Cardinal Schonborn on Creation and Evolution

 from the German "Creation and Evolution: To the Debate as It Stands"


Cardinal Christoph Schonborn on Creation and Evolution (c) October 2, 2005

Creation and Evolution: To the Debate as It Stands

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn's First Catechetical Lecture for 2005/2006, Sunday, October 2nd, 2005, St. Stephan's Cathedral, Vienna.

Annotation: It has come to our attention that the content of Cardinal Schönborn's first catechesis has been mis-reported in the English-speaking press as somehow drawing back from his essay in The New York Times. This is inaccurate, as will be apparent from the full text. In order to clear up this misunderstanding, we are posting here an initial draft of an English translation. (Official and final German and English versions will follow when the lectures are compiled into book form).

It is with a measure of heartfelt trepidation that I begin the catechetical lectures for this working year, for the topic with which I have resolved to grapple is creation and evolution. I do not intend to delve into the scientific details; in that domain I would doubtlessly not be qualified. Instead, I shall examine the relationship between belief in creation and scientific access to the world, to reality. Thus, I begin with the first words of the Bible:

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1)

These should be the first words of instruction as well. Belief in God the Creator, belief that He created the heavens and the earth, is the beginning of faith. It launches the credo as its first article. That already implies that here is the basis of all, the foundation on which every other Christian belief rests. To believe in God and, at the same time, not to believe that he is the Creator would mean, as Thomas Aquinas puts it, "to deny utterly that God is." God and Creator are inseparable. Every other Christian conviction depends on this: that Jesus Christ is the Savior, that there is the Holy Spirit, that there is a Church, that there is eternal life: they all presuppose belief in the Creator.

For that reason, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) emphasizes the fundamental significance of belief in creation. In Article 282, it tells us that here we are dealing with questions that any human being leading a human life must sooner or later pose:

"Where do I come from? Where am I going? What is the goal, what is the origin, what is the meaning of my life?"

The belief in creation is also crucially related to the basis of ethics, for implicit in that faith is the assumption that this Creator has something to say to us -- through His Creation, through His work -- about the proper use of that work and about the true meaning of our lives. Thus, from the earliest days of the Church, creation catechesis has been the basis of all doctrinal teaching. If you examine the patristic instruction given to the first catechumens, you will see that this teaching stood at the very beginning. During this year, we shall therefore endeavor to ponder the matter.

If it is true that the question of the origin (whence do we come?) is inseparable from that of life's goal (where do we go?), then the question of creation also concerns that of its purpose or end. Likewise related is the "design" of the plan. God not only is the Maker of all; He is also the maintainer of His creation, directing it to its goal. That too will be a subject of these lessons, for the question is quite an essential part of basic Christian convictions. God is not only a creator who at the beginning set the work in motion, like a watchmaker who has fashioned a time-piece that will tick on forever. Rather, he preserves and guides it towards its goal. The Christian faith further teaches that the creation is not yet complete, that it is in statu viae, in transit. God as Creator of the world is also its guide. We call this "providence" (Vorsehung). We are convinced that all of this -- that there is a Creator and a guide -- can also be perceived and recognized by us. Christian belief decidedly and tenaciously clings to the human capacity to discern both these divine aspects, though certainly neither in toto nor in every detail.

How do we know about it? A blind faith, one that would simply demand a leap into the utter void of uncertainty, would be no human faith. If belief in the Creator were totally without insight, without any understanding of what such entails, then it would likewise be inhuman. Quite rightly, the Church has always rejected "fideism" -- that very sort of blind faith.

Belief without insight, without any possibility of perceiving the Creator, of being able to grasp by means of reason anything of what He has wrought, would be no Christian belief. The Biblical Judeo-Christian faith was always convinced that we not only should and may believe in the Creator: there is also much about Him that we are capable of understanding through the exercise of human reason.

Allow me to cite a somewhat lengthy passage from Chapter 13 of the Book of Wisdom, an Old Testament text from sometime at the end of the second or the beginning of the first century BC:

"For all men were by nature foolish who were in ignorance of God, and who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing him who is, and from studying the works did not discern the artisan; But either fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circuit of the stars, or the mighty water, or the luminaries of heaven, the governors of the world, they considered gods. Now if out of joy in their beauty they thought them gods, let them know how far more excellent is the Lord than these; for the original source of beauty fashioned them. Or if they were struck by their might and energy, let them from these things realize how much more powerful is he who made them. For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen. But yet, for these the blame is less; For they indeed have gone astray perhaps, though they seek God and wish to find him. For they search busily among his works, but are distracted by what they see, because the things seen are fair. But again, not even these are pardonable. For if they so far succeeded in knowledge that they could speculate about the world, how did they not more quickly find its LORD?" (Book of Wisdom 13:1-9; cf. Romans 1)

This classic text is one of the bases for the conviction, subsequently made dogma, i.e., affirmed as an explicit principle of faith as taught by the Church, in the First Vatican Council of 1870: that the light of human reason enables us to know that there is a Creator and that this Creator guides the world (Vatican Council I, Dei Filius, Chapter 2; CCC 36).

From the text I might first bring to the fore the following: The Bible reproaches the Gentiles, who do not worship the true God, for deifying the world and Nature, for seeking mythical, magical power behind Nature and natural phenomena. Of stars, from fire, from light and air, they make gods. They allow themselves to be deceived. Their fascination with creation has led them to the apotheosis of creature. In this sense, the Bible is the first messenger of enlightenment. In its own way, it disenchants the world, strips it of its magical, mythical power, "de-mythologizing" and "dis-deifying" it.

Are we aware that without this dis-deification, modern science would be impossible? That the world has been created and is not divine, that it is finite, that it is, to put in philosophical language, "contingent" and not necessary, that it could also not exist, only this belief has made it possible for that same world to be studied -- what it consists of and who inhabits it -- as an end in itself. There we encounter finite, created realities and not gods or divine beings. In this disenchantment of Nature there is, of course, something painful. Behind the tree, behind the well, there are no longer any nymphs or deities, mythical, magical powers, but rather that which the Creator has endowed in them and which human reason can explore. Thus, already in the Old Testament, the Book of Wisdom, in an astoundingly dry and sober manner, that God has created everything according to measure, number, and weight. That is the basis of all natural scientific endeavor to understand reality.

Behind everything in the world stands the transcendent reason of the Creator. All things are made by him and not of themselves. They are willed by Him, and that is the great mystery of the creation doctrine. They are, so to speak, set free into their own existence. They are themselves, not of themselves but rather because the Creator in a sovereign exercise of His volition has willed them. In this sense, as we shall see in the next lesson, they have their autonomy, their own laws, their independence, their own being. It is the belief in the doctrine of creation that makes it possible to grasp this.

Whereas pagan antiquity for the most part "divinized" the world, made it a god, a philosophical movement reacting against this idea, at the time that Christianity arose, was the so-called "Gnosis," which denigrated the world. The world, above all matter, was the product of an "accident" (Unfall) a "downfall" (Abfall). It is, in fact, nothing at all good. It is not something that is willed, that ought to be; it is pure negativity. Christianity just as decisively rejected the Gnostic vision as it did the deification of the world. It is precisely because the world has been created that early Christendom emphasizes without any hint of ambiguity that matter too has been created, that it is good, that it is meaningful and is not simply, as the result of an "accident" within the godhead, "debris" from what was originally a single, monistic divine being, something driven through, so to speak, an "excretion" (Ausscheidung) into the void. Matter is not something purely meaningless, which should be overcome, put aside. Matter was created. "God saw that it was good" (Genesis 1:10).

Man in this material world has not fallen into a region of darkness, as the Gnosis teaches, a divine spark that has fallen into filth from which he must extricate himself by returning to his divine origin. Rather, he partakes of creation. He is willed by God, as a material but also spiritual-physical being, as a microcosm, as an image of the macrocosm, as a being on the border between two realms, combining the spiritual and the material. The account of creation in Genesis tells us: "And God saw that it was very good" (Genesis 1:31).

Man belongs to creation and yet transcends it. We shall make this a subject of discussion when we come to the question: Is man the crown of creation?

Both Gnostic and divinizing visions are incompatible with the Biblical doctrine of creation. The greatest stumbling block for antiquity was certainly the belief that God creates out of nothing, without prerequisite: ex nihilo. I think that this question is still today the key question in the entire debate about creation and evolution. What does it mean to say that God creates? The great difficulty that we have, the point -- I am convinced and will also demonstrate -- at which Darwin faltered and failed, is that we have no concept, no vision, no idea of what it means to say that God is the Creator. That is because everything that we know is strictly a matter of changes, alterations. The makers of this Cathedral did not construct out of nothing. They shaped stone and wood in marvelous fashion. All extra-biblical creation myths and epics take it for granted that a divine being made the world within a preexisting framework.

Creatio ex nihilo, the absolutely sovereign act of creation, as the Bible attests, is -- and I believe one can also say this in terms of the history of religion -- something unique. We shall see how fundamentally important this is for the understanding of creation as something that God wills to be independent. That will be our next topic of discussion.

Today I wish to point out that I am not the only one who is convinced of this. The belief in creation stood like a godfather beside the cradle of modern science. I shall not demonstrate this in detail, but I am convinced of it and for good reasons. Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton were certain that the work of science means reading in the book of creation. God has written that book, and He has given men the power of understanding, in order that they may decipher it. God has written it in legible form, as a comprehensible text. It is admittedly not easy to understand, and the writing is not easy to decode, but it is possible. The entire scientific enterprise is the discovery of order, laws, connections, and relationships. Let us say, using this book metaphor: It is the discovery of the letters, the grammar, the syntax, and ultimately of the text itself that God has put into this book of creation.

The proposition that the relationship between the Church and science is a bad one, that faith and science, since time immemorial, have been in a state of interminable conflict, belongs to the enduring myths of our time, indeed, I would say, to the acquired prejudices of our time. And, of course, the notion that generally goes along with it, like a musical accompaniment, is the notion that the Church has acted as an enormous inhibitor, with science the courageous liberator. Above all, the Galileo incident is usually portrayed in the popular version in such a way that he is seen as a victim of the sinister Inquisition. Such belongs to the chapter of legenda negra, the "black legend," which developed primarily during the Enlightenment but which does not correspond entirely to the historical record. The reality appears somewhat differently. Many historical examples demonstrate how the creation faith served as the rational foundation for scientific research. Of these, Gregor Mendel, the scientist of Brünn, is but one of a multitude whose endeavors remain indelibly with us today.

It is not true that belief in God the Creator in any way hinders the progress of science! Quite the contrary! How could the belief that the universe has a maker stand in the way of science? Why should it be an impediment to science if it understands its research, its discoveries, its construction of theories, its understanding of connections and relationships as a "study of the book of creation" ? Indeed, among natural scientists there are numerous witnesses who make no secret of their faith and openly profess it, but who also expressly see no conflict between faith and science. Again, quite the contrary. The fact that conflicts nonetheless have existed and continue to exist is an issue that would require separate treatment.

Allow me to quote two short texts that express this fundamental conviction of the Church. First, there is again the First Vatican Council of 1870, where we read:

"Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason. God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever be in opposition to truth." (Vatican Council I, Dei filius, Chapter 4; CCC 159)

The conclusion to be drawn is that neither the Church nor science should fear the truth, for, as Jesus says, the truth sets us free (cf. John 8:32). The second excerpt comes from the Second Vatican Council. In the conciliar constitution, Gaudium et spes, there is more particular emphasis on the question of "Natural Science and Faith":

"Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are." (Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes 36:2; CCC 159)

Why then do we continually find ourselves caught up in conflicts -- or at least, as a consequence of my short article in the New York Times on July 7, 2005, for example, though such can be quite productive and further the discussion -- to vehement polemics?

Conflicts can arise from misunderstandings. Perhaps we do not express ourselves with sufficient clarity; perhaps our thoughts and ideas are not clear enough. Such misunderstandings can be resolved. I have just mentioned one of the most frequent, that which concerns the Creator Himself. I shall soon touch upon this with reference to Darwin. Today there seems to me no real danger of an attempt on the part of the Church to take a dictatorial or patronizing attitude toward science. Yet again and again the difficulty arises on both sides that borders are neither recognized nor respected. Thus, they must constantly be assessed and enunciated.

In this regard, the grand achievements of the natural sciences have again and again encouraged the temptation to cross borders. The impression arises that in the face of science's powerful advance, religion is constantly retreating, being forced by the ever greater explanatory capacity of science to yield ever more of its territory. Questions that previously were elucidated in supposedly "primitive supernatural" terms can now be treated in "naturalistic" terms, and that generally means resorting to purely material causes.

When Napoleon asked LaPlace where in his theory there was still a place for God, he is said to have replied: "Sire, je n'ai pas eu besoin de cette hypothèse ("Sire, I have had no need of that hypothesis.") Such is the notion that God is a superfluous hypothesis, a crutch for the infirm, incapable of standing on their own feet. Increasingly, human beings win their freedom from ancient dependencies. They emancipate themselves, no longer needing God as an explanation or perhaps in any way at all.

When in 1859 Darwin's famous book The Origin of Species appeared, the basic message was indeed that he had found a mechanism that portrays a self-acting (selbsttätig) development, without the need of a Creator. As he said himself, his concern was to find a theory which, for the development of the species from lower to higher, did not require increasingly perfective creative acts but rather relied exclusively on coincidental variations and the "survival of the fittest." Here was thus the notion that we have found a means for dispensing with individual acts of creation.

With this, his major work, Darwin undoubtedly scored a brilliant coup, and it remains a great oeuvre [work] in the history of ideas. With an astounding gift for observation, enormous diligence, and mental prowess, he succeeded in producing one of that history's most influential works. He could already see in advance that his research would create many areas of endeavor. Today one can truly say that the "evolution" paradigm has become, so to speak, a "master key," extending itself within many fields of knowledge.

His success should not be attributed entirely to scientific causes. Darwin himself (but above all his zealous promoters, those who promulgated what is called "Darwinism") imbued his theory with the air of a distinct worldview. Let us leave aside the question of whether such is inevitable. What is certain is that many saw Darwin's The Origin of Species as an alternative to what Darwin himself called "the theory of independent acts of creation." To explain the origin of species, one no longer needed such one-by-one creative activity.

The famous concluding sentence added to the end of the second edition of the work certainly provides a place for the Creator, but it is substantially reduced. It reads:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved." (Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, all quotations translated from English are taken from the original sources)

I believe that Darwin sincerely intended this in a spirit of reverence, but it is a conception of creation that in the realm of theology we call "Deism." In the very beginning there is an act of creation: God breathed into a seed, a single form, the germ of all life. It developed from this primeval beginning, according to the laws that he, Darwin, had endeavored to discover, describe, and formulate. No more divine interventions are required. I think that we shall have to concern ourselves with this question in particular from the aspect of faith. Does creation mean that God does intervene here and there? What do we mean, after all, by the idea of creation? One thing is certain: The conflict of worldviews about Darwin's theory, about Darwinism, has kept the world intensively busy over the years, now nearly a century and a half. Here I shall offer only three examples of an interpretation that is indisputably imbued with ideology.

(1) In 1959, Sir Julian Huxley gave a speech at the centennial celebration of the publication of the famous work:

"In the Evolutionary pattern of thought there is no longer either need or room for the supernatural. The earth was not created, it evolved. So did all animals and plants that inhabit it, including our human selves, mind and soul as well as brain and body. So did religion. Evolutionary man can no longer take refuge from his loneliness in the arms of a divinized father figure...." (Huxley)

I am convinced that this is not a claim within the realm of the natural sciences but rather the expression of a worldview. It is essentially a "confession of faith" -- that faith being materialism.

(2) Thirty years later, in 1988, the American writer Will Provine wrote in an essay about evolution and ethics:

"Modern science directly implies that the world is organized strictly in accordance with deterministic principles or chance. There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature. There are no gods and no designing forces that are rationally detectable." (Provine)

This too is not a conclusion derived from natural science; it is a philosophical claim.

(3) Four years later, the Oxford chemistry professor Peter Atkins wrote:

"Humanity should accept that science has eliminated the justification for believing in cosmic purpose, and that any survival of purpose is inspired solely by sentiment." (Atkins)

Again, this is a "confession of faith"; it is not a strictly scientific claim. These and similar statements could be heard this summer and are one reason that I said in my short article in the New York Times concerning this sort of "border-crossings," that they constitute ideology rather than science, a worldview.

But let us return to the Book of Wisdom, which elsewhere puts the following words into the mouths of those who would deny God:

"For we are born of nothing, and after this we shall be as if we had not been: for the breath in our nostrils is smoke: and speech a spark to move our heart." (Book of Wisdom 2:2)

One could almost say that this is a materialistic confession of faith that even at the time was not unknown. Even my spirit is a only a material product.

What prevents man from recognizing the Creator? What prevents us from deducing the Creator from the greatness and beauty of His creatures? Today, 2000 years later, it ought to be much easier, to do so, for we know incomparably more than we did two millennia ago. Who could have had any inkling of the immeasurability of the cosmos? Of course, it says in the Bible: " the stars of the heaven, and as the sand upon the sea shore," (Genesis 22: 17), but could men have known then that the number of stars does in fact correspond to the grains of sands on the shore? There are so many suns in this universe! Could anyone then have known how unbelievably complex, wonderful, incomprehensible the atom is? Could anyone have conceived just how incredibly fascinating can be a single cell and all its functions? Has this wealth of knowledge nonetheless in some way forced us to abandon our belief in the Creator? Has this knowledge driven Him out, or has it, on the contrary, rendered it all the more meaningful and reasonable to believe in Him -- with much better supporting evidence, through deeper insights into the marvelous world of Nature, so that faith in a Creator has really become easier?

But perhaps it is simply this notion, one rightly rejected, that some creator intrudes upon this marvelous natural work. Perhaps it is also a matter of our knowledge about the faith not having kept pace with our knowledge about the natural sciences. Perhaps some of us still have, alongside an astoundingly developed scientific knowledge, only a "childish faith." To that extent, I am glad that my short article has sparked such a debate. Perhaps it will also lead to a deeper discussion of the question of "creation and evolution," "faith and natural science."

I see no difficulty in joining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, but under the prerequisite that the borders of scientific theory are maintained. In the citations given above, it is unequivocally the case that such have been violated. When science adheres to its own method, it cannot come into conflict with faith. But perhaps one finds it difficult to stay within one's territory, for we are, after all, not simply scientists but also human beings, with feelings, who struggle with faith, human beings, who seek the meaning of life. And thus as natural scientists we are constantly and inevitably bringing in questions reflecting worldviews.

In 1985, a symposium took place in Rome under the title "Christian Faith and the Theory of Evolution." I had the privilege of taking part in it and contributed a paper. Then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, presided, and, at its conclusion, Pope John Paul II received us in an audience. There he said:

"Rightly comprehended, faith in creation or a correctly understood teaching of evolution does not create obstacles: Evolution in fact presupposes creation; creation situates itself in the light of evolution as an event which extends itself through time -- as a continual creation -- in which God becomes visible to the eyes of the believer as ‘creator of heaven and earth.' " (John Paul II)

But Pope John Paul then added the thought that for the creation faith and the theory of evolution to be correctly understood, the mediation of reason is necessary, along with, he insisted, philosophy and reflection. Thus, I should like to remind you once more what I have said in various interviews. For me the question that has emerged from this debate is not primarily one of faith vs. knowledge but rather one of reason. The acceptance of purposefulness, of "design" [English in the original], is entirely based on reason, even if the method of the modern natural sciences may require the bracketing of the question of design. Yet my common sense cannot be shut out by the scientific method. Reason tells me that plan and order, meaning and goal exist, that a time-piece does not come into being by accident, even less so the living organism that is a plant, an animal, or, above all, man.

I am thankful for the immense work of the natural sciences. Their furthering of our knowledge boggles the mind. They do not restrict faith in the creation; they strengthen me in my belief in the Creator and in how wisely and wonderfully He has made all things. It is in the next catecheses, however, that we may be able to see this story in greater detail. There I shall attempt to address what the act of creation means in light of the Christian faith.


© Kardinal Christoph Schönborn