Evolution dispute now set to split Catholic hierarchy
By Michael McCarthy
Published: 05 August 2005
The conflict at the highest level of the Catholic Church about the
truth of Darwin's theory of evolution breaks out publicly today.
Recent comments by a cardinal close to the Pope that random evolution
was incompatible with belief in "God the creator" are
fiercely assailed in today's edition of The Tablet, Britain's Catholic
weekly, by the Vatican astronomer.
In an article with explosive implications for the Church, Father
George Coyne, an American Jesuit priest who is a distinguished
astronomy professor, attacks head-on the views of Cardinal Christoph
Shönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna and a long-standing associate of
Joseph Ratzinger, the German cardinal who was elected as Pope Benedict
XVI in April.
In an article entitled "Finding Design in Nature" in The New
York Times last month, Cardinal Shönborn reignited the row between
the Church and science by frankly denying that "neo-Darwinian
dogma" was compatible with Christian faith. He wrote:
"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."
His views have provoked alarm among many scientists and liberal
Catholics around the world, who thought that Catholicism had come to
terms with evolution, and who now see the spectre of creationism
rising in the Catholic Church as it has risen among fundamentalist
Protestants in the US.
Only this week President George Bush said that the theory of
"intelligent design" - a version of creationism, which
disputes the idea that natural selection alone can explain the
complexity of life - should be taught in America schools alongside the
theory of evolution.
Cardinal Shönborn is understood to have been urged to write the
article, and to have been helped to place it in The New York Times, by
Mark Ryland, a leading figure in the Discovery Institute, a
conservative American Christian think-tank that promotes intelligent
The cardinal's views are publicly and robustly rejected by Fr Coyne,
director of the Vatican Observatory, which is a scientific institution
sponsored by the Holy See.
Fr Coyne, who is 72, has been in charge of the observatory since 1978;
he spends half the year in Tucson, Arizona, as a professor in the
University of Arizona astronomy department, where he is still actively
involved in research.
In The Tablet he says that Cardinal Shönborn's article has
"darkened the waters" of the rapport between Church and
science, and says - flatly contradicting the cardinal - that even a
world in which "life... has evolved through a process of random
genetic mutations and natural selection" is compatible with
For a Vatican official of such seniority openly to attack the views of
a cardinal on such a potentially explosive subject as evolution is
unprecedented. It also reveals a deep rift at the heart of the
Catholic Church's thinking. It is known that Fr Coyne wrote privately
to both Cardinal Shönborn and the Pope himself protesting against
The New York Times article soon after it was published last month. But
it is understood that so many scientists, especially Catholic
scientists, have since contacted him to express their disquiet, that
he felt he had to go public. He is believed to have cleared the
article with his Jesuit superiors.
The previous pope, John Paul II in 1996 declared to the Pontifical
Academy of Sciences that evolution was "no longer a mere
hypothesis". In his July article Cardinal Shönborn played down
this statement as "vague and unimportant". He points instead
to comments Pope John Paul gave during an audience in 1985, when he
spoke at length of the role of God the creator.
Fr Coyne attacks the cardinal's analysis and says that the Pope's
later statement was "epoch-making". He goes on: "Why
does there seem to be a persistent retreat in the Church from attempts
to establish a dialogue with the community of scientists?"
The key question behind the debate is the opinion of new Pope.
Some fear that the cardinal would never have published such a
controversial article in such a prominent medium without his personal
approval. But nothing will be known for certain until the Pope speaks