Cardinal Schönborn and the Theistic Evolution Debate

Peter Wilders

Quite a furor has erupted of late after scientists began protesting Austrian Cardinal Schönborn’s July 7, 2005 article in the New York Times on the question of evolution. Reuters posted a further statement on October 4 from the Cardinal tempering his original remarks but not retracting them.

In the original article, the Cardinal, a member of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, dissociated the Church from Darwinian evolution on account of its pure naturalism and denial of a divine cause. It should be remembered that the Cardinal was the lead editor of the official 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church. In his article he wrote that “Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true,” but that theories of “neo-Darwinian provenance which explicitly deny to divine providence any truly causal role in the development of life in the universe” cannot be true.

Cardinal Schönborn’s comments show his affiliation to the intelligent design movement, a controversial group with headquarters in the United States. In his article the cardinal says: “Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.” Intelligent design, as promoted by “The Discovery Institute” in Seattle, claims that there is a threshold of complexity in living organisms which must be present for the system to operate. This specific complexity cannot be built up by a slow process of evolution and is, therefore, proof positive of intelligent design. Catholic Professor Michael Behe professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and member of the Discovery Institute compares complex biological phenomena like blood clotting to a mousetrap: Take away any one piece – the spring, the baseboard, the metal piece that snags the mouse – and the mousetrap stops being able to catch mice.

However, contrary to the claims of several evolutionist scientists, the Cardinal is not distancing the Church from evolution. By insisting upon the acknowledgment of divine causality in the production of life he is adopting a “theistic evolutionist” position.  The other position is “naturalistic evolution”, their popular definitions are:

1. Naturalistic evolutionism

Evolution is a general term including both cosmological and biological evolution. It teaches that a primeval explosion (big bang) of elementary particles caused the formation of gases which developed into stars and planets. At least one planet developed the conditions for life, and by a process of chemical and molecular evolution single celled living matter transformed into multi-celled plants and animals and eventually man. The mechanisms for naturalistic evolution are random chance, natural selection and mutation.

2. Theistic evolutionism

Theistic evolutionism adheres to the same process as naturalistic evolutionism, the only difference being that the process was somehow programmed by God.

The traditional Catholic doctrine of creation holds that God created all of the different kinds of creatures ex nihilo during a very brief creation period several thousand years ago.  Both naturalistic and theistic evolutionary systems require enormous periods of time. They respect the Big Bang, the geological time-scale and the fossil record as a relic of long ages. For this reason students holding to theistic evolution can be assimilated into the earth science classes at school without disclosing their belief in divine causality. They therefore have much in common with natural or atheistic evolutionists. Those who believe in ex nihilo creation and a short earth history have nothing in common with any of the three systems.

In his article, Cardinal Schonborn merely expressed the belief of many modern Catholic theologians in theistic evolutionism and in the claim by many scientists—especially the members of the Pontifical Academy of Science—that evolution is a fact. Apparently unknown to the hierarchy, a growing number of scientists are either admitting that evolution is no more than a hypothesis or are abandoning it entirely because of the patently evident lack of proof. As long ago as 1985 geneticist Michael Denton pointed out the absence of evidence for the theory in his book Evolution: A Theory In Crisis (Burnett Books Limited, 1985).

Ironically, when the first supposed concrete evidence for evolution was being acclaimed by scientists in the nineteenth century, Catholic theologians were amongst the first to take it on board.  Claims by geologists that the earth’s sedimentary rocks were immensely old and that the fossils in them showed an evolutionary development convinced clerics such as Fr. Lagrange pioneer of the prestigious L’Ecole Biblique de Jérusalem. He was eminently well placed to influence schools, seminaries and convents throughout the Church. Curiously, there is no indication that anyone within the Church demanded proof of the data that was being used to support millions of years of evolution so as to overturn nineteen centuries of her teaching on creation. Although Fr. Lagrange’s writings on tranformism were not accepted by Pius X, they were read avidly by intellectuals of the time. It is clear from such documents as the 1893 “Theological study of the Constitutions of Vatican I” by Fr. Vacant, doctor of theology, Honorary Canon and Professor at the Grand Séminaire de Nancy that every effort was being made to reconcile evolution theory with magisterial teaching. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the theory started to penetrate the Catholic education system. Today the penetration is complete.

However, there is growing unease amongst God-believing Catholic and non-Catholic scientists regarding the scientific community’s declared belief that the contents of the entire universe originated by the laws of nature.  Many are asking whether such belief can be squared with Church teaching.  Cardinal Schönborn is courageous and clear-headed enough to say that it doesn’t.  Indeed, it is one thing to explain observable phenomena by natural laws—that is the job of natural science.  But it is quite another thing to try to explain the singularities of the origin of things under circumstances to which there were no human witnesses. Such explanations are pure speculation and, by definition, unscientific.  On the other hand, experimental science has contradicted the very principles upon which the evolutionistic explanations of origins are founded.  For example, the latest experimental research in sedimentology published by the Russian Academy of Sciences in its journal Lithological and Mineral Resources (2002 and 204) has shown that sedimentary rock strata do not require millions of years to form. They can form very quickly, in a matter of weeks or even days.

Scientists, philosophers and theologians from the recently formed Catholic organization, the international Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation, have been studying the origins controversy intensively and have concluded unequivocally that there is no scientific proof for evolution.  On the contrary, the persistent rumor—disseminated principally through the popular media—that evolution is a fact draws its support from a large group of naturalist scientists who wish to exclude any theory invoking a supernatural cause. Two of the best-known examples are Richard Dawkins, biologist and evolutionary theorist, at Oxford, and leading American evolutionary biologist, Richard Lewontin. The latter writes:

we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concept that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door” (“Billions and Billions of Demons,” The New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997, pp. 28, 31).

From the perspective of magisterial teaching, however, the position is surprisingly different. “I believe in God, the Father the Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible” These opening words of the Nicene Creed signified to the Church Fathers that God created all of the different kinds of creatures during a very brief creation period several thousand years before the Incarnation of Christ.   This understanding was reinforced by the post-Nicene Fathers and Doctors of the Church during the next several centuries and elaborated upon by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Kolbe has just completed a report showing the theological reasons why the 1215 Council’s infallible definition of Creation precludes all possibility of evolution. Objections to this conclusion are voiced because of the belief that no one has ever used the Lateran IV doctrine to oppose evolution. In its report entitled SIMUL the Kolbe Center report shows that this was not so: “The vigorous debate in the context of Lateran IV and Vatican I dogmas which took place between leading theologians towards the end of the nineteenth century regarding long ages and its hand-maiden evolution theory has been forgotten”.  The result of that debate as documented by the Kolbe Center study was that the traditional understanding of creation theology hinged upon a single word. That word was the Latin word SIMUL. In their desire to accommodate a geological hypothesis, theologians of the time discovered a fourth century translation of the word which they declared allowed the Lateran IV dogma to include long ages and, therefore, evolution. Research by Kolbe has shown that the fourth century word was not only a mistranslation but was quite irrelevant to the Lateran IV dogma. In the light of this new evidence it is clear that the Church categorically excluded evolution over seven centuries ago. The Kolbe report was delivered at the CEP organization conference on October 16, 2005 at Angers in France.