Paris – In the debate over evolution and intelligent design, conservative voices have dominated among those who defend the idea that God played a role in the development of species. Now one of Catholicism’s leading liberals, theologian Hans Küng, has come out with a book that accepts evolution as scientists generally describe it but still maintains a role for God. He sees God's activity not in designing complex forms of life, as ID supporters argue, but in in founding the laws of nature by which life evolved and in facilitating the 13.7-billion-year adventure of creation. Küng has little patience either for scientists who do not see beyond the limits of their discipline or for believers who try to tell the experts how things must have been.

The Swiss-born priest, now 77, was stripped of his license to teach Catholic theology in 1979 because he challenged the doctrine of papal infallibility. A prolific author, he was out of favor for decades in Rome. But when Joseph Ratzinger, Küng's former colleague from the Tübingen University theology faculty in Germany, was elected Pope Benedict XVI last April, the mood changed. Even though the pope is unmistakably conservative, he invited his rebellious old colleague to a friendly dinner. Among the topics they discussed was Küng’s new book on evolution, Der Anfang aller Dinge ("The Beginning of All Things").

Küng spoke to Beliefnet by telephone from his office at Tübingen University. The following is an English translation of his remarks in German.

Where do you stand in the current evolution debate?

I understand the views of the agnostics and atheists. But I also see the questions that agnosticism can't and doesn't want to answer. I can fully understand those who want to have a basis in faith but think that a fundamentalism that takes the Bible literally does justice neither to the Bible nor to today's people. We can reach what I would call a reasonable middle position.

What did the pope have to say when you met him last August?

We agreed that the reason of natural science can enter into a discussion with faith. The pope does not represent an irrational faith. Faith, as Pascal said, has its reasons that reason doesn't know. A dialogue is possible.

What does the pope think of your approach?

He said all specialists in fundamental theology should [dialogue with scientists] but you [Küng] are the one who can talk to them as an equal. That means I don't have to become a physicist or a biologist, but I must know the most important results of astrophysics or microbiology and recognize them. There's no use casting doubt on their conclusions because there are some small difficulties with them, as the Intelligent Design people or the creationists sometimes do. I think what is there is there. A theologian should not cast doubt on a scientific consensus, but should see how he can deal with it.

Did God intervene in evolution?

The word "intervene" is not very good because it means come in between. An intervention is usually something violent or aggressive. What I would reject is the idea that God could intervene against the laws of nature. I would even go further and say that for science, God is not a category because God by definition is a reality beyond time and space, and therefore does not belong in the world of our scientific experience. But there are questions that science cannot answer. The fundamental question of philosophy, according to Leibnitz, is "why is there anything at all and not simply nothing?" Science can't answer that.

In your book, you say religion can interpret evolution as creation.

Creation is a concept that explains the beginning of things but is also the continuing process of life. So we can interpret evolution as creation, but I do that as a believer, not as a scientist.

Where did the laws of nature come from?

I prefer to speak about the constants in nature. Take the speed of light. Why has it been there from the start? You have to ask: where did it come from? How did matter develop and not just stay as gas? Astrophysicists can only go back to just after the Big Bang. I have to go beyond time and space, and there we can say, “I don't know.” We should not speak too quickly of God in an anthropomorphic sense.

So you want to get away from the personal image of God?

I don't want to get away from it. But if I ask the question scientifically, I can't ask about God the Father. In scientific terms, that is absurd. The symbol of the father certainly has a function and when I read the Bible, I have no problems with that. The fundamental cause of the world is God. But I can also say Our Father.

Did matter need some prior intelligence to get organized?