Words matter, and they matter most of all in the context in which they are to be read and understood. On July 7, 2005, the New York Times published an opinion piece, “Finding Design in Nature,” purporting to offer “The official Catholic stance on evolution.” The author of that piece, my fellow Catholic Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, got the theology exactly right, but erred dramatically in his take on the science and the politics of the “design” movement as it exists in the United States. Knowing how the Cardinal's words will be misused by the enemies of science in our country, it is important to set the record straight.
As Cardinal Schönborn quite properly points out, the Catholic Church is staunchly opposed to any view of life that would exclude the notion of divine purpose and meaning. In the new century, as he puts it, the church will “defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real.” In response I would echo the words of the Catechism that scientific studies of “the age and development of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man … invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator.” Indeed they do.
But the Cardinal is wrong in asserting that the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution is inherently atheistic. Neo-Darwinism, he tells us, is an ideology proposing that an “unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection” gave rise to all life on earth, including our own species. To be sure, many evolutionists have made such assertions in their popular writings on the “meaning” of evolutionary theory. But are such assertions truly part of evolution as it is understood by the “mainstream biologists” of which the Cardinal speaks?