02/10/2009, 00.00
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Darwin’s theory of evolution is God’s tool for creation, says scholar

An international conference on evolution is announced. It will examine the British naturalist’s theory from a historical and theological perspective as well. For Father Leclerc the acrimonious nature of the discussions is due to the theory’s transformation into a universal philosophy and the reaction by those who thought it was incompatible with religion.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – Are the universe, the earth and humankind the by-product of chance or God’s work? More precisely are they the outcome of evolution or creation? This apparently irreconcilable dichotomy found its lightning rod 150 years ago in Charles Darwin’s Origins of the Species. But the great naturalist’s work will also be celebrated a second time this Thursday, the 200th anniversary of his birth. As we might expect both events are bound to fuel the flames of controversy between two opposing visions.

A critical approach to the theory of evolution is instead the goal of an international conference titled Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories. A critical appraisal 150 years after ‘The origin of species’, scheduled to take place in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University on 3-7 March 2009.

Presented today in the Vatican, the conference is organised by the Pontifical Gregorian University and the University of Notre Dame (Indiana, USA) and sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture, as part of the Vatican-sponsored ‘Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest’ (STOQ) project. The organising committee includes representatives of Vatican academic institutions as well as lay people from different backgrounds and origins, believers and non-believers.

Sharp discussions between the backers of the two visions have been the order of the day for a long time, said Fr Marc Leclerc S.J., professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University and director of the conference, but their differences “were not only informed by some theoretical points that can be discussed scientifically, which is normal in science, but also by the paradigm’s novelty, which led some of Darwin’s followers to go beyond his theory and raise some of its elements, or its modern 20th century synthesis, to [the status of] Philosophia Universalis.” This is the case of historical materialism, used now and then in Communist countries to fight religion.

“Along the way Darwinism’s adversaries often followed suit,” Father Leclerc said. They confused the “scientific theory of evolution with the all-encompassing ideology that distorted it and reject the idea altogether as incompatible with the religious vision of reality. And such a situation might explain why some ‘creationist’ notions or ideas like ‘intelligent design’ have made a comeback as alternative theories. Even if at this level we are far from a scientific discussion, we still have to examine this state of affairs at both the philosophical and theological levels.”

Father Leclerc, who questions ‘intelligent design’, said none the less that it will be discussed but only from a critical historical perspective, because “God does come as a deus ex machine to fill the gaps of a scientific theory”. For him, claims such as these are “confusing [different] levels” and something “completely unacceptable.”

In reality from a theological perspective, illustrated by Fr Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti, professor of fundamental theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, there is “a well established” tradition “that reconciles the notion of creation with the idea that the world evolves in time and history, a world where events which we consider causal are possible,” and “where catastrophes, extinctions and a certain opposition among species exists.”

“From the perspective of Christian theology, biological evolution and creation are by no means mutually exclusive. We can, if we consider the term evolution more broadly without any reference to any one specific evolutionary mechanism, that evolution is ultimately God’s tool of creation, insofar as evolution is understood as a progressive [process of] diversification, organisation and complexification of the morphology of living beings.”

“For example, who can claim,” he added, “that what appears to be random before our eyes does not follow any rules, i.e. a Creator? Only when randomness or indeterminism are morphed into a philosophical absolute that has no place for an underlying plan for the world or finds no meaningfulness in evolution coming from the Creator, can an apparent but fallacious clash between science and theology develop.”

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