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Theological Notebook: Pope's Graduate Students Talking Creation and Evolution

Two writers' takes on the annual meeting of Pope Benedict's circle of former graduate students as they discuss the issue of the doctrine of Creation and the biology of Evolution, with a particular eye toward the philosophical misuses of evolutionary biology that have helped give rise (along with an unnuanced doctrine of biblical inspiration) to all the idiotic "creation versus evolution" nonsense.

John Allen's "The Pope's Schülerkreis takes on 'Creation and Evolution'", and
Sandro Magister's "Creation or Evolution? Here is the View of the Church of Rome"

The Pope's Schülerkreis takes on 'Creation and Evolution'


Leaders generally can't afford the luxury of "thinking out loud," since anything they say is subject to scrutiny and, often enough, misunderstanding. For creative minds accustomed to examining issues from a variety of perspectives before reaching conclusions, it's therefore crucial to carve out a few safety zones where ideas can be tossed around freely.

In that spirit, Pope Benedict XVI has his own "kitchen cabinets," and perhaps his favorite is a group of former doctoral students with whom he meets each year, known in German as his Schülerkreis.

In German academic life, the bonds between a Doktorvater and his disciples have always been strong, but even by that standard Joseph Ratzinger seems to inspire a special loyalty among those who studied under him. After Pope Paul VI called him out of the academy in 1977 by naming him Archbishop of Munich-Freising, Ratzinger and his students adopted the custom of meeting over a weekend once a year, in a cross between a retreat and an academic seminar.

You can take the professor out of the classroom, but you can't take the classroom out of the professor.

When Ratzinger was elected as Benedict XVI, his students feared the new pope's calendar would render these gatherings impossible. In fact, however, Benedict appears to savor them now more than ever. Two days after the pope's April 24 installation Mass, he met with 72-year-old German Salvatorian Fr. Stephan Horn, the informal chair of the Schülerkreis, to tell him he wanted the meetings to go forward. In late August 2005, the group assembled at Castegandolfo, where the pope has his summer residence, for a two-day meeting.

They will do so again Sept. 1-3 of this year.

If these sessions were merely a case of Benedict catching up with old friends, it would perhaps be noteworthy only as a color story about how the pope spends his down time." In fact, however, the Schülerkreis has become an opportunity for Benedict to gather thoughts on some of the most important issues on his docket.

Last year, the group discussed God in Islam. Though these are closed-door events, leaks indicated that Benedict XVI expressed reservations about the capacity of Islam to adapt to pluralistic Western cultures, given that the Koran is regarded by Muslims as the literal word of Allah and hence less amenable to interpretation than the Christian Bible.

This year, the theme for the Schülerkreis's Sept. 1-3 meeting is an equally explosive subject -- "Creation and Evolution."

Understanding who takes part in these gatherings, and what kind of thinking they represent, is fast becoming an important "hermeneutical key" in interpreting where he pontificate of Benedict XVI may go.

* * *

Even after John Paul II's famous 1996 statement that evolution is "more than a hypothesis," Catholic scientists and philosophers have debated the extent to which Darwinian theory is compatible with orthodox Catholicism.

Most recently, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, set off a firestorm with a July 7, 2005, op/ed piece in The New York Times asserting that the Catholic church cannot accept "evolution" in the sense of a philosophy that excludes intelligent design in nature. The article triggered a fierce reaction from many Catholic scientists and theologians, who felt the cardinal was blurring scientific and theological arguments, and inadvertently aligning himself with anti-evolution activists in the States. It didn't help matters that Schönborn's piece in The Times was placed with the help of a PR firm retained by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based institute which supports "intelligent design."

Four speakers have been invited to lead the discussion of evolution during this year's gathering of the Schülerkreis.

One will be Schönborn himself, a longtime member of the group. (In fact, Schönborn was not really a graduate student of Ratzinger, spending just a year in Regensburg with him in the late 1970s doing post-doctoral work. Yet Schönborn has always been considered part of the Schülerkreis). The other three are: Jesuit Fr. Paul Erbrich, emeritus professor of natural philosophy from the University of Munich; Professor Robert Spaemann, a political philosopher; and Professor Peter Schuster, President of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Given the background of these speakers, it's reasonable to expect two things from the discussion:

  • Debate over how convincing the scientific evidence for the theory of evolution really is;

  • Consensus that whatever its scientific merits, "evolution" as a philosophical stance which excludes divine causality in nature (sometimes dubbed "evolutionism") is incompatible with Christianity.

* * *

Evolution as Science
Doubts about the scientific case for evolution may come from Erbrich, whose work is frequently cited by "intelligent design" advocates.

Perhaps the most famous Achilles' heel in Darwin's theory was the lack of fossil records to demonstrate a smooth progression of intermediate forms between one species and the next. Darwin himself said future discoveries should plug the gap, but that has not happened. Experts, however, sometimes suggest that where the fossil record has failed, molecular biology has triumphed. At the molecular level, they argue, one finds precisely the relatively smooth transitions that evolution predicts.

In an influential 1985 essay, however, Erbrich poked holes in that claim. Proteins with essentially the same structure and function, he said, are found even in very distantly related species. To explain this, evolutionary theorists would have to posit that essentially the same proteins developed two or more times, independently of one another, and both by chance.

"The probability ... of the convergent evolution of two proteins with approximately the same structure and function is too low to be plausible, even when all possible circumstances are present which seem to heighten the likelihood of such a convergence," Erbrich wrote.

From there, Erbrich drew a broader conclusion.

"Why does the scientific theory of evolution hold on to the concept of chance to the degree it does?" he asked. "I suspect it is the fact that there is no alternative whatsoever which could explain the fact of universal evolution, at least in principle, and be formulated within the framework of natural science. If no alternative should be forthcoming, if chance remains overtaxed, then the conclusion seems inevitable that evolution and therefore living beings cannot be grasped by natural science to the same extent as non-living things -- not because organisms are so complex, but because the explaining mechanism is fundamentally inadequate."

On the other hand, the Schülerkreis will likely hear a more positive treatment of evolutionary theory from Schuster, a distinguished expert on molecular biology.

Schuster, who turned 65 this year, is not much for sound-bite science. Heres a typically sexy essay title: "Bistability of Harmonically Forced Relaxation Oscillations." Broadly speaking, however, Schuster accepts evolution as a valid scientific hypothesis, and has little patience for ideological opposition to it.

He had this to say, for example, about the creationist movement in a 2004 essay titled From Belief to Facts in Evolutionary Theory:

The United States [has seen] an unfruitful and special development that is not shared by Western Europe , Schuster wrote. Almost militant opponents of the idea of evolution in the American society make the request that a Science of Creation in the spirit of the nineteenth century is taught simultaneously with evolutionary biology at school. Schuster cited a critical appraisal of creationism published by the National Academy of Sciences in the United States in 1999.

Following Schönborns New York Times piece, Schuster wrote a critical response, to appear in the journal Complexities. His blunt conclusion:

"Darwinian evolution … is an empirical scientific fact, a fact in the same class with the Copernican solar system, Newtonian mechanics, Einstein's universe or the world of quantum mechanics, and is neither one hypothesis among others, nor an ideology. The interpretation of observations in biology, as we understand it today, does not need a plan, nor does it provide obvious hints for an active designer."

In an Aug. 11 interview with NCR, Schuster said it was Schönborn who asked him to take part in the Castelgandolfo seminar.

"I asked Schönborn, 'Why me?' " Schuster said by phone from Vienna. "The cardinal said he had discussed it with the pope, and the pope wanted a scientist who in no way can be suspected of being a creationist."

At the same time, Schuster is not a Darwinian dogmatist, saying that the mechanism of natural selection is only one of several principles that determine the course of biological evolution, and macroscopic evolution is seen now as an exceedingly complex overlay of many influences.

Evolution as Philosophy
While a discussion of intermediate forms and evolutionary leaps is interesting, most observers regard it as a debate for scientists, not theologians or church authorities. It's the philosophical misuse of evolution with which the church is most concerned.

What this amounts to is a distinction, which unfortunately comes more naturally in German than in English, between evolution and "evolutionism" -- between a scientific hypothesis, and a philosophical system.

That seemed to be the drift of an exchange I had with Schönborn last August, in the wake of The New York Times piece.

"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."

That seems close to Robert Spaemann's approach as well.

In 1988, Spaemann published a book called Evolutionismus und Christentum, in which he laid out what he sees as the contradictions between Christianity and "evolutionism" considered as a philosophical theory.

Christianity, Spaemann argues, rests on the philosophical assumption of stably existing entities with fixed natures -- most importantly, human nature created in the image of God. "Evolutionism," he says, instead posits that everything is in flux, so the only permanent reality is change, thereby undercutting the basis for belief in a universal human nature.

Over the years, Spaemann (who, at 79, is the same age as the pope) has put his money where his mouth is.

In 1991, he was active in organizing opposition to a series of lectures in Germany by the Australian ethicist and animal rights activist Peter Singer, whom some critics have accused of blurring the metaphysical distinction between human beings and the rest of the natural world. Spaemann, who is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, circulated a "Kinsauer Manifesto," which endorsed efforts to disrupt Singer's appearances, and expressed opposition to both abortion and euthanasia.

* * *

Horn has told the German press that Benedict is keen on the need for science and faith to be in dialogue, and that he ultimately takes a positive view of evolution.

"By no means is the Pope tending towards Creationism," Horn said. "Rather he is convinced that creation and evolution can go together."

Horn said that Benedict certainly believes that human beings owe their existence "to God's creative 'Yes,'" but, Horn said, the pope also regards what this means in detail as something to be worked out in dialogue with natural scientists.

Among the members of the Schülerkreis are three Americans: Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, Provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida; Social Service Sr. Maria Lugosi of Buffalo, New York; and Fr. Antoine Saroyan of St. Gregory the Illuminator Church, an Armenian Catholic parish, in Glendale, California.

The informal secretary of the group is lay German theologian Siegfried Wiedenhofer, a former Ratzinger student who today serves as professor of systematic theology at the Johan Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt.

* * *

On Aug. 10, I had a brief interview with Horn about the Schülerkreis. It's worth noting that we used Italian, so the quotes below represent my translation of his remarks.

What significance do these events have for you?

In my opinion, there are three principal dimensions.

In the first place, we try to come together with the same spirit we had when we first met during the time of our studies. We have theological discussions, of course, but these are always linked with a spiritual element -- the Holy Mass, or the Prayer of the Hours, or Vespers.

As the years have gone on, we've deepened our relationships among ourselves, who were students with J. Ratzinger at different times -- in Bonn, or Münster, or Tübingen, or Regensburg. We've shared experiences, academic studies, and also our thoughts.

We've also sought out dialogue with other professors and their thinking. Sometimes, therefore, the meetings have had an ecumenical character.

In so far as you can say, what's the significance for the pope?

I think our maestro is always happy to meet his students from the past, in the sense I've just described. Certainly, the chance to meet other theologians and philosophers is always interesting for him. I remember, for example, a very moving ecumenical exchange with Metropolitan Damaskinos (Papandreou), the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch in Switzerland.

How are the themes chosen, such as "Islam" last year and "Creation and Evolution" this year?

In these two years, the themes were chosen as they always have been. The group gets together towards the end of each meeting to discuss possible themes for next year. We try to come to consensus on a few preferred themes, as well as names of possible speakers for each theme. In the end, we present our preferences to our maestro, and naturally we leave the final decision to him.

How are the speakers chosen?

In the case of the theme "Creation and Evolution," we selected two principal speakers: Professor Peter Schuster and Cardinal Schönborn. But given the vastness and the complexity of the theme, it seemed useful to have two other experts with us as participants (Gesprächspartner), a philosopher (Professor Spaemann) and a scientist (Fr. Erbrich).

Have texts from the presentations ever been published?


In a recent interview with a German newspaper, you said that Pope Benedict believes creation and evolution can be reconciled. Can you say more?

Already in 1968, then-Professor Ratzinger wrote on the subject "Schöpfungslaube und Evolutionstheorie" ("Belief in Creation and the Theory of Evolution"), which was republished in 1973 in the book Dogma und Verkündigung. He discussed the consequences for the faith of an evolutionary view of the world. He offered the response that the theory of evolution neither destroys the faith nor confirms it, but rather presents it with a challenge. Later on, he underlined that the theory of evolution sometimes has a tendency to insist on being a full explanation of the totality of existence, which makes both metaphysics and God superfluous. Hence for him what's needed is a calm approach on both sides. You can also consult the book Glaube-Wahrheit-Toleranz, published by Herder in 2003, p. 143.

Creation or Evolution? Here Is the View of the Church of Rome
Creationists versus Darwinists, “intelligent design” versus random selection, the controversy is as heated as ever. The pope is studying the issue with a team of experts. Keep reading to find the truth he wants to reassert. And the confusion he wants to clear up

by Sandro Magister

ROMA, August 11, 2006 – All those who are expected to attend Benedict XVI’s private seminar with his former theology students at Castel Gandolfo in early September will come with the necessary documents tucked away in their briefcases.

Among the papers, an article published by “L’Osservatore Romano” on January 16, 2006, stands out. It is signed Fiorenzo Facchini, who is both priest and scientist, and teaches anthropology at the University of Bologna. He has written extensively on the question of evolution.

The importance of this article – which appears in its entirety below – is confirmed in the latest issue of “La Civiltà Cattolica”, a Jesuit journal published in Rome under the control and with the authorization of Vatican authorities.

In the August 5-19 issue of “La Civiltà Cattolica”, Jesuit Giuseppe De Rosa reserves ten pages to evolution and its workings, from Lamarck and Darwin up to today. He signs off his piece with a reference to Facchini’s “L’Osservatore Romano” article which he considers the most up-to-date synthesis of the position of the Catholic Church in the matter.

In his article, Father De Rosa sums up where the scientific controversy now stands point. He writes:

“A clear distinction must be made between what evolution is and what theories try to say about it. While it is certainly true that phenomenon itself is real, theories about it must be experimentally verified before they can be considered scientifically valid. So far this has not happened. And for this reason, the last word on evolution has not been said. Ahead of us therefore there is much work to do before we can fully understand the mechanisms of the evolutionary process.”

In Father De Rosa’s opinion, not only do we need to look at the issue from the point of view of science, but we must also face its philosophical and theological implications, and they “must be dealt with separately.”

Implicitly, Father De Rosa is telling us in his article that blurring these points of view can lead to a great deal of misunderstanding – especially by those who believe in the scientific nature of the anti-Darwinian theory of “intelligent design” in which God is given the title role in creation, a theory that is currently at the center of heated discussions in the United States.

The archbishop of Vienna, cardinal Christoph Schönborn, a theologian close to Benedict XVI, seemed to embrace the theory of “intelligent design” in an article published by the “New York Times” on July 7, 2005.

In actual fact that article (see below) carefully distinguishes that which is scientific from what is philosophic and the theological.

Cardinal Schönborn will be one of two speakers who will start off the September 2-3 seminar with the pope in Castel Gandolfo.

Benedict XVI himself has addressed the issue of evolution several times.

He mentioned it for the first time during the homely of his pontificate’s inaugural mass on April 24, 2005. At that time he said:

“We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”

He spoke about again on April 6 this year when he addressed young people who had come in St. Peter’s Square in anticipation of World Youth Day. Then he stated:

“Science presupposes the trustworthy, intelligent structure of matter, the ‘design’ of creation.”

But for a more thorough treatment of the topic, we must turn to pope John Paul II, the International Theological Commission and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Facchini’s and Schönborn’s “New York Times” article refer to all these interventions.

Here they are for further reading, followed by links to the other documents mentioned:

1. Fiorenzo Facchini: “Evolution and Creation”

“L’Osservatore Romano”, January 16, 2006

The heated debate over the issue of evolution versus creation that arose in the United States in the last several decades has reached Europe in recent years and has inflamed the cultural world. Unfortunately, this debate has been tainted by various political and ideological positions that have prevented a dispassionate discussion. Some statements made by US “creationists” have elicited reactions among scientists that seem inspired by a certain dogmatic defense of neo-Darwinism. And this has led to the re-emergence of scientistic views typical of 19th century culture.

It seems oftentimes that confusion reigns supreme. The science curriculum saga in Italy’s schools, in which evolution was first excluded then included, is a sign that opinions are a bit confused because of an inadequate understanding of the issue at hand. Last month in Pennsylvania, federal district court judge John E. Jones barred a school district from teaching “intelligent design” (which is an updated version of creation science based on a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis; on the matter more later) in science classes as an alternative theory to evolution.

On several occasions, the magisterium of the Church, especially in John Paul II’s pronouncements, has been clear and open on the issue. More recently in 2004, the International Theological Commission released “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God”, a document approved by then cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

In the world of science, biological evolution is the key interpretative tool used in understanding the history of life on earth and serves as the cultural framework for modern biology.

Life on earth is thought to have appeared in a watery environment around 3.5-4 billion years ago in the form of prokaryotes, unicellular organisms without a cell nucleus. Unchanged, they were still found 2 billion years ago when the first eukaryotes, unicellular organisms with a nucleus, appeared in the waters covering the earth. Multicellular organisms showed up much later, around a billion years ago, as evolution continued its slow and haphazard march. Only in the Cambrian period around 540-520 million years ago did the main families of living organisms almost explode onto the scene.

It is likely that for a long time the earth lacked the conditions that would eventually enable today’s animals and plants to evolve. But the succession in which fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds appeared and the speed with which they evolved raise questions that still beg for an answer. The evolutionary lineage that led to humankind appeared in the last minutes of the clock of life. Around 6 million years ago the first split is said to have occurred when the lineage that led to anthropomorphic apes broke away from the one that gave rise to the cluster of Hominid species. Eventually, the latter saw the human lineage emerge some 2 million years ago. Before modern humans could develop some 150,000 years ago, other Homo species walked the earth like Homo Erectus and, before him, Homo Habilis, to which Homo Sapiens is related.

The task of paleoanthropology is to reconstruct the various stages in human evolution. In this it is assisted by modern biomolecular DNA research which can trace genetic similarities back to a common ancestry.

The debate over what set off evolution and shaped it is still open. Darwin’s inspired intuition, and that of the lesser known Wallace, on the importance of natural selection operating through small random variations within a species (a small number of errors that occur during DNA replication according to the modern view) represents an interpretative model widely-held in the scientific community. According to this view, natural selection applies to all of evolution. However, while accepting that this mechanism applies to microevolution, other scholars consider it inadequate to explain how small variations (or mutations) could in a relatively short period of time generate quite complex structures and evolutionary trends like those found in vertebrates.

For this reason, we must take into account possible developments within evolutionary biology as they impact the study of the role of regulatory genes in effecting considerable morphological changes. Experiments on the regulatory genes that shape the embryonic development of crustacea might allow for hypotheses on new organizational frameworks underlying single genetic mutations. Research in this direction could open up new horizons, but they would still leave one question unanswered, namely whether mutations are the byproduct of random selection or the outcome of some kind of preferential orientation.

Close attention should also be paid to the role environmental factors play in shaping evolutionary processes. The environment might in fact slow them down, which is what perhaps happened in the first billion years of life on earth, or give them a boost, which is possibly what occurred in the last 500 million years. Indeed, we might not be here, talking about things that unfolded some 20 million years ago if Mother Nature did not create the Great Rift Valley in Africa with its scattered vales and open spaces that favored the development of humankind and bipedalism. What this all means is that the (hi)story of life suggests that its development required a combination of genetic factors and favorable environmental conditions that unfolded in a series of natural events.

This raises two questions: Can creation and God’s plan play a role in the greater scheme of things? And does humankind’s appearance constitute a necessary development in nature’s potential?

In his address to an international symposium on “Christian Faith and Theory of Evolution” in 1985, John Paul II said: “Neither a genuine faith in creation nor a correct teaching of evolution may pose obstacles. [...] Evolution, in fact, presupposes creation. In the light of evolution, creation is an ever-lasting process – a creatio continua.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “creation [...] did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator” (n. 302). God created a world that was not perfect but “‘in a state of journeying’ towards its ultimate perfection. In God's plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature” (n. 310).

When John Paul II spoke to the plenary of the Pontifical Academy of Science in October 1996, he acknowledged that evolution was a scientific theory because of its coherence with the views and discoveries of various scientific disciplines. Yet he also said that the evolutionary process had more than one theoretical explanation; among them theories that believers cannot accept because of their underlying materialist ideology. But in such cases, what is at stake is not science but ideology.

In “Communion and Stewardship”, the evolutionary process is taken for granted. What must be reaffirmed in theology (and in any rational argument) is the world’s radical reliance on God, who created things from nothing, even though we know not how.

From this comes the importance of the current debate on God’s plan for creation. It is known that supporters of intelligent design (ID) do not deny evolution, but they do claim that certain complex structures could not have appeared as a result of random events. For them, such complexity requires God’s special intervention during evolution and therefore it falls within the purview of intelligent design. Apart from the fact that mutations to biological structures cannot by themselves explain everything since environmental changes must also occur, by introducing external or corrective factors with respect to natural phenomena, a greater cause is included to explain what we do not know yet but might know. In doing so though, what we are engaged in can no longer be called science but is something that goes beyond it. Despite shortcomings in Darwin’s model, it is a methodological fallacy to look for another model outside the realm of science while pretending to do science.

All things considered, the decision by the Pennsylvania judge therefore appears to be the right one. Intelligent design does not belong in science class and it is wrong to teach it alongside Darwin as if it were a scientific theory. All that it does is blur the boundary between what is scientific and what is philosophic and religious, thus sowing confusion in people’s minds. What is more, a religious point of view is not even necessary to admit that the universe is based on an overall design. It is far better to acknowledge that from a scientific point of view the issue is still open. Putting aside the divine economy which operates through secondary causes (and almost shies away from its role as creator), it is not clear why some of nature’s catastrophic events or some of its meaningless evolutionary structures or lineages, or dangerous genetic mutations, were not avoided in the intelligent design.

Unfortunately, one must in the end also acknowledge that Darwinist scientists have a tendency to view evolution dogmatically, going from theory to ideology, upholding a way of thinking that explains all living phenomena, including human behavior, in terms of natural selection at the expense of other perspectives. It is almost as if evolution ought to make creation redundant so that everything was self-made and reducible to random probabilities.

In terms of creation, the Bible stresses design and life’s radical reliance on God, but it does not say how all this came about. Empirical observation sees the universe’s harmony, which is based on the laws of nature and the properties of matter, but necessarily must refer to a greater cause, not through scientific proof but on the basis of rational arguments. Denying this amounts to taking an ideological, not a scientific stance. Whatever the causes, be they random or inherent in nature, science with its methods can neither prove nor disprove that a greater design was involved. “Even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation,” says ‘Communion and Stewardship’. What to us may seem random must have been present in God’s will and mind. God’s plan for creation can unfold through secondary causes as natural phenomena take their course, with necessary reference to miraculous interventions pointing in one or other direction. Or as Teilhard de Chardin put it: “God does not make things, but he makes sure they are made.” Similarly, “God is the first cause who operates in and through secondary causes,” this according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, (n. 308).

The other delicate point that we must address is the fact that man cannot consider himself as a necessary and natural outcome of evolution. The spiritual element that defines him cannot spring from matter’s potentiality, but requires an ontological leap, a discontinuity that the Magisterium of the Church has always said was at the basis of humankind’s appearance. This element presupposes that God can exert a positive will. Man’s transcendence, Maritain said, occurs through the soul “thanks to God the Creator’s final intervention which He freely makes and which transcends all of material nature’s possibilities.” The spark of intelligence was lighted in one or more hominids when, where and in the ways God willed it. Nature can potentially receive the spirit according to the will of God the Creator, but cannot produce it itself. After all, this is what happens when human beings are engendered setting them apart from animals. Such an affirmation transcends the boundaries of empirical science, something that scientific methods can neither prove nor disprove.

As to when humankind appeared, no one can say for certain. But one can see what gives humankind its specificity, as John Paul II said in his aforementioned 1996 address. The signs are in our technology and spatial organization when they reveal an underlying plan and meaning within the context of life. In short, when they are manifestations of culture that show us how to detect humankind’s presence. They exist at an extra-biological level expressing a certain transcendence (as acknowledged by Dobzhansky, Ayala and other evolutionary scientists), a discontinuity, that from a philosophical point of view is ontological in nature. Hence, for this author, waiting to discover Homo Sapiens, burial mounds or when art appeared first is not necessary. Yet, whether the cut off period in man’s evolutionary history goes back to Homo Sapiens 150,000 years ago or to Homo Habilis 2 million years ago remains a matter better left to scientists rather than philosophers or theologians.

In conclusion, from a perspective that looks beyond the horizons of empiricism, we can say that if we are human we owe it not to random chance or necessity. Indeed, the human story is one of meaning and direction marked by a greater design.


2. Christoph Schönborn: “Finding Design in Nature”

”The New York Times”, July 7, 2005

Ever since 1996, when Pope John Paul II said that evolution (a term he did not define) was ''more than just a hypothesis,'' defenders of neo-Darwinian dogma 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.

But this is not true. The Catholic Church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things.

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. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

Consider the real teaching of our beloved John Paul. While his rather vague and unimportant 1996 letter about evolution is always and everywhere cited, we see no one discussing these comments from a 1985 general audience that represents his robust teaching on nature:

''All the observations concerning the development of life lead to a similar conclusion. The evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality which arouses admiration. This finality which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose a Mind which is its inventor, its creator.''

He went on: ''To all these indications of the existence of God the Creator, some oppose the power of chance or of the proper mechanisms of matter. To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements and such marvelous finality in its life would be equivalent to giving up the search for an explanation of the world as it appears to us. In fact, this would be equivalent to admitting effects without a cause. It would be to abdicate human intelligence, which would thus refuse to think and to seek a solution for its problems.''

Note that in this quotation the word ''finality'' is a philosophical term synonymous with final cause, purpose or design. In comments at another general audience a year later, John Paul concludes, ''It is clear that the truth of faith about creation is radically opposed to the theories of materialistic philosophy. These view the cosmos as the result of an evolution of matter reducible to pure chance and necessity.''

Naturally, the authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church agrees: “Human intelligence is surely already capable of finding a response to the question of origins. The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason.” It adds: “We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance.”

In an unfortunate new twist on this old controversy, neo-Darwinists recently have sought to portray our new Pope, Benedict XVI, as a satisfied evolutionist. They have quoted a sentence about common ancestry from a 2004 document of the International Theological Commission, pointed out that Benedict was at the time head of the commission, and concluded that the Catholic Church has no problem with the notion of “evolution” as used by mainstream biologists – that is, synonymous with neo-Darwinism.

The commission's document, however, reaffirms the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church about the reality of design in nature. Commenting on the widespread abuse of John Paul's 1996 letter on evolution, the commission cautions that ''the letter cannot be read as a blanket approbation of all theories of evolution, including those of a neo-Darwinian provenance which explicitly deny to divine providence any truly causal role in the development of life in the universe.''

Furthermore, according to the commission, ''An unguided evolutionary process – one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence – simply cannot exist.''

Indeed, in the homily at his installation just a few weeks ago, Benedict proclaimed: ''We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.''

Throughout history the Church has defended the truths of faith given by Jesus Christ. But in the modern era, the Catholic Church is in the odd position of standing in firm defense of reason as well. In the 19th century, the First Vatican Council taught a world newly enthralled by the ''death of God'' that by the use of reason alone mankind could come to know the reality of the Uncaused Cause, the First Mover, the God of the philosophers.

Now at the beginning of the 21st century, faced with scientific claims like neo-Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science, the Catholic Church will again defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of ''chance and necessity'' are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence.


3. The Church’s Doctrine on Evolution: Basic References

The speech on evolution that John Paul II delivered on October 22, 1996, to the members of the Pontifical Academy of Science is often cited. It is not available on the Vatican website but can be accessed by visiting that of the Pontifical Gregorian University (only in Italian):

> Alla Pontificia Accademia delle Scienze, 22 ottobre 1996

For Cardinal Schönborn, the pope’s aforementioned speech on the issue of evolution was “rather vague and unimportant.” Instead, his more “robust” teaching can be found in the speech he gave to the International Symposium on Christian Faith and Theory of Evolution on April 26, 1985, in Rome, an event that cardinal Ratzinger also attended. It is available on the Vatican website (in Italian and German). Robert Spaemann, who will take part in the upcoming Ratzinger-Schülerkreis seminar in September, was one of its speakers:

> “Fede cristiana e teoria dell’evoluzione”, 6 aprile 1985

Later that year and after, John Paul II talked about evolution again in two general audiences that focused on the creation of the world. The transcripts of both are available on the Vatican website (In Italian and Spanish):

> Udienza generale, 10 luglio 1985

> Udienza generale, 5 marzo 1986

The International Theological Commission also intervened on behalf of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith headed by cardinal Ratzinger. The document, dated July 23, 2004, can be consulted on the Vatican website (in Italian and English):

> Communion and Stewardship. Human Persons Created in the Image of God”

Finally, the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church tackles the issue of evolution in its chapter on God the Creator. Cardinal Schönborn was one its main co-authors:

> Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Creator


Take also a look at our site for more information about the study seminar that will see Benedict XVI and his former theology students meet on September 2-3, 2006:

> Professor Ratzinger goes back to school. After Islam last year, Darwin topic this year (2.8.2006)


English translation by Pierre Rossi
Tags: benedict xvi, cultural, evolution, papacy, philosophical, scientific, theological notebook
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