Catholic Church reversing course on evolution?

It was only on May 19 that I compared religious reaction to two major scientific revolutions, those identified with Copernicus and Darwin, and showed that in each case religious objections to the new theories only arose more than a half-century after the theories were published, and then began with Protestants, rather than the Catholic Church. The religious opposition may have been slow in coming because it took some time for the theological implications of the new cosmology to be realized. In fact, the religious opposition was rising just about the time that the scientific debates were ending, and the scientific community was coalescing behind the new theories as more and more supporting data were coming in.

Thomas Kuhn in his book The Copernican Revolution attributes the Catholic opposition that eventually arose to Copernicus as possibly connected to the challenges it felt from the newly emergent Protestant churches, who were quicker to criticize it.

I argued that this pattern had almost repeated itself with the evolution debate except that the Catholic Church in this case did not join the Protestants in vigorously opposing evolution, but seemed to be more accepting, with Pope John Paul II in 1996 saying that as long as the soul was divinely created, there was no problem with accepting the physical-biological aspects of evolution. I suggested that it was unlikely, giving the bruising it has received over the Copernicus affair, that the Catholic church would repeat their mistake and attack Darwin.

Well, so much for that prediction. Enter cardinal Christoph Schonborn (the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Vienna, who was the lead editor of the official 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church) with his July 7, 2005 op-ed in The New York Times which indicates the beginning of a serious back-pedaling from Pope John Paul II’s stand. Although in interviews the cardinal claims that his essay represents a personal opinion and was not endorsed formally by the Church, there seems to be little doubt that this is a kite that is being sent up by the new Pope Benedict XVI to see what the reaction might be.

So what is the cardinal’s position? It seems clear that his fundamental cause of concern is that natural selection is not teleological, in the sense that it has no predetermined goal and is not directed towards anything. It is this feature that the cardinal finds objectionable and it is this feature that is also a cause for major concern for those in the so-called “intelligent design” (ID) movement. In fact, the cardinal’s statement “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” could be lifted straight out of the ID literature. Indeed Mark Ryland, a vice president of the Discovery Institute (which is a driving force behind ID) said that he had urged the cardinal to write the essay.

One of the main items of belief for many Christians is that human beings are special in some way, chosen by God for some special purpose. The heliocentric model proposed by Copernicus challenged early versions of this belief since it opened up the idea that the universe was very large, possibly infinite, and the Earth was just one of many planets. But some sophisticated theological footwork enabled that hurdle to be overcome and the Church eventually came to terms with Copernican views.

But Darwin poses a more difficult challenge to human specialness because it deals with humans directly, and not just the place where humans live. The idea that human beings are the byproduct of the same natural processes that produced apes, butterflies, and daffodils raises the question of what exactly God’s relationship to humans is.

Pope John Paul II (in a widely quoted statement in 1996) seemed to be satisfied with the idea that God breathes a soul into each human, and it is that action that creates the special relationship, and the physical-biological aspects of evolution did not create any problems. It this restricted view that seems to be being reconsidered, and the op-ed argues that God should have some role in the biological development of humans as well. The cardinal tries to co-opt Pope John Paul II to support this revisionist view by appealing to an earlier statement by him (made in 1985) and making the curious argument that it is the earlier statement that represent his “robust” view on the topic. Although he tries to dismiss the 1996 statement as “rather vague and unimportant” (surprisingly dismissive language I thought about his former boss and someone being proposed for sainthood), he does not explain why he thinks that statement (which was not an off-hand statement but addressed to no less a body than the Pontifical Academy of Sciences) should be taken less seriously than his 1985 statement.

The cardinal seems to want a teleological theory of evolution, one that is goal-directed so that humans were pre-ordained to come into being as the ultimate expression of God’s plan for the universe. In fact he goes further, quoting this statement of Pope Benedict XVI at his installation ceremony where 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.” (emphasis added)

I don’t see how this can be made compatible with the theory of natural selection, or indeed with any scientific theory since I have argued earlier that a necessary condition for scientific theories is that they be naturalistic and this rules out any kind of “hidden hand” that acts outside the discoverable laws of science. So if this trial balloon by cardinal Schonborn becomes official Catholic doctrine, then we are back on course for another science-Catholic collission. But this time, the tools of the Inquisition for enforcing orthodoxy do not exist, and placing books and teachings on a “banned” list would invite ridicule in the age of the internet.

It is sometimes said that the Supreme Court “follows the election returns,” meaning that it is mindful of the popular mood when it rules on constitutional issues. The same is true of the church. It will not do for it to be too far out of step with its congregation’s views. And it may feel that there is support (at least in the US) for the cardinal’s view. The recent Harris poll (taken in June 2005) says that 47% of Americans reject the common ancestry of man and apes. Also only 38% of Americans agreed with the statement “Yes, I think human beings developed from earlier species” (compared with 44% in March 1994), and 64% now believe that “humans beings were created directly by God.”

As I have said before, in the long run, scientific ideas tend to be more resilient than religious ones, losing out only to other scientific ideas and not to religiously based ones. But it will be interesting to see how this issue plays out in the days to come. I believe that whether the church adopts the new policy as formal doctrine will depend on the reaction to the cardinal’s trial balloon. If there is a strong negative reaction, the cardinal’s essay may lead to nothing and become just a curious footnote of interest to church historians.

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