National Catholic Register


Lack of Intelligence on Design


April 30-May 6, 2006 Issue | Posted 5/1/06 at 11:00 AM


Some months ago Cardinal Christoph Schönborn got in trouble for saying, in effect, that the Church had not signed off on the entire Darwinian project. It turns out that even though the Church believes (as it always has) that grace perfects nature — and Catholics can therefore suppose that God may have used creatures in the creation of the bodies of the first humans (as John Paul II had said in 1996 and Pius XII had said before him and Augustine had said before him) — the Church nonetheless did not and could never endorse a purely materialistic account of the origins of the human person.

At the end of the day, we Catholics still believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. We still believe that man is created by God in his image and likeness and is not (as one classic definition of evolution claims), “the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”

One would think that a cardinal would not surprise people by affirming that God created the world and us. But there you’d be wrong. Various media voices were lifted in horror to ask, in the words of the National Center for Science Education, “Is the Church Pulling Back on Evolution?”

We were informed by John Haught, a professor of theology at Georgetown, that “John Paul’s statement [on evolution in 1996] was one of strength and support for science, whereas I think the statement by Cardinal Schönborn was fearful and defensive.”

Dark muttering and whispers were heard in the press. A cardinal of the Catholic Church seemed to be suggesting there was something to (cue sinister music) intelligent design.

What’s that? Intelligent design is the assertion that evidence supports the conclusion that the universe in general and life in particular are deliberately designed by some sort of intelligent agent. If this sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it’s basically the same view of the natural world that St. Paul had: “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

Perhaps because of this, it’s very common for intelligent design critics to charge intelligent design with trying to pervert science with a religious agenda. In an extremely common bit of rhetorical sleight of hand, intelligent-design theory was derided by columnist John Derbyshire as “the theory that life on earth has developed by a series of supernatural miracles performed by the God of the Christian Bible, for which it is pointless to seek any naturalistic explanation.”

But neither St. Paul nor intelligent-design advocates nor Cardinal Schönborn argue that one needs to be a Christian, or even to have read the Bible, to infer the existence of God from nature. All three insist, along with the Catholic Church and St. Thomas Aquinas, that God’s existence is not a matter of supernatural revelation at all, but of common sense. That’s why the First Vatican Council tells us God “can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason” (Dei Filius).

Yet, when a cardinal says exactly this, he is condemned as “fearful and defensive.” Why?

The longer I listen to the debate, the more I do detect a real note of fearful defensiveness — from the partisans on the ramparts of the citadel of evolutionary orthodoxy.

Take the Derbyshire quote. The simple fact is, intelligent-design proponents make no appeals to “the God of the Christian Bible.” So why say they do? Because it’s a cheap way to associate intelligent-design proponents with six-day creationists, flat earthers, snake handlers and geocentrists as cranks, quacks and religious fanatics.

If that fails, there’s always the “Shut Up Strategy.” Don’t underestimate this relic from the days of the Soviet press. The Columbia Journalism Review, for instance, recently informed us in a piece called “Undoing Darwin” that the obligation of editors is to simply ignore advocates of intelligent design since they are all religious kooks and nobody cares what they think anyway. “True journalism,” we are informed, is journalism that only tells readers we are a glorious accident.

Unfortunately, this Soviet technique is not workable anymore, even for those who wish to sanitize the news for your protection. The Internet and other alternative media have annihilated the ability of the mainstream media to be the gatekeepers of “what you should be thinking about.” So the fearful guys on the citadel must shout louder and claim that intelligent design “charlatans” want to damage science education in this country by “banning” the teaching of evolution.

This, again, is patently false. The basic request of the intelligent-design advocates is not that public schools cease to teach evolution; it is that schools “teach the controversy.” Indeed, most intelligent-design advocates don’t even deny that natural selection has much merit to it.

Mark Shea is senior content editor