Summer reading: Darwin, design and divine intervention

VATICAN CITY – A series of articles on creation, intelligent design and Darwinism made reading the Vatican newspaper seem like taking a crash summer course in Evolution 101.

Over a three-week period in July, L’Osservatore Romano published three full-length articles detailing the controversies surrounding different interpretations of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the Catholic Church’s stance on the issue.

Such articles might seem like a natural selection given other Vatican initiatives to discuss emerging scientific theories on how life has evolved and the role of faith in explaining God’s divine plan.

For example, the Vatican hosted a three-day international congress on ecology in mid-July in Zaragoza, Spain, in which participants gave talks on ethical responsibility for nature and intelligent design.

During World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna led a debate on creation and evolution.

And later this year, the Vatican will present an in-depth look at the creation vs. evolution question when it hosts a five-day conference on “Scientific Insights Into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life.”

The Vatican seems keen to clear up lingering misunderstandings about the church’s stance on faith and science, creation and evolution.

Confusion apparently still exists – especially after Cardinal Schonborn wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times in 2005 that was critical of certain aspects of evolutionary thinking and said “neo-Darwinian evolution is not compatible with Catholic doctrine.”

He later clarified his views, saying that evolution as a body of scientific fact was compatible with Catholicism but that evolution as an ideological dogma that denied design and purpose in nature was not.

He carefully made that distinction again in one of the July articles on evolution in L’Osservatore Romano.

Titled “Creationism and Evolutionism Without Ideologies Can Meet,” the lengthy article was a reprint of the cardinal’s presentation at World Youth Day and the same paper he delivered during a 2006 closed-door symposium on evolution. That symposium was attended by Pope Benedict XVI.

The other articles were written by Monsignor Fiorenzo Facchini, an Italian evolutionary biologist and anthropologist whose last contribution to L’Osservatore Romano in May argued that after apes evolved naturally into pre-human creatures, it was the will of God to turn them into humans endowed with powers of self-reflection and a yearning for the transcendent.

The July articles on evolution in the Vatican paper all underlined that evolution and church teaching are compatible and complementary when those evolutionary theories do not close the door to a greater divine plan.

While science seeks to explain how the world was made, theology and faith reveal why and to what end and maintain it took God to create that first something out of nothing.

According to Monsignor Facchini, there is a wide spectrum of different evolutionary opinions compatible with church teaching.

In his article, “Darwinism From Different Points of View,” he explained that Darwinian theories of natural selection are only completely unacceptable to the church when they are used to become the basis for justifying certain social policies and ethical choices.

He said there are “different positions among Catholics concerning evolutionary theory,” but all have in common the acknowledgment that life has come from God and humans are not just material but also spiritual beings.

Of the many positions compatible with this basic tenant is the intelligent design theory which, the author said, emerged from the creationist movement in the United States.

Intelligent design refers to a view that opposes the evolutionary position of chance and randomness as the process for the development of life and, for some, it also means a kind of “designer God” has intervened at particular points in natural development.

Monsignor Facchini wrote that while intelligent design proponents seek to include divine participation in the world, they run “the serious risk of dragging the idea of a plan by God the creator, which is part of church doctrine, into a negative light.”

The existence of a divine plan for the world and humanity cannot be confused with ideas that turn God into someone who “intervenes to correct nature and guide its path,” Monsignor Facchini wrote.

Even just the term “intelligent design” causes problems, he said, as it conjures up notions of a world that is running smoothly. This idea clashes with the “inconsistencies and abnormalities” that occur in nature and everyday life and leaves “the dramatic questions of suffering and death” hanging and unresolved, said Monsignor Facchini.

But the latest advances in science and theories in natural philosophy have shown that Darwinism no longer needs to be the only explanation for evolution, he said.

He said a new, more critical approach sees evolution as an interplay of random mutations and causality, such as in Darwinian models, and factors that are more deterministic in nature, such as when attributes are inherited and may not be altered.

Both he and Cardinal Schonborn wrote that greater collaboration is needed among science, philosophy and theology to help interpret scientific data and figure out the messages God has left in creation for humanity.

Even though people may never be able to fully reveal the secrets of nature and God’s intentions expressed in creation, the monsignor said it is still essential people of faith “remain open to the conquests of the human mind.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.