Vatican sees “urgent” need to review Darwin and evolution

September 10, 2008

Darwin dolls for sale at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, 15 Nov 2005/Shannon StapletonThe Vatican famously “thinks in centuries”. It’s useful to remember that when reading the announcement from its Pontifical Council for Culture about a conference it plans to hold in Rome on Darwin and evolution. Pope Benedict has shown a keen interest in the issue and debated it in a closed session with some former doctoral students in 2006. The Vatican now wants to hold a week-long public conference next March entitled “Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories — A Critical Evaluation 150 years after the The Origin of Species“.

The announcement (translated from the original and more florid Italian) said: “150 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is difficult to find a scientific sphere entirely free from direct or indirect influences of the theory of evolution. Especially in recent decades, this theory has experienced so many changes, and such significant changes, that a critical reflection is very urgent. Moreover, there are obvious philosophical and theological problems raised by the theory of evolution that cause many emotional and even ideological reactions.”

STOQ logoThe conference from March 3 to 7 will be organised by the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and the University of Notre Dame in the United States, as part of a wider project called STOQ (Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest). It will be attended, the announcement declared with a flourish, by “luminaries of science and famous philosophers and theologians”.

Some defenders of “intelligent design” might try to claim that this signals a Vatican rethink on evolution. Caveat emptor! After initially fighting Darwin, the Roman Catholic Church accepted evolution as a scientific theory while rejecting any materialist conclusion Darwinists might draw from it to reject the religious belief in God as the creator of the Hans Kueng’s Der Anfang aller Dingeuniverse. This puts Catholic teaching somewhere between the (often agnostic) Darwinists and the (often evangelical Protestant) anti-Darwinists.

Before concluding that the Vatican is shifting position, consider an interesting fact. The liberal Swiss theologian Hans Küng disagrees with some Church doctrines so much that he has been barred from teaching as a Catholic theologian since 1979. But he and Benedict agree on this issue (as he showed in his 2006 book Der Anfang aller Dinge — The Beginning of All Things — pictured right). In fact, as Küng told me after his meeting with Benedict in 2005, the pope urged him to speak out more frequently in public about the Catholic position on evolution.


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Pope John Paul II must be turning in his grave!!!

Posted by Jim | Report as abusive

I think it is about time “the church” recognizes science. I am surprised they don’t think the world is flat with as backward as some of their comments are over the years.

Posted by Ben | Report as abusive

This conference should be interesting. I hope they don’t take a step backwards

Posted by Russ | Report as abusive

Darwin killed the God idea with his brilliant natural selection idea. The pope and other religious leaders understand the religious implications of evolution and that’s why it has their attention. Darwin removed the most important gap that used to belong to the god-of-the-gaps. Thanks to Darwin and thanks to thousands of scientists who came after Darwin, it’s fair to say God is an obsolete idea that was useful in the Dark Ages but is no longer necessary in the 21st century.

Posted by bobxxxx | Report as abusive

Nonsense Bob, theistic evolution is the acceptance of the mechanics of evolution in the development of life. It is essentially a hope and a promise (through the revelation of scripture) that we exist for a purpose and that purpose is good.

This differs from intelligent design, which makes claims that a intelligence is required to direct evolution.

Now since you are disparaging the so-called “dark ages” you should know that young earth creationism is a modern stupidity, not an intellectual position of the medieval world. Augustine for example warned against interpreting the bible literally where it conflicted with established natural philosophy to avoid opening up the scriptures to ridicule.

The intelligent design argument is a twisted version of one of the arguments of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas (following Aristotle because scholasticism was a textual commentary intellectual tradition) argued that life seems to have an end or a goal (telos). Each species seems to have a task in the larger ecosystem, and each seem to be designed to have the features to carry out that task. Thomas Aquinas observed that items designed for a specific task usualy have a creator, thus we should assume that everything else does as well.

Darwin of course shattered this argument with the theory of natural selection. (He didn’t shatter the God idea, because there are other reasons to worship God besides avoiding learning basic high school biology). What he did show however is that natural selection provides a mechanism for selecting traits that suitable for a species to change and adapt. An individual animal can indeed be suited for filling an ecological niche, but it didn’t need to be specifically willed by a designer to do so.

I am quite confident that if Thomas Aquinas had access to the discovery of evolution he would have never made that arguement. I have this confidence because they also followed Aristotle in the conception of God as the unmoved mover and the uncaused cause, and a being of absolute infinity. This means that God’s will is expressed in a manner that is completely unlike the way a material object would act. God is of course the cause of all things as the alpha and the omega, but simply saying “God did it” doesn’t actually explain anything about natural philosophy. God works through secondary natural causes. This observation is one of the triumphs of the scholastic movement, and paved the way for the scientific revolution.

The irony is that intelligent design theorists are actually bad scholastics as well as bad scientists. They are trying to insert “god did it” rather than looking at the evidence of the secondary (or material) causes. This would have been akin to a fallacy in most scholastic circles.

Posted by Terry | Report as abusive

I am surprised that some think that the Church is “Anti-Science”

Which is not true. Many monks and Priests were scientists including the Jesuit ORder.

Also this book should be helpful called “How the Catholic Church built Western Civilization” written by a History professor.

Also Ben can you provide some back up on “some Comments” that you said the Church made over the years.

The Catholic Faith always rely on Faith and reason because both balance each other.

MEntioned by St. Augustine about when does human life begin? or The writings of St. Thomas Aquinas “Summa Contra Gentiles”

Posted by MArk | Report as abusive