God still in the evolution process

By  Domenic D. Nicassio, The Catholic Register
  • May 14, 2005
An Austrian cardinal's attempt to clarify the church's position with regard to evolution presents no challenges or surprises, Catholic educators say.

Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna published an opinion piece in the July 7 edition of the New York Times to balance the view that the church has acquiesced to evolutionary theory. Schonborn, who co-edited the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is also a member of the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education.
The theory of evolution does not consider the present form of plants and animals as directly created by God, but as the result of an evolution from other species existing in former geological periods. Darwinism is an offshoot of this theory which explains the evolution of the cosmos by means of the chance survival of the fittest.

In his opinion piece Schonborn wrote that 'evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.'

This led to widespread speculation that the church was abandoning its support of evolutionary theory.

But Fraser Field, executive officer of the Vancouver-based Catholic Education Resource Network, welcomed Schonborn's statement as a useful clarification. Field said the problem is the way some Darwinian scientists use evolutionary theory as a reason to keep God out of scientific discussions.

'Should Darwinian theory mean that the universe is meaningless and everything is randomly determined? No it doesn't, it is simply a theory. But they smuggle that along as if to say, 'this proves that there is no God, because the mechanism does not require God to function.' And that is where the challenge would come - is God involved along the way, or is God simply someone who sets things in motion?'

Field notes that dissatisfaction with Darwinian theory is leading to a growing openness to the concept of intelligent design.

'Darwinian theory of natural selection is not sufficient to explain the complexity of design we find in nature, so we need to ask questions,' Field said.

Les Miller, a consultant for religious and family life education at the York Region Catholic  District School Board, sees no big surprises in Schonborn's essay. He said students get the clear message that God is involved in the evolutionary process.

'Students are taught that Catholic teaching does not exclude the possibility of evolution, but it does presuppose the consequences of the Creator God in the creation of all things,' Miller said.

Catholic curriculum on the issue is designed by the National Office of Religious Education in Ottawa. Students learn that God is the ultimate cause of creation and is always present in the creative process.

Miller recalls how his teenage daughters understand the issue. 'They are told about what they call 'special evolution.'  That refers to God's hand being there,' he said.

Ted Laxton, a vice principal in the Wellington Catholic District School Board who co-authored provincial course profiles on science and religion, said Schonborn's concerns will be addressed in the classroom if evolution is taught the way it should be.

'We encourage kids to critically reflect on the evolution theory,' he said.

This has nothing to do with the fundamentalist suspicion of science.

"When we teach evolution in the schools kids have to see there is no fundamental conflict between the mechanisms of science and divine providence in the world."

This critical reflection has the result of introducing students to one of the key points in Schonborn's essay - the role of intelligent design.

'If we as Catholic educators reflect on chance and randomness critically, we will see a thread of design that runs through all that,' said Laxton.

It's an approach that involves reflection on the improbability that the cosmos developed with no purpose or design.

'If we believe God always intended human beings to exist as the pinnacle of creation, then even in that apparent randomness and chance, there was a pathway and design, there was a sequence of events that had to evolve for human beings to arrive,' he said.

This conclusion is drawn in part on the basis of science and on the basis of faith in God's providence.

'That should be the way evolution is taught,' Laxton said.

Placing Darwinian theory in dialogue with faith is the strategy of Ralph Peters, a consultant for religious and family life education at the Toronto Catholic District School Board. This means reading the Genesis account of creation in the context of evolutionary theory.

'What evolution has taught us is that creation is ongoing and not static,' he said.

In the classroom, this dialogue is an opportunity 'to broaden our image of who God is,' Peters said.

Sharron McKeever, a retired teacher who has developed curriculum guidelines with the Catholic Education Institute, said that the role of teachers is to expose students to theories and allow the students to draw their own conclusions.

'We want them to understand that no one has the final answer,' she said. 'Within our church are many different approaches to our faith, and you have debate all the time on issues that aren't resolved.'

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