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In Evolution Debate the Media Are More Catholic Than the Pope

One reads with astonishment the major stories written by the AP and various news and broadcast outlets the past two days; to wit, “Vatican Official Refutes Intelligent Design.” There is even a ham-fisted attempt by the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World to use the anti-ID statement of junior Vatican official Dr. George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory, to pound the Kansas State Board of Education for their new standards on teaching evolution — standards that don’t even require ID.

Soon we’ll have editorials and cartoons asserting that the Catholic Church has attacked intelligent design and defended dear old Darwin. The only problem is that this is sheer spin–irresponsible, reckless and untruthful. Dr. Coyne, who resides in America, is an astronomer who has attacked intelligent design (it “belittles God”, he declares) repeatedly. He is entitled to his opinion, but the media now have him quoted as “the Vatican”.

The story is not just incorrect, it is almost topsy turvy from reality.

The Vatican has tried to correct Darwinist claims like this that seek to put the Catholic Church in league with neo-Darwinism. After several such highly publicized events last spring, Cardinal Schönborn of Austria–former pupil of Dr. Karl Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) and the senior editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church–wrote a highly publicized essay for the New York Times, “On Design in Nature.” Among other things, Cardinal Schönborn reminded readers that the new Holy Father, upon his recent election and installation as successor to the Throne of St. Peter, stated in his first homily that “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution.” The Cardinal, who later told the New York Times that he had been encouraged in his representations by the Pope personally, complained that “neo-Darwinists recently have sought to portray our Pope, Benedict XVI, as a satisfied evolutionist.” He also cited a frequently abused and misquoted recent statement of the Vatican Theological Commission that “An unguided evolutionary process–one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence–simply cannot exist.'” He also quoted the late Pope John Paul II and he quoted the Catechism.

Then, last month, when the Cardinal followed up his essay with the first of what are to be nine catechetical lectures in Vienna on evolution and creation, and made a pleasant statement early in his lecture about what a great thinker Darwin was, the English language media tried to spin this as his having “recanted” his earlier critique. So the cardinal put up on his diocesan website a full English translation of his lecture and a droll notice that the English language media didn’t seem to understand it in the original German, and assured them that he had not changed his position at all.

“Annotation: It has come to our attention that the content of Cardinal Schönborn’s first catechesis has been mis-reported in the English-speaking press as somehow drawing back from his essay in The New York Times. This is inaccurate, as will be apparent from the full text. In order to clear up this misunderstanding, we are posting here an initial draft of an English translation.”

In fact, Cardinal Schönborn has been writing critically of Darwinian evolution for at least 18 years, when a paper of his was included in a German language book on the topic, “Evolutionism and Christianity”. The foreword to that book was written by Cardinal Ratzinger.

The US media seem serenely uninterested in any of this. Instead, Cardinal Schönborn’s New York Times essay, when it wasn’t being wished away, was being attacked by lesser figures, such as Dr. Coyne — and of course, those attacks did get coverage. Even anodyne statements about the important value of religion and science talking to one another — the theme of a different cardinal’s talk in Rome recently — was blown up in some press accounts to represent a Vatican embrace of Darwin and rejection of design!

That is where the situation stood until last week, when Cardinal Schönborn and the Austrian bishops happened to be in Rome to visit the Pope, and when Pope Benedict just happened to preach on creation — using a text of John Paul II — and when he just happened to end his remarks with a warm tribute to “this intelligent design of the Cosmos”. (The full translated text is found in the current National Catholic Register for November 20-26, here.)

It seems obvious to me (and to much of the European press, it appears) that the Pope was showing his support for Cardinal Schönborn and his continuing exposition of the issues of evolution, creation and design. In effect–most gently–he was also separating himself from figures who have presumed to speak on the Vatican’s behalf in ways that contradict not only Cardinal Schönborn, but Pope Benedict’s own previous statements.

This important endorsement simply was not very newsworthy, you see. Some translated the phrase as “intelligent project”, others as “intelligent plan”. Some European outlets got it right and saw the significance. (It was clear even if “intelligent project” or “plan” was correct.) But few US media even noticed such a yawner from the Pope.

In one humorous case of a paper that did notice, the Chicago Sun Times ran a story on November 13 under the headline, “Pope Sides with ‘Intelligent Design’ Advocates.” But then the paper turned around on November 16 to comment editorial pages (concerning the Dover, PA school board election) that “many religious leaders” are fully content with evolution. The examples were two Catholic leaders — a Cardinal and a Monsignor, neither of whom really said much on the topic, despite the breathless extrapolations made from their remarks. What did NOT rate notice in the Sun Times editorial was what the POPE had to say on the subject on the paper’s own pages three days earlier. After all, who cares what the mere POPE says on Catholic teaching?

Let me be clear. The scientific issues surrounding Darwin’s theory, and alternative theories such as intelligent design, are not inherently religious, and religious authorities, even the Pope, can’t dictate specific scientific doctrines, and Pope Benedict is not attempting to do so. The Pope, like Cardinal Schönborn, plainly is making a point about the PHILOSOPHY that underlies any scientific proposition, as, for example positivism and materialism undergird most of what is described as neo-Darwinism. Philosophy is treated now as a child of science, but the matter is rather the reverse historically. It is a fascinating subject that deserves extensive discussion, the kind that is going on in First Things magazine right now.

But, the reason this all matters to this blog and blogger, is that Darwinists — and their credulous followers in the mainstream media — seem intent on misrepresenting the Catholic Church in order to isolate and stigmatize the opponents of neo-Darwinism — including ID proponents — and to brand them as “extremists” and “fundamentalists.” As Prof. Lawrence Krauss made clear on NPR recently, the purpose of invoking official Catholic backing for neo-Darwinist orthodoxy — even if that backing doesn’t exist — is to lull an unparalleled billion believers worldwide. It is a propaganda stunt.

The Pope did not endorse specific intelligent design theories, nor did he say that evolution in all senses is wrong (neither does Discovery Institute, by the way). He did express a traditional Catholic orthodox PHILOSOPHY that should guide science — and plainly does not guide neo-Darwinism. He did speak up for design in nature.

Many in the media may not like that, but it is time to be honest about it.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.