By John Thavis
VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The intelligent design debate visited the Vatican in November, provoking some inflated newspaper headlines and a bit of theological fine-tuning by Pope Benedict XVI.
After a cardinal criticised the fundamentalist approach of creationists, the Pope weighed in, saying the created world must be understood as an “intelligent project.” To some, his phrase echoed “intelligent design,” but to others it suggested something quite different.
The timing of the Vatican comments was significant.
Debate has been simmering in the United States over intelligent design, which holds that the complexity of the created world cannot simply be the product of random evolution, but implies a divine designer. Some groups want intelligent design taught in schools alongside evolution, an issue that spilled over to local school board elections on November 8.
Coincidentally, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture was preparing to host a conference on science and theology from November 9-11. Speaking to reporters, French Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the council, said the origin of the world is one area where scientists and religious believers must recognise the limits of their own discipline.
He said people who support creationism as the only acceptable Christian explanation of the world’s origins are “taking something never meant to be a scientific explanation and calling it science.”
Mgr Gianfranco Basti, an organiser of the Vatican conference, went on to quote Pope John Paul II’s well-known statement in 1996 that evolution is “more than a hypothesis” and has been widely accepted by scientists.
Their comments led to headlines like “Vatican Embraces Evolution” and “Vatican Rejects Intelligent Design.” If the Pope reads the newspapers, he may have raised an eyebrow at the media spin.
At the end of his general audience on November 9, the Pope set aside his prepared text and spoke emphatically about the wisdom of recognising “signs of God’s love” in the marvels of creation. He made no scientific claims, but said it would be unscientific to think that “everything is without direction and order.”
Behind the natural world is “the creative reason, the reason that has created everything, that has created this intelligent project,” he said.
The Pope spoke from the perspective of faith, and he cited a saint, not a scientist, to back him up. St Basil the Great, he said, understood back in the fourth century that people can be “fooled by atheism” into thinking the world developed only through chance.
Did the Pope’s words signal a shift toward intelligent design?
“The Pope was not alluding in any way to intelligent design as it is understood in the United States,” said US Jesuit Father George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory and a keen follower of the evolution debates.
“The Pope was talking about God’s love for his creation. God is in love with his creation, he nurses it along, he accompanies it. But that doesn’t make God a ‘designer.’ That belittles God, it makes him paltry,” Father Coyne said.
Robert Russell, founder and director of the Centre for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California, said that “if (the Pope) wants to use the term ‘intelligent project’ it’s fine. I think it’s a little unfortunate because it’s been co-opted by the intelligent design movement.”
Russell, a participant at the Vatican-sponsored conference, said the Pope was simply expressing the theological interpretation of creation, something Christian leaders ought to do.
“As a Christian, you can say God is the maker of heaven and earth: That’s a theological statement. Evolution is how God does it: That’s a scientific statement,” he said.
The intelligent design movement, in Russell’s view, has deliberately crossed the border between science and faith in an effort to slip God into US classrooms.
Gennaro Auletta, who teaches science and philosophy at Rome’s Gregorian University, said intelligent design tends to attribute too much to God and not enough to the freedom of his creation.
“God is there in the created world, but not as the protagonist of every detail. That would turn God into a great puppeteer,” Auletta said.
Some of the Church’s most extensive comments on the subject came last year in a document on creation issued by the International Theological Commission, which at the time was headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope.
The document walked some fine lines. It accepted as likely the prevailing tenets of evolutionary science. Significantly, it did not argue for a “divine design” in the evolutionary details.
It acknowledged that some experts do see a providential design in biological structures, but said such development might also be contingent, or dependant on chance. This contingency, however, cannot be so radical as to exclude a divine cause, it said.
In broad terms, the theological commission set the religious parameters of the sense and purpose of creation and left the procedural details to science.
That was also the view expressed by Cardinal Poupard at his conference in Rome. He said the believer naturally sees the world as the expression of “God’s loving plan,” and science can sometimes help the believer to read this plan.
But that doesn’t mean religion should seek scientific proofs for its beliefs.
“The faith does not tell science how to conduct its investigations. The faith is not a manual of biology or cosmology, and every effort to make it a scientific textbook distorts its true nature,” Cardinal Poupard said.
Earlier this year, Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn caused a stir when he wrote an article that, while it did not use the term “intelligent design,” seemed to defend its principles.
Cardinal Schonborn said human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things.
“Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science,” he said.
When the Pope made his recent remarks about creation as an “intelligent project,” Cardinal Schonborn was sitting near the front of the audience with a pilgrim group. Greeting the Pope afterward, the cardinal had a big smile on his face.