Pope prepares to embrace theory of intelligent design
John Hooper in Rome
Monday August 28, 2006
Philosophers, scientists and other intellectuals close to Pope Benedict will gather at his summer palace outside Rome this week for intensive discussions that could herald a fundamental shift in the Vatican's view of evolution.
There have been growing signs the Pope is considering aligning his church more closely with the theory of "intelligent design" taught in some US states. Advocates of the theory argue that some features of the universe and nature are so complex that they must have been designed by a higher intelligence. Critics say it is a disguise for creationism.
A prominent anti-evolutionist and Roman Catholic scientist, Dominique Tassot, told the US National Catholic Reporter that this week's meeting was "to give a broader extension to the debate. Even if [the Pope] knows where he wants to go, and I believe he does, it will take time. Most Catholic intellectuals today are convinced that evolution is obviously true because most scientists say so." In 1996, in what was seen as a capitulation to scientific orthodoxy, John Paul II said Darwin's theories were "more than a hypothesis".
Last week, at a conference in Rimini, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Austria revealed that evolution and creation had been chosen as the subjects for this year's meeting of the Pope's Schülerkreis - a group consisting mainly of his former doctoral students that has been gathering annually since the late 1970s. Apart from Cardinal Schönborn, participants at the closed-door meeting will include the president of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Peter Schuster; the conservative ethical philosopher Robert Spaemann; and Paul Elbrich, professor of philosophy at Munich University.
Last December, a US court sparked controversy when it ruled that intelligent design should not be taught alongside evolution theory. Cardinal Schönborn said: "The debate of recent months has undoubtedly motivated the Holy Father's choice." But he added that in the 1960s the then Joseph Ratzinger had "underlined emphatically the need to return to the topic of creation".
The Pope also raised the issue in the inaugural sermon of his pontificate, saying: "We are not the accidental product, without meaning, of evolution."
A few months later, Cardinal Schönborn, who is regarded as being close to Benedict, wrote an article for the New York Times backing moves to teach ID. He was attacked by Father George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory. On August 19, Fr Coyne was replaced without explanation. Vatican sources said the Pope's former astronomer, who has cancer, had asked to be replaced.