The News Service
Kenneth R. Miller
Darwin, God, and a Cardinal’s Big Mistake
The assertion that the theory of evolution is inherently anti-God is simply wrong. A 2004 document approved by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, carries a ringing endorsement of the “widely accepted scientific account” of life’s emergence and evolution, describes the descent of all forms of life from a common ancestor as “virtually certain,” and echoes John Paul II’s observation of the “mounting support” for evolution from many fields of study.
It’s never been easy being Charles Darwin. Rodney Dangerfield might have talked about getting “no respect,” but the brickbats thrown Darwin’s way are putting poor Rodney to shame. Alabama pastes warning stickers inside any textbook that mentions evolution, a member of the Kansas Board of Education pronounces evolution as “biologically, genetically, mathematically, chemically, and metaphysically impossible,” and now even a cardinal of the Catholic church has take a pot shot at poor old Charles.
Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, editor of the church’s catechism, recently wrote that any notion that neo-Darwinian theory is “somehow compatible with Christian faith” is simply “not true.” The cardinal claimed that evolution is an “unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection.” Evolution, in his view, isn’t science so much as a “materialistic philosophy” that denies the existence of a creator’s plan. It’s anti-Christian, and it’s bad science to boot.
The cardinal may indeed think that evolution deserves the Dangerfield treatment, but in his understandable eagerness to stand up for God, he’s made three glaring mistakes. The most obvious is scientific. The second is political. And the third, dare I say as a Catholic layperson, is theological. Knowing how the good cardinal’s words will be misused by the enemies of science, it is important to set the record straight.
Let’s start with what Schönborn got right. The church has always opposed any view of life that would exclude the notion of divine purpose. As the catechism tells us, scientific studies of “the age and development of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man ... invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator.” Indeed they do.
But his assertion that the theory of evolution is inherently anti-God is simply wrong. Consider these words from George Gaylord Simpson, widely recognized as one of the principal architects of the neo-Darwinian synthesis: “The process [of evolution] is wholly natural in its operation. This natural process achieves the aspect of purpose without the intervention of a purposer; and it has produced a vast plan without the concurrent action of a planner. It may be that the initiation of the process and the physical laws under which it functions had a purpose and that this mechanistic way of achieving a plan is the instrument of a Planner – of this still deeper problem the scientist, as scientist, cannot speak.”
Exactly. Science is, just as John Paul said, silent on the issue of ultimate purpose. This means that biological evolution, correctly understood, does not address what Simpson called the “deeper problem,” leaving that issue, quite properly, to faith.
The cardinal’s second error was to enter American politics by supporting the “intelligent design” movement. The “design” movement seeks to short-circuit science by applying political pressure at state and local levels, and the cardinal’s misrepresentation of evolution will only further the growing entanglement between church and state. He seems not to understand that the neo-creationists of intelligent design, unlike Popes Benedict and John Paul, argue against evolution on every level, claiming that a “designer” has repeatedly intervened to subvert the laws of nature. This view stands in sharp contradiction to a 2004 International Theological Commission document approved by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. This document carries a ringing endorsement of the “widely accepted scientific account” of life’s emergence and evolution, describes the descent of all forms of life from a common ancestor as “virtually certain,” and echoes John Paul II’s observation of the “mounting support” for evolution from many fields of study.
More important, the same document makes a critical statement on how to interpret scientific studies of the complexity of life: “Whether the available data support inferences of design or chance...cannot be settled by theology. But it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence.”
Right there, in plain view, is the essence of compatibility between evolution and Catholic theology. “Contingency in the created order,” the very heart of evolution, is not at all incompatible with the will of God. The official church document reemphasizes this point by stating that “even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation.” And evolution, as Stephen Jay Gould emphasized, is truly a contingent natural process.
The concerns of Pope Benedict, as expressed in his earlier writings and homilies, are not with evolution per se, but with how evolution is to be understood in our modern world. Biological evolution fits neatly into a traditional Catholic understanding of how contingent natural processes can be seen as part of God’s plan, while “evolutionist” philosophies that deny the divine do not. Three popes, beginning with Pius XII, have made this abundantly clear.
John Paul II’s 1996 letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences bore the magnificent title of “Truth cannot contradict Truth.” In that letter the late Pope, writing in the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas, affirmed the Church’s twin commitments to scientific rationality and to an overarching spiritual view of the ultimate meaning and purpose of life. Like many other scientists who hold the Catholic faith, I see the creator’s plan and purpose fulfilled in our universe. I see a planet bursting with evolutionary possibilities, a continuing creation in which the divine providence is manifest in every living thing. I see a science that tells us there is indeed a design to life. And the name of that design is evolution.