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Intelligent Design belittles God, Vatican director says

By Mark Lombard
January 30th, 2006
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (Catholic Online) -- Intelligent Design reduces and belittles God’s power and might, according to the director of the Vatican Observatory.

Science is and should be seen as “completely neutral” on the issue of the theistic or atheistic implications of scientific results, says Father George V. Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory, while noting that “science and religion are totally separate pursuits.”

Father Coyne is scheduled to deliver the annual Aquinas Lecture on “Science Does Not Need God, or Does It? A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution” at Palm Beach Atlantic University, an interdenominational Christian university of about 3,100 students, here Jan. 31. The talk is sponsored by the Newman Club, and scheduled in conjunction with the Jan. 28 feast of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Catholic Online received an advance copy of the remarks from the Jesuit priest-astronomer, who heads the Vatican Observatory, which has sites at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, and on Mount Graham in Arizona.

Christianity is “radically creationist,” Father George V. Coyne said, but it is not best described by the “crude creationism” of the fundamental, literal, scientific interpretation of Genesis or by the Newtonian dictatorial God who makes the universe tick along like a watch. Rather, he stresses, God acts as a parent toward the universe, nurturing, encouraging and working with it.

In his remarks, he also criticizes the cardinal archbishop of Vienna’s support for Intelligent Design and notes that Pope John Paul’s declaration that “evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis” is “a fundamental church teaching” which advances the evolutionary debate.

He calls “mistaken” the belief that the Bible should be used “as a source of scientific knowledge,” which then serves to “unduly complicate the debate over evolution.”

And while Charles Darwin receives most of the attention in the debate over evolution, Father Coyne said it was the 18th-century French naturalist Georges Buffon, condemned a hundred years before Darwin for suggesting that “it took billions of years to form the crust of the earth,” who “caused problems for the theologians with the implications that might be drawn from the theory of evolution.”

He points to the “marvelous intuition” of Roman Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman who said in 1868, “the theory of Darwin, true or not, is not necessarily atheistic; on the contrary, it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of divine providence and skill.”

Pope John Paul Paul II, he adds, told the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 that “new scientific knowledge has led us to the conclusion that the theory of evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis.”

He criticizes Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna for instigating a “tragic” episode “in the relationship of the Catholic Church to science” through the prelate’s July 7, 2005, article he wrote for the New York Times that “neo-Darwinian evolution is not compatible with Catholic doctrine,” while the Intelligent Design theory is.

Cardinal Schonborn “is in error,” the Vatican observatory director says, on “at least five fundamental issues.”

“One, the scientific theory of evolution, as all scientific theories, is completely neutral with respect to religious thinking; two, the message of John Paul II, which I have just referred to and which is dismissed by the cardinal as ‘rather vague and unimportant,’ is a fundamental church teaching which significantly advances the evolution debate; three, neo-Darwinian evolution is not in the words of the cardinal, ‘an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection;’ four, the apparent directionality seen by science in the evolutionary process does not require a designer; five, Intelligent Design is not science despite the cardinal’s statement that ‘neo-Darwinism and the multi-verse hypothesis in cosmology [were] invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science,’” Father Coyne says.

Christianity is “radically creationist” and God is the “creator of the universe,” he says, but in “a totally different sense” than creationism has come to mean.

“It is unfortunate that, especially here in America, creationism has come to mean some fundamentalistic, literal, scientific interpretation of Genesis,” he stresses. “It is rooted in a belief that everything depends upon God, or better, all is a gift from God. The universe is not God and it cannot exist independently of God. Neither pantheism nor naturalism is true.”

He says that God is not needed to explain the “scientific picture of life’s origins in terms of religious belief.”

“To need God would be a very denial of God. God is not a response to a need,” the Jesuit says, adding that some religious believers act as if they “fondly hope for the durability of certain gaps in our scientific knowledge of evolution, so that they can fill them with God.”

Yet, he adds, this is the opposite of what human intelligence should be working toward. “We should be seeking for the fullness of God in creation.”

Modern science reveals to the religious believer “God who made a universe that has within it a certain dynamism and thus participates in the very creativity of God,” Father Coyne says, adding that this view of creation is not new but can be found in early Christian writings, including from those of St. Augustine.

“Religious believers must move away from the notion of a dictator God, a Newtonian God who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly.”

He proposes to describe God’s relationship with the universe as that of a parent with a child, with God nurturing, preserving and enriching its individual character. “God should be seen more as a parent or as one who speaks encouraging and sustaining words.”

He stresses that the theory of Intelligent Design diminishes God into “an engineer who designs systems rather than a lover.”

“God in his infinite freedom continuously creates a world which reflects that freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process to greater and greater complexity,” he said. “God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution. He does not intervene, but rather allows, participates, loves.”

The concludes his prepared remarks noting that science challenges believers’ traditional understanding of God and the universe to look beyond “crude creationism” to a view that preserves the special character of both.

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