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"Intelligent design" criticized in Vatican newspaper


L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, published a piece in its January 16-17, 2006, edition by Fiorenzo Facchini, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Bologna, which praised the decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover and described "intelligent design" as unscientific. The New York Times (January 18, 2006) noted, "The article was not presented as an official church position. But in the subtle and purposely ambiguous world of the Vatican, the comments seemed notable, given their strength on a delicate question much debated under the new pope, Benedict XVI."

Conjectures about a possible shift in the Roman Catholic Church's position on evolution have swirled since the publication of "Finding Design in Nature" (The New York Times, July 7, 2005), written by Christoph Schoenborn, the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Vienna. Deprecating Pope John Paul II's 1996 letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences as "rather vague and unimportant," Schoenborn instead cited statements from John Paul II and Benedict XVI that endorse divine providence as opposed to materialistic philosophy as evidence that the Catholic Church opposes "neo-Darwinism."

Schoenborn's op-ed was widely hailed by the "intelligent design" movement. It was, in fact, revealed to have been partly orchestrated by the Discovery Institute, whose vice president Mark Ryland took credit for urging Schoenborn to write the op-ed, and whose public relations firm submitted it to the Times on Schoenborn's behalf (The New York Times, July 9, 2005). Schoenborn is close to Pope Benedict XVI, and on at least two recent occasions, the Pope discussed evolution in terms that, though ambiguous, might be construed as endorsing a similar position.

But the op-ed was also widely criticized as conflating evolution with atheism. Kenneth R. Miller, professor of biology at Brown University, wrote, "the Cardinal is wrong in asserting that the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution is inherently atheistic"; George Coyne S.J., head of the Vatican observatory, told the National Catholic Reporter (July 29, 2005) that evolution "can equally well be interpreted to the glory of God"; and Nicola Cabibbo, head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, told the National Catholic Reporter (July 18, 2005), "What clashes with divine creation is a possible extension of the theory of evolution in a materialistic direction."

Schoenborn subsequently sought to clarify his remarks, the Times reports; he was quoted as saying, in a speech delivered in October 2005, "I see no difficulty in joining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, but under the prerequisite that the borders of scientific theory are maintained." In what seems to be his most definitive clarification, "The Designs of Science" (First Things, January 2006), however, a central point is that "reason can grasp the reality of design without the aid of faith." "The Designs of Science" responds to a critique of his op-ed by the physicist Stephen M. Barr in the October 2005 issue of First Things.

In his L'Osservatore Romano article, Facchini wrote, "If the model proposed by Darwin is not considered sufficient, one should search for another ... But it is not correct from a methodological point of view to stray from the field of science while pretending to do science ... It only creates confusion between the scientific plane and those that are philosophical or religious." Accepting evolution is not incompatible with believing in divine creation, he explained: "God's project of creation can be carried out through secondary causes in the natural course of events, without having to think of miraculous interventions that point in this or that direction."

The Times noted, "L'Osservatore is the official newspaper of the Vatican and basically represents the Vatican's views. Not all its articles represent official church policy. At the same time, it would not be expected to present an article that dissented deeply from that policy." At any rate, Facchini's article was hailed by scientists in the United States. "He is emphasizing that there is no need to see a contradiction between Catholic teachings and evolution," Francisco J. Ayala, professor of biology at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Dominican priest, told the Times. "Good for him."