There's been a fair amount of discussion of the opinion piece by Christoph Schönborn, the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Vienna, in the July 7 New York Times (linked above; also available in the July 8 International Herald Tribune). In this article, Cardinal Schönborn appears to be laying the ground for the new Pope to distance the Church from his predecessor's accommodating, though somewhat ambiguous, stance on evolution. Now that there's been a fair amount of comment on other blogs and my migraine has gone away, I thought I'd comment on the situation. Note that, since I'm not a Catholic, my reading of Church officials' statements is that of an outside.
3. ...I would like to remind you that the Magisterium of the Church has already made pronouncements on these matters...So, John Paul noted his predecessor's statement that evolution and the Church are not incompatible (essentially, I believe, he said that it was permissible for Catholics to work in evolutionary sciences). The two conditions that he cited were that evolution not be accepted as definitively proven and that no claim be made that the human soul arises merely from the material world -- that the creation part that God enters into is the creation of each person's soul.
In his Encyclical Humani generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII had already stated that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of several indisputable points...
4. ...the Encyclical Humani generis considered the doctrine of "evolutionism" a serious hypothesis, worthy of investigation and in-depth study... two methodological conditions: that this opinion should not be adopted as though it were a certain, proven doctrine and as though one could totally prescind from Revelation with regard to the questions it raises. He also spelled out the condition on which this opinion would be compatible with the Christian faith...
Today... It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favour of this theory...
5. The Church's Magisterium is directly concerned with the question of evolution, for it involves the conception of man... the human individual cannot be subordinated as a pure means or a pure instrument, either to the species or to society... St. Thomas observes that man's likeness to God resides especially in his speculative intellect... It is by virtue of his spiritual soul that the whole person possesses such a dignity even in his body. Pius XII stressed this essential point: if the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter the spiritual soul is immediately created by God...
Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person.
John Paul appears to relax Pius XII's statement on the unproven nature of evolution, noting the independent evidence for it from numerous fields. So, what he appears to be saying is that, if one accepts that mind is not produced solely as the result of the action of matter and that individuals' roles are not merely that of a cog in an evolutionary machine, then it is acceptable for Catholics to consider evolution to be a well-supported scientific theory. Since evolution makes no statement about the soul nor of the purpose of individual organisms, this presents a very accommodative stance on the part of the Church. My interpretation appears to be supported by this web page, written by Michael J. Ghedotti, an Associate Professor of Biology at Regis University (he also summarizes the relationship between evolution and a number of other religions).
Now we come to Cardinal Schönborn's op-ed piece.
EVER since 1996, when Pope John Paul II said that evolution (a term he did not define) was "more than just a hypothesis," defenders of neo-Darwinian dogma have often invoked the supposed acceptance - or at least acquiescence - of the Roman Catholic Church when they defend their theory as somehow compatible with Christian faith.He then goes on to minimize the importance of John Paul's 1996 address and pick other statements by him to support his thesis that evolution is guided by God. I think he is being very clear here, and is formally aligning the Church with the intelligent design crowd.
But this is not true. The Catholic Church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things.
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. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.
It is my understanding that, at some level, the official positions of the Church are considered eternal and infallible. Understandably, this makes Church leaders hesitant to make swift decisions or unambiguous statements. Even the cardinal's statement is not unambiguous. However, the gist of his writing is that while common descent may be true, the driving force behind evolution is not random, it is intelligent (and supernatural). This is much more restrictive than what John Paul said -- he place no such restriction on the mechanism of physical evolution -- and it certainly appears that he is laying the groundwork for Benedict XVI to, maybe not repudiate, but reinterpret the Church stance away from a focus on the special creation of the human soul and towards divine intervention in the ongoing processes of life. If you read this article, you may decide that this is mostly a subtle change of wording rather than a truly substantive change of policy.
A might be expected, the wackos at the "Intelligent Design" Institute are spinning this as a major victory. This is nonsense, and in fact ID's advocates' statements give the lie to their assertion that ID is science. If ID were science, then the Catholic Church's position would be irrelevant. The validity of scientific theories is not affected by the support of authorities or organizations -- it is supported only by evidence. By citing the op-ed piece as support for ID, these folks are in fact admitting that ID is a religious belief, and not science.