The London Guardian recently carried a piece asserting that Pope Benedict XVI is preparing "a fundamental shift in the Vatican's view of evolution."

In fact, there's no sign that Benedict intends to make a formal statement on evolution anytime soon, at least anything that would go beyond his numerous reminders that "we are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary." (That comment came from his April 2005 installation Mass).

Since we live in a sound-bite culture, let's get straight to the bottom line: Benedict XVI is not a "creationist." He does not believe in a strictly literal reading of the Book of Genesis, nor has he ever made any reference to teaching "creation science" in schools. Pope Benedict has no desire to launch a crusade against modern science.

The Pope and Intelligent Design

Nor is Benedict XVI really an advocate of "intelligent design" in the American sense, since intelligent design theorists typically assert that data from biology and other empirical sciences require the hypothesis of a designer. Benedict may have some sympathy for this view; he has questioned the evidence for "macro-evolution," meaning the transition from one species to another on the basis of random mutation and natural selection. Ultimately, however, he sees this as a debate for scientists to resolve. His concern cuts deeper, to the modern tendency to convert evolution into "a universal theory concerning all reality" that excludes God, and therefore rationality, as the basis of existence.

With respect to Pope John Paul II's famous 1996 formula that evolution is "more than a hypothesis," therefore, it's meaningless to ask whether Benedict XVI agrees or disagrees. What does seem clear, however, is that Benedict worries that with its seeming nihil obstat for the theory of evolution, the church may inadvertently have accelerated the diffusion of a worldview which holds that it's pointless to ask questions which can't be settled by laboratory experiments, and that chance and meaninglessness are the ultimate laws of the universe. In that sense, one suspects Benedict would affirm that evolution is indeed "more than a hypothesis"--for better, and for worse.

Prior to his election as pope, Joseph Ratzinger treated the question of evolution in surprisingly extended fashion.

One can outline his thinking:

(1) Whatever the findings of the natural sciences, they will not contradict Christian faith, since ultimately the truth is one.

This confidence is expressed in Ratzinger's 1990 book, "In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall." The book takes the form of an extended reflection on the creation stories in Genesis, and Ratzinger writes:

"What response shall we make to this view [evolution]? It is the affair of the natural sciences to explain how the tree of life in particular continues to grow, and how new branches shoot out from it. This is not a matter for faith. … More reflective spirits have long been aware that there is no either-or here. We cannot say: 'creation or evolution', inasmuch as these two things respond to two different realities. The story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God, which we just heard, does not in fact explain how human persons come to be but rather what they are. It explains their inmost origin and casts light on the project that they are. And, vice versa, the theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments. But in so doing it cannot explain where the 'project' of human persons comes from, nor their inner origin, nor their particular nature. To that extent we are faced here with two complementary--rather than mutually exclusive--realities."


Random Chance and Evolution

Another resource is the 2004 document "Communion and Stewardship: Human Beings Created in the Image of God" issued by the chief advisory body for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. While not a personal work of Joseph Ratzinger, the document would not have been issued if he had serious reservations.

One key to the document's argument is that even if science demonstrates that "chance" in the empirical sense really is the key to the evolution of organic life, this in no way means that God is not the "prime mover," nor does it imply that life is random and meaningless.