Church and Science: Catholic Official Suggests Retreat On Evolution

It took the Catholic Church more than 300 years to apologize for imprisoning the great 17th Century astronomer Galileo Galilei because his research confounded the church's teachings.

A recent opinion piece from a high-ranking cardinal shows church hierarchy may still be struggling with science.

In a July 7 column for The New York Times, Vienna Roman Catholic Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, argues that "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."

In an interview with the Times, following publication of his article, Schonborn maintained that students in all schools should be taught that evolution is just one of many theories.

Historically, the Catholic Church has been slow to accept science that it believes undermines its dogma. But until Schonborn's article, the leading voices of the church had sounded a positive and supportive note for modern biology and in particular evolution.

In a 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the late Pope John Paul II said, "New knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than hypothesis. 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 favor of this theory."

Cardinal Schonborn, in his Times column, dismissed the pope's address as "vague and unimportant."

The Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based group that promotes Intelligent Design (ID) celebrated the cardinal's column. As reported days later by the Times, the Discovery Institute's president had "urged" Schonborn to submit the column. The ID folks have never subjected their argument, that life is so complex that an intelligent entity had to have been involved, to the rigors of scientific study. Instead, they conduct a vigorous public relations campaign through newspaper columns, appearances before school boards and other forums.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has long maintained that ID is just another concoction of creationism or "creation science," which the Supreme Court has concluded cannot be taught alongside evolution in public school science courses. The federal courts have not banned the Bible's creation story from the public schools. Indeed, the creation stories of various cultures can be discussed in literature, world culture or history courses. But creationism is a religious belief and should not be taught as science.

Because of he high court's rulings on the matter, Religious Right organizations have sought ways around the rulings. Those groups believe evolution undermines their rigid interpretation of the Bible and must be discredited, especially to the nation's youth.

Schonborn's high-profile support of the notion that evolution is controversial within the science community is disingenuous. His argument that students all over the planet should be taught that other theories, particularly ID, should be taught harkens to the church's darker days.

Galileo's work that proffered the Earth is not the center of the universe with the sun rotating around it, ignited the ire of the Catholic Church. The church's Inquisition charged Galileo with heresy and put on him trial in 1632. He was threatened with torture and imprisonment and made to denounce his research.

The Catholic Church was wrong on science before. Is Schonborn's argument a signal that the church is headed in the wrong direction again? Let's hope not.