Rome Weighs in (Gently) on Intelligent Design

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The Catholic Church's position on "intelligent design" appears to be—well, evolving. An article published this week in the Vatican's newspaper of record, L'Osservatore Romano, is bad news for those hoping the Church would call on schools to teach "intelligent design" in in science class. In the article, evolutionary biology professor Fiorenzo Facchini, who teaches at the University of Bologna, pondered whether the theory, which holds that the complexity of nature makes it, necessarily, the product of the design of a conscious creator, should be taught alongside discussions of Darwin. His conclusion: "This is not how science is done."

Facchini defended a recent Pennsylvania court ruling against teaching intelligent design in science classes. "It is not correct... to stray from the field of science while pretending to do science," he says. "It only creates confusion between the scientific plane and those that are philosophical or religious." Whatever problems there may be with the teaching of evolution, he argues, should be challenged on scientific grounds. Facchini's argument was not presented as an official Church position, but Osservatore Romano is often a vehicle for the Roman Curia to air its views.

The intervention may come as a surprise to some after several key Cardinals and Pope Benedict XVI had spoken out in recent months against taking Darwin too far. Christoph Cardinal Schnborn, the Archbishop of Vienna who is extremely close to the Pope, opened debate in Church circles after writing a New York Times op-ed piece on design in nature that resonated with intelligent design's claims against evolutionary theory. He told TIME last summer that he'd been encouraged by the then Cardinal Ratzinger in 2004 to pursue his doubts about what he calls "Neo-Darwinism" or the belief that evolution explains everything. "I believe in dogmas of faith but I don't believe in dogmas of science," Schnborn told TIME.

The Pope himself entered the fray in November, when he used the words "intelligent project" to describe the origins of the universe. Camillo Cardinal Ruini, Benedict's Vicar of Rome and head of the Italian Bishops Conference, went the next step a few weeks later, explicitly endorsing intelligent design. But others have been less eager to jump on the bandwagon, including the Rev. George Coyne, head of the Vatican Observatory, who said, "Intelligent design isn't science, even though it pretends to be."

Does all this mean the Church is divided on the controversy? Not necessarily. It may just be that Catholic leaders will conclude that intelligent design makes for bad biology, but great theology.