From Saturday, July 9's New York Times:
An influential cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, which has long been regarded as an ally of the theory of evolution, is now suggesting that belief in evolution as accepted by science today may be incompatible with Catholic faith.
The cardinal, Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, a theologian who is close to Pope Benedict XVI, staked out his position in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times on Thursday, writing, "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 Times article, by Cornelia Dean and Laurie Goodstein, implies that this is a sinister and significant change in the Church's position, and that the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based Intelligent Design think tank whose widely circulated "Wedge Project" memo reveals an aggressive theistic agenda, is behind it:
Mark Ryland, a vice president of the institute, said in an interview that he had urged the cardinal to write the essay. . . .
The cardinal's essay was submitted to The Times by a Virginia public relations firm, Creative Response Concepts, which also represents the Discovery Institute.
Mr. Ryland, who said he knew the cardinal through the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, where he is chancellor and Mr. Ryland is on the board, said supporters of intelligent design were "very excited" that a church leader had taken a position opposing Darwinian evolution. "It clarified that in some sense the Catholics aren't fine with it," he said.
Bruce Chapman, the institute's president, said the cardinal's essay "helps blunt the claims" that the church "has spoken on Darwinian evolution in a way that's supportive."
But some biologists and others said they read the essay as abandoning longstanding church support for evolutionary biology. . . .
"How did the Discovery Institute talking points wind up in Vienna?" wondered Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, which advocates the teaching of evolution. "It really did look quite a bit as if Cardinal Schönborn had been reading their Web pages."
But if you go back and read Schönborn's Op-Ed piece, you may become convinced, like me, that the Church's position hasn't budged an inch, and that this is a false fuss. Schönborn simply says that a 1996 letter of John Paul II which is frequently cited as an uncritical endorsement of the theory of evolution in toto -- the late Pope noted that the scientific case for evolution was growing stronger and that the theory was "more than a hypothesis" -- is not a precise or complete statement of John Paul's views. Schönborn refers back to a 1985 general audience in which the Pope basically made the case for intelligent design, before it was called by that name:
"All the observations concerning the development of life lead to a similar conclusion. The evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality [a philosophical term synonymous with final cause, purpose or design] which [. . .] obliges one to suppose a Mind which is its inventor, its creator."
He went on: "To all these indications of the existence of God the Creator, some oppose the power of chance or of the proper mechanisms of matter. To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements and such marvelous finality in its life [. . .] would be equivalent to admitting effects without a cause. It would be to abdicate human intelligence [. . .]"
In comments at another general audience a year later, John Paul concludes, "It is clear that the truth of faith about creation is radically opposed to the theories of materialistic philosophy. These view the cosmos as the result of an evolution of matter reducible to pure chance and necessity."
Naturally, the authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church agrees: "Human intelligence is surely already capable of finding a response to the question of origins. The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason." It adds: "We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance."
The Times article is very muddled. While acknowledging that scientists who are also religious have long proposed that God created life forms via the process of evolution -- and guided that process -- the authors seem to think that's different from Intelligent Design, which they pretty much equate with unsophisticated creationism, requiring "the direct intervention of a supernatural agent" (think Sistine Ceiling and God giving Adam the finger). And they suggest that now, suddenly, believing scientists are going to have a problem reconciling their reason with their faith. If anything, the Catholic Church was serenely reconciling reason and faith long before the Discovery Institute was a gleam in an educated evangelical's eye. As Schönborn writes:
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.
No matter where you stand in this debate, or on the Catholic Church as an all-too-human institution, you have to admit that on this subject, at least, the Times is seeing conspiracy and regression where there is transparency and consistency.
(We visited a doctor friend this weekend who told me that "evolution isn't just a theory, it's a fact." )
"An omnipotent God--Kipling's 'veiled and secret Power' comes to mind--can perform genetic engineering undetectably, cloaked by chance and chaos."
If that's the case, then we'll never know, will we?