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Evolution and Catholicism: A Few Modest Proposals

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

James L. Heft
University of Southern California


During 2006, two events, one involving mainly Protestants and the other Catholics, triggered widespread debate on evolution and Christianity. The Dover, Pennsylvania case focused on whether intelligent design (ID) should be taught alongside evolution in public high school science classes; a New York Times Op-Ed by Cardinal Schönborn of Austria argued that Catholics should reject neo-Darwinianism. Once again, these debates raise the important issue of the relationship of science and religion, and more specifically, science and Catholicism, and call for further reflection on how Catholic theology should conceive of its role in an age still dominated by science.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2008

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1 See opinion of Judge John E. Jones III, US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Tammy Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005), p. 7 (accessible through

2 For an excellent history of the Scopes Trial and its aftermath, see Larson, Edward J., Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).Google Scholar

3 Behe, Michael J., Darwin's Black Box (New York: The Free Press, 1996).Google Scholar

4 Miller, Kenneth R., Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002).Google Scholar

5 Haught, John F. has written a number of books on science and religion. See in particular his God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Boulder City, CO: Westview Press, 2000).Google Scholar

6 Jones' “Opinion”: for “breathtaking inanities,” see p. 82; for “striking ignorance,” p. 72; for “ludicrous,” p. 78, and for “bedrock assumption” and the quotation that begins “Their presupposition …” pp. 81–82.

7 See Schönborn, Christoph, “Finding Design in Nature,” New York Times, July 7, 2005, Scholar (accessed 24 September 2008).

8 Dean, Cornelia and Goodstein, Laurie, “Leading Cardinal Redefines Church's View on Evolution,” New York Times, July 9, 2005.Google Scholar

9 I say only “a number of thinkers,” since within the Church there were also scholars who promoted scientific research, particularly astronomical studies (often supported financially by the papacy) even after the Church had condemned the theory of Galileo. See Heilbron, J. L., The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).Google Scholar

10 Cited by Ruse, Michael, The Evolution-Creation Struggle (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11 Portier, William L., “Genealogy of Metaphor,” unpublished paper, p. 8Google Scholar, citing Moore, James R., The Post Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 5660Google Scholar, who quotes Huxley's memoirs.

12 Portier, , “Metaphor,” 12.Google Scholar

13 Syllabus of Errors, #80, (accessed 24 September 2008). The Syllabus was published as an appendix to Pius IX's encyclical Quanta Cura.

14 Newman's comment may be found in a notebook dated 1865 which was cited by James. Cameron, M., “Newman and the Empiricist Tradition,” in Symposium, 90.Google Scholar

15 Ruse, Michael, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, 142.Google Scholar

16 Catholic Encyclopedia (1907), “Catholics and Evolution,”; also cited by Barr, Steven, “The Design of Evolution,” in First Things, October 2005: 9.Google Scholar

18 “Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: On Evolution,” #4. The text of the address is available at This link places an asterisk immediately after the above quotation, noting that L'Osservatore Romano, English Edition amended the text to read “…more than one hypothesis within the theory of evolution.” The ETWN link states that the reason for this change was the translation of the other language editions. The International Theological Commission (ITC), however, cited in its “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God” the text from the Pope's address as it appears in the first text. See Origins, September 23, 2004, 34/15, Par. 64 (future references to this document will appear as ITC 2004 with the specific paragraph indicated).

19 Humani generis, #36.

20 Haught, John F., “Darwin and the Cardinal,” in Commonweal, August 12, 2005, 39.Google Scholar

21 Barr, Steven, “The Design of Evolution,” in First Things, October 5, 2005: 9.Google Scholar

22 “Schönborn Urges Creation Debate,” in The Tablet, September 3, 2005: 31.

23 Schönborn, Christoph, “The Designs of Science,” in First Things, January 2006: 35.Google Scholar

24 Ibid.: 37.

25 Polkinghorne, John, “Beyond Darwin: the Human Difference,” in Christian Century, November 15, 2005, 25.Google Scholar

26 Behe, Michael, “Scientific Orthodoxies,” in First Things, December 2005: 19.Google Scholar Gregory W. Graffin and William B. Provine conducted another survey that drew upon the views of “one hundred and forty-nine eminent evolutionary scientists.” They reviewed the surveys done by sociologist James H. Leuba in 1914 and again in 1933 among “greater” scientists; Leuba found an increasing decline in belief in a “personal God,” that is, a “God to whom one may pray in the expectation of receiving an answer.” In 1998, Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham used the same definition of God as had Leuba and found that only 10% of NAS scientists believed in God, and only 5% of biologists. Many scientists who had been surveyed complained that the concept of God was limited to a “personal God.” In view of this criticism, Graffin and Provine designed their study so that it distinguished between theism (a “personal God”) and deism (a God who “created the universe, all forces and matter, but does not intervene in daily events”). In their survey, only 4.7% of biologists described themselves as theists and nearly 80% said they did not believe in God; nearly 90% did not believe in immortality. What the authors found surprising, however, were two findings: first, that over 70% thought religion was a “sociobiological feature of human culture,” and therefore not in contradiction with evolution. I presume that they believe that religion is therefore actually a “product” of evolution. Second, nearly 80% believe “that people have free will despite being determined by heredity and environment.” It seems as though these scientists picture God as a “Being” who disrupts the laws of nature. Also, their naturalist framework coupled with an affirmation of human freedom suggests that conversations with philosophers would be helpful for them. See the Graffin-Provine, article, “Evolution, Religion and Free Will,” American Scientist (July/August, 2007): 294297.Google Scholar

27 Dean, Cornelia and Goldstein, Laurie, “Leading Cardinal Redefines Church's View on Evolution,” in New York Times, July 9, 2005.Google Scholar

28 Schönborn, Christoph, “Letters to the Editor,” in First Things, April 2006: 6.Google Scholar

29 Ruse, Michael, “Science Under Siege,” in Christian Century, November 15, 2005, 31.Google Scholar

30 Wilson, Edward O., “Let's Accept the Fault Line between Faith and Science,” in USA Today, January 16, 2006, 11A.Google Scholar For a thoughtful review of Wilson's, recent book, The Creation: A Meeting of Science and Religion (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005)Google Scholar, and a clear explanation of Wilson's reductionism, see Barr, Stephen, First Things, October 2006: 6063.Google Scholar

31 Schönborn, , “The Designs of Science,” 34.Google Scholar

32 After the Dover trial, Behe published still another book, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (Free Press; New York, 2007) in which he makes no reference to “irreducible complexities” on the microbiological level, and affirms the theory of “common descent,” that is, that humans share a common ancestor with the chimpanzee. According to Miller who reviewed Behe's book (see Commonweal, October 12, 2007: 31–33), the long descent from lower forms of life Behe still attributes “their complex features to the mutational tinkering of the designer” (see Miller, Kenneth R., “Faulty Design,” in Commonweal, October 12, 2007: 32Google Scholar). In a review of the same book by Behe, Joan Roughgarden, a professor of Biology at Stanford, reads Behe more sympathetically than Miller: “If Behe is not claiming either divine intervention or miracles, then the dispute between ID and Darwinism comes down to arguing about genetic details of interest mainly to professional biologists.” She wonders what all the fuss is about (“A Matter of Mutation,” in Christian Century, October 30th, 2007: 26).

33 Miller, , however, favors the “anthropic principle”; see his Finding Darwin's God, (New York: Harper Collins, 1999), 228232.Google Scholar

34 ITC, 2004, par. 69.

35 Barr, , “The Miracle of Evolution,” in First Things, February 2006: 30.Google Scholar Perhaps it would be more appropriate for Barr to have stated that the “hows” of evolution are what scientists, in all humility, should be free to debate, but not the ultimate “whys.” A strikingly similar call for intellectual humility comes from Harvard biologist Lynn Margolis, the President of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society. Margolis is the widow of the late Carl Sagan and famous for the theory concerning mitochondria origins. She explains that the controversy over evolution can be found “where evidence ends and dogma begins.” The problem, according to her, is that “evolutionary biologists act certain that they know how new life forms originate and complexify. But they don't.” She does not name any evolutionary biologists. See American Scientist, 94/3 May/June, 2006: 194.

36 Gould, Stephen Jay, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine, 1999), 5.Google Scholar

37 Meynell, Hugo, “Faith and Reason,” The Tablet, March 11, 1989, 276.Google Scholar

38 Concerning the Cardinal's editorial, Patrick H. Byrne writes that “Unfortunately the manner in which the cardinal advances his criticism of their (the new Darwinians) excess falls victim to an excess of its own, and thereby posed an unnecessary obstacle to fruitful exploration of the relationships between faith and natural science” (“Quaestio Disputata: Evolution, Randomness, and Divine Purpose: A Reply to Cardinal Schönborn,” Theological Studies 67 [2006] 665).

39 Dessain, Charles and Gornall, Thomas, eds., The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman vol. 25 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 97Google Scholar, letter dated 13 April 1870, cited by Roberts, Noel Keith, “Newman on the Argument from Design,” in New Blackfriars (38/1013, Jan. 2007: 58.)Google Scholar See also Newman's, A Grammar of Assent (Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1955)Google Scholar, originally published the same year, where he comments on Paley's proof by saying that “I do not want to be converted by a smart syllogism,” and a little later, “I do not care to overcome their (those who promote the argument from design) reason without touching their hearts” (330).

40 Cardinal Schönborn is not unaware of the historical, and more recently empirical, challenges to the argument of design. He asks, “We consider the world-picture drawn by modern science and ask why we have this laborious, complicated path of cosmic evolution. Why its countless trials and blind alleys, its billions of years of time and expansion of the universe? Why the gigantic explosions of supernovae, the cooking of the elements in the nuclear fusion of the stars, the excruciating grind of biological evolution with its endless start-ups and extinctions, its catastrophes and barbarians, right up to the unfathomable brutalities of life and survival to the present day? Does it not make more sense here to see the whole as a blind play of coincidences in an unplanned nature? Is this not more honest than the attempts at a theodicy of a Leibniz? Is it not more plausible simply to say, ‘Yes, the world is just that cruel?’” (“Reasonable Science, Reasonable Faith,” in First Things, April 2007: 25–26. In response to his own questions, he states that like Job, “we do not know the answer to suffering and chaos,” and then speaks theologically of the Logos, the Christ and his cross. Nevertheless, in another recent article published in an edited book (Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith, ed. Weber, Hubert Philip, trans. Taylor, Henry [Ft. Collins, CO: Ignatius Press, 2007]Google ScholarPubMed), he seems much more confident in our ability to affirm a providential God: “What prevents us from recognizing the creator? … Today, two thousand years later, such a conclusion actually ought to be much easier to draw, since we know so incomparably much more than then” (29).

41 Aquinas' “design” argument, the last of the five arguments he offered for the existence of the first cause, was an a posteriori argument, that is, an argument that was built upon certain experiences that people had already had of the world they lived in, not upon only logical arguments. Thus Aquinas' five ways help support belief in the existence of a Creator already arrived at through other means—such as the experiences of the beauties of the world (Romans 1:20), the experiences of forgiveness within a believing community, and the experience of love, about which the current academy seems to have little to say.

42 See the presidential address of Robert Wilken to the American Academy of Religion, “Who Will Speak For the Religious Traditions?” published in Remembering the Christian Past (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 20Google Scholar, citing Augustine's, “On the Predestination of the Saints,” in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, ed. By Scharff, Philip, First Series, Vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956), 493520.Google Scholar

43 Farrer, Austin, “The Christian Apologist,” in Light on C. S. Lewis, ed. Gibb, Jocelyn, ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966), 26.Google Scholar

44 See Buckley, Michael, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987)Google Scholar, especially the final chapter, “The Dialectical Origins of Atheism.”

45 See, e.g., the news item by Waldrop, M. Mitchell, “Shroud of Turin is Medieval,” Science, 21 October 1988, 378.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

46 Hadot, Pierre, Philosophy as a Way of Life (New York: Blackwell, 1995).Google Scholar

47 Byrne, Patrick, “Discernment and the Vocations of Science and Scholarship at a Catholic University,” unpublished paper, p. 17.Google Scholar

48 Pieper, Joseph, Belief and Faith: A Philosophical Tract (New York: Pantheon Books, 1963), 25ff.Google Scholar

49 Johnson, Luke Timothy, “Textbook Case,” in Christian Century, February 21, 2006, 36Google Scholar (review of The Bible and Its Influence, eds. Schippe, Cullen and Stetson, Chuck (New York: BLP Publications, 2006).Google Scholar

50 Miller, Robert T., “Opinion: Darwin in Dover, PA,” in First Things, (April 2006), 11.Google Scholar

51 See Allen, John, “All Things Catholic, August 11, 2006Google Scholar, “Evolution and Science,” 4. A book entitled Schöpfung und Evolution contains four papers presented at that Schülerkreis, but is presently available only in German. For a summary of Pope Benedict's contribution to the volume, see Ward, Keith, “Order out of Chaos,” The Tablet, April 21, 2007, 89.Google Scholar

52 Paul, John II, “Message to the Reverend George V. Coyne, SJ, Director of the Vatican Observatory, June 1, 1998,” in Russell, R., Stoeger, W., Coyne, G., eds., Physics, Philosophy and Theology, A Common Quest for Understanding (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1988), M7 and M8Google Scholar, cited by Zycinski, Josef M., “Evolution and Christian Thought in Dialog according to the Teaching of John Paul II,” in Logos, Winter, 2006: 25.Google Scholar

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