Vienna--Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna touched off a storm in July 2005 with an op-ed page article in the New York Times questioning Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and appearing to endorse the concept of intelligent design--the theory that life forms are too complex to have been the product of random mutation. Scientists accused the 60-year-old cardinal, who has often been named as a possible future pope, of trying to steer Catholic teaching away from its cautiously positive view of evolution and toward what they said was the pseudo-science of intelligent design.

In a recent interview with Beliefnet in the Austrian capital, Schönborn set out his sometimes misunderstood views, clearly distinguishing between evolution and what he calls "evolutionism." He explained that while he believes that God is the intelligent designer of the universe, his position on evolution springs from a philosophical rather than a scientific standpoint. His main concern, he said, was not to denigrate evolution as a natural process but to criticize atheistic materialism [the idea that only matter, not spirit, exists] as the dominant philosophy of today's secular societies.

Framing the question this way, this close associate of Pope Benedict XVI echoed views that the new pontiff has expressed about the dangers of relativism.

Saying he was not qualified to comment on American legal issues, Schönborn declined to comment on the recent Pennsylvania case in which U.S. District Judge John Jones ruled that intelligent design is not science and cannot be taught in public-school biology classrooms. The following is an English translation of Schönborn's remarks in German:

What are your objections to the theory of evolution?

Evolution is a scientific theory. What I call evolutionism is an ideological view that says evolution can explain everything in the whole development of the cosmos, from the Big Bang to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. I consider that an ideology. It's not good for science if it becomes ideological, because it leaves it own field and enters the area of philosophy, of world views, maybe of religion.

This is not primarily a religious question, but one of reason. Can one reasonably say the origin of man and of life can be explained only by material causes? Can matter create intelligence? This question cannot be answered scientifically, because the scientific method cannot grasp it. Here we can only argue philosophically, metaphysically, or religiously. Reason can recognize that matter cannot organize itself. That it at least needs information, and information is an expression of intelligence.

How do you see Darwin?

"The Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin is one of the greatest works in the history of ideas. That does not mean that I agree with all of it. But "The Origin of Species"--however you understand it, whether you approve it or not--is an intellectual milestone. If Darwin's theories are scientific hypotheses, however, they must be open to scientific criticism. What I criticize is a kind of immunization strategy, as if it were an offense to Darwin's dignity if someone scientifically criticizes Darwin's theory and says, Here and there are points that can't be explained with this theory. Does God belong in biology class?

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  • You've said that scientists have been arrogant in this debate.

    There is almost a ban on debate. Critics of evolution theory are discriminated against and discredited from the start. What I would like to see in schools is a critical, open, and positive spirit so that we don't make a dogma of evolution theory but we say, "Here is a theory. A lot speaks for it in many points, but there are points where it has no answer." Of course, one should not claim to teach evolution [while] actually teaching the ideology of evolutionism. If one does it, this must be clearly stated. Is the Christian view an alternative to Darwin?