NEAL CONAN, host:

On Tuesday, the Vatican newspaper ran an article saying, “Intelligent design is not science and should not be taught alongside evolution in schools.” It also says evolution does not necessarily exclude God from the process of creation. We'll be talking about this with John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. He joins us now on the line from Rome, good to talk to you John.

JOHN ALLEN, (Vatican Correspondent for National Catholic Reporter): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: This position seems to be a little different than what we were hearing at least, from some Catholic officials, toward the end of last year.

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah, that's right; there clearly is a division of opinion at the senior levels of the Catholic Church as to what exactly to make of the evolutionary theory. We could sort of wind the clock back to the mid 90's, when John Paul II said that evolution was more than a hypothesis. And this was seen in many quarters as the Catholic Church sort of making its peace with evolution.

And that has never set well in some quarters, with many senior leaders who believe that, evolution is often misused by some people to exclude the idea of God. That is, if we can explain the origin of life and development of life through evolution then we don't need God. And this sort of, burst into public view last summer, when Cardinal Christoff Schoenbern of Vienna, who is one of the Church's leading theologians, he was a student of then, Father Ratsinger, back in the 70's, and a very close friend of Pope Benedict XXVI, published an op/ed piece in the New York Times, in which he said essentially that is that, you can't explain the universe without intelligent design, that evolution by itself is insufficient.

And that unleashed a debate over what exactly, the Cardinal meant. That is, was he speaking as a scientist, saying that evolution is wrong and that intelligent design should be taught in the science classrooms? Or, was he speaking as a philosopher and theologian, saying that there has to be room for a God in any theory of the universe. And that was never clear. I think, what, the piece in L'Osservatore Romano, today, which was written by a Catholic scientist at the University of Bolognia is intended to do is draw a sharp distinction between science and theology. And say that at the level of science, the leading scientific theories should be what are taught in science classrooms. At the level of theology on the other hand, evolution should not be misused to rule out the idea of God.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Now, does that suggest… Well first of all, it appeared in the Vatican Newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, is that official?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, Neal that's one of the great questions about kind of how the Vatican works. And the truth is it can often be very difficult to know precisely what is official in terms of Vatican pronouncement. I don't think you could call this official, in the sense that it's not a document from one, is the offices of the Vatican. It's not a “Papal Pronouncement”.

On the other hand, you know this is the official Vatican newspaper; it is committed to publishing nothing contrary to the faith and morals of the Church. So, I think the best way to read this would be this is a statement about what one faction, if you like, at the highest levels of the Church thinks. But clearly, with Cardinal Schoenbern we have another point of view. I think this is one of those open questions that the Church has not yet clearly resolved.

CONAN: And, interestingly, the article came after the judgment by a federal judge in the Pennsylvania, after the trial in Pennsylvania of the court district, which was a long story anyway. But then interestingly, the article said look, there's been a lot of back and forth over this intelligent design debate in the United States, it's not been very helpful. This court decision, the article said, this helps.

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah, I mean in fact, the article, in a sense, was a specific response to that court decision and it was praising that court decision. I mean basically, the line of this article is that, scientists should think as scientists do. And of course the present scientific model for explaining the development of the species is evolution, random genetic mutation and natural selection. And the author suggests that, if you want to replace that, you ought to replace that with another scientific theory.

He makes the argument that intelligent design is not a scientific theory; it is a philosophical and theological theory. And as I say, that is certainly one position that very prominent people in and around the Vatican, such as George Coyne, an American who's the Director of the Vatican Observatory, that is certainly their point of view.

I think people like Schoenbern, on the other hand, are very uncomfortable with issuing a kind of Vatican endorsement of evolution. Because they feel that's going to add impetus to those who want to say that, if evolution is correct, then we can exclude the idea of God because we don't need God to explain where life came from.

CONAN: And, of course, it gets into the debate here in this country where, those who support intelligent design have liked to think that the Catholic Church was among their supporters in this. Anyway, moving on to something else, next week we are expecting the first encyclical from the former Father Ratsinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. And he's chosen to write on the subject of love.

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah, and you know I think the best sound bite way to sum this up is, this is Benedict XVI's version of compassionate conservatism. I mean basically, what he wants to argue is, and he makes this distinction between two ancient Greek words for love, Eros and Agape. And argues that much of the modern world, its conception of love is Eros, that is the kind of satisfaction of one's own desires. And he wants to say that, the Christian point of view is better expressed by Agape, which his this total surrender of the self for the good of the other.

And ultimately what this is about is making the argument that, when Christianity says no to things, that is when it says no to gay marriage, when it says no to women priests, and on and on down the line, of positions that are often unpopular, associated with the Catholic Church and Specifically with this Pope. That, from his point of view it does so, in service of a higher good. That is, promoting the full development of the human person according to the plan laid out by God.

So that, ultimately, he's wanting to argue that Christianity is not about control, it's not about power, it's not about fear, but it's about love. And, that is very much the heart of the argument he's trying to make. Now, to what extent he's successful in making that argument is of course, another question.

CONAN: John Allen thanks very much for being with us today. Appreciate your time.

Mr. ALLEN: Always a pleasure.

CONAN: John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter joined us on the line from Rome. Tomorrow, Science Friday, Ira will be in this chair, we'll see you Monday. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

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