overstating how much Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict embraced evolution.

Cardinal SCHONBORN: And secondly, it was my personal conviction that evolution is valid as a scientific theory and has to be discussed, but as an ideology, it is really unacceptable as if it could explain everything in the world. Then it tends to become a substitute of religion and that's not right.

HAGERTY: `Some things,' Schonborn says, `evolution just cannot cover.'

Cardinal SCHONBORN: You cannot explain psychology. You cannot explain love by Darwinian theory.

HAGERTY: And Schonborn's thinking in many ways mirrors that of Pope Benedict. Schonborn is considered one of the Vatican's leading theologians. He and Benedict served together on theological commissions and they've written like-minded articles on science and religion, but in writing The New York Times piece, Cardinal Schonborn had no idea that he had stumbled into the hornet's nest of American politics. The situation became more fraught when it was revealed that the public relations firm that placed the article also did work for the Discovery Institute, which has been the major force in promoting intelligent design. Intelligent design is the idea that life is too complex to have evolved through natural means. Schonborn says he had no intention of joining this uniquely American debate.

Cardinal SCHONBORN: I do not enter the discussion of whether Discovery Institute and the school of intelligent design are perfectly on the right track. I just simply say in a much more general way design, or let us say purpose, let us say meaning, is an evidence for everybody who looks at nature.

HAGERTY: This intuitive evidence finds resonance with the American people. Polls show that three-fourths believe in either the biblical creation account or in evolution that is guided by God. Nevertheless, Cardinal Schonborn has reopened a question that many Catholics thought had been settled: What does the Catholic Church say about evolution? The short answer is the church has acknowledged Darwin's theory since Pope Pius XII in 1950. In 1996, Pope John Paul II said that evolution is `more than a hypothesis.' In 2004, the church said that even if evolution appears random and undirected, it could still be part of God's providence, which makes a lot of sense to John Haught, a professor of theology at Georgetown University and author of "God After Darwin."

Professor JOHN HAUGHT (Georgetown University): The world is not a puppet pulled by the divine puppeteer, but in some sense, God so loves the world that God wants the world to be independent of God.

HAGERTY: He says it makes sense that God would create an evolving world, allowing it to change and progress. Haught adds that it's not difficult to reconcile science with the supernatural if you see they provide different answers to the same question. Imagine, he says, that you have a pot of water boiling on the stove and someone asks you, `Why is that water boiling?'

Prof. HAUGHT: Well, at one level of explanation, you can say, `It's boiling because the H2O molecules are moving around excitedly and making the transition from the liquid state to the gaseous state,' or you could say, `It's boiling because I want tea.' Both explanations are valid if you want a rich understanding of things.

HAGERTY: Now theologians say the acceptance of scientific inquiry is pretty standard Catholic theology, but recently the new pope has made some comments that give them pause. In his first homily as pope, Benedict said, quote, "We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution." And on November 9th, with his friend Cardinal Christof Schonborn standing nearby, Pope Benedict said this.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: (Through Translator) In the beginning, the creative word, this word that created all things, that created this intelligent design which is the cosmos, is also love.

(Soundbite of applause)

Father GEORGE COYNE (Director, Vatican Observatory, Rome): He was trying to take issue with the materialistic interpretation of evolution.

HAGERTY: Father George Coyne is director of the Vatican Observatory in Rome. He believes the pope was not weighing in on one side of the American culture wars, but making a point that evolution can be taken too far if it becomes a philosophy where God is not needed.

Fr. COYNE: And that's always the fear of the church, and indeed in modern culture, there is somewhat of a dominance of materialistic interpretations of science, but that does not mean you should condemn the science. You should condemn the materialism.

HAGERTY: Coyne and even Cardinal Schonborn do not believe the Vatican is backing away from piles of scientific evidence supporting evolution. After all, they're mindful that the Vatican has a checkered history with science. In the most famous case three and a half centuries ago, the church placed Galileo under house arrest for the last eight years of his life after he asserted the Earth moves around the sun. Scholars agree the church will not make the same mistake with evolution.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

HAGERTY: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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