Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Cardinals in the Woodshed

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, caused quite a stir with his New York Times Op-Ed piece, "Finding Design in Nature", that many people took as endorsing the Intelligent Design movement. Personally, I had my doubts at the time that the Cardinal was doing anything more than forcefully restating the "theistic" aspect of "theistic evolution", a position held by the Church for some time. Theistic evolution is the proposition that God works "behind the scenes" to direct the process of evolution in ways undetectable to the scientific method.

But the Cardinal’s apparent friendship with Mark Ryland, a vice president of the Discovery Institute, the leading advocacy group for ID, and the fact that the article was submitted to The Times by a public relations firm that also represents the Discovery Institute, certainly added to the impression that the Cardinal might be signaling a change in Vatican policy. The fact that major ID apologists have expressed considerable animosity towards theistic evolution would reasonably lead people to think the Cardinal’s actions indicated the Church was moving away from that proposition. William Dembski, for example, has written, in his article "What every theologian should know about creation, evolution and design":

Design theorists are no friends of theistic evolution. As far as design theorists are concerned, theistic evolution is American evangelicalism's ill-conceived accommodation to Darwinism. What theistic evolution does is take the Darwinian picture of the biological world and baptize it, identifying this picture with the way God created life. When boiled down to its scientific content, theistic evolution is no different from atheistic evolution, accepting as it does only purposeless, naturalistic, material processes for the origin and development of life. [Emphasis in original]
However, in what appears to be a rather complete renunciation of ID, Schönborn has now said "I see no problem combining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, under one condition -- that the limits of a scientific theory are respected." He goes on to say that scientists overstep those limits if they conclude that evolution proves there was no creator. While some scientists may hold that as a philosophical position, few, if any, would pretend it was a scientific theory. It is, in fact, the ID advocates, such as Dembski, who have a problem recognizing the self-imposed limits of science. In any case, holding that evolution proves there was no creator rather takes the "theistic" out of "theistic evolution".

After an uproar among Catholic scientists, an apparently chastened Schönborn was reduced to saying "Maybe one did not express oneself clearly enough or thoughts were not clear enough". Either that, or Cardinal Schönborn may just have been the victim of friendship and a certain naïveté about American politics.

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