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Reactions to Schoenborn on the air


Three broadcast reports on reactions to "Finding Design in Nature" -- the July 7, 2005 op-ed in The New York Times by the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schoenborn -- are available on-line. In his op-ed, Schoenborn argued, contrary to "defenders of neo-Darwinian dogma [who] have often invoked the supposed acceptance -- or at least acquiescence -- of the Roman Catholic Church when they defend their theory as somehow compatible with Christian faith," that "[e]volution 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 subsequently reported that the Discovery Institute's Mark Ryland took credit for urging Schoenborn to write the op-ed, and it was submitted to the Times by the Discovery Institute's public relations firm. (For details, see NCSE's previous report, "Cardinal causes controversy".)

First, on July 12, John F. Haught, a professor of theology at Georgetown University and the author of God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, appeared on NPR's Day to Day show to discuss Schoenborn's op-ed. Haught explained, "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." Asked by the host for his evaluation of the reaction within the scientific community, he added, "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."

Second, on July 17, NPR's Weekend Edition covered the story, focusing on the letter to Pope Benedict XVI from Lawrence Krauss, Francisco Ayala, and Kenneth R. Miller. Miller told NPR, "I and a great many other scientists who have been vocal in our support of evolution were deeply disappointed at what we saw as a public reversal of position of the Catholic Church with respect to the compatibility of science and religion." Michael Hoonhout, a theologian at the Catholic University of America, suggested that Schoenborn's real target was people who view "evolution as the intellectual justification for atheism." Both Miller and Haught expressed concern about the possibility that Schoenborn's op-ed might signal a movement within the Catholic church toward endorsing "intelligent design": Haught commented that "the idea that God is primarily a designer is entirely too stiff and dead and lifeless a concept to represent the biblical understanding of God," while Miller argued that for the church to endorse "intelligent design" "would break with long-standing Catholic tradition of accepting scientific accounts of the workings of the natural world."

Finally, also on July 17, the SETI Institute's syndicated "Are We Alone?" show asked the question "Is the Church Pulling Back on Evolution?"; Krauss and Haught were interviewed at length by the show's host, astronomer Seth Shostak. Krauss, who is active in promoting evolution education both in Ohio and around the country, explained his concern with Schoenborn's op-ed: "The fact that the church was okay with evolution was very important for those of us who were trying to convince students that you don't have to listen to people who claim you have to be an atheist to believe in evolution." Haught emphasized that Schoenborn's opinions are his own, not those of the Catholic Church: "theology should never endorse a particular scientific position for strictly theological reasons," he explained, adding that Schoenborn seems to be confused about the nature of science. On the topic of the letter to the Pope, Krauss said that he had not received any response; Haught commended the letter, adding that "every responsible theologian that I know of" would agree with its content.