Separating Faith from Science

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Supporters of the theory of evolution were disheartened last month by a New York Times Op-Ed piece by Cardinal Christoph Schonbron that seemed to go against longtime Church doctrine. The archbishop of Vienna stated flatly that the church does not accept "neo-Darwinism." In what some considered an insulting rebuff to John Paul II—who placed the Church firmly in line with 20th Century thinking when he declared in 1996 that evolutionary theory is compatible with Catholic teachings—the Cardinal called his 1996 declaration "vague and unimportant." Schonbron went on to write 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."

Alarmed, a trio of prominent U.S. scientists wrote to Pope Benedict XVI, urging that the Church "not build a new divide...between scientific method and religious belief." And biologist Peter Raven, interviewed by the journal Science, noted that there is no evidence that the Cardinal had the Pope's approval before publishing his article. Raven, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Science, noted that Schonbron demonstrated "a pretty serious misunderstanding of what evolution is and what the Church had done before."

The new Pope has yet to comment on the controversy. But now the Vatican's chief astronomer, Jesuit priest George Coyne, may have provided a clue to Benedict's stance. Writing in The Tablet, Britain's Catholic weekly, he repudiated Schonbron, charging that he darkens "the already murky waters" of the evolution debate. Coyne noted that last year, when Benedict, then a Cardinal, was president of the International Theological Commission, that body concluded that no conflict existed between Darwin's theory and the teachings of the Church.

Creationists and even some of their thinly disguised counterparts, the Intelligent Designers, have charged that proponents of evolution are anti-Christian. That's a charge that can hardly be levied against the Vatican astronomer and against a prominent member of the Pontifical Academy of Science. They, like many good scientists who are Christian, have learned to separate their faith from their science.