Evolution Takes Hit...from the Vatican
A cautionary development for both Catholics and non-Catholics who think the Church has no business "interfering" in "Science"

Christopher A. Ferrara

On July 9, 2005 The New York Times ran a major front-page story, above the fold and immediately adjacent to a story on the London bombings. The headline was “Leading Cardinal Redefines Church’s View on Evolution.” The story concerned the outcry over Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s Op-Ed article in the Times of July 7 in which the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education stated: “by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things… Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense -- an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection -- is not true [my emphasis here and elsewhere].”

This, of course, is not a “redefinition” of the Church’s teaching at all, but rather reflects what the Church has always taught about the creation of all things by God.  Not even John Paul II’s famous letter of 1996, describing evolution as “more than a hypothesis,” denied the evidence of design in nature. The Pope had merely suggested, however imprudently, that the Designer employed evolution as His tool.  Amazingly enough, Cardinal Schönborn dismissed the Pope’s letter as “vague and unimportant,” and focused instead on other pronouncements by John Paul II clearly affirming that the entire universe is the product of design.

One wishes the Cardinal had not said that evolution from common ancestry (guided by God) “might” be true, but even here doubt is cast on evolution in any form¾a significant retreat from John Paul’s “more than a hypothesis.”  And the Cardinal affirmed unequivocally that “the immanent design evident in nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of ‘chance and necessity’ are not scientific at all, but… an abdication of human intelligence.”

Now the readers of this newspaper will be well aware of traditionalist misgivings concerning the Cardinal, especially his failure to prevent the homosexual infiltration of Sankt Polten seminary in Austria, which had become so thoroughly “pink” that even the generally lax Vatican apparatus under John Paul II ordered it closed after an investigation.  It is widely believed that this scandal ended Schönborn’s prospects at the last conclave. Nevertheless, the Cardinal’s flat rejection of neo-Darwinism as simply false is major good news for the Church and the cause of truth.

Predictably enough, the Op-Ed piece prompted public hand wringing by liberal Catholic scientists who, like Catholic “libertarian” economists, bemoan the Church’s trampling on the sacred precinct of their “science.”  Like Catholic libertarians, Catholic evolutionists objected to the Cardinal’s statements on the grounds that “science” must be “free” to conduct its inquiries as if God did not exist.  According to the Times, Dr. Kenneth R. Miller, a Catholic biology professor at Brown University, objected that “while a cleric might want to make the case” that God “had something to do” with the process of evolution, a view he himself shares “with a number of biologists who also believe in God,” that view “does not encompass the idea that the workings of evolution required the direct intervention of a supernatural agent, as intelligent design would have it.”  That is, according to these Catholics, the “science” of evolution (like the “science” of economics) must not allow itself to be affected by the existence of God, even if a given scientist believes in God.

Miller told the Times that “he was already hearing from people worried about the cardinal’s essay. ‘Does the church (sic) really believe this?’  He [Miller] said he would not speculate.” Yes, the Church really does believe that the creation of all things required intelligent design by a Creator and direct divine intervention.  As a matter of fact, the Church, speaking infallibly at the First Vatican Council, anathematized anyone “who does not confess that the world and all things which are contained in it, both spiritual and material, as regards their whole substance, have been produced by God from nothing.”  The Catholic scientist who will not confess this, or who says that he will confess it only as a Catholic but not as a scientist, has departed from the Faith. But as Schönborn’s important declaration points out, such a Catholic has also departed from reason.  As the Cardinal put it: “Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science…. But in the modern era, the Catholic Church is in the odd position of standing in firm defense of reason as well. In the 19th century, the First Vatican Council taught a world newly enthralled by the ‘death of God’ that by the use of reason alone mankind could come to know the reality of the Uncaused Cause, the First Mover, the God of the philosophers.”

This refusal to follow reason to the acceptance of God’s existence as a scientific proposition, a datum of reason itself, is seen also in the thought of the “natural rights” wing of libertarianism. Following their liberal Jewish guru, the late Murray Rothbard (whose hold on living Catholics is rather mysterious), they insist that reason can recognize the existence of the “natural rights” Rothbard would arbitrarily adopt as universal social norms¾the right to private property and the “ownership” of one’s person (the latter “right” being non-existent)¾without reference to God or any divine endowment of these rights.  In this way, Rothbard argued, libertarian political philosophy can be founded on a natural rights theory acceptable to atheists and agnostics.  Ridiculous. The same human reason that leads us to observe natural rights and natural law necessarily leads us also to recognize the existence of the God who authored them. Rothbard’s “scholarship” attributing to St. Thomas and Suarez the “absolute independence of natural law from the question of the existence of God…”[1] was not only shoddy, it was nonsensical on its face, as it posited “laws” without a lawgiver.[2] Thus Rothbard extolled the exercise of reason only to a point, beyond which reason would conveniently be suspended to avoid any encounter with the dreaded God that even unaided reason will find. The dogmatic evolutionary “scientist” engages in the same intellectual deception.

But if man is assumed to be merely the product of evolution, it would be absurd to speak of his “nature” and thus his “natural rights,” for evolving man would be without a fixed, endowed nature in which immutable rights could inhere in perpetuity. This problem has led libertarian thinkers to indulge in such fatuous speculations as those of Friederich Hayek, the great disciple of Ludwig von Mises, who argued that natural rights ought to be determined by “an evolutionary process. Like precedent-shaped common law, these rights would presumably distill the wisdom of many individuals and generations, and not be limited to the rational powers of any one person or small group.”[3] In other words, rights would be determined by human consensus¾that is to say, there would be no natural rights at all. Rothbard might have rejected this evolutionary approach, but how in principle does one avoid it if one is willing to assume that man is the product of random evolutionary processes that take place without a Creator God?

Here we see the vanity of any attempt to build a coherent body of human knowledge that is not ultimately referred to, and unified by, the principle of divinity. As Christopher Dawson has observed, the “spirit of criticism and methodic doubt” in the great universities of medieval Europe was just that¾a mere method of inquiry whose final outcome was always subject to the demands of faith.  Thus reason, joined to faith, produced in these centers of medieval humanism “a great structure of thought in which every aspect of knowledge is coordinated and subordinated to the divine science¾Theologia¾the final transcendent end of every created intelligence.”[4] This structure of thought—human sciences coordinated and subordinated to the divine science—produced what Prof. John Rao has rightly called the “brilliant civilization” of the 12th and 13th centuries. Dawson, referring to the “far-reaching design of the medieval Papacy for the organization of Christian civilization” through the universities and new religious orders, called it “one of the most remarkable examples of the planning of culture on a large scale that history has ever seen.” The result was the greatest civilization in world history.

It seems that some present-day Catholics need to be reminded of the ultimate subjection of human sciences to the divine science.  Catholic biologists must recognize that there is no “law of natural selection” or any other “law” that could have created man without direct divine intervention. Catholic libertarians must recognize that there is no “law” of economics that overrides the dictates of justice written on man’s heart and enunciated by the Catholic Church.  As Pope Leo admonished the capitalists of his day concerning the moral duty to pay a just wage, no matter what “market forces” (whatever that means) supposedly dictate: “there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man.”[5] 

We traditionalists ought to applaud Cardinal Schönborn for his public insistence that the science of human origins cannot, without abandoning reason itself, operate independently of God, the Creator of all things.  The Times is clearly alarmed by this development, which accounts for the above-the-fold, headlined presentation of objections to the Cardinal’s remarks.  The Times observed, almost plaintively, that “many Catholic schools teach Darwinian evolution, in which accidental mutation and natural selection of the organisms drive the history of life,” but that Cardinal Schönborn has suggested¾horrors!¾that “students in Catholic schools, all schools, should be taught that evolution is just one of many theories.”

The Times considers this story as important as the London bombings because, like the rest of the Novus Ordo Seclorum enshrined in our dollar bills, it watches vigilantly for even the slightest return of the vigor of the teaching Church established by God Incarnate, which for the past forty years has allowed itself to be subjugated by the tyranny of a public opinion formed by the dogmas of liberalism, including the dogma that the Church has no business interfering in “science.” Is the Catholic Church preparing to attack the evolutionary creed?, they wonder and fret. Oh, how they fear her. For “the devils also believe and tremble” (James 2:19).


[1] Rothbard, Murray, The Ethics of Liberty (New York University Press: New York, 2002), p. 4.

[2] As Fr. Copleston observed, Suarez certainly taught that “God is, indeed, the author of the natural law; for he is Creator and He wills to bind men to observe the dictates of right reason.” History of Political Philosophy, Vol. III, p. 385. Without the divine will, natural law and natural rights as such cannot exist, for what obliges man to observe the “natural rights” of others if there is no God to impose the obligation?  The later Scholastics merely emphasized the intrinsic goodness of the natural law against the nominalism of William of Ockham, who held that the validity of the natural law depended solely on the arbitrary will of God, Who could, if He so willed, make murder a natural right.

[3] John B. Egger,  “UTILITARIANISM, NATURAL RIGHTS, AND EVOLUTION: Reconciling the Political Philosophies of Austrian Economists Mises, Rothbard, and Hayek,” (1996).

[4] Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, p. 194

[5] Rerum Novarum, n. 45.