New York Times
January 19, 2006
ROME, Jan. 18 - The official Vatican newspaper published an article this week labeling as "correct" the recent decision by a judge in Pennsylvania that intelligent design should not be taught as a scientific alternative to evolution.
"If the model proposed by Darwin is not considered sufficient, one should search for another," Fiorenzo Facchini, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Bologna, wrote in the Jan. 16-17 edition of the paper, L'Osservatore Romano.
"But it is not correct from a methodological point of view to stray from the field of science while pretending to do science," he wrote, calling intelligent design unscientific. "It only creates confusion between the scientific plane and those that are philosophical or religious."
The article was not presented as an official church position. But in the subtle and purposely ambiguous world of the Vatican, the comments seemed notable, given their strength on a delicate question much debated under the new pope, Benedict XVI.
Advocates for teaching evolution hailed the article. "He is emphasizing that there is no need to see a contradiction between Catholic teachings and evolution," said Dr. Francisco J. Ayala, professor of biology at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Dominican priest. "Good for him."
But Robert L. Crowther, spokesman for the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle organization where researchers study and advocate intelligent design, dismissed the article and other recent statements from leading Catholics defending evolution. Drawing attention to them was little more than trying "to put words in the Vatican's mouth," he said.
L'Osservatore is the official newspaper of the Vatican and basically represents the Vatican's views. Not all its articles represent official church policy. At the same time, it would not be expected to present an article that dissented deeply from that policy.
In July, Christoph Schönborn, an Austrian cardinal close to Benedict, seemed to call into question what has been official church teaching for years: that Catholicism and evolution are not necessarily at odds.
In an Op-Ed article in The New York Times, he played down a 1996 letter in which Pope John Paul II called evolution "more than a hypothesis." 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."
There is no credible scientific challenge to the idea that evolution explains the diversity of life on earth, but advocates for intelligent design posit that biological life is so complex that it must have been designed by an intelligent source.
At least twice, Pope Benedict has signaled concern about the issue, prompting questions about his views. In April, when he was formally installed as pope, he said human beings "are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution." In November, he called the creation of the universe an "intelligent project," wording welcomed by supporters of intelligent design.
Many Roman Catholic scientists have criticized intelligent design, among them the Rev. George Coyne, a Jesuit who is director of the Vatican Observatory. "Intelligent design isn't science, even though it pretends to be," he said in November, as quoted by the Italian news service ANSA. "Intelligent design should be taught when religion or cultural history is taught, not science."
In October, Cardinal Schönborn sought to clarify his own remarks, saying he meant to question not the science of evolution but what he called evolutionism, an attempt to use the theory to refute the hand of God in creation.
"I see no difficulty in joining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, but under the prerequisite that the borders of scientific theory are maintained," he said in a speech.
To Dr. Kenneth R. Miller, a biology professor at Brown University and a Catholic, "That is my own view as well."
"As long as science does not pretend it can answer spiritual questions, it's O.K.," he said.
Dr. Miller, who testified for the plaintiffs in the recent suit in Dover, Pa., challenging the teaching of intelligent design, said Dr. Facchini, Father Coyne and Cardinal Schönborn (in his later statements) were confirming "traditional Catholic thinking." On Dec. 20, a federal district judge ruled that public schools could not present intelligent design as an alternative to evolutionary theory.
In the Osservatore article, Dr. Facchini wrote that scientists could not rule out a divine "superior design" to creation and the history of mankind. But he said Catholic thought did not preclude a design fashioned through an evolutionary process.
"God's project of creation can be carried out through secondary causes in the natural course of events, without having to think of miraculous interventions that point in this or that direction," he wrote.
Neither Dr. Facchini nor the editors of L'Osservatore could be reached for comment.
Lawrence M. Krauss, a professor of physics and astronomy at Case Western Reserve University, said Dr. Facchini's article was important because it made the case that people did not have to abandon religious faith in order to accept the theory of evolution.
"Science does not make that requirement," he said.