A senior Roman Catholic cardinal seen as a champion of intelligent design against Darwin’s explanation of life has described the theory of evolution as “one of the very great works of intellectual history.”
Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn said he could believe both in divine creation and in evolution because one was a question of religion and the other of science, two realms that complemented rather than contradicted each other.
Schoenborn’s view, presented in a lecture published by his office on Tuesday, tempered earlier statements that seemed to ally the Roman Catholic Church with U.S. conservatives campaigning against the teaching of evolution in public schools.
A court in Pennsylvania is now hearing a suit brought by parents against a school district that teaches intelligent design — the view that life is so complex some higher being must have designed it — alongside evolution in biology class.
“Without a doubt, Darwin pulled off quite a feat with his main work and it remains one of the very great works of intellectual history,” Schoenborn declared in a lecture in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna on Sunday. “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.”
Science studies what is observable, and scientists overstep the boundaries of their discipline when they conclude evolution proves there was no creator, said the cardinal, 60, a top Church doctrinal expert and close associate of Pope Benedict XVI.
“It is fully reasonable to assume some sense or design even if the scientific method demands restrictions that shut out this question,” said the cardinal.
Was it all just a misunderstanding?
Schoenborn, who ranked among the papal hopefuls last April, caused an uproar in the United States last July with a New York Times article that seemed to say the church no longer accepted evolution and backed intelligent design.
Proponents of intelligent design argue that Darwin’s natural selection theory is flawed and alternatives should be taught.
Scientists reject this as a disguised form of creationism, the literal belief in divine creation as described in the Bible. In a series of legal cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has barred creationism from being taught in public schools.
Even Catholic scientists, including chief Vatican astronomer Rev. George Coyne S.J., contested Schoenborn’s view as expressed in the Times article.
In his lecture, Schoenborn said his article had led to misunderstandings and sometimes polemics. “Maybe one did not express oneself clearly enough or thoughts were not clear enough,” he said. “Such misunderstandings can be cleared up.”
Schoenborn said he believed God created “the things of the world” but did not explain how a divine will to bring about the development of the human species would have influenced its actual evolution.
“They were, so to speak, let free into their own existence,” he said.