Sunday, July 16, 2006


Catholic Cardinal Gets it Right on Evolution [PA Archives]
By Thomas Riggins

Ultimately the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than the life of an oyster-- David Hume

Two pieces in the Times last week (“Finding Design in Nature” by Christoph [Cardinal] Schonborn, July 7, 2005 and “Leading Cardinal Redefines Church’s View on Evolution: He Says Darwinism and Catholicism May Conflict” by Cornelia Dean and Laurie Goodstein, July 9, 2005) finally resolves, for me at least, the question of the relation between a scientific outlook on the world and the outlook of the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Schonborn is the archbishop of Vienna and chief editor, the Times reports, of the official Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992). His understanding of science seems to be based on the works of Aristotle. The Cardinal begins his essay critical of “neo-Darwinian dogma” (I admit that the Cardinal is probably an expert on dogma if not Darwinism). He says the Darwinists have misinterpreted Pope John Paul II (another noted scientist) who said in 1996 that evolution is “more than just a hypothesis.” They think this means that Darwinism is “somehow compatible with Christian faith.”

They are wrong, says the Cardinal. I think he has it right. I will even go a bit further. Not only is Darwinism incompatible with the Christian faith (as interpreted by the Catholic sect), but any scientific understanding of the world at all is incompatible with it and any other system claiming to have some timeless absolute knowledge based on revelation rather that testable empirical investigations.

The Cardinal grants that there might be “evolution” in the sense of “common ancestry”-- we might indeed all come out of the primal ooze -- but not in the Darwinian sense of “random variation and natural selection.” He quotes the eminent evolutionary biologist, and sect leader, John Paul II, who said, “The evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality [there is NO scientific evidence for this] which arouses admiration. This finality which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose [it does?] a Mind which is its inventor, its creator.”

Cardinal Schonborn says we must note that the term “finality” is a philosophical term which means “final cause, purpose or design.” Well, at least he agrees that it is not a scientific term. We should also note that modern philosophy, at least since the sixteenth century, has rejected any type of “finality” in this sense. The Cardinal is using a term confined almost exclusively to sectaries, who need it to justify their otherwise outlandish beliefs.

Three centuries ago, and a century before Darwin, the great Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) described what the “finality” of the world looked like to human reason unprejudiced by viewing the world through the prism of superstition. “Look around this universe,” he wrote: “What an immense profusion of beings, animated and organized, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious variety and fecundity. But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences.... How hostile and destructive to each other!... The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children”(quoted from Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Voltaire).

This is not what Cardinal Schonborn sees when he looks at the universe. He sees with the eyes of “the authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church.” He then quotes his new boss (Benedict XVI): “We are not some causal 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.” Does that even make sense. How can you look at the heaps of skulls left behind by Pol Pot, or by the genocide in Rwanda and now in Dafur, or think of the thousands of children killed by the US in the name of “freedom” in Iraq, Central America and Vietnam, or think of the people lost in the Tsunami -- or contemplate the babies born with hideous birth defects or with AIDS or cancer-- how can any of that jive with being a loved and willed thought of God?

Only in your religious dreams can you hold the Pope’s ideas-- but let us not, as the Cardinal does, confuse this with “human reason” or “science.”

The news article, by Dean and Goodstein, gives some reactions by scientists and others to the Cardinal’s ideas. As might have been expected religious fundamentalists and proponents of design in nature theories are very happy with the essay. On the other hand “some biologists and others said they read the essay as abandoning longstanding church support for evolutionary biology.”

“‘Unguided,’ ‘unplanned.’ ‘random’ and ‘natural’ are all adjectives that biologists might apply to the process of evolution, said Dr. Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown and a Catholic. But even so, he said, evolution ‘can fall within God’s providential plan.’ He added: ‘Science cannot rule it out. Science cannot speak on this.’” There is a lot of conceptual confusion here. Just what kind of “providential plan” is “unguided,” “un-planned,” and “random?” What is clear is that all this talk about seeing design in nature is a lot of pre-scientific twaddle left over from the Middle Ages.

In closing, we should note that it is not just Darwin with which the church has difficulty. The church still can’t make up its mind about Galileo. Here is a quote from Benedict XVI when he was still just Cardinal Ratzinger and the head of the Inquisition: “At the time of Galileo the Church remained much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself. The process against Galileo was reasonable and just.” And the Sun goes around the Earth.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

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