The New York Times reports on the big evolution meeting in Rome:
They meet every year, the eminent German professor and his old doctoral students, for a weekend of high-minded talk on a chosen topic. For years it was nothing more than that.
But now the professor, once called Joseph Ratzinger, has become Pope Benedict XVI. And this year, for three days beginning Friday, the topic on the table is evolution, an issue perched on the ever more contentious front between science and belief.
And so the questions rise as the meeting unfolds at a papal palace just outside Rome. Is this merely another yearly seminar? Or is the leader of the world’s billion Roman Catholics signaling that he may join in earnest the emotional debate over evolution, intelligent design and all that might mean for politics and faith, especially in the United States?
There is no way to know immediately, though many church experts believe that the pope has fewer problems with the science of evolution than with its use to wipe God more cleanly from a secular world. No document will be published afterward, no news conference given.
There’s been a lot of fuss recently about the Catholic Church and evolution. On several occasions the current Pope has taken shots at evolution, and last year Cardinal Schonborn published an op-ed in The New York Times critical of it. Most recently, the Vatican astronomer George Coyne was relieved of his position after speaking publicly in defense of evolution. It’s unclear whether his support for evolution was the reason for removing him from the position.
For a while now, at least since Pope Pius XII in the late forties, the official position of the Church has been that evolution and natural selection are fine as long as one is careful to restrict their application to the physical bodies of organisms. Evolution notwithstanding, they say, humans have souls, and those souls are the result of direct divine intervention. Pope John Paul II upped the ante somewhat by describing evolution as more than a hypothesis, and speaking favorably of the many lines of evidence in support of the theory.
My impression is that nothing has changed under Pope Benedict XVI. I suspect that he will not explicitly reject evolution or endorse ID. Instead, he will walk right up to the line without actually crossing it. On the one hand, he personally has grave doubts about evolution. On the other hand, he is fearful of the Church receiving another black eye over conflicts between science and religion. The meme that the Catholic Church is okay with evolution is now so widespread that he probably won’t want to rock the boat too badly.
It is ridiculous, of course, that anyone cares what the Church thinks on this issue. After all, we are talking about an organization that sets itself up as the sole legitimate intermediary between Man and God, and then declares its leader to be infallible. Such an outfit has no business lecturing scientists on the virtues of humility.