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Scientists Seek Vatican Clarification on Evolution


Recent comments by two Roman Catholic cardinals have some scientists wondering if the church is changing its position on evolution. For more than a half century, the Vatican has said evolution is compatible with Catholic theology. But now what was thought to be settled doctrine doesn't seem so settled. NPR's Jason DeRose has more.

JASON DeROSE reporting:

The confusion arose after an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times earlier this month by Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schonborn headlined Finding Design in Nature. He wrote that evolution, understood as an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection, is not compatible with Catholic theology. The article went on to say any system that denies evidence of design in biology isn't science but, rather, ideology.

Professor KENNETH MILLER (Professor of Biology, Brown University): I have to say I was absolutely stunned.

DeROSE: Kenneth Miller is a practicing Catholic and a professor of biology at Brown University.

Prof. MILLER: I and a great many other scientists who have been vocal in our support of evolution were deeply disappointed at what we saw as a public reversal of position of the Catholic Church with respect to the compatibility of science and religion.

DeROSE: Miller is one of three American scientists who've written to Pope Benedict XVI asking him to reaffirm the church's stance on evolution. They sent off their letter just days after Washington, DC, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick also waded into the primordial soup of evolution and random selection when asked during an appearance at the National Press Club about Cardinal Schonborn's essay.

Cardinal THEODORE McCARRICK (Washington, DC): We cannot say this is all an accident. This is all something that happened by coincidence. That, I cannot accept. That, the church cannot accept.

DeROSE: Two important Catholic documents have spoken on the relationship between science and religion. Pope Pius XII's 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, which says evolutionary theory should be taken seriously, and a 1996 letter by John Paul II which stresses the importance of scientific inquiry. While scientists fear a dramatic change in policy, one theologian sees the cardinals' recent comments as more of a subtle shift.

Mr. MICHAEL HOONHOUT (Catholic University): The way that the theory of evolution has been interpreted beyond the strict confines of science itself, beyond the confines of biology, is where the controversy lies.

DeROSE: Michael Hoonhout teaches theology at Catholic University. He says what Cardinals Schonborn and McCarrick are taking to task is the degree of hubris found among some evolutionary biologists.

Mr. HOONHOUT: Science doesn't do itself any favors when you have certain individuals within science who promote evolutionary theory as a worldview that denies any meaning other than biological purpose to existence, who see evolution as the intellectual justification for atheism.

DeROSE: And, Hoonhout says, the cardinals' remarks could be related to the concern Pope Benedict XVI has raised about creeping relativism in the culture. But evolutionary biology has turned out to be a gift to the church more than a challenge, according to Georgetown University theologian John Haught.

Mr. JOHN HAUGHT (Theologian, Georgetown University): Because what evolution has forced theology to do is dig more deeply, I think, into its understanding of God.

DeROSE: Haught, author of the books "God After Darwin" and "Deeper than Darwin," says Schonborn and McCarrick's concerns about random selection and chance are unfounded.

Mr. HAUGHT: A God who really wants the world to become something distinct from God is going to give a kind of liberal leave to that world to meander around, to experiment with various possibilities, to become itself in the presence of God.

DeROSE: But Haught is more deeply concerned about the possibility the cardinals' comments may hint at a move towards an acceptance of intelligent design, the idea that evolution alone cannot explain the complexity of life and must be guided by some intelligent force. And Haught says that's a concept that doesn't square with Catholic teaching.

Mr. HAUGHT: The idea that God is primarily a designer is entirely too stiff and dead and lifeless a concept to represent the biblical understanding of God.

DeROSE: The idea that intelligent design could be making inroads into Catholicism isn't just worrisome to theologians. Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller says it's troublesome to scientists as well.

Prof. MILLER: As both a scientist and a Catholic, I would be deeply disappointed if intelligent design were to be adopted as some sort of official teaching on the part of the Catholic Church. I think that would be a disservice to science and a disservice to religion. And it would break with long-standing Catholic tradition of accepting scientific accounts of the workings of the natural world.

DeROSE: The Vatican so far isn't commenting on Cardinal Schonborn or Cardinal McCarrick's remarks and hasn't yet replied to the scientists' letters seeking clarification.

Jason DeRose, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.
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