Andrew Medichini/AP
Pope Benedict XVI delivers his blessing during the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his
studio overlooking St.Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009.

Religious Leaders Debate: Can Evolution and God Coexist?

March 04, 2009 04:30 PM
by Cara McDonough
The Vatican is currently sponsoring a five-day conference on evolution, marking the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s “Origin of Species.”

Catholic Leaders to Re-examine Scientific Works

Philosophers, scientists and theologians have gathered at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome to explore the compatibility of Darwin’s theories with Catholic thinking.

Conference participants will also discuss the scientific thinking of Galileo, who the Catholic Church condemned for his progressive scientific views about the universe in the 17th century. The Catholic Church never silenced Charles Darwin in the same manner, but has at times been hostile toward him as his ideas on evolution conflict with the biblical account of creation, the BBC reports.

The conference is bound to evoke major disagreements within the Church, which has varied in its treatment of evolutionary theory. Pope John Paul II, for instance, said that evolution was "more than a hypothesis".

But in 2006, Catholic Cardinal Christoff Schoenborn of Vienna, a former student of Pope Benedict XVI, said that Darwin's theory of natural selection was incompatible with Christian belief.

The conference has already yielded less stringent views. Vatican Cardinal William Levada said Tuesday said the Vatican believes that there is a “wide spectrum of room” for belief in both evolution and God, according to The Associated Press. He added, however, that the Vatican finds the atheist notion that evolution disproves the existence of God—a belief held by biologist Richard Dawkins—“absurd.”

The Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI has been, for the most part, in favor of a compromised view that faith and science can coexist. In 2007, the pope said that the debate between creationism and evolution was an “absurdity.” He said that “there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such,” MSNBC reported at the time.

Benedict added that, of course, the theory could not exclude the role of God. Evolution, he said, does not answer all the important questions, especially the most important philosophical question of all: “Where does everything come from?”

Qwidget is loading...

Background: Galileo, Charles Darwin and the Catholic Church

Although the Catholic Church is willing to explore the compatibility of science and faith in the present day, the same was not true in the 1600s.

On June 22, 1633, a Vatican Inquisition passed down judgment on Galileo Galilei for his writings and teaching of the Copernicus Theory, forcing him to renounce his theory that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the Universe.

Galileo had embraced and studied the theory of Nicolaus Copernicus for much of his life, directly contradicting Biblical thought in the eyes of dogmatic critics. The Vatican was particularly angry that Galileo wrote his major work, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” in order to bring the message to an audience outside the scientific world.

Darwin never suffered such a fate at the hands of the Catholic Church, although his beliefs do inspire controversy within many religious communities.

He developed his theories of evolution while exploring the Galapagos Islands, where he observed many new species of plants and wildlife. Once he returned to his home in London, he wrote books about his travels and defined the theory of natural selection, which explains how life forms evolve over time to meet environmental challenges.

Darwin’s line of thinking immediately caused controversy due to literal biblical teachings that do not allow for evolutionary thought. While his work has since been widely accepted beyond the scientific community, some religious leaders remain adamant that evolution does not allow for the belief in God.

Those critical of Darwin’s theories have advocated for alternatives to teaching evolution in schools, such as teaching the theory of intelligent design, which suggests an intelligent force is present in the process of life and growth.

The issue remains controversial, and has led to drastic measures in some instances. In July 2008, science teacher Jon Freshwater was removed from his position at a Mount Vernon, Ohio, school for allegedly “preaching his Christian beliefs in the classroom and burning crosses on students’ arms.”

The incident is an extreme example, but it’s similar to a number of cases across the country that focus on teaching creationism and intelligent design in the classroom.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines