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Theological Notebook: Allen speaks to Schönborn

John Allen in his The Word From Rome column this week, follows up his previous story on Cardincal Schönborn's essay on evolution by speaking to the Cardinal himself for some follow-up:
Two weeks ago, I reported on reaction to a July 7 op/ed piece in The New York Times by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, in which the cardinal argued that evolution, understood as an unguided, random process, is incompatible with the Catholic faith.

No doubt as Schönborn intended, the article generated wide debate. To some scientists, who had been impressed with Pope John Paul II's 1996 statement that evolution is "more than a hypothesis," the Schönborn piece seemed a step back.

For example, Sir Martin Rees, an eminent British astronomer and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Science, told me July 22: "I was dismayed by the content and tone of the article by Cardinal Schönborn. I very much hope that the Pontifical Academy can dissociate itself from such sentiments."

Other observers, however, were gratified by Schönborn's piece, given that evolution has often been used to justify atheism, immanentism and Deism -- all inimical to orthodox Christianity.

Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University, a Catholic and author of Darwin's Black Box, one of the leading challenges to evolution on scientific grounds, told me: "It seems to me that the cardinal said pretty much everything that needed to be said."

I quoted scientists and theologians who argued that in thinking about the church and evolution, it's important to distinguish between scientific language and philosophical/theological language. Properly speaking, when a scientist refers to evolution as "random," it means that empirically, evolution's outcome is unpredictable; for a philosopher, however, "random" may mean "without purpose or design."

The church, many of these experts said, can accept the former but certainly not the latter.

In that regard, some Catholic observers pointed to a 2004 document of the International Theological Commission, the main advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, titled "Communion and Stewardship." Paragraph 69 of the document treats the distinctions among different meanings of words such as "unguided" and "random." [See my July 31 LiveJournal entry for the document excerpt itself.--Mike]

Scientists debate, the paragraph said, whether life's development is best explained by explicit design or random mutation and natural selection. This is not an argument that theology can settle. Following Thomas Aquinas, however, the document says that divine providence is consistent with either hypothesis. God's causation can express itself through both necessity and contingency, so that even if the development of life seems random to empirical observation, it certainly doesn't to God.

I had hoped to speak to Schönborn about all this, but unfortunately he was in Poland as I wrote the piece. This week, however, I was able to reach him. My question was, what does he make of paragraph 69 of the ITC document? In the end, is his problem with evolutionary theory itself, or with its potential philosophical and theological abuse?

This is his response:

"I agree completely with what was formulated in number 69 of 'Stewardship and Communion.' And I feel confirmed in my convictions by this document. In any case I think it is necessary to cite the whole paragraph 69, when it states: 'In the Catholic perspective, neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science.'

"For Catholic thinking," Schönborn told me, "it was clear from Pius XII's encyclical, Humani generis, that evolutionary theory can be valid to understand certain mechanisms, but it can never be seen or accepted as a holistic model to explain the existence of life."

Schönborn's point thus seems to be that in "absolute" form, meaning as a "holistic model" that would exclude design as a metaphysical matter, "evolutionism" turns into a philosophy that parts company with Christianity.

In that light, observers say, Schönborn's view does not seem to court a new Galileo affair, putting the church at odds with scientific discoveries. He's making a philosophical point, not a scientific one. In the end, he's warning that Christianity cannot accept a universe without God, and it's fairly difficult to argue with that.
Tags: evolution, philosophical, scientific, theological notebook
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