...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 acceptanceor at least acquiescenceof
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.
Cardinal Schönborn then dismissed the pope’s 1996 statement as rather vague and unimportant and turned instead to an analysis of other statements by John Paul II on evolution and by Pope Benedict XVI. I believe that the cardinal’s analysis of John Paul II’s views on evolution and Christian faith deserves a careful and detailed response from all who are concerned with the constructive dialogue between science and theology that John Paul II so strongly supported for decades. I offer here an introductory analysis and will leave for another occasion a response to the cardinal’s comments on the position of Pope Benedict XVI.
In my view, the cardinal’s concern over evolution is unnecessary. What scientists view as chance in nature, Christians can see as God’s ongoing and purposeful action in the creation of life and humanity. The cardinal’s concern is also misplaced. When evolutionary theory is co-opted by atheists to serve their agenda, the cardinal should challenge the atheists, not the science they falsely claim proves their views.
Writing as a theologian and physicist, though not a Catholic, I support the Roman Catholic Church for the way it has welcomed the discoveries of science in the decades following the Second Vatican Council. There is simply no reason to change now the fruitful relationships that have been built up between the church and science. John Paul II, long before he became pope, enjoyed the friendship of many distinguished scientists, with whom he could discuss such topics as the origins of the universe in light of Big Bang cosmology and the beauty of God’s intimate handicraft in creating life through the tapestry of biological processes.
In 1987, I had an opportunity to meet the pope during a ground-breaking international research conference sponsored by the Holy See and held at the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo. The conference publication, Physics, Philosophy and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding, began with a now famous statement written specifically for the conference. The pope urged theologians to call on the findings of science to one degree or another as it pursues its primary concern for the human person.... The vitality and significance of theology for humanity will in a profound way be reflected in its ability to incorporate these findings. In so writing, the pope characterized theology as fides quaerens intellectum, an effort of faith to achieve understanding. By using this method, theology must incorporate science into its teachings. Finally, he voiced his now famous rallying call: Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.
Following the conference, the Vatican Observatory and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences entered into a decade-long series of research conferences and published their results in a five-volume series distributed by the University of Notre Dame Press. In 1996 I served as one of the editors of the third volume in the series, Evolutionary and Molecular Biology: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action. The volume included scholarly articles by such distinguished scientists as the biologists Francisco Ayala and Charles Birch, the cosmologists William Stoeger, S.J., and George Ellis, the Catholic theologians Anne Clifford, Denis Edwards and John Haught and leading scholars in the area of theology and science, including Arthur Peacocke, Nancey Murphy, Philip Hefner and Ian Barbour. These scholars offered a variety of Christian interpretations of neo-Darwinian evolution, widely referred to in general as theistic evolution. None of them thought that evolution is intrinsically atheistic or that the role of chance in evolution precludes the ongoing action of God as the creator of life and humanity through the processes of evolution. In short, for all of them evolution is the way God creates life.
That same year John Paul II addressed the plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In the 1996 volume we published that address both in its original French text and in English translation (page numbers below refer to this edition). In his address the pope recalled the position taken by Pope Pius XII in his 1950 encyclical, Humani Generisnamely, that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation (pg. 4). He then made the following crucial points: First, based on the state of scientific research in 1950, Pius XII went only so far as to consider evolution a serious hypothesis. But given the enormous scientific progress since then, John Paul II concluded that today, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led us to realize that the theory of evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis. Instead it is progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. Even this convergence of support provides a significant argument in favor of this theory. Second, he made a pivotal distinction between evolution as an established scientific theory and materialist, reductionist, and spiritualist interpretations of evolution, interpretations that the church must critically assess (pg. 6). Third, after assessing and rejecting these interpretations, John Paul II endorsed the body-soul dualism found in Humani Generis: if the human body takes its origin from preexistent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God. Fourth, while granting that humanity represents an ontological difference from the rest of nature, the pope concluded that this truth does not contradict the physical continuity pointed to by evolution since the moment of transition to the spiritual is not observable by science.
With these highly nuanced and scholarly words from Pope John Paul II fresh in my mind, I was stunned to read the New York Times article by Cardinal Schönborn, in which he refers to John Paul II’s address cited above as rather vague and unimportant. Having known the history of this address and, more important, having personally known both the unwavering commitment John Paul II had to the responsible dialogue between the church and science and the intellectual rigor he brought to it and demanded of all of us as participants in the dialogue, I strongly disagree with the cardinal’s dismissive judgment. I am also surprised that Cardinal Schönborn apparently overlooked a crucial distinction John Paul II made between the way Darwinian science views design in nature as the result of chance events and the way Christians understand that same design in nature through reason and revelationas the result of God’s action in, with and through the processes of nature. A key example of this distinction is John Paul II’s claim that while there is an ontological difference between humanity and the rest of life on earth, namely the human soul, this difference is not observable by scientific methods. The difference may well be obtained by reason, based on scientific evidence, but it is not to be treated as part of a scientific explanation of nature.
I agree with the cardinal 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. The question is whether the cardinal’s statement is what John Paul II calls a philosophical interpretation based on the accepted, Darwinian theory of evolution, or whether the cardinal’s statement hints at something quite different, namely a rejection of Darwinian theory of evolution and its replacement with a different theorysomething John Paul II would never have sanctioned.
Actually the cardinal gives us much more than a hint. He goes on to say that evolution in the neo-Darwinian sensean unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selectionis not [true]. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science. The problem with that statement is that evolutionary biology does not deny or explain away design in biology; instead it discovers and affirms it at all levels of life. This means that evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense is not an ideology by the cardinal’s own criteria! The real question is whether evolution as a scientific theory should account for the way design arises in evolution by appealing to God, or whether it must limit its account to natural processes, such as random variation and natural selection, and leave it to Christian philosophy and theology to give these natural processes a broader explanation in terms of divine agency. It is clear that John Paul II took the latter approach. He insisted that the methods of science are strictly limited to natural, secondary causes; science cannot go beyond this and remain science. To force a theological explanation of evolution into biology would be to create a pseudo-science, and this is precisely what John Paul II rejected in his 1988 address cited above.
In fact, Cardinal Schönborn’s words are reminiscent of some of the writings found within the so-called intelligent design movement. I hope this is not the cardinal’s intention. Intelligent design cannot be a competitor to neo-Darwinian evolution because it cannot, in principle, be an alternative scientific theory. Instead it is a misguided attempt by some conservative Protestants to include a divine designerGod in disguiseinto science. That, by the cardinal’s own criteria, makes it an ideology, not a science, one that the cardinal would therefore reject.
The cardinal then turns to what he considers the real teaching of John Paul II given in his 1985 address. Here the pope writes: 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. In this instance John Paul II is offering a philosophical conclusion based on reason and scientific evidencenamely, that a Mind is responsible for the internal finality in living beingsbut he is not suggesting that this conclusion should be forced back into science itself, that biology should somehow include the idea of a creator Mind in its scientific account of life.
What John Paul II rejected is not neo-Darwinian evolution as a scientific theory but neo-Darwinian evolution co-opted to serve as the basis for a materialistic worldview, and all of us in the theology and science discussions would agree with him. Quoting John Paul II again: 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. It is this reductionistic and materialistic philosophy as an interpretation of evolution that Christians must oppose. In its place Christians must offer an alternative interpretation of neo-Darwinian evolution that recognizes it as ultimately the work of God.
Finally, the cardinal quotes from the 2004 documents of the International Theological Commission that state that the 1996 article of John Paul II ...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. Once again the suggestion is that the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution itself somehow denies divine providence since, as a scientific theory, it does not refer to it. Once again the same category mistake is being made: the lack of reference to God within a scientific theory does not mean that the scientific theory claims there is no God. The fact that science does not refer to providenceas indeed it should notdoes not mean that science claims providence is not at work in nature. The existence of God and the workings of providence are simply beyond the competence of science to adjudicate.
In the end it is not scientific theories that enforce a materialistic worldview but atheists who co-opt science for their own purposes. John Paul II knew this, perhaps better than any other pontiff in recent history, having battled against atheistic interpretations of history in his own cherished Poland under the dominion of the Soviet Union and its ideology of dialectical materialism. He knew history could be given a different interpretation, a Christian interpretation, which truly supports human dignityand he led Poland to victory over Communism. When Cardinal Schönborn attacks scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of chance and necessity, he is not attacking a scientific theory such as neo-Darwinian evolution but its ideological interpretation by materialists and atheists. This ideology must be resisted with all the power of the Catholic Church, but the church will do a tragic injustice if it attacks neo-Darwinian science instead of attacking atheism.
Indeed, John Paul II has pointed the way forward, which we all must follow: the liberation of neo-Darwinian science from its atheistic interpretation and the celebration of evolution by the church through a truly Christian interpretation of God acting in and with the processes of evolution.
It is my hope that the new pontiff and his cardinals will build on, and not tear down, the astonishing accomplishments of Pope John Paul II, who never made the inexcusable mistake of confusing the victim of injustice with the perpetrator of injusticelet alone doing so in the name of the church.