On Thursday, "Finding Design in Nature" by Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, the Catholic archbishop of Vienna, appeared on the op-ed page of The New York Times. The title is innocuous; the article isn't. Schonborn sneers at the notion that the Catholic church happily accepts evolution -- or, at least, that it accepts Darwinism. Quoting John Paul, Benedict, and Catholic doctrinal works, Schonborn asserts that
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.
Catholic teaching, he tells us, says that the existence of a designer can't possibly be disputed; apparently trying to pick a fight while playing "I'm Rubber, You're Glue," he insists that
Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.
Today, a follow-up article in the Times notes that Schonborn is close to Pope Benedict -- and also that the op-ed was written at the urging of Mark Ryland of the pro-"intelligent design" Discovery Institute, and "was submitted to The Times by a Virginia public relations firm, Creative Response Concepts, which also represents the Discovery Institute." (A friend of the Pope needs to use an American PR firm to get The New York Times to read his op-ed piece? Hunh?)
As today's article points out, some scientists found the appearance of the article troubling:
"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 Schonborn had been reading their Web pages."
It sure does -- here's one of those talking points:
2. Is intelligent design theory incompatible with evolution?
It depends on what one means by the word "evolution." If one simply means "change over time," or even that living things are related by common ancestry, then there is no inherent conflict between evolutionary theory and intelligent design theory. However, the dominant theory of evolution today is neo-Darwinism, which contends that evolution is driven by natural selection acting on random mutations, an unpredictable and purposeless process that "has no discernable direction or goal, including survival of a species." (NABT Statement on Teaching Evolution). It is this specific claim made by neo-Darwinism that intelligent design theory directly challenges.
I'm an atheist, but I don't understand why you shouldn't, if you're a believer, believe simultaneously in chance and design -- believe in chance, perhaps, as the "intelligent designer's" design. A Catholic biologist quoted in today's article makes that case:
"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."
Well, that certainly would fit in with a strategy on the part of the church of increasing affiliation with America's Christian right.
I advocate teaching evolution with enough room for belief in God. I want believers in God to think evolution is not a threat. Regrettably, Cardinal Schonborn and the Discovery Institute would prefer a fight.