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A debate revived

Published : Oct 21, 2005 00:00 IST


Christoph Cardinal Sch?nborn.-DIETER NAGL/AFP Christoph Cardinal Sch�nborn.

Christoph Cardinal Sch?nborn.-DIETER NAGL/AFP Christoph Cardinal Sch�nborn.

A high-profile Cardinal re-ignites the controversy about the Catholic Church's position on Darwinian evolution, thought to have been settled by path-breaking remarks in its favour made by John Paul II.

"... [N]ew knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as something more than just a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favour of this theory."

- Pope John Paul II, Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 22, 1996.

UNLIKE John Paul II, Christoph Cardinal Schnborn, O.P., has a problem with the theory of evolution. This former student of Pope Benedict XVI and current Archbishop of Vienna believes that it is incompatible with the Catholic faith. In a July 7 article in The New York Times, "Finding design in nature", Schnborn claimed that "defenders of neo-Darwinian dogma" have referred to John Paul II's 1996 address to underscore the Catholic Church's "acceptance" or "acquiescence" of the theory of evolution. "But this is not true," the Cardinal stressed. He argues that the theory cannot be reconciled with the Catholic vision of man created in the image of God (imago Dei), based on Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, because it is by its very nature atheistic. In effect, his article conveys the impression that the Church has "redefined" its stance on this crucial scientific truth, though theoretically Popes or ecumenical councils alone are empowered to define doctrine.

Schnborn, a high-profile figure in the Church who was the secretary of the commission responsible for drafting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, notes: "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." It appears he has put forward the "intelligent design" (ID) argument, which claims that a "designer" (read God) was directly responsible for the "creation" of the complex form of living things.

However, ID has hardly any supporters in the scientific community. The majority do not even consider it worthy of the name "science". Perhaps it is best understood as a modern variant of the "teleological argument" or "argument from design", one of the traditional philosophical arguments proposed to prove the existence of God. Kenneth R. Miller, Professor of Biology, Brown University, U.S., told Frontline: "The core concept of ID is that a designer, acting outside the laws of nature, has created complex biochemical machines, biochemical pathways, cellular structures, genetic information, novel organs, new species, and new categories of organisms. Because, by its very definition, the actions of this creator lie outside of natural law, neither they nor His existence can be tested by science. Science is the method we use to provide natural explanations of natural phenomena, and it cannot address the question of whether a supernatural creator-designer exists. Therefore ID is not science because it makes no statement that can be subjected to a scientific test."

Miller, a practising Catholic and the author of Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution, added that "arguments put forward in favour of ID collapse upon inspection". He said:

"Since ID proponents cannot produce (by their own admission) any positive evidence in favour of design, they have concentrated on gathering negative arguments against evolution. Those negative arguments include the claim that complex, multi-part biochemical systems, such as the blood clotting cascade and the bacterial flagellum, cannot be produced by evolution. To support this claim they argue that these systems function only when all of their parts are in place, and therefore they could not have been produced by evolution, which can only select for systems that are functional. Since the parts of these systems have no function, they argue, evolution could not have produced them.

"This claim, as any biochemist will tell you, is wrong. Many of the component parts of the flagellum, for example, do indeed have functions of their own that could be individually favoured by natural selection. Particularly notable is a protein secretion system that is formed by 10 proteins in the base of the flagellum, and is found in many bacteria that do not possess flagella. The argument that all of the proteins of the blood clotting cascade must be in place before blood can clot is likewise incorrect. The completion of the genome sequences of a number of organisms has made it possible to see if they contain the same components as mammals do, which was a prediction of the ID-ers. The puffer fish genome, published in 2003, lacks three of the factors found in mammals, showing that a partial clotting cascade can indeed clot blood effectively. In fact, each and every system which the `design' theorists have put forward as evidence for design has failed to match their claims."

Dismissing John Paul II's 1996 address as "vague and unimportant", Schnborn cites two of his comments to general audiences in 1985 and 1986. According to Schnborn, these represent the "real teaching" of John Paul II. The Cardinal quotes from the Pope's 1986 comments: "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."

Schnborn says that "neo-Darwinists" consider Benedict XVI a "satisfied evolutionist". To substantiate their claim, they point to a 2004 document of the International Theological Commission (ITC), the main advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's guardian of orthodoxy. Since Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) was the head of both the Vatican organs then, they say, he must have endorsed the document that allegedly said the Catholic Church accepted the theory of evolution, according to the Cardinal. But, Schnborn observes, the document, "Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God", does not say so. The Cardinal quotes the document: "An unguided evolutionary process - one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence - simply cannot exist."

However, Schnborn's claim is based on a selective and incomplete reading of the document. For instance, the quoted sentence (from paragraph 69) does not end there. It continues thus: "... simply cannot exist because `the causality of God, Who is the first agent, extends to all being, not only as to constituent principle of species, but also to the individualising principles... It necessarily follows that all things, inasmuch as they participate in existence, must likewise be subject to divine providence' (Summa Theologiae, I, 22, 2)." The quote is from St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Dominican priest and scholar whose theology enjoys official status in the Church.

The earlier portion of the same paragraph strikes at the root of the Cardinal's argument that Charles Darwin's theory, with its stress on random genetic mutation and natural selection, contradicts the Church's faith. The document says: "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. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God's providential plan for creation. ... Divine causality can be active in a process that is both contingent and guided. Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so."

The Cardinal concludes his essay by saying that "[t]hroughout history the Church has defended the truths of faith given by Jesus Christ. But in the modern era, the Catholic Church is in the odd position of standing in firm defence of reason as well. ... Now at the beginning of the 21st century, faced with scientific claims like neo-Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science, the Catholic Church will again defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real."

Again, the Cardinal's issue with the "multiverse hypothesis" is untenable. Lawrence M. Krauss, Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics and Professor of Astronomy at Case Western Reserve University, U.S., told Frontline: "It is the idea that our universe is one of many different universes, each of which is completely disconnected from the rest. In each of these the laws of physics may be different, the values of the masses of elementary particles different, etc. It turns out that this idea arises naturally in various theories of how the early universe may have evolved, and was proposed as a result of current research and indeed had nothing to do with claimed evidence for design, which in fact does not exist."

In fact, the immediate provocation for Schnborn's article was an article that Krauss wrote in The New York Times on May 17. Headlined "Schoolboards want to `teach the controversy'. What controversy?", it criticised proposals to teach ID in U.S. schools. In the process, he said that the Catholic Church "apparently has no problem with the notion of evolution as it is currently studied by biologists, including supposedly `controversial' ideas like common ancestry of all life forms". Krauss, a practising Catholic, too quotes the 2004 ITC document to prove his point: "Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism" (paragraph 63).

THE article, especially its support for ID, has important socio-political implications in the U.S., where conservative evangelical Christians have been for more than a century fighting a battle against Darwin's theory. Recently, President George W. Bush, whose core support base is among conservative evangelical Christians, said that ID ought to be taught in schools along with the theory of evolution "so people can understand what the debate is about". Although the U.S. Catholic Church has been an enthusiastic ally of the evangelicals in opposing abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem-cell research, it has not officially endorsed their attack against Darwin's theory. And all Catholic Church-run schools and universities have taught evolution as the cornerstone of modern biology. A July 9 article in The New York Times, "Leading Cardinal redefines Church's view on evolution", quoted a December 2004 letter to the U.S. bishops from Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo, chairman of the committee on science and human values of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which cited John Paul II's 1996 address to say that "the Church does not need to fear the teaching of evolution as long as it is understood as a scientific account of the physical origins and development of the universe".

Unsurprisingly, votaries of ID have welcomed the article. Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University, U.S., told National Catholic Reporter in early August: "It seems to me that the Cardinal said pretty much everything that needed to be said." Behe is a Catholic and the author of Darwin's Black Box, one of the most controversial and highly disputed "scientific" challenges to Darwinian evolution. Importantly, the Cardinal's article was submitted to The New York Times by a conservative think tank, the Discovery Institute in Seattle, through a Virginia-based public relations firm. The Discovery Institute is the most ardent advocate of ID in the U.S. It has pumped in millions of dollars to fund "research" on ID and push the latter's case in public debates on science education and curriculum revision. An August 21 article in The New York Times identifies the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and foundations run by prominent conservatives such as Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, Philip F. Anschutz and Richard Mellon Scaife as among its principal financiers.

The response from the scientific community, especially from among practising Catholics, was scathing. Krauss told Frontline: "The Cardinal's article is both bad science and bad theology. As a former Pope said, `Truth cannot contradict Truth'. So the theology of the Church must remain in accord with the results of scientific investigation. But the Cardinal says that if scientific results differ from his beliefs, they must be wrong. This is flawed and dangerous thinking, and got the Church into trouble 350 years ago with Galileo."

Krauss, Miller and Francisco Ayala, University Professor and Donald Bren Professor of Biological Disciplines, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine, wrote an open letter to Benedict XVI asking him to "clarify" the Church's position on evolution. The July 12 letter said: "It is vitally important... that in these difficult and contentious times the Catholic Church not build a new divide, long ago eradicated, between the scientific method and religious belief. We... request... that you reaffirm the remarkable statements of Pope John Paul II and the International Theological Commission, so that it will be clear that Cardinal Schnborn's remarks do not reflect the views of the Holy See."

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Oct 21, 2005.)



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