Cardinal creates controversy


In "Finding Design in Nature," published on the op-ed page of the July 7, 2005, issue of The New York Times, Christoph Schönborn, the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Vienna, undertook to refute "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." On the contrary, he argued, in the Catholic view, "[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." Deprecating Pope John Paul II's 1996 letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences as "rather vague and unimportant," Schönborn 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."

Schönborn's op-ed promptly raised the question of whether the Catholic Church was changing its position on evolution -- a question investigated by Cornelia Dean and Laurie Goodstein, whose "Leading Cardinal Redefines Church's View on Evolution" appeared in the July 9, 2005, issue of the Times. According to the article, the Discovery Institute's Mark Ryland took credit for urging Schönborn to write the op-ed, and it was submitted to the Times by the Discovery Institute's public relations firm. (Unaware of those connections when interviewed, NCSE Deputy Director Glenn Branch nevertheless surmised their existence, and the Times quoted him as wondering "How did the Discovery Institute talking points wind up in Vienna?") Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project and an evangelical Christian, described the op-ed as "a step backwards," and Francisco Ayala, a professor of biology at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Dominican priest, described Schönborn's dismissal of John Paul II's letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences as "an insult" to the late pope.

In a commentary entitled "Darwin, Design, and the Catholic Faith," Kenneth R. Miller summarized the problem: "As Cardinal Schönborn quite properly points out, the Catholic Church is staunchly opposed to any view of life that would exclude the notion of Divine purpose and meaning. ... But the Cardinal is wrong in asserting that the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution is inherently atheistic." A professor of biology at Brown University, a Supporter of NCSE, and the author of Finding Darwin's God, which eloquently argues for the compatibility of evolutionary biology with Christian faith, Miller was unsurprisingly outspoken about Schönborn's op-ed, telling the Times that while "random" and "unguided" are terms that may be applied by a biologist to evolution, they are not intended to have theological connotations: "Science cannot rule it out. Science cannot speak on this." Miller also expressed concern that the op-ed might deter Catholics from accepting evolution.

The significance of Schönborn's op-ed remains to be seen. Schönborn told the Times that although he spoke to Pope Benedict XVI (before his election as pope in April 2005) about his desire for the church to clarify its stance on evolution, his essay was not approved by the Vatican. He also said that although he thinks that students should be taught that evolution is just one of many theories, the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education had no plans to issue new guidance about evolution to teachers in Catholic schools. Writing in Slate, Keelin McDonell reports, "[t]heological experts think that Schönborn's essay likely has more to do with Pope Benedict XVI's desire to caution Catholics against relativism than to change the church's thoughts on evolution." A Catholic News Service article reports a number of remarks by Schönborn and his spokesperson intended to clarify the op-ed.

Seeking authoritative clarification on the Roman Catholic Church's position on evolution, Miller, Ayala, and Lawrence M. Krauss, a professor of physics at Case Western Reserve University, submitted a letter to the Pope. (Krauss is not a Catholic, but his May 17, 2005, essay in the Times about the compatibility of evolution and faith apparently helped to motivate Schönborn to write his op-ed.) They wrote, in part:

It is vitally important ... that in these difficult and contentious times the Catholic Church not build a new divide, long ago eradicated, between the scientific method and religious belief. We are writing to you today to request that you clarify once again the Church's position on Evolution and Science, that you reaffirm the remarkable statements of Pope John Paul II and the International Theological Commission, so that it will be clear that Cardinal Schönborn's remarks do not reflect the views of the Holy See.
The Times reported that a copy of the letter is also en route to Schönborn.