The Pope and Darwin

  • Share
  • Read Later
Headline writers (even TIME's) might be tempted to advertise a grudge match between the Holy Father and the high priest of natural selection. But look again. Our title promises the Pope AND Darwin, not the Pope VS. Darwin. Benedict XVI will indeed be hosting a scholarly powwow this weekend at his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, to debate evolution and creation. But don't expect the Catholic Church to start disputing Darwin's basic findings, which Pope John Paul II in 1996 called "more than a hypothesis." Moreover, advocates of the teaching in U.S. schools of intelligent design — which holds that nature is so complex that it must be God's doing — should not count on any imminent Holy See document or papal pronouncement to help boost their cause. This weekend's private retreat is an annual gathering of the Pope's former theology students to freely discuss one topic of interest, without the aim of reaching any set conclusion.

Evolution appears to be very much on the pontiff's mind. It is a "natural selection" of its own that this was the singular subject chosen by the Pope and his disciples for three days of lectures and discussion. Some conservative Catholics do indeed have growing doubts about the teaching of Darwin, which they say is now used to explain the very meaning of human existence. The issue of evolution has been on this pope's agenda from Day One, as Benedict proclaimed at his installation mass: "We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God."

These concerns echo those expressed by backers of intelligent design, who include a mix of mostly Protestants and Roman Catholics. The ID advocates take pains to distinguish themselves from old-school "creationists," arguing instead that evolution has simply elbowed out any other explanation for how we or the world was created. Darwin, they worry, has become "Darwinism" — natural science transformed into dogmatic philosophy. Still, the heart of the battle in the U.S. is not about theology or philosophy. It's about location. Proponents say ID should be taught in biology class at public schools, and this is a debate that Benedict will almost certainly avoid.

The ID proponents have found intellectual allies in the highest reaches of the Catholic hiearchy. Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, the influential Archbishop of Vienna, wrote an opinion piece last year in the New York Times that was favorable to the theory of intelligent design. Three months later, the pope entered the fray personally, when he used the words "intelligent project" to describe the universe's creation. Not surprisingly Schönborn, who was a star student in the early 1970s of then professor of theology Father Joseph Ratzinger, will give the equivalent of the keynote address this weekend at the Castel Gandolfo get-together.

Another former student, Father Joseph Fessio, a conservative Jesuit theologian and U.S.-based publisher of Ratzinger's writings, will also be there. Fessio did his best to downplay the significance of the meeting. "This is not a gathering of experts on evolution and creation called in to advise the Holy Father," he told TIME shortly after his arrival in Rome. "This is just a former professor having an informal gathering with his old students. There has never been a subgroup that produced a document. We've never issued a statement, nor has he."

Once Ratzinger was elected pope, however, interest was sure to heighten in these gatherings, which in the past have covered ecuminism and the Eastern rite church. Last summer, the chosen topic was Islam. Fessio does not deny that evolution may be a top papal priority. "These are the fundamental questions of any human being who becomes aware of himself. Where did I come from? Where I am going? What is the meaning of life — mine and in general?" Fessio says the American debate over ID involves other factors, including separation of church and state. "Intelligent design isn't religion in terms of 'revealed truth.' It's also not science. It's natural philosophy. It's a possible conclusion of humans seeking sufficient reason for the order of universe." Fessio agrees with Schönborn that Darwinists "are overstepping the bounds of science... If matter is all that there is, that's a philosophy."

Beyond any eventual Vatican document specifically on evolution, the debate over Darwin may arise in the Church's ongoing battle on bioethics. In a speech last week at a Catholic conference in Rimini, Italy — a sort of public warmup for the high-stakes private lecture he will give at Castel Gandolfo — Schönborn condemned what he called "scientism," or the failure of those in the scientific community to recognize that their findings can't provide all the answers.

"The grand epic of modern science is to have found... the wonder of the origin of life," he said sardonically. Schönborn said this attitude has inherent implication in public policy at both ends of life, from assisted fertility to euthanasia. And so like the Pope himself, Schönborn is an ally in the ID battle, as much for his theological firepower as for his institutional muscle. "This is a myth that has become history," he said of the findings of the British naturalist. This is indeed stronger language than the pope has ever used. Maybe, after all, we could at least call this the Cardinal vs. Darwin.