Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Creation and Evolution: A Conference with Pope Benedict XVI

Creation and Evolution: A Conference with Pope Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo
compiled by Stephan Otto Horn and Siegfried Wiedenhofer
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008. 210 pages.
Reviewed by
Daryl P Domning
Awaited with curiosity since initial news reports of this meeting, this book proves doubly disappointing. It is regrettable that top Catholic leaders seem drawn toward "intelligent design" (ID); but it is disturbing that they seem not even aware of relevant and better thinking within their own church.

As a former theology professor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) has for the last thirty years met annually with his former students to discuss current theology and philosophy. This book, on the timely topic of evolution, documents for the first time the discussions of such a session, the one held September 1–3, 2006. It was first published in German as Schöpfung und Evolution (Augsburg: Sankt Ulrich Verlag, 2007), as noted in RNCSE 2006 Nov/Dec; 26 (6): 8.

This well-produced hardback English edition (from a right-wing Catholic publisher) merits attention not only for showcasing the views of the present pope, but even more those of Vienna's Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who made a stir with an essay favorable to ID in The New York Times (2005 Jul 7). Schönborn seems to have dominated the 2006 discussion, and his opinions, more outspoken than the Pope's own, may reveal more about the thinking in Vatican inner circles.

The book comprises a foreword by Schönborn, papers read by four participants (including Schönborn), an edited and augmented transcript of the ensuing discussion, and an appended essay by theologian Siegfried Wiedenhofer, plus biographical and bibliographical notes. Its philosophical arguments are not always easy to follow, but deserve close attention because they constitute a version of ID now deeply entrenched at the top of one of the world's most influential organizations.

About 70% of Schönborn's foreword consists of quotes from earlier writings on evolution by Ratzinger, the Catholic Church's longtime monitor of orthodoxy. This anthology of the Pope's views is welcome, especially since he contributed relatively little to the discussion recorded later in the book. As quoted by Schönborn, he expresses himself in moderate, nuanced, even progressive-sounding terms, apparently embracing a mainstream view of theistic evolution, and rejecting philosophical materialism that erroneously claims to be the only view compatible with science: "The theory of evolution does not invalidate the faith, nor does it corroborate it" (p 16). Ratzinger's quarrel is only with evolutionism as a materialistic worldview and universal explanation of reality.

Or so it seems at first glance. But he also reveals in passing a doubt about macroevolution (p 19), and then adopts the conventional false dichotomy between the world as a "meaningless" product of "chance and necessity" and as the product of "the creative power of [divine] reason" (p 20). As becomes clearer later on, he and his friends have not taken into account the insight of contemporary Christian "evolutionary theology" (see Domning 2002a, 2002b) that divine reason can employ that very "chance and necessity" (such as Darwinian selection) in order to create.

The first and longest formal paper, by chemist and Austrian Academy of Sciences president Peter Schuster, is an able and uncompromising exposition of "the state of the art in the theory of evolution." Schuster stoutly defends the efficacy of Darwinian processes. He reviews with clear diagrams the basics of molecular genetics; explains the phenomenon of self-organization as illustrated by cellular automata; and details the most important steps in macroevolution, citing Maynard Smith and Szathmáry (1995), whom Ratzinger had earlier misinterpreted. He emphasizes the "tinkering" aspect of evolution, and the important role of gene duplication. He concludes that evolution "goes on according to natural laws and needs no external intervention. Furthermore, the natural scientist at present is making not one single observation that could be explained compellingly only by the interference of a supernatural being, nor is one necessary for the extrapolation of our present knowledge to the interpretation of events in the past" (p 58). Only in regard to the narrow range of cosmological constants and planetary environments that is permissive of life does Schuster concede that there might "be room for a bridge ... between theology and natural science" (p 59). This sophisticated briefing paper could have fruitfully served as the basis for the whole discussion; too often it met instead with skepticism and incomprehension.

Next, philosopher Robert Spaemann argues that integration of the natural sciences with the humanities is still premature, but that only the idea of creation unifies these two worldviews — science and our human self-understanding. That is, the same divine will accounts for both evolution and evolution's producing an intelligent being who acknowledges his Creator. Science can explain in Darwinian terms how humans and other species have evolved, but this does not exclude a separate explanation for the true, the good, and the beautiful.

The third essay is by Paul Erbrich, a Jesuit priest and professor emeritus of natural philosophy. Like the others, he concedes the fact of evolution and the efficacy of "Darwin's mechanism of chance and natural selection" (p 71; emphasis in original) as a "mechanism of optimization"; but with the reservation that this "presupposes something to be optimized": namely, "an innovation that must have come about in some other way" (p 72). For Erbrich, "evolution as a whole is goal-oriented .... For phylogenesis is an orthogenesis, a development toward a higher level ... an ever greater emancipation from the constraints of the environment, certainly not for every species of living thing, but for the front-runners in the evolutionary crowd" (p 74). He cites the emancipation of amphibians and reptiles from water, amniotes' evolution of climbing and flight, adaptation to cold climates, and human intelligence. These advances he credits to true teleology, "purposefulness in the living things that are ... selected", which makes competition possible — not a mere teleonomy or mechanical simulation of goal-seeking (p 72–3). Because "if there is purposefulness, then there is no more compulsion [for scientists] to keep appealing to chance" (p 76).

Erbrich infers a "leap" (from inorganic to organic) that he thinks evolutionists try to gloss over with the idea of self-organization. He doubts that "[a] really original totality could ... come into being through composition": for example, fusion of egg and sperm "would not be the origin and first cause of a living thing," but only a prerequisite for "a new foundation in a radical sense," that is, a creation of God (p 83). Evolutionary theology would allow instead that "composition" is simply a way that creatures participate in God's creative act — no longer a shocking notion to many Christians, but one not easily grasped by this traditionalist strain of philosophy.

In his own essay, Schönborn takes up the same theme, with quotes from Isaac Newton attacking Cartesian materialism and deism and arguing for God's active governance of the world as inferred from "the appearances of things." For Schönborn, Newton's arguments contain in a nutshell "the essential questions that are still at issue today ... between science, reason, and faith" — particularly in Schönborn's New York Times article (p 86). Unfortunately, he disregards the post-Newtonian answers to these questions; so what follows lags disappointingly behind where today's discussion ought to be.

Schönborn sets out "to release Darwin from Darwinism, free him from the ideological fetters" of a materialist worldview (p 90), which he says can only be done on the level of metaphysics. He explicitly disavows the "creationist" position, which is "based on an understanding of the Bible that the Catholic Church does not share" (p 91). "The possibility that the Creator also makes use of the instrument of evolution is admissible for the Catholic faith." He rejects Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria," insisting there must be "intersections" between theology and science, though "not every variation on the theory of evolution is consistent with faith in creation" (p 92). So far, so good: his objection is to atheistic evolutionism à la Dawkins, and I would agree.

But then he quotes with approval the view that origin of life from "blind matter ... is incompatible with the Christian doctrine of creation," and argues that the strictly methodological materialism of science "cannot do justice to the whole of reality" because, as an intellectual act, it "presupposes reason, will, and freedom" (p 93). Of course, a methodological (rather than a philosophical) materialist would not claim that science can address the whole of reality. But in asserting that intellectual acts "cannot be the effect of forces that are of a purely material sort" (p 94–5), the cardinal reveals how deeply his thought, like much Christian philosophy, is tainted by the Gnostic heresy — which denies that anything good, let alone spiritual, can come from mere matter.

Schönborn affirms that there is "purpose" throughout nature, but at the cost of denying any real independence of internal natural laws (which are really the workings of an externally imposed divine design). He sees Aristotelian "substantial forms" as the underlying reality of things (for example, species), and strongly hints that it is the business of science today, as in Newton's time, "to read God's traces in creation" (p 100–2). These views are needlessly at odds with today's understanding of evolution and science in general.

Schönborn has plainly learned his biology from creationist sources. He parrots the canards that "the 'missing links' ... simply do not exist"; reptiles could not have been rebuilt into birds by "innumerable small mutations"; "survival of the fittest" is problematic because survival is often a matter of luck; and therefore acceptance of evolution must be dictated by ideology (p 103). Only because he has no good explanation of suffering, and wants to spare God the blame for it, does he concede that "we should not be over-hasty about trying to point out 'intelligent design' everywhere" (p 105). But his commitment to a version of ID is clear.

The ensuing discussion consists largely of Schuster's answering objections to his account of biology, and rebutting views such as those of Erbrich about "leaps" and "goal-oriented activity" (p 144–52). One response by him is an apt summation: "people look for gaps in the science so as to hide in them subjective things that are inaccessible to natural science" (p 131).

When the Pope finally joins the discussion, he betrays a surprisingly weak grasp of how science works: "to a great extent the theory of evolution cannot be proved experimentally"; it "is still not a complete, scientifically verified theory" (p 162). Yet he also acknowledges that disorder and "the terrible element in nature" (for which he admits he has no philosophical solution) are problems for the notion of design (p 173). He gives the impression of being slightly less committed to the ID critique than Schönborn, and more open to modern theistic evolution if properly presented; or he may just be more guarded in his speech.

These critics of Darwin simply repeat the philosophy they were taught: a textbook of their time (Phillips 1948, ch 18) embodies the views and even the polemical tone adopted by Schönborn. Strikingly, they consider only the polar alternatives of materialism and divine intervention (today's ID) — altogether ignoring noninterventionist theistic evolution with its concept of a truly autonomous, "purposeless" creation that nonetheless accomplishes the purposes of its Creator. This is an idea that, in these minds trained in Scholastic philosophy, simply does not compute.

No new ground was broken at Castel Gandolfo. Ratzinger, Schönborn, and the other exponents of the Church's traditional philosophy are the rear guard, not the vanguard, of Catholic evolutionary thinking. Among these prelates and their conservative followers, the ancient Aristotelian/ Scholastic notion of unchanging "essences" of things is still in vogue, and almost precludes a grasp of the evolutionary paradigm. The term "emergent properties" appears nowhere in this book, nor do contemporary Catholic evolutionary theologians such as John Haught and Denis Edwards (see Domning 2002a). Seemingly unaware of other forms of theistic evolution, the Pope's associates are pushed toward ID because the pro-evolution side is dominated by atheists like Richard Dawkins. This is understandable, but tragic, because theologians in their own church offer better solutions to these problems than the ones they learned in school, or borrow from the relatively alien ID movement.
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