Cardinal Schönborn and evolution

The science blogosphere's been abuzz about Cardinal Schönborn's editorial last week that appeared to embrace intelligent design, which was followed a couple of days later by a New York Times article about how this statement may mean that the Catholic Church is moving away from its long (albeit somewhat grudging) acceptance of evolution as accepted by biologists. I hadn't weighed in yet, mainly because I really didn't think the article was that big a deal. I really didn't. However, with all the pro-ID sites crowing (also see 1, 2, 3) about how this supposedly means that the Catholic Church is coming around to their way of thinking, I finally thought I'd have to try to throw some cold water on them.

As a Catholic myself (albeit the stereotypical lapsed one), I wouldn’t worry that much about this editorial if I were you. ID advocates are reading far more into than is probably there and crowing about it way more than is justified. The Catholic Church has, ever since Pius XII reconciled the Church with evolution 50 years ago, has always preached a sort of “theistic” evolution that’s not all that different from intelligent design. For example, consider Pope Pius's frequently quoted words from Humani Generis:
For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter -- for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith. Some however, rashly transgress this liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question.
Note the terminology: The Church does not forbid. That is different than endorsing. Also, note that Pius requires that all "are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church." Even Pope John Paul II’s famous address in 1996 was not a 100% endorsement of evolution due solely to natural forces, as is clear if one reads it carefully It is more a grudging acquiescence and a statement that it is not incompatible with Catholicism to accept the science of evolution. This is the most frequently quoted passage used to show the Church's acceptance of evolution.:
Today, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than 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 favor of this theory.
However, ten years earlier the late Pope had also said, as the Cardinal also noted in his editorial:
All the observations concerning the development of life lead to a similar conclusions. 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.
This, of course, sounds not unlike "intelligent design." Some have claimed that the 1996 statement represents an evolution (pardon the term) in Pope John Paul II's thinking, but not necessarily. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the Catholic Church would see the hand of God in evolution. ("Stop the presses!" The Catholic Church states that God guides evolution!") The fact that it apparently does come as a surprise to some shows how little the press (and ID advocates) understand Catholicism.
The difference, of course, between the fundamentalist ID advocates and the Catholic Church is that the Church in recent years has usually been wise enough to view the involvement of God in evolution as a matter of faith, not science, and to teach it that way--as faith. In essence, the Catholic Church has generally taken the view that evolution and faith are not incompatible and that God used evolution as the process that would inevitably lead to the creation of plants, animals, and humans. It's usually left the science behind evolution to biologists and the teaching of science to those trained in biology. (Perhaps its encounter with Galileo finally taught it something, even if it took a few hundred years for the lesson to sink in.) Indeed, in Catholic high schools, you will find evolution taught as science in science classes and A.P. biology classes with nary a whisper about God or design (although certainly you will hear mentions of them them in catechism classes), and in pulpits you will occasionally hear a priest mention evolution. However, unless things have changed since I stopped going to Mass regularly, I've yet to see one mention a "designer's" influence on creation as anything other than a matter of faith and belief. I daresay that Catholic schools as a group probably teach the concepts of evolution better than most public schools, at least in districts where there is a large ID influence.

I rather suspect that a few prominent Cardinals (like Cardinal Schönborn) might have fallen under the sway of the Discovery Institute or other ID advocacy groups and are trying to influence the Church's previously mostly laissé-faîre policy with regard to its views on evolution. In short, this may just be one Cardinal getting his view out as part of a controversy going on among the Curia. It's also probably more a difference in emphasis rather than any significant change in Catholic doctrine. Where Pope John Paul II seemed content not to emphasize the Church's belief in God's guiding evolution, his successor may not be. I will concede, however, that Schönborn's blithe dismissal as "vague and unimportant" of Pope John Paul II's 1996 statement that evolution is not incompatible with Roman Catholic teaching is a bit disturbing, as is his statement that "any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science." The Church should not be dictating what science is and is not, nor should Cardinals be aping Discovery Institute boilerplate in their statements.

Nonethless, in the end, my guess is that Cardinal Schönborn or even Pope Benedict XVI is highly unlikely to change significantly the manner in which the Church deals with evolution in its schools or from its pulpits. The Church is one of the most highly conservative institutions in the world in that it is very slow to change and rarely does so except under great pressure. (For example, Vatican II was driven by the political, social, and technological changes of the time, which Pope John XXIII felt compelled to address.) Almost certainly, if the ID advocates of the Discovery Institute and others pushing bogus attacks on evolutionary theory and advocating the teaching of ID as an "alternative theory" to evolution in public schools in Dover, Kansas, Georgia, and elsewhere view this op-ed piece by a single Cardinal as an indication that the Catholic Church is about to join them in their quest to have ID taught in the classrooms of public schools, they will almost certainly be sorely disappointed. Indeed, unless the Pope himself endorses ID as science rather than faith, unless the Church orders its schools to start teaching ID as an “alternative” to evolution, or unless the Church officially joins forces with the fundamentalists pushing ID creationism, I really don't consider this editorial to be a major concern.

Let's put it this way. The Catholic Church has in essence accepted a version of theistic evolution that is not unlike ID for over 50 years. In that time, it hasn't pushed the teaching of ID as anything other than a matter of faith. Although it may not have always been able to resist the temptation to do otherwise in other areas of science, as far as evolution goes, the Church left the science to scientists; and, as far as I've been able to tell, it has not even taught ID as science or an "alternative to evolution" in science classrooms in its own schools during the last 50 years. Given that, what makes the ID advocates think that, just because one Cardinal, no matter how prominent, has published an editorial, the Church will suddenly join forces with fundamentalists, many of whom detest the Catholic Church to begin with, in pushing ID as an "alternative" to evolution? And in the unlikely event that preaching ID as an "alternative" to evolution in science does become official Church policy, there will likely be some fairly stiff resistance, at least in the U.S. One can only hope that Pope Benedict XVI has the wisdom of his predecessor when it comes to the relationship between faith and science.


  1. Doc Orac:

    Do you find that people sometimes confuse theistic evolution (ie god started the ball rolling and stepped away) with ID?

  2. I don't think it's possible to distinguish completely between the two in many cases and that the difference between the two is not necessarily cut-an-dried. For example, the extreme ID viewpoint would be that God--I'm sorry, a "designer"--is guiding evolution constantly or with frequent interventions. However, an alternate version is that God got the ball rolling and only intervenes occasionally. Of course, the extreme version of theistic evolution is sometimes stated that God got evolution started and then didn't intervene because He didn't need to. After all, if He's omnipotent and omniscient, then He would know where it would end up when he got it started, wouldn't he?

  3. Fair enough. How oft they cut themselves on Occam's Razor...

  4. My understanding of ID, limited by my disinclination to read the drivel, is that god-I-mean-a-designer designed only some things, not everything. That would make it the intelligent designer of the margins.

  5. An interesting post, thanks.

    What surprises me is that navel-gazing attitude on the part of many Americans. How can NYT reporters think that the opinion of one cardinal is representative of the Catholic church as a whole or will mean a significative push? And, as far as I know, nobody outside the US seems to care very much about ID.

    Cardinal who, again? The Catholic church is BIG.

  6. Orac, you said, "The Catholic Church has in essence accepted a version of theistic evolution that is not unlike ID for over 50 years."

    The thing is, the hard-core ID movement is antithetical to theistic evolution. Dembski has said theistic evolution is a violation of Occam's Razor. (He did not say what the penalty was, maybe 15 yards and loss of down.) The IDists definitely have as their strategy the equating of "Darwinism" with atheism. The cardinal's piece seems to be playing into that frame of mind.

    Rhus, re Cardinal who? Schoenborn was the lead editor of the Catechism, and thus a key guardian of orthodoxy. He's also close to Benedict XVI. However, one letter writer to the NYT stated that he is out of the mainstream in that he is something of a biblical literalist. I do think that this is something of a trial balloon; we'll see how high it goes.

  7. Hard core ID advocates say they are opposed to theistic evolution, but are they really? I don't think so. Just ask them who this "designer" is, and watch them stammer and stutter as they try to deny they mean God without actually denying it. Look at what groups are really pushing ID; almost without exception they either are or have ties to fundamentalist Christian religious groups. If you really want to piss an ID'er off, ask them why the "designer" couldn't be an advanced race of giant lizards.

    No, the denial that ID is similar to theistic evolution doesn't fly with me. ID'ers deny that they are describing a form of theistic evolution (with an activist God who often influences design) because they know that they'll run afoul of the First Amendment when they try to get ID taught in public schools if they admit that the "designer" is God.

  8. "God Doesn't Sweat the Details" at

  9. I'd like to respectfully disagree with something you write:

    "The difference, of course, between the fundamentalist ID advocates and the Catholic Church is that the Church in recent years has usually been wise enough to view the involvement of God in evolution as a matter of faith, not science, and to teach it that way--as faith. In essence, the Catholic Church has generally taken the view that evolution and faith are not incompatible and that God used evolution as the process that would inevitably lead to the creation of plants, animals, and humans."

    The Church actually teaches that it takes not faith, but only a brain (i.e. reason) to see that the created world is intelligible, and that this transcendent intelligibility demonstrates Divine Intelligence. Seeing the existence of God, or that he is the ultimate protagonist of creation, is therefore not a matter of faith.

    Faith, argues the Church, is an acceptance of God's specific self-revelation down through history, which is based on and further explains what is knowable to reason. Seeing that God is a Trinity who brought the world into existence through the person of his Word: now THAT is a matter of faith.

    Although popes and cardinals would use more tact in saying it, the Church believes that atheism (of which "neo-Darwinian evolution" is one form) isn't simply immoral, but is actually quite stupid. Email me at if you'd like citations from the Bible, the Catechism and other sources of doctrine from which I drew the propositions of this comment.

  10. Tanno Gerritsen (Austria)2/18/2006 2:15 PM

    I'd like to add to this last comment that the idea that human reason should acknowledge the Creator is found in Paul's letter to the Romans, chapter 1. In this chapter, the apostle draws the "conclusion" that the Gentiles, by not acknowledging their Creator, find themselves attracted to members of their own sex. It is hardly a coincidence that cardinal Schoenborn is an avowed opponent to anything homosexual. It strikes me again and again that catholic "intellectuals" never stand for their own opinions, but hide behind words of others, be it popes or apostles. Maybe they should start taking full responsibility for their own mindset.


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