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 design.

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 "God's dominion".

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 for himself.