Cardinal redefines his stance on evolution in New York Times piece

Science is incompatible with Catholicism, he says

July 10, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

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.

Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, 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. He wrote, "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 cardinal said in a telephone interview from a monastery in Austria, where he was on retreat with seminarians, that the Vatican did not approve his essay. However, two or three weeks before Pope Benedict XVI's election in April, he spoke with the pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, about the church's position on evolution. "I said I would like to have a more explicit statement about that, and he encouraged me to go on," Schoenborn said.

The cardinal said that he had been "angry" for years about writers and theologians, many of them Catholics, who he said "misrepresented" the church's position as endorsing Darwinism.

Opponents of Darwinian evolution said they were gratified by Schoenborn's essay. But scientists and science teachers reacted with confusion, dismay and anger. Some said they feared the cardinal's sentiments would cause religious scientists to question their faiths.

Schoenborn, who serves on the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education, said that the office had no plans to issue new guidance to teachers in Catholic schools on evolution. Many Catholic schools teach Darwinian evolution, in which accidental mutation and natural selection of the fittest organisms drive the history of life, as part of their science curriculum.

Darwinian evolution is the foundation of modern biology. While researchers may debate details of how the mechanism of evolution plays out, there is no credible scientific challenge to the underlying theory.

U.S. Catholics and conservative evangelical Christians have been a potent united front in opposing abortion, stem cell research and euthanasia, but had parted company on the death penalty and the teaching of evolution.

Schoenborn's essay and comments in the interview are an indication that the church may now enter the debate over evolution more forcefully on the side of those who oppose the teaching of evolution alone.

One of the strongest advocates of teaching alternatives to evolution is the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which promotes the idea, termed intelligent design, that the variety and complexity of life on Earth cannot be explained except through the intervention of a designer of some sort.

Mark Ryland, a vice president of the Discovery Institute and an acquaintance of Schoenborn, said in an interview that he had urged the cardinal to write the essay. Both Ryland and Schoenborn said that an essay in The Times about the compatibility of religion and evolutionary theory by Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, suggested to them that it was time to clarify the church's position on evolution.

Ryland, who said he knows Schoenborn because he is a member of the board of a theological institute in Austria where Schoenborn serves as chancellor, 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."

However, some biologists and others said they read the essay as abandoning longstanding church support for evolutionary biology.

Dr. Francis Collins, who headed the American effort to decipher the human genome, and who describes himself as Christian, said Schoenborn's essay looked like "a step in the wrong direction." He also said he feared it "may represent some backpedaling from what scientifically is a very compelling conclusion, especially now that we have the ability to study DNA."

"There is a deep and growing chasm between the scientific and the spiritual world views," he added. "To the extent that the cardinal's essay makes believing scientists less and less comfortable inhabiting the middle ground, it is unfortunate. It makes me uneasy." Unguided, unplanned, random and natural are all ways that biologists might describe evolution, said Dr. Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University and a Catholic. Even so, he said, evolution "can fall within God's providential plan.

"Science cannot rule it out," he said. "Science cannot speak on this."

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