A century and a half after Charles Darwin published his revolutionary study of nature, On the Origin of the Species, one of his most ardent foes is taking a fresh look at his theories.
Although the Roman Catholic Church never formally condemned Darwin or his theories (thus demonstrating some significant progress from Galileo's time), there is no question that for decades, it was openly hostile to Darwin's theory because of its apparent conflict with the teachings of the church.
Next month, however, the Vatican will host a conference to mark the sesquicentennial of Darwin's book. The gathering will be held March 3-6 at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy.
Compatible with the Christian Faith
Not only have church officials declared that the naturalist's views are "compatible with Christian faith," they have even argued that Darwin's ideas can be traced to great theologians like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Both observed, for instance, that various forms of life on Earth have changed over time.
According to Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, the teachings of the Church and Darwin can be reconciled: "In fact, what we mean by evolution is the world as created by God," the archbishop said recently.
The upcoming conference is the culmination of more than a half century of slowly easing tensions between the Catholic Church and the chief proponent of evolution. In 1950, Pope Pius XII declared that evolution was "a valid scientific approach." Just a decade ago, Pope John Paul II went further and said that evolution was "more than a hypothesis."
A Cultural Phenomenon
There had been widespread speculation that Pope Benedict XVI, a more conservative pontiff, would use the occasion to endorse "intelligent design," a rival theory that has gained a rapturous following among some evangelical Christians. Pope Benedict excited many intelligent-design adherents when he made an offhand reference some years ago to the concept of an "intelligent project."
But intelligent design will get short shrift at the Vatican's upcoming conference, and in fact was nearly excluded altogether. Last fall, Jesuit Father Marc Leclerc, a philosophy professor at the Gregorian University, told reporters that the goal of the organizers was to organize a conference that was "strictly scientific."
Father Leclerc said that the organizers did not invite supporters of creationism or intelligent design because it was "not feasible" to include ideas "that cannot be critically defined as being science, or philosophy or theology."
The Vatican and conference organizers have changed their position slightly, and have added intelligent design to the Darwin conference agenda. However, it will not be presented as a rival scientific theory to natural selection. Instead, intelligent design will be discussed as "a phenomenon of an ideological and cultural nature."
It is an idea "worthy of historic examination," organizers said, "but certainly not to be discussed on scientific, philosophical, or theological grounds."