Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Murky Waters

In 1996, John Paul II surprised the world when he declared that evolution was "more than just a hypothesis" and that (I'm paraphrasing here) Catholics just had to deal with it. Given that it took the Catholic Church 400 years to offer a grudging apology for burning Giordano Bruno at the stake (for good measure, they also nailed Bruno's tongue to his jaw to prevent him from speaking), evolutionary biologists had no choice but to be pleasantly surprised.

However, about a month ago, Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna announced that things were about to change. In an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times titled "Finding Design in Nature", Cardinal Schönborn concluded that:

Now at the beginning of the 21st century, faced with scientific claims like neo-Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science, the Catholic Church will again defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of "chance and necessity" are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence.

Despite being unmitigatingly stupid and unoriginal, the article is significant given that Cardinal Schönborn was a student of the Pope formerly known as Cardinal Ratzinger. So is the Catholic Church really joining forces with its North American Evangelical brethren to fight "materialistic" science in all its splendour? Not so fast. Apparently, not everyone in the Church shares Schönborn's views. George Coyne, the Director of the Vatican Observatory and a distinguished astronomer, counter-attacked this week in the British Catholic newspaper The Tablet.

I found much to agree with in Coyne's essay:

There appears to exist a nagging fear in the Church that a universe [...] evolved through a process of random genetic mutations and natural selection, escapes God's dominion. That fear is groundless. Science is completely neutral with respect to philosophical or theological implications that may be drawn from its conclusions. Those conclusions are always subject to improvement. That is why science is such an interesting adventure and scientists curiously interesting creatures. But for someone to deny the best of today's science on religious grounds is to live in that groundless fear just mentioned.

He goes on to outline his view of how the universe evolves and concludes that "there are marvelous opportunities to renew one's faith in God's relationship to his creation". Coyne then tries to redefine creationism along more Augustinian / Aquinian lines. If he got rid of the God bit, then we would be in almost complete agreement.

[Via What's New]