Darwin & the Cardinal

Many Catholics would be surprised to hear that the Darwinian theory of evolution is incompatible with Christian faith. Yet this was the central contention of a recent New York Times op-ed piece by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna (“Finding Design in Nature,” July 7).

“Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true,” the cardinal wrote, “but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense—an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection—is not.” A front-page story in the July 9 Times (“Leading Cardinal Redefines Church’s View on Evolution”) explained that the op-ed article had been solicited and submitted by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based group that advocates teaching alternatives to evolution. Does Schönborn’s essay mean that the church has changed its position on evolution?

In a word, no. Catholic thinkers have long maintained that evolutionary biology provides a vitalizing stimulus to religious thought. By seizing upon several undeveloped papal remarks, curt catechism formulas, and recent statements of Pope Benedict XVI, the cardinal assumes that he has assembled a dogmatic arsenal powerful enough to blast away a century and a half of reliable scientific research, not to mention volumes of creative theological reflection on evolution.

More significant, though, is Schönborn’s resistance to the spirit and intention of Pope John Paul II’s decisive public endorsement of scientific research relating to evolution. The late pope’s 1996 statement was not substantively innovative, since countless Catholic theologians and scientists had long embraced evolution, including the role of random variation and natural selection. John Paul’s statement was a clear signal to the intellectual and theological worlds that scientific truth must be pursued and embraced without fear. Cardinal Schönborn’s op-ed, on the contrary, is fearful and defensive.

As such, it is a setback in the dialogue of religion and science. The cardinal is intent on making science itself a defender of the notion of divine design, an old mistake still repeated today. To claim that a divine mind or designer lurks behind natural phenomena is not a conclusion that science as such is ever permitted to make.

And even theology has to be careful about basing too much on a sense of design in nature. Cardinal John Henry Newman would have been distressed at Schönborn’s attempt to extort divine design directly from the data of science. Even before encountering Darwin, Newman had already objected to any theological inquiry that seeks divine design in nature apart from religious experience. Such an approach, he wrote, “cannot be Christian, in any true sense, at all.”

Today most Catholic theologians and philosophers agree that it is not the job of science to make any reference to God, purpose, or intelligent design. Hence a scientific understanding of the lifeprocess may legitimately use explanatory categories such as “natural selection” rather than “divine guidance.” And it will speak of “chance” and “accident” rather than divine providence as it explains the diversity of life.

If some scientists go on to maintain that evolution is therefore conclusive evidence of a godless, purposeless universe, this is a leap into ideology, not a scientifically verifiable truth. Schönborn has every reason to defend Catholicism against materialist philosophy, since these are indeed incompatible. But he merely capitulates to the current confusion on evolution, and does no service to the nuances of Catholic thought, when he fails to distinguish neoDarwinian biology from the materialist spin that many scientists and philosophers place on evolutionary discoveries. Even if a great number of evolutionary biologists fail to make the proper distinction between science and materialism, this is no excuse for responsible religious thought espousing the same conceptual mix-up.

Finally, Schönborn does not need to be so anxious about evolutionary science’s use of the term “chance.” His rejection of the role of randomness in evolution will inevitably be cited by the religious right, “intelligent design” advocates, and scientific skeptics as further “evidence” of the incompatibility of Christianity and evolution.

But even Thomas Aquinas said that a world without contingencies or accidents is theologically inconceivable. And, since Darwin, Catholic theology may plausibly suppose that the random, experimental character of evolution is consistent with a divine love that longs for the world to make something of itself instead of being constantly tinkered with or pulled like a puppet.

Published in the 2005-08-12 issue: 

 John F. Haught is Distinguished Research Professor at Georgetown University and author of The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe (Yale University Press, 2017).

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