July 9, 2005
Leading Cardinal Redefines Church's View on Evolution
By CORNELIA DEAN and LAURIE GOODSTEIN
An influential cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, which has long
been regarded as an ally of the theory of evolution, is now suggesting
that belief in evolution as accepted by science today may be
incompatible with Catholic faith.
The cardinal, Christoph Sch=F6nborn, archbishop of Vienna, a theologian
who is close to Pope Benedict XVI, staked out his position in an Op-Ed
article in The New York Times on Thursday, writing, "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."
In a telephone interview from a monastery in Austria, where he was on
retreat, the cardinal said that his essay had not been approved by the
Vatican, but that two or three weeks before Pope Benedict XVI's
election in April, he spoke with the pope, then Cardinal Joseph
Ratzinger, about the church's position on evolution. "I said I would
like to have a more explicit statement about that, and he encouraged
me to go on," said Cardinal Sch=F6nborn.
He said that he had been "angry" for years about writers and
theologians, many Catholics, who he said had "misrepresented" the
church's position as endorsing the idea of evolution as a random
Opponents of Darwinian evolution said they were gratified by Cardinal
Sch=F6nborn's essay. But scientists and science teachers reacted with
confusion, dismay and even anger. Some said they feared the cardinal's
sentiments would cause religious scientists to question their faiths.
Cardinal Sch=F6nborn, who is on the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic
Education, said the office had no plans to issue new guidance to
teachers in Catholic schools on evolution. But he said he believed
students in Catholic schools, and all schools, should be taught that
evolution is just one of many theories. Many Catholic schools teach
Darwinian evolution, in which accidental mutation and natural
selection of the fittest organisms drive the history of life, as part
of their science curriculum.
Darwinian evolution is the foundation of modern biology. While
researchers may debate details of how the mechanism of evolution plays
out, there is no credible scientific challenge to the underlying
American Catholics and conservative evangelical Christians have been a
potent united front in opposing abortion, stem cell research and
euthanasia, but had parted company on the death penalty and the
teaching of evolution. Cardinal Sch=F6nborn's essay and comments are an
indication that the church may now enter the debate over evolution
more forcefully on the side of those who oppose the teaching of
One of the strongest advocates of teaching alternatives to evolution
is the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which promotes the idea, termed
intelligent design, that the variety and complexity of life on earth
cannot be explained except through the intervention of a designer of
Mark Ryland, a vice president of the institute, said in an interview
that he had urged the cardinal to write the essay. Both Mr. Ryland and
Cardinal Sch=F6nborn said that an essay in May in The Times about the
compatibility of religion and evolutionary theory by Lawrence M.
Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland,
suggested to them that it was time to clarify the church's position on
The cardinal's essay was submitted to The Times by a Virginia public
relations firm, Creative Response Concepts, which also represents the
Mr. Ryland, who said he knew the cardinal through the International
Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, where he is chancellor and
Mr. Ryland is on the board, said supporters of intelligent design were
"very excited" that a church leader had taken a position opposing
Darwinian evolution. "It clarified that in some sense the Catholics
aren't fine with it," he said.
Bruce Chapman, the institute's president, said the cardinal's essay
"helps blunt the claims" that the church "has spoken on Darwinian
evolution in a way that's supportive."
But some biologists and others said they read the essay as abandoning
longstanding church support for evolutionary biology.
"How did the Discovery Institute talking points wind up in Vienna?"
wondered Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for
Science Education, which advocates the teaching of evolution. "It
really did look quite a bit as if Cardinal Sch=F6nborn had been reading
their Web pages."
Mr. Ryland said the cardinal was well versed on these issues and had
written the essay on his own.
Dr. Francis Collins, who headed the official American effort to
decipher the human genome, and who describes himself as a Christian,
though not a Catholic, said Cardinal Sch=F6nborn's essay looked like "a
step in the wrong direction" and said he feared that it "may represent
some backpedaling from what scientifically is a very compelling
conclusion, especially now that we have the ability to study DNA."
"There is a deep and growing chasm between the scientific and the
spiritual world views," he went on. "To the extent that the cardinal's
essay makes believing scientists less and less comfortable inhabiting
the middle ground, it is unfortunate. It makes me uneasy."
"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."
Dr. Miller, whose book "Finding Darwin's God" describes his
reconciliation of evolutionary theory with Christian faith, said the
essay seemed to equate belief in evolution with disbelief in God. That
is alarming, he said. "It may have the effect of convincing Catholics
that evolution is something they should reject."
Dr. Collins and other scientists said they could understand why a
cleric might want to make the case that, as Dr. Collins put it,
"evolution is the mechanism by which human beings came into existence,
but God had something to do with that, too." Dr. Collins said that
view, theistic evolution, "is shared with a very large number of
biologists who also believe in God, including me."
But it does not encompass the idea that the workings of evolution
required the direct intervention of a supernatural agent, as
intelligent design would have it.
In his essay, Cardinal Sch=F6nborn asserted that he was not trying to
break new ground but to correct the idea, "often invoked," that the
church accepts or at least acquiesces to the theory of evolution.
He referred to widely cited remarks by Pope John Paul II, who, in a
1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, noted that the
scientific case for evolution was growing stronger and that the theory
was "more than a hypothesis."
In December, Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo, chairman of the Committee on
Science and Human Values of the United States Conference of Catholic
Bishops, cited those remarks in writing to the nation's bishops 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." But in his essay, Cardinal Sch=F6nborn
dismissed John Paul's statement as "rather vague and unimportant."
Francisco Ayala, a professor of biology at the University of
California, Irvine, and a former Dominican priest, called this
assessment "an insult" to the late pope and said the cardinal seemed
to be drawing a line between the theory of evolution and religious
faith, and "seeing a conflict that does not exist."
Dr. Miller said he was already hearing from people worried about the
cardinal's essay. "People are saying, does the church really believe
this?" He said he would not speculate. "John Paul II made it very
clear that he regarded scientific rationality as a gift from God," Dr.
Miller said, adding, "There are more than 100 cardinals and they often
have conflicting opinions."