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No conflict between evolution and Catholic doctrine: Vatican conference

Friday, March 13th, 2009

A five day conference held to mark the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was held in the Vatican last week.

Vatican officials joined biologists, paleontologists, molecular geneticists and philosophers for the conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Rafael Martinez, professor of the philosophy of science at the Santa Croce Pontifical University in Rome, said that although the reaction of Catholic theologians, intellectuals and priests to Darwinian theory had been generally negative in the 19th century, recent declarations by popes have asserted the full accordance of Catholic doctrine and evolutionary biology.

He said, however, that this was not widely known, and the false impression had arisen that the Holy See is opposed to evolution.

The conference was co-organised by the Pontifical Council for Culture in conjunction with Notre Dame University in Indiana and support from the John Templeton Foundation.

Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said there was no a priori incompatibility between evolution and the message of the Bible.

He pointed out that Darwin had never been condemned by the Catholic Church, and that On the Origin of Species had never been placed on the Index of forbidden books.

Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the assertion by Richard Dawkins and others that evolution proves there is no God was absurd.

Marco Politi, said the conference marked "the end of the guerrilla warfare conducted against evolutionism by some sectors of the ecclesiastical hierarchy who had felt they were protected by Pope Benedict".

Organisers said on Thursday that they barred intelligent design proponents because they wanted an intellectually rigorous conference on science, theology and philosophy to mark the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

Intelligent design holds that certain features of life forms are so complex that they can best be explained by an origin from an intelligent higher power, not an undirected process like natural selection.

"We think that intelligent design is not a scientific perspective, nor a theological or philosophical one," said Rev Marc Leclerc, the conference director and a professor of philosophy of nature at the Gregorian University. "This makes a dialogue very difficult, maybe impossible."

In addition to intelligent design, creationism has come under critique at the conference.
 
In his address, Cardinal William Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spoke dismissively of fundamentalist Christians in the US who want schools to teach biblical creationism alongside, or instead of, evolution.

A professor of the history of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Ronald Numbers, said creationism, the literal interpretation of the Genesis account, and intelligent design, its modern descendant, had spread beyond the United States and had become globalised, with variants springing up within Islam and Judaism as well as Christianity.

Muslim creationists also complained about the conference.

Church teaching holds that Roman Catholicism and evolutionary theory are not necessarily at odds. The Church under Pope Benedict has been trying to stress that, along with its overall belief in a creator God, there is no incompatibility between faith and reason.

Pope John Paul II articulated the Church's position most clearly in a 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy for Sciences, saying the theory of evolution is "more than a hypothesis."