The 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.”
The 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 universe. 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.