There often seems to be some confusion about what the Roman Catholic church thinks about evolution, so it was with some interest that I read yesterday's editorial in the New York Times by Christoph Schönborn, a Roman Catholic cardinal and the archbishop of Vienna. Here's the introduction:
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.
Schönborn goes on to quote Pope John Paul II fairly extensively, including this bit:
"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."
The editorial makes pretty clear that neither Pope John Paul II, nor the current Pope, see purely naturalistic evolution as a viable option. Apparently, in his famous "more than just a hypothesis" statement, John Paul II was pointing to evolution as a means (or mechanism) , not the cause. In other words, although evolution might have been how life got here in its present form, even if it was the "how", God was behind it as the "inventor".
This is an important distinction to make, because when one discusses evolution (or here, I really mean universal common ancestry), there are really at least two issues at hand which often get mixed together in such discussions. These are:
1) Is universal common ancestry really correct? (And, as an important sub-point, is Darwinian natural selection the mechanism?)
2) If universal common ancestry is correct, and Darwinian natural selection is the mechanism, is it also the fundamental cause?
Question #1 is a much more scientific question than #2. One can do science which pertains to the answer to #1. But #2? Some typical answers, if one accepts that universal common ancestry is right, might be: "Yes. Natural selection and random mutations themselves are the cause, so there is no real purpose." "No. God was involved guiding the process of natural selection, and he did so purposefully." "Yes and no. God set the process of natural selection in motion and established the physical laws governing it, so he was the ultimate cause, but did not intervene subsequently."
There are certainly other possible answers, but the point is, #2 is really a philosophical question. One can't prove scientifically that "there is no real purpose", or "God guided the process ... purposefully." One can argue that an appearance of design suggests purpose, or the appearance of bad design suggests a lack of purpose. But if universal common ancestry is correct, and Darwinian natural selection is the mechanism, you can't ultimately settle the issue of whether God was involved or not just by doing experiments in the lab.
But I digress. Really, I wanted to point out that recent Popes don't really subscribe to the purely naturalistic version of evolution, which says that God wasn't involved at all. I've heard people do what Schönborn mentions in his first paragraph: Invoke the Roman Catholic church as an example of how enlightened people recognize there's really no conflict between evolution and Christianity. The fact is, they can't get off quite so simply, because the Roman Catholic church isn't saying any such thing. If you want to assert that we're here with absolutely no intervention from God, you're really making a philosophical statement, and one that appears to be at odds with the Bible.
Well, I recommend reading the editorial. And if you're interested in finding out more about what the current Pope thinks, well, he actually wrote a relevant book: In
the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and
the Fall. I haven't read the whole thing, just some excerpts. But I've read enough to know that he doesn't think purely naturalistic evolution is the whole story, as Schönborn points out.
UPDATE 7/9: The New York Times has a news story about the editorial, and reactions to it, here. As far as I can tell, the headline writer (who wrote "Leading Cardinal Redefines Church's View on Evolution") must not have read the original editorial which essentially proved that neither the present pope, nor the last pope, thought purely naturalistic evolution is compatible with Roman Catholicism. Here are a couple of good quotes from the latest article:
Opponents of Darwinian evolution said they were gratified by Cardinal Schönborn's essay. But scientists and science teachers reacted with confusion, dismay and even anger. Some said they feared the cardinal's sentiments would cause religious scientists to question their faiths.
Cardinal Schönborn, who is on the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education, said the office had no plans to issue new guidance to teachers in Catholic schools on evolution. But he said he believed students in Catholic schools, and all schools, should be taught that evolution is just one of many theories. Many Catholic schools teach Darwinian evolution, in which accidental mutation and natural selection of the fittest organisms drive the history of life, as part of their science curriculum.
The article points out that the Discovery Institute (which promotes Intelligent Design) had encouraged the cardinal to write the essay, which he had also discussed with the Pope. Then it adds this:
But some biologists and others said they read the essay as abandoning longstanding church support for evolutionary biology.
"How did the Discovery Institute talking points wind up in Vienna?" wondered Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, which advocates the teaching of evolution. "It really did look quite a bit as if Cardinal Schönborn had been reading their Web pages."
Mr. Ryland [at the Discovery Institute] said the cardinal was well versed on these issues and had written the essay on his own.
I had to chuckle about the attempt to pin this on the Discovery Institute.
Anyway, it's worth reading the whole of this latest article. There are lots of quotes, some of which are fairly revealing. Apparently some people are pretty concerned about fallout from this editorial.