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In Pope Benedict XVI, Science Had a Friend and Neo-Darwinism a Foe

Photo credit: Marek.69 talk, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

As Bruce Chapman has already noted here, the 2005 sermon by Pope Benedict at the Mass for the Election of a Supreme Pontiff was trumpeted as a frontal assault against cultural relativism. This it was and, yet, digging deeper one found reason to believe that the then-newly elected Pope also had materialist interpretations of science, including Darwinism, in his sights.

In an impassioned essay for National Review, Michael Novak wrote:

What Ratzinger attacks as relativism is the regulative principle that all thought is and must remain subjective. What he defends against such relativism is the contrary regulative principle, namely, that each human subject must continue to inquire incessantly…. Ratzinger wishes to defend the imperative of seeking the truth in all things, the imperative to follow the evidence.

Neo-Darwinism has long shielded itself from scrutiny and competition by a convoluted web of definitional tactics. Those one might term militant neo-Darwinists don’t want scientists to follow the evidence wherever it leads. They only want to follow it to material, impersonal causes.

Hallmarks of Intelligent Design

If the sophisticated outboard motor inside the cell, called a bacterial flagellum, is inexplicable on Darwinian terms and has the hallmarks of designed systems (like our less sophisticated outboard motors), many neo-Darwinists insist that scientists must not follow the evidence to a design inference but instead must insist dogmatically that the flagellum has — must have — an undirected cause like natural selection.

That Benedict meant to implicate neo-Darwinism in this flight from evidence is not mere wishful thinking on the part of the design community. The Pope made the application explicit in his 1986 book In the Beginning, taking direct aim at the dogma of undirected evolution:

Let us go directly to the question of evolution and its mechanisms. Microbiology and biochemistry have brought revolutionary insights here…. They have brought us to the awareness that an organism and a machine have many points in common…. Their functioning presupposes a precisely thought-through and therefore reasonable design….

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. But we must have the audacity to say that the great projects of the living creation are not the products of chance and error… (They) 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.

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John Paul II Against Purposeless Evolution

Despite intense media spin to the contrary, this was also John Paul II’s position. The Pope’s 1996 message on evolution, which made headlines around the world, simply stated that evolution (in the sense of common descent, not the materialist Darwinian mechanism) is “more than an hypothesis,” which is certainly a true statement about its status among contemporary biologists. Yet in the same message the Pope explicitly questioned the Darwinian/materialist explanation of human evolution, calling it “incompatible with the truth about man.” Keep in mind that the 1996 message was simply a letter to the Pontifical Academy for the Sciences. Despite the vast media attention, it was just a letter of greeting and not a teaching document, and therefore carried no authoritative weight according to Catholic teaching about the Pope’s role as authoritative teacher.

In his other more authoritative writings Pope John Paul II explicitly rejected the purposeless Darwinian mechanism:

The evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality [i.e., final cause or design] which arouses admiration. This finality which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose a Mind which is its inventor, its creator.

Neo-Darwinists like to talk about the vague issue of “evolution,” that is, change over time. But that’s not the controversial, the metaphysical and dogmatic, part of their theory. Modern neo-Darwinists, like Darwin himself, insisted that the common descent of all plants and animals from the original common ancestor must proceed by purely material, undirected means. John Paul II would have none of this:

To all these “indications” of the existence of God the Creator some oppose the power of chance or of proper mechanisms of matter [i.e., Darwinism]. To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements, and such marvelous finality [design or purpose] in its life would be equivalent to giving up the search for an explanation of the world as it appears to us. In fact, this would be equivalent to admitting effects without cause. It would be an abdication of human intelligence which would thus refuse to think, to seek a solution for its problems.

General Audience, July 10, 1985

Where the Evidence Leads

Such a statement could hardly be more antithetical to the materialist project of neo-Darwinism. This teaching goes back to the Apostolic era (see Romans 1:19-20), and was reinforced by the single most authoritative compilation of Catholic teaching, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In that document, under the major heading “The Mystery of Creation,” and the first subheading “God creates by wisdom and love,” the text begins, “We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance.”

Pope Benedict appeared ready to make promotion of this long-standing Catholic teaching a higher priority, perhaps overcoming the confusion caused by the media’s overblown treatment of the 1996 statement. Against the notion that scientists must never consider design as an explanation for biological systems, Pope Benedict XVI urged scientists and the broader culture to follow the evidence where it leads. There, according to Catholic teaching, it will find a creative intelligence. 

This article is adapted from earlier comments by Dr. Witt, writing with Mark Ryland.