Cardinal Christoph Schonborn tells Paolo Gambi why he is concerned about the implications of the Council of Europe statement condemning creationism
Paolo Gambi: Your Eminence, the Council of Europe has stated that creationism should not be taught at school, as it is not scientific. In the last few years you have spoken out on this subject. What do you think about the Council's statement?
Cardinal Schiiinborn: First of all, I understand that parents, teachers and other people observing the situation of Europe are worried about the growing influence of creationism. They are right to say that creationism is strictly contrary to what is fairly secured scientific knowledge today. In this worry I share. I must say that, from a Catholic point of view, creationism that means the literal interpretation of the first two chapters of Genesis as a creation of the world within six chronological days is simply absurd. It is not at all a part of Catholic understanding of the Bible that these two chapters about the creation of the world have to be understood as a scientific report about the origin of the world. And therefore I agree with taking a distance from creationism. On the other hand, I am quite worried that at the,same time there are two matters mixed up with this understandable and supportable rejection of creationism. The first is that a political institution the Council of Europe pronounces on a scientific theory. I think this is a very dangerous shift. Leave science to science. Do not interfere politically in the question of whether the Darwinist or the neoDarwinist or the evolutionist theory is scientifically valid. This is not a political matter. This is a matter of science, and it should remain there. And if there has been misunderstanding about my own position on this question .1 clearly affirm that also, from the side of the Church, it is important that we do not get mixed up in the question of whether a scientific theory has experimental validity. Both politicians and the Church should abstain from declarations about the validity of a scientific theory.
The second point I am worried about is the confusion there seems to be behind this resolution of the Council of Europe between creationism and believing in God the Creator which is the common God of all Christians and other religions such as Islam and Judaism in a creator of heaven and earth, a creator who has created everything out of nothing, as we believe, who has the power to guide the world towards its end, to have given a meaning to this world and a purpose to this world and to our lives in this world. Creationism is an erroneous understanding of the belief in a divine Creator. And therefore it is dangerous that politicians seem to mix up what is genuine belief in a Creator with a theory that is rejected at least by most of Christians, which is only accepted by some Christian groups, but certainly not by the Catholic Church. I would express these two reservations about this resolution.
PG: In a memorandum attached to the resolution, you have been mentioned and portrayed as a supporter of intelligent design ideas, with the implication that you are somehow a champion of creationism. Is that true?
CS: I am sorry to say that politicians and journalists need to abbreviate because they are short of space. So what I have to say about the question of design I have largely expressed in my books, articles and conferences. I wrote in the New York Times about the overwhelming evidence of design. I did not say, as I think the intelligent design school seems to affirm, that through scientific methodology, through natural sciences, it is possible to prove design in nature. But what I said and what I still say is that it's really possible for the human intelligence to discern design in nature. This is an affirmation that goes beyond scientific methodology. It is a philosophical and, perhaps. a religious affirmation. It's an affirmation that is grounded in human intelligence, human reason. As Pope Benedict has often stated, this primordial question is whether at the origin of all there is a logos or there is pure causality, randomness. And, as Pope Benedict again has said, this fundamental question, which is a question we have to answer with our intelligence sustained by the light of faith, is that if we discern reason in the world, in nature if nature is understandable the question arises: where does this come from? Is it possible that mere randomness produces intelligence, that we are as intelligent beings the product of a merely unintelligent process? I said at the end of my paper in the New York Times and this was an implicit quotation of John Paul H it would mean renouncing intelligence if we were to affirm the mere randomness of the origin of everything. But again politics should not intervene in this debate. Leave it to science. Keep politics from science and from religion. And vice versa, of course. Science should not try to make politics, and religion should not make politics; maybe it should inspire politics, but not make politics.
PG: The document mentions the risk of a theocracy if creationism is not challenged. At the same time, it states that "the theory of evolution has nothing to do with divine revelation but is built on facts" and calls on people "to resist presentation of creationist ideas in any discipline other than religion". On one side, science, facts, reason, Darwin; on the other. faith, religion and creationism. Is this correct?
CS: This is a very problematic confusion. On one side, the Darwinian theory is a scientific theory and it should be handled as a scientific theory. It has developed a lot since Darwin published it. It still develops a lot. But it has to be discussed as every other scientific theory, and should not be a matter of politics. It is not up to politicians, nor is it up to religious leaders, to state whether this scientific theory is valid. Leave it to science. As I said in a paper I gave in the presence of Pope Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo, we must liberate Darwin from Darwinism. We must keep science free from ideology and politics. And this is in the strict interest of science: we have so many bad examples of the damage that political interference in science has brought in the 20th century.
On the other hand, to say that believing in a Creator, not in creationism, has nothing to do with reason is a very presumptuous affirmation. Look at the history of philosophy, from Plato to Hegel and Kant. Everybody spoke about this question in philosophical terms, in terms of reason. And the Bible affirms that, by the means of reason, we can recognise that what exists cannot come out of itself. It is reasonable to believe that there is an intelligence behind the reality we are able to understand and research.
Regarding theocracy, I understand the worries of those who have drafted this resolution. We have had examples, and still have them, of attempts at theocracy in the actual world. I can only recall that the Catholic Church though we might have had temptations in that direction in previous centuries has clearly taken its distance from any attempt at theocracy. But, on the other hand, I recall that, with the free means of democratic society, believing in God and in His commandments and trying to follow God's commandments has nothing to do with irrationality. Promoting obedience to God's law, appealing to freedom, has nothing to do with theocracy. But it's certainly valid and necessary to promote the values on which our democratic society is based, because we well know that democracy can only live on values that cannot be decided democratically, but that are presupposed by democracy: human dignity, freedom, intelligence, basic human values. They are not a product of democracy, but are a presupposition of democracy. And 1 recall that these elements that are necessary for the good life of a society have nothing to do with theocracy. The Church is not imposing them, but proposing and arguing that they are for the good of society.
PG: An explanatory memorandum attached to the resolution refers to "the example of the atom, which was considered indivisible and was then split into its nucleus and electrons, after which quarks [one of the two basic constituents of matter] were discovered-. Could we say, reading this resolution, that the theory of evolution seems to have become indivisible; that is, that it can never be improved upon?
CS: That would be very damaging to science. If you declare a scientific theory to be definitive you sort of dogmatise it. That is not good for science. Scientific theories are always open for further development, for further discoveries and, as [philosopher Karl] Popper has taught us. they are open to falsification. So there are. many points where the evolution theory works, but there are many other points where there are still questions. It is not up to me as a priest. bishop or politician to declare what science has to do. They have to continue their research and if they discovernew elements, new aspects. then they will change that theory or develop it. or perhaps reject it one day if they find a better one.
PG: You are a distinguished member of the Catholic hierarchy. Would you say that Catholics can believe in the theory of evolution without apostatising from their faith?
CS: First of all we do not believe in a scientific theory, but we use it, practise it and develop it. A scientific theory is not a matter of belief. It works or it doesn't. If it does not work, you change it and you find a better one. Keep evolution theory at the level where it has to be, as a scientific theory. As a believer. I have no problems with the discovery of quarks and further subdivisions of the atomic world. And I have no problem with further discoveries about how life on earth has developed. This is not a matter of concern. It's a matter of admiration. I am absolutely an amateur in natural sciences, but I am fairly interested in it and I read a lot about it. And the more I learn the greater my admiration.
Have you ever considered what we know now about the functioning of a single cell? It's so amazing. the complexity. This fills me with admiration. I myself say: "How great are you, my God, that nature under your divine guidance produces such a marvel as the living cell." I know, and scientists know much better than me, that we are only at the start of understanding the functioning of the genetic code. I am not afraid of what science will discover. I have great curiosity, fascination, and of course hope that we will be able to use our growing knowledge with good sense and not abuse it to the detriment of humanity.
Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith by Cardinal Christoph Schonborn is published by Ignatius Press, priced £9.75