Cardinal Ratzinger's Thoughts on Evolution

 An Excerpt From "Truth and Tolerance" 

ROME, SEPT. 1, 2005 ( Cardinal Christoph Schönborn's July 7 editorial in the New York Times entitled "Finding Design in Nature" provoked a flurry of reactions, both supportive and critical. 

Requests have begun to arrive in Rome for Benedict XVI to make some sort of clarification on the Church's stand regarding evolution. 

The following text, delivered in 1999 as part of a lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Benedict XVI) and subsequently published in the 2004 book "Truth and Tolerance" (Ignatius), can give some clue as to the Holy Father's thoughts on the question. The length of the paragraphs was adapted here slightly for easier reading. 

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The separation of physics from metaphysics achieved by Christian thinking is being steadily canceled. Everything is to become "physics" again. The theory of evolution has increasingly emerged as the way to make metaphysics disappear, to make "the hypothesis of God" (Laplace) superfluous, and to formulate a strictly "scientific" explanation of the world. A comprehensive theory of evolution, intended to explain the whole of reality, has become a kind of "first philosophy," which represents, as it were, the true foundation for an enlightened understanding of the world. Any attempt to involve any basic elements other than those worked out within the terms of such a "positive" theory, any attempt at "metaphysics," necessarily appears as a relapse from the standards of enlightenment, as abandoning the universal claims of science. 

Thus the Christian idea of God is necessarily regarded as unscientific. There is no longer any "theologia physica" that corresponds to it: in this view, the doctrine of evolution is the only "theologia naturalis," and that knows of no God, either a creator in the Christian (or Jewish or Islamic) sense or a world-soul or moving spirit in the Stoic sense. One could, at any rate, regard this whole world as mere appearance and nothingness as the true reality and, thus, justify some forms of mystical religion, which are at least not in direct competition with enlightenment. 

Has the last word been spoken? Have Christianity and reason permanently parted company? There is at any rate no getting around the dispute about the extent of the claims of the doctrine of evolution as a fundamental philosophy and about the exclusive validity of the positive method as the sole indicator of systematic knowledge and of rationality. This dispute has therefore to be approached objectively and with a willingness to listen, by both sides -- something that has hitherto been undertaken only to a limited extent. No one will be able to cast serious doubt upon the scientific evidence for micro-evolutionary processes. R. Junker and S. Scherer, in their "critical reader" on evolution, have this to say: "Many examples of such developmental steps [microevolutionary processes] are known to us from natural processes of variation and development. The research done on them by evolutionary biologists produced significant knowledge of the adaptive capacity of living systems, which seems marvelous." 

They tell us, accordingly, that one would therefore be quite justified in describing the research of early development as the reigning monarch among biological disciplines. It is not toward that point, therefore, that a believer will direct the questions he puts to modern rationality but rather toward the development of evolutionary theory into a generalized "philosophia universalis," which claims to constitute a universal explanation of reality and is unwilling to allow the continuing existence of any other level of thinking. Within the teaching about evolution itself, the problem emerges at the point of transition from micro to macro-evolution, on which point Szathmary and Maynard Smith, both convinced supporters of an all-embracing theory of evolution, nonetheless declare that: "There is no theoretical basis for believing that evolutionary lines become more complex with time; and there is also no empirical evidence that this happens." 

The question that has now to be put certainly delves deeper: it is whether the theory of evolution can be presented as a universal theory concerning all reality, beyond which further questions about the origin and the nature of things are no longer admissible and indeed no longer necessary, or whether such ultimate questions do not after all go beyond the realm of what can be entirely the object of research and knowledge by natural science. I should like to put the question in still more concrete form. Has everything been said with the kind of answer that we find thus formulated by Popper: "Life as we know it consists of physical 'bodies' (more precisely, structures) which are problem solving. This the various species have 'learned' by natural selection, that is to say by the method of reproduction plus variation, which itself has been learned by the same method. This regress is not necessarily infinite." I do not think so. In the end this concerns a choice that can no longer be made on purely scientific grounds or basically on philosophical grounds. 

The question is whether reason, or rationality, stands at the beginning of all things and is grounded in the basis of all things or not. The question is whether reality originated on the basis of chance and necessity (or, as Popper says, in agreement with Butler, on the basis of luck and cunning) and, thus, from what is irrational; that is, whether reason, being a chance by-product of irrationality and floating in an ocean of irrationality, is ultimately just as meaningless; or whether the principle that represents the fundamental conviction of Christian faith and of its philosophy remains true: "In principio erat Verbum" -- at the beginning of all things stands the creative power of reason. Now as then, Christian faith represents the choice in favor of the priority of reason and of rationality. This ultimate question, as we have already said, can no longer be decided by arguments from natural science, and even philosophical thought reaches its limits here. In that sense, there is no ultimate demonstration that the basic choice involved in Christianity is correct. Yet, can reason really renounce its claim to the priority of what is rational over the irrational, the claim that the Logos is at the ultimate origin of things, without abolishing itself? 

The explanatory model presented by Popper, which reappears in different variations in the various accounts of the "basic philosophy," shows that reason cannot do other than to think of irrationality according to its own standards, that is, those of reason (solving problems, learning methods!), so that it implicitly reintroduces nonetheless the primacy of reason, which has just been denied. Even today, by reason of its choosing to assert the primacy of reason, Christianity remains "enlightened," and I think that any enlightenment that cancels this choice must, contrary to all appearances, mean, not an evolution, but an involution, a shrinking, of enlightenment. 

We saw before that in the way early Christianity saw things, the concepts of nature, man, God, ethics and religion were indissolubly linked together and that this very interlinking contributed to make Christianity appear the obvious choice in the crisis concerning the gods and in the crisis concerning the enlightenment of the ancient world. The orientation of religion toward a rational view of reality as a whole, ethics as a part of this vision, and its concrete application under the primacy of love became closely associated. The primacy of the Logos and the primacy of love proved to be identical. The Logos was seen to be, not merely a mathematical reason at the basis of all things, but a creative love taken to the point of becoming sympathy, suffering with the creature. The cosmic aspect of religion, which reverences the Creator in the power of being, and its existential aspect, the question of redemption, merged together and became one. 

Every explanation of reality that cannot at the same time provide a meaningful and comprehensible basis for ethics necessarily remains inadequate. Now the theory of evolution, in the cases where people have tried to extend it to a "philosophia universalis," has in fact been used for an attempt at a new ethos based on evolution. Yet this evolutionary ethic that inevitably takes as its key concept the model of selectivity, that is, the struggle for survival, the victory of the fittest, successful adaptation, has little comfort to offer. Even when people try to make it more attractive in various ways, it ultimately remains a bloodthirsty ethic. Here, the attempt to distill rationality out of what is in itself irrational quite visibly fails. All this is of very little use for an ethic of universal peace, of practical love of one's neighbor, and of the necessary overcoming of oneself, which is what we need.