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Posted July 26, 2005

Evolution and Christianity

By John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter

Please go to the National Catholic Reporter website
for more information on this topic

A July 7 op/ed piece by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna in The New York Times on evolution has caused no small amount of ferment in both scientific and theological circles. In it, Schönborn challenges the widely held perception that the Catholic Church has reconciled itself to the theory of evolution.

I've written a story about the Schönborn piece for NCR that will be posted to NCRonline.org on July 26

(CNS) Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna. In speaking to a number of Catholic scientists and theologians, the consensus seems to be that Schönborn has a valid point if his argument is read on a theological level. Christianity cannot accept the idea of a universe without an active, personal God, and evolutionary theory has sometimes been used to justify not only atheism, but also immanentism (God as a vague life-force) and Deism (that God set the universe in motion and has nothing more to do with it).

Richard Dawkins, one of the most widely read popularizers of evolutionary theory, has written that Charles Darwin "made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist."

On the other hand, if Schönborn's statements are read as claims about science, things quickly become murkier. At face value, Schönborn seems to suggest it is a matter of Catholic faith that design and purpose can be empirically discovered in nature. If so, the widely held (though certainly not undisputed) scientific understanding of evolution as a process driven by random genetic mutation and natural selection would be, in itself, irreconciliable with Christianity, driving a serious wedge between science and the church.

In this regard, it seems important to clearly distinguish two questions:

What is the best scientific explanation for the origins and development of organic life, based on data such as the fossil record, genetic studies, and so on?

Does evolutionary theory, whether true or not, pose a conflict with Catholic theology?

Most observers would say that the church is competent to answer the second question, but not the first. To try to settle the scientific dispute, they say, would take the Catholic Church close to what is conventionally known as "creationism," the belief that a scientific analysis of nature requires the inference of a creator.

What Christianity can affirm instead, some Catholic scientists and theologians say, is that whatever the process by which life originated and developed, it did so in accord with the plan of God. Even if it turns out to be correct, from an empirical point of view, that evolution is "unguided," that does not rule out divine providence as the "cause of causes."

To talk these issues through, I sat down this week with Professor Nicola Cabibbo, president for the past 12 years of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. A 78-member panel of distinguished scientists from around the world, the academy advises the pope on scientific matters. It's descended from the "Academy of the Lynxes," founded in 1603, making it the oldest scientific academy in the world.

The full text of my interview with Cabibbo can be found here: Interview with Professor Nicola Cabibbo.

The following are excerpts from that interview.

Q: What did you think of Cardinal Schönborn's article in The New York Times? Cabibbo: … The theory of evolution can be disturbing to Christians because it seems to clash with the idea of divine creation. However, this is not true. What clashes with divine creation is an extension of the theory of evolution into materialistic interpretations, the so-called "evolutionism." What evolutionism says, and here I'm thinking about people such as Dawkins, is that there's no need for God. But that is not science, it's not part of what has been discovered by science. … The great intuition of Darwin was that there is an evolution, that different species evolved over time, even if he could not understand the mechanism. … To this, there are two different reactions. One is the atheistic view, saying that we know how it works now, we don't need God. This goes beyond the scientific facts because it is a metaphysical conclusion. The other is the theistic response, believing that God is the cause of this process. … In reality the contrast between evolutionism and creationism has nothing to do with science. They are instead two very different religious and philosophical positions.

What troubles many people is that scientists use words such as 'unguided' and 'unplanned' in referring to evolution. As a scientist, what do those terms mean to you?

Let me come at it from a distance. In Italian, there is a popular saying, non cade foglia che Dio non voglia. ["No leaf falls unless God wants it."] What science does is to try to explain the mechanism by which the leaf falls. … This doesn't mean that what happens doesn't have its own logic, its own way of happening. It's not like we're all puppets in God's hands. It would be debasing to think that God is directly causing every leaf to fall from the tree. Instead there is a system, a mechanism, by which things happen. I think there is no philosophical, no theological, problem here. This was the thought of John Paul II -- there is no a priori reason to see a clash between science and religion.

When Cardinal Schönborn says that purpose and design can be clearly discerned in the natural world, would you agree? Not scientifically. As a scientist, I cannot draw this conclusion. What I can say is this: If the will of God was to create man, he certainly organized things in a beautiful way to do it. Of course, we know that God wanted to create man by revelation, but we don't know how he did it. This is what science attempts to explain. There should be no problem. There cannot be any clash or controversy between science and religion, because they do different things.

Some creationists argue that on the basis of an examination of the scientific facts, you can conclude that there must be a creator.

This is not believed by any serious scientist. … They have found some renegade scientists, or people with some scientific education, to give them some credibility. … You can certainly construct an argument about how beautiful creation is, how intelligent it is, but these are not scientific concepts. It's aesthetic, not scientific.

I also had the chance to speak with Jesuit Fr. George Coyne, an American astrophysicist who has served as director of the Vatican observatory since 1978. It's one of the oldest observatories in the world, whose roots in some sense go back to astronomical observations commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII as part of his reform of the calendar in 1582.

I reached Coyne in Tucson, Arizona, where he spends part of each year.

Coyne said he was disappointed in the way Schönborn dealt with a 1996 message of Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in which the pope referred to evolution as "more than a hypothesis." In his New York Times piece, Schönborn called this text "rather vague and unimportant."

Coyne said the pope's 1996 message was carefully considered.

"The academy had brought together the world's best researchers to study the origins and early development of life, along with some philosophers and theologians," Coyne said. "Moreover, the circumstances were dramatic. Just a week before, an announcement had been made of the discovery of possible bacterial life on Mars. That turned out to be wrong, but it created an atmosphere of great interest."

In that context, Coyne believes, what John Paul II said in 1996 "is very important."

Coyne said he's never understood why some people associate evolution with atheism.

"Why God cannot work with purpose through an evolutionary process that has stochastic features, I don't know," he said, invoking a term from mathematics that essentially means "random."

"Chance is the way we scientists see the universe," Coyne said. "It has nothing to do with God. It's not chancy to God, it's chancy to us."

Coyne said phrasing the debate over evolution as a contest between necessity and chance is misleading.

"You have to recognize a third element, which is the fertility of the universe," Coyne said. "The universe is some14 billion years old, containing 10 to the 22nd stars and some150 known planetary systems. The birth of planets is not a miracle, but a routine physical process. The universe is constantly spewing out the chemistry for life."

"We would not be here if stars were not routinely being born and dying," he said. "There would not be enough carbon in the universe to make an amoeba, or a toenail. "

"What happens is that two hydrogen atoms meet, on the basis of chance. Then, by necessity, they make a hydrogen molecule, assuming that the pressure, temperature conditions and so on are right. Then the molecule continues to wander around until it finds oxygen, and then, again by necessity, it has to make water."

"This process of increasing chemical complexity continues," Coyne said, "until out comes the human brain."

"We don't know everything about the process," he said, "but the interplay between chance and necessity in a fertile universe is the best explanation for everything that has come out of the universe, including ourselves."

" I haven't come to believe in God from my scientific knowledge of the universe," Coyne said. "But as a believer, I necessarily want to make a relationship with that knowledge. So I ask, what kind of God would have made a universe that scientifically I see in this way?"

"What does it mean that certain things are not pre-determined, that there is chance involved? To me it suggests a very scriptural God, one who, like a parent, nurtures a child through necessary processes, but for whom there also comes a time, and I suspect it is the most difficult time of parenting, of letting go. I look upon God dealing with the universe that way."

In that sense, Coyne said, he believes evolution underscores God's glory.

"I see a God who caresses the universe, who works with the universe, who has put into the universe some of his own dynamism and creativity," Coyne said.

One frequently overlooked resource for this discussion is a 2004 document of the International Theological Commission, the chief advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, called "Communion and Stewardship: Human Beings Created in the Image of God."

That document, which was published with the specific permission of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, took up the issues posed by evolution in paragraphs 62-70.

The heart of its argument comes in paragraph 69, where the document suggests that theology does not have to settle the argument between design and contingency in the development of life -- following St. Thomas Aquinas, the document argues that divine providence can work through either one.

The document can be found here: Communion and Stewardship: Human Beings Created in the Image of God.

This approach, several scientists and theologians say, creates the possibility for Catholics to accept the basic framework of evolutionary theory, without thereby creating a Trojan horse for philosophical materialism.

This does not mean evolutionary theory is true, merely that it is not necessarily inconsistent with Catholic theology.

On this score, I was struck by a conversation I had with Professor Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and author of Darwin's Black Box, perhaps the most-read scientific challenge to evolutionary theory.

Behe is a Catholic and a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a think tank that supports the intelligent design argument. A public relations firm associated with the Discovery Institute, according to reporting in The New York Times, helped place Schönborn's piece in the newspaper.

Yet Behe told me he believes a Catholic in good faith can accept the scientific mechanisms posited by evolutionary theory.

"I'm a biochemist, not a theologian," he said. "But it seems to me that belief in mutation and natural selection is compatible with Catholicism, as long as the underlying premise is that God set it up that way. That seems to me an orthodox Catholic position."

"I'm critical of evolutionary theory not because it's unorthodox," he said, "but because it can't do what it purports to do."