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.

"Many neo-Darwinian scientists, as well as some of their critics, have concluded that, if evolution is a radically contingent materialistic process driven by natural selection and random genetic variation, then there can be no place in it for divine providential causality….But it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God's providential plan for creation."

Two points are important here. First, theology cannot settle the argument between chance and design as the best scientific explanation of organic life. Second, Christians know both from revelation and from philosophical reflection that God is the ultimate author of life, whatever its physical processes. As a result, the truth of Christianity does not rise or fall with the scientific case for "intelligent design."

(2) As a scientific matter, the evidence for "micro-evolution" seems beyond doubt; the case for "macro-evolution" is less persuasive. ("Micro-evolution" refers to developmental changes within a species.)

It is worth repeating, however, that whatever his personal views, Benedict XVI is unlikely to render an official judgment on what he sees as a scientific question. In a 1992 Vatican press conference presenting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he said that it is not the function of the church to pass judgment on the scientific merits of evolutionary theory.

Benedict's deepest concern with the impact of Darwin's theory is that it has promoted scientific positivism, holding that only empirical science can produce certainty, and hence that religion, if it survives at all, can only do so as a subjective, emotional consolation against the cold indifference of the universe. In response, Benedict argues that Christianity relies on truths deeper than empirical observation, among them that life has purpose. In this sense, he believes in "intelligent design"--not necessarily as the product of scientific observation, but as a metaphysical principle.

Does Evolutionism Lead to Meaninglessness?

In his book "In the Beginning," Ratzinger writes:

"We must have the audacity to say that the great projects of the living creation are not the products of chance and error. Nor are they the products of a selective process to which divine predicates can be attributed in illogical, unscientific, and even mythic fashion. The great projects of the living creation point to a creating Reason and show us a creating Intelligence, and they do so more luminously and radiantly today than ever before. Thus we can say today with a new certitude and joyousness that the human being is indeed a divine project, which only the creating Intelligence was strong and great and audacious enough to conceive of. Human beings are not a mistake but something willed; they are the fruit of love. They can disclose in themselves, in the bold project that they are, the language of the creating Intelligence that speaks to them and that moves them to say: Yes, Father, you have willed me."

(3) If evolution as a philosophy (what some intellectuals call evolutionism) leads to meaninglessness, then it cannot help but have consequences in how people lead their lives. Benedict draws this out in "Truth and Tolerance":

"Now the theory of evolution, in the cases where people have tried to extend it to a philosophia universalis, has in fact been used for an attempt at a new ethos based on evolution. Yet this evolutionary ethic that inevitably takes as its key concept the model of selectivity, that is, the struggle for survival, the victory of the fittest, successful adaptation, has little comfort to offer. Even when people try to make it more attractive in various ways, it ultimately remains a bloodthirsty ethic. Here, the attempt to distill rationality out of what is itself irrational quite visibly fails. All this is of very little use for an ethic of universal peace, of practical love of one's neighbor, and of the necessary overcoming of oneself, which is what we need."

Benedict XVI's views on evolution, as by now should be obvious, can't be condensed into a simple slogan, such as whether he's "for" or "against" it. He has a deep respect for science, but at the same time he insists that empirical science by itself must not set the "frame" within which we think about the meaning and purpose of existence.

Perhaps the best optic on what Benedict is after comes in this comment from "Truth and Tolerance": "This dispute has to be approached objectively and with a willingness to listen, by both sides--something that has hitherto been undertaken only to a limited extent."

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