Religion: Parsing a cardinal: Are Roman Catholics to give up on evolution?
What to believe?
About evolution, that is.
For many Roman Catholics, the question was raisedor possibly re-raisedlast 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"]. Saying that evolution "in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sensean unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selectionis 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 thinkingintelligent 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 positionpossibly because it goes along, to a point, with much orthodox Darwinian thinking about natural selectiondrives 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 matterfor 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 consciousnessa crucial part of the soulwas itself the highest realization of divine intelligence in the physical cosmos.