Darwin's Limits

Catholics believe that God created everything, and that creation contains evidence of meaningful design.

So what else is new? Just this: Stating these two points can stir up a whole lot of controversy.

It began with an opinion piece Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn published in The New York Times this past July 7. He noted that, ever since Pope John Paul II said, in 1996, that evolution was “more than just a hypothesis,” defenders of neo-Darwinian dogma have often “invoked the supposed acceptance — or at least acquiescence — of the Roman Catholic Church when they defend their theory as somehow compatible with Christian faith.”

They're wrong to do so, the cardinal wrote. A theory of evolution positing common ancestry might be true, he argued, “but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense — an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection — is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.”

The uproar was swift and surprisingly hot. Two days later, The Times opined — in almost wounded tones — that evolution was being abandoned by the Church, “which has long been regarded as an ally of the theory of evolution.” Schönborn, it fretted, “is now suggesting that belief in evolution as accepted by science today may be incompatible with Catholic faith.”

It is here, I think, that an old and significant problem was again highlighted: the popular notion that there is just one type of “evolution” and that is has been unanimously approved by the scientific community.

This, of course, is hardly the case. John Paul noted the diversity of scientific opinion in his 1996 speech. He said that, rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. This is because there are different explanations advanced by scientists regarding how physical — or biological — evolution may have transpired.

Granted, such matters can be complex and esoteric. But those non-specialists trying to make sense of the controversy didn't find much help in the mainstream media, which presented it yet another round of “Evolutionists vs. Creationists.” The intention seemed to be that, if Catholics question “evolution,” they will almost inevitably become science-denying fundamentalists who believe that God created everything in six 24-hour days.

Yet, as with evolution, there are many understandings of creationism. But, if you are a Christian (or Jew, Muslim), you believe in some type of creationism: You believe that God somehow did create all that exists. How he went about it is open to a wide range of speculation and scientific theories. But a theory of evolution that denies God and is completely materialistic in its philosophical basis is not compatible with Catholic doctrine. Is it that so hard to understand?

Apparently it is. So Cardinal Schönborn recently sought to clarity his original comments.

“Darwin pulled off quite a feat with his main work, and it remains one of the very great works of intellectual history,” he said. “I see no problem combining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, under one condition — that the limits of a scientific theory are respected.”

While the Church respects the limits of scientific theory, will science admit those limits exist? Time will tell how the answer to that question will evolve.

Carl E. Olson is editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.