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?

    Christian teaching about evolution is not an alternative to evolution theory. Evolution theory is a scientific thesis, while the teaching about creation is a tenet of faith. I think, as do many other people, that both are open to each other and that they should not put each other in question. There is not a wall of separation between them. I don't expect the Biblical teaching about creation should be presented as a rival scientific theory to evolution theory. People have tried to box me into a corner by setting up an either-or proposition--it's either evolution or intelligent design--that I don't accept. Evolution, intelligent design, and Christian teaching on creation are not all on the same level. For me, the whole question of intelligent design is primarily a question of reason. The argument that the whole complexity of life can be explained as mere random process is unreasonable in my opinion. No person who experiences such complexity would say that it created itself. That's the point. The second step is to ask--OK, which intelligence [created this]? As a believer, I naturally think it is the intelligence of the Creator. And 90 percent of humanity thinks that too. Why do you say this is a question of reason and not of belief?

    For 30 years, I've heard from the pope, from Professor [Joseph] Ratzinger [Benedict's name before he assumed the papacy] that the church has the task in these times of defending reason. It must defend reason against a reductionism that in the end, ideologically speaking, is a kind of materialism.

    What do you think of the Discovery Institute and its work promoting intelligent design?

    I think they do interesting work that deserves attention. What bothers me is the unbelievable aggression unleashed by the questions that the Discovery Institute asks. Why do scientists have to react so aggressively? Does God belong in biology class?

    The question of the Creator belongs in religion class. The question of the "intelligent project of the cosmos," as the pope put it, naturally belongs in with science. The questions that great scientists like Einstein and Heisenberg asked are questions that go beyond materialism. In the end, it's a question about intelligence. Is intelligence the product of matter? Is the information that intelligence shapes a product of matter? This is clearly a question that can quickly turn ideological or philosophical. So that belongs in school. You also criticize neo-Darwinism in modern economic thinking.

    The "survival of the fittest" model has become the guiding pattern for free-market economics. But life functions roughly 80 percent in a synergistic and symbiotic way and 20 percent as a struggle. Darwin singled out one aspect, the survival of the fittest. That certainly exists, but it's by far not the whole of nature. Most things in nature function through synergies and cooperation. That's also the way it works in the economy. In Western societies we have the model of open competition in a fully deregulated free-market economy. We overlook the fact that the economy needs first of all a model of cooperation and not a model built on the survival of the fittest.

    [Atheist biologist] Richard Dawkins provided me the best proof of this. I had the honor of being denounced by him as a simpleton, but he said in the same interview that he would not like to live in a Darwinian society. Of course, I'd like to ask him how he can find a non-Darwinian society when everything is Darwinian? There must be some space for something non-Darwinian. So your real concern in the evolution debate is actually a wider philosophical disagreement.

    It's all about materialism. That's the key issue.

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