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The Cardinal Dresses Darwin Up for God: Compatibilist Strategies – Do They Work?


On  July 7, 2005 Cardinal Christoph Schönborn wrote an article Finding Design in Nature  that seemed to level serious criticism at Darwinism and neo-Darwinism.   “Now at the beginning of the 21st century, faced with scientific claims like neo-Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science,” wrote Schönborn, “the Catholic Church will again defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real.”  More recently the Cardinal has elaborated upon his position in his latest book Chance or Purpose: Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith (Ignatius Press, 2007).  The work itself emanating as it does from such a well-positioned Catholic leader, one intimate with the Pope, is worthy of some extended comment.

 Schönborn’s book is in some senses confusing.  On the one hand the Viennese Cardinal has some harsh criticism for Darwinian evolution as a metaphysical worldview.  On the other hand Schönborn takes the reader on a much murkier journey in which he appears to defend Darwin’s Origin as a “stroke of genius.”  Freeing himself from the dogma of independent creations, Darwin developed a theory of natural selection and common descent that was, according to  Schönborn, a product of “honest and intense intellectual struggle” (p. 53).  The Cardinal essentially supports Darwin’s biological mechanisms as secondary causes, which “can thus perfectly well be reconciled with belief in creation.  The natural causes,” he writes, “are an expression of the activity of creation”  that occurs throughout all aspects of creation.   Schönborn has a purpose in mind here, namely, to make a distinction between the so-called science of Darwin and the metaphysics of Darwinism in an effort to make Darwin’s biological theory implicitly compatible with theism.  Here begins the Cardinal’s troubles.

Fitting the Square Peg into the Round Hole in a Conceptual fog

Schönborn’s book has two serious problems:  First, a persistent lack of clarity and precision that often deteriorates into outright contradiction; and second, an attempt to force compatibility between a particular theory of species descent and teleology for which the former was never intended, thus the persistently awkward effort to fit the round Darwinian peg into the square theistic hole. (I use the term compatibility and its variants not in the classical philosophical sense between freewill and determinism but between theistic purpose and Darwinian materialism.  I also distinguish compatibility from consilience, which has to do more broadly with the unity of knowledge and the relationship of science with religion. An answer to E. O. Wilson’s version of consilience, however, may be most eloquently found in Wendell Berry’s Life is Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition [2000]).  I will address the Cardinal’s problems in order. 

Reading a work in which the author is purportedly something of an expert on the subject, who has both advised the Pope and spoken for the Church, I was struck by some of the Cardinal’s language and surprised by the recurrent contradictions in the book.  For example, in asking whether or not our tremendous increase in scientific knowledge has perhaps left us less prone to the numinous and more willing to discard a Creator, Schönborn suggests, “Perhaps it is actually only the notion that a Creator somehow intervenes in this wondrous work of nature that is — quite rightly — being rejected” (p. 29).  Quite rightly!?  The Cardinal later admits to miracles so one is left perplexed by the  phrase here.  Then there is his effort to point out that the universe had a definite beginning with the Big Bang.  This is consonant with the creation account he says and “this absolute beginning was the free and sovereign constitution of being out of nothing” (p. 38). All well and good; the doctrine of creation ex nihilo dates at least to the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and has rooted itself firmly within Christian orthodoxy.  Out of it emerged the rationality of the universe with the Creator the source of all order, the contingent rationality of the universe as intelligible, and the transcendency of the Creator imbuing the universe with contingent freedom.   Schönborn develops these themes to some extent.  But what does it mean to say that the universe had a beginning  and then to say a few pages later God’s creative act creation “is  not in time” (pp. 46-47)?  This is true to a point, but insofar as the creative act itself established time as it were, the juxtaposition in the narrative leads to confusion.  If God brings things into being and sustains them, then in at least a phenomenological sense these “bringings into being” occur “in time.” 

Other difficulties emerge in Schönborn’s analysis.  For example, he writes, “No one creature alone can reflect God.  It needs the whole plentitude of creatures to represent God’s plentitude” (p. 59).  If the Cardinal is saying that it takes plentitude to reflect plentitude, that is a tautology upon which the reader need not further reflect.  But then he goes on to say, “Every creature, whether it be a star or a stone, a plant or a tree, [I would not have thought of stars, stones, plants, and trees as “creatures”], an animal or a human being, reflects the perfection and the goodness of God in its own particular fashion” (p. 60).   Again, to state that no one creature can reflect God in His “plentitude” is a statement either so obvious it need not be stated or it reflects a contradiction with his statement here that every creature reflects the goodness and perfection of its Creator. 

One more example will suffice to demonstrate the contradictory nature of Schönborn’s discussion.  Like Darwin himself, the Cardinal spends considerable time dealing with the problem of evil.  After citing Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov who wanted no part of a God who allowed suffering, Schönborn states curiously, “Arguments ultimately cannot convince anyone that the ills of the world are not just a pointless absurdity” (p. 94).  Then on the very next page he insists, “Nonetheless, we have to develop arguments as well.  Reason wants to understand why evil exists in the world.”  So which is it? Will or will not arguments provide a means for dealing with the problem of evil?  His general solution to the problem is evil versus good is found in a kind of unavoidable duality, but more importantly in the fact that good always outweighs the bad. Suffice it to say that in the end he provides answers that fit within his teleological view, but his handling of the issues to my mind lack the cogency and clarity of C. S. Lewis’s classic The Problem of Pain (1940). 

Much of Schönborn’s problem rests in a lack of precision and clarity in his prose.  Where nuanced meanings are called for, the Cardinal offers no explanation; where clear definitions are needed, few can be found.  One is left wondering exactly what his Eminence is trying to say and where he is heading.

But there is perhaps a deeper problem and one I alluded earlier, namely,  Schönborn’s attempt to force compatibility between a theory of descent and teleology for which the former was never intended.  I am not referring here to evolution per se but to Darwinian evolution in particular.  This raises a pertinent question:  Is it possible separate Darwin’s science from Darwin’s meyaphysics.  From what is known of Darwin’s thought processes and influences early on in the development of his notion of species “transmutations,” I think not.  Drawn from the skepticism of David Hume (1711-1776) and the atheistic positivism of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) (see my posting in this blog, “The Reluctant Mr. Darwin?”, Dec. 26, 2007), Darwin’s theory is first and foremost is a metaphysical account of life to which his observational science was attached, not the other way around.  Furthermore, Darwinism is inextricably linked with religion itself.  “Darwinism depends on religion,” writes Cornelius G. Hunter, “but only to overrun the opposing [teleological] theory.  Once this work is done evolutionists are free to pursue an entirely mechanistic explanation of life” (Darwin’s Proof,  p. 11).

Thus, Schönborn’s attempt to distinguish between evolution and what he calls evolutionism — i.e, an evolution of science versus an evolution of ideology — is doomed to failure.  The two where not conceived apart; the science is the ideology and ideology is the science and a good deal of both are suspect.   You can force the distinction but, like attempting to hammer the proverbial square peg into the round hole, it neither looks good nor works well.  Take the ideology out of Darwinian evolution and you no longer have Darwinism.  Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) essentially did just that but that is another story for another time.

Enter Teilhard de Chardin

In order to accomplish this impossible feat Schönborn must transform the otherwise materialistic Darwinian evolution into one suffused with teleology.  To  do this he enlists a surprising assistant, the intellectual gymnast and contortionist of logic extraordinaire,  French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).   Teihlard’s most “important” work (if any of his work could be graced with such an adjective) is The Phenomenon of Man (1938).  This “little bouquet of aphorism,” as Sir Peter Medawar once called it Medawar review, situated humanity as the pinnacle of the evolutionary process.  According to Teilhard evolution can be conceived in three aspects:  prelife (matter), life (the biosphere), and thought (the noosphere).  Teilhard builds a kind of teleology into his evolutionary scheme as a process moving toward an “omega point” animated or directed through a sort of panentheistic Christ (Panentheism vs. Pantheism) . 

Schönborn give us an inkling of his heading in Teilhard’s direction with his concept of “continuing creation,” which alludes not only to God’s sustaining of the universe but also His new creative processes.  Here the Cardinal engages in substantial revision of Darwin.   Darwin thought his theory of natural selection answered definitively the need for creative acts; but, asks Schönborn, “Can lower things bring forth, of their own power, higher and more complex things?  Nothing in our experience suggests that something lower can give rise to something higher, simply of itself, without some directive and organizing activity and, still less, do so quite by chance” (p. 81).   Here the reader thinks his Eminence is getting on track only to find that these seemingly sensible statements are paving the way for the senseless musings of the Jesuit paleogeologist-turned-metaphysician.   “[I]s there some way,”  Schönborn asks, “of looking at both the evolutionary view of the world and Christian faith at the same time?”  Yes, he declares — Teihlard de Chardin!

There is little equivocation in this matter; the Cardinal invites the Jesuit into his book with the appelation “Teilhard de Chardin — Witness to Christ.”  Although admitting to some problems with his “naturalization” of Christ as evolution’s divine guide, Schönborn nonethless offers high praise to this unorthodox cleric.  “He [Teilhard] incorporated the way that Christian faith viewed the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ as an inspiring vision into his research and his thought as a natural scientist.  Conversely, he was constantly opening up his activity as a scientific researcher toward the great horizon which had been unlocked for him by his Christian faith” (p. 143).  What Schöborn does not tell the reader is that his work was denounced by the Church in 1962  as “ambiguous” and abounding in “serious errors” that “offend Catholic doctrine.”  This position was reiterated and affirmed again in a 1981 statement by the Holy See (see 1962 monitum v. Teilhard & 1981 confirmation ). There’s good reason to be offended and you don’t have to be Catholic.  Teilhard de Chardin’s triune evolutionary speculation (I won’t even grace it as a “theory”) is simply bizarre and panentheistic (maybe pantheistic depending on your reading).  C. S. Lewis gave the best succinct account of Teilhard I’ve ever read.  He was thoroughly unimpressed with Teilhard’s Phenomenon of Man, calling it “evolution run mad.  He [Teilhard] saves ‘continuity’ by saying that before there was life there was in matter what he calls ‘pre-life.’  Can you see any possible use in such language?  Before you switched on the lights in the cellar there was (if you like to call it so) ‘pre-light’:  but the English for that is ‘darkness.’  Then he goes on to the future and seems to me to be repeating Bergson (without the eloquence) and Shaw (without the wit).  It ends up of course in something uncomfortably like Pantheism: his own Jesuits were quite right in forbidding him to publish any more books on the subject”  (see letter to Bernard Acworth, March 5, 1960, in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. 3, p. 1137).  Schöborn should be as uncomfortable with this as Lewis and Teilhard’s Jesuits were. 

All of this comes far too close to neotheism or process theology (a theological system with its own set of problems [see Geisler on neotheism]) and I’m particularly surprised to see it coming from the pen of such a noteworthy and well-positioned Cardinal.  But such are the excesses one is drawn to when compatibilist strategies are employed and left to rule the day.  All this said, it would be too harsh and unfair to leave our review here.  There are things to praise in Schönborn’s book.

More Friend than Foe

On balance the Cardinal’s message, despite its awkward compatibilism, has much of value for the world of science and indeed for the secular world in general.  While discussing the magisteria of science and theology, Schönborn has no illusions about NOMA, pointing out that insistence upon a complete separation of the two spheres is unrealistic and untenable.  He further rejects Darwin’s attempt to integrate man with nature, a different species of animal in degree rather than kind.  Here  Schönborn issues a scathing indictment against Darwin the ideologue:  “Herein lies the difference between a materialistic view and one that finds a place for the mind.  This is not,” he adds, “primarily, a dividing line between faith and science but between an irrational and a rational view of things.  Materialism cannot be maintained as a way of thinking, for it is inherently contradictory.  One can, as a matter of method, of scientific approach, blank out the questions of man’s spirit and of reason and look only for material causes and connections.  Yet this methodological limitation amounts to a decision of the mind.  It is only possible for free agents” (pp. 120-121).  Pointing out that Darwinism as a worldview becomes its own sacrosanct creation myth and that the examination of intelligent design is wholly legitimate, the Cardinal frankly wonders at the aggression displayed against scientists in America making an honest inquiry into nature’s design.  This vehemence, he concludes, has little to do with science and much to do with ideology.  In the end Schönborn answers the question, chance or purpose? without equivocation — Omne agens agit propter finem (Every activity is done for a purpose).  The reader only wishes that unequivocal declaration had been made with more clarity and precision.  Despite its flaws the book has enough useful insights to earn a place on one’s bookshelf.

So I am going to suggest that in the Viennese Cardinal ID advocates have more of a friend than a foe.   The unfortunate thing is Schönborn’s approach, not his overall conclusion.   He essentially tried to do with Darwin what Darwin did with God, namely, acknowledge him but push him to such a marginal position that he is made of no practical effect.  Both attempts failed because both are compatibilist strategies.  Like bleach and hydrochloric acid, some things are not meant to be mixed.   There have been worse examples than Schönborn’s.  M. A. Corey’s Back to Darwin: The Scientific Case for Deistic Evolution (1994) and Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett’s Can You Believe in God and Evolution?  A Guide to the Perplexed (2006) come to mind, but similar efforts continue apparently with reckless abandon (see The New Theology).

The basic problem is rooted in theological naturalism.   With Darwin theological naturalists all attempted various compatiblist strategies to incorporate the new paradigm into their worldviews.  While this continues unabatted, I think it would be wrong to make categorical declarations against them all.  True, all are problematic in the sense that there is common refusal to examine the Darwinian paradigm critically and view purpose in varying degrees as undetectable, but all compatibilists are not created in the same mold.  Some, like the Cardinal, have a certain but limited redemptive quality, others like Corey, Peters, and Hewlett are simply a muddled mess.  I fear I have already imposed upon the reader’s patience enough so I will simply direct those wanting more information on theological naturalism to chapter eight of Cornelius G. Hunter’s Science’s Blind Spot (2007).


Attempts to dress Darwin up for God simply don’t work.  No amount of dry cleaning and pressing the old Victorian’s drab suit of materialism will make it very presentable for a coherent theism.  It either winds up being materialism or naturalism in a theistic costume or some muddled version of pantheism, panentheism, or process theology tacked on awkwardly to Darwin’s clothes.  No doubt the haberdasheries of  intentional deceit and honest confusion will continue to spew forth their latest fashions.  But those within the ID movement should proceed with caution.  Efforts such as the Cardinal’s emanates, I believe, from honest confusion and as I’ve tried to point out, he does embed within his arguments some valuable thoughts and analyses even if they are cast within a problematic framework.  Rather than approaching him as an enemy I believe he might at least be considered a tenuous ally.  This is good; we need all we can get.  This also does not mean that perfectly cogent and frank analyses of Darwinian evolution have not emanated from the Catholic press (see, for example, The Death of Darwinism by George Sim Johnston).  Yet Schönborn’s Chance or Purpose? demonstrates that even when the answer is broadly consonant with a teleological worldview, the devil is in the details.

Dear nullasalus, Thanks for your comments and in some senses I agree. Originally I had written the review WITHOUT the "More Freind than Foe" section and decided it was too harsh. Remember, I said the book made some good points and even that it was worth buying. (At least that should make the author happy!) But I DO think the Cardinal is a Darwin compatibilist. You can certainly believe in some form of evolution still be a Catholic, of course. Not Darwinian evolution, but some form to be sure. A good number of Christians believed in evolution. But Schonborn's attempt to parse out Darwin's biology from Darwin's metaphysics means that he failed to address the paradigm squarely. You mention Behe. Surely no one has addressed the Darwinian paradigm more forcefully and effectively than he. But the whole point of his irreducible complexity is to call Darwin's biological mechanisms into question. Why couldn't the Cardinal have done the same? At he could have mentioned it. Instead we get praise for Darwin's attempt to find natural causes for creation without any critical assessment of those natural causes Darwin allegedly uncovered. For this Schonborn is culpable. Until the entire Darwinian paradigm is faced squarely, we will never have a free and unfettered academic or scientific marketplace of ideas. I guess I expected more from the Cardinal. Flannery
I doubt the cardinal would be using the King James version, either now or then for the basis of his remarks. jerry
I enjoyed the review, but I think it may be too hard on the cardinal. "Take the ideology out of Darwinian evolution and you no longer have Darwinism." may be true, but if put that way, then I'm confident this book would be (and I suppose through that perspective, actually is) an attack on Darwinism. I'm tempted to believe that the conflict here has more to do with choice of words than content - I accept common descent, evolution, and don't necessarily believe direct intervention was required in the origin of life or of man. I believe all these things to be compatible with Catholicism. Now, someone can argue that this is A) Darwinism, and B) an untenable combination of beliefs (I'd disagree), but if this is true for me, it's true for Michael Behe - he's said as much in interviews, believing that what we see biologically could well have been a front-loaded design that naturally unfolded. In other words, I think if there's any 'compatiblism' the cardinal is arguing between theism and darwinism, it's in regards to how the divine creator from the former can use all of the mechanisms and processes of the latter. That this may entail a fundamentally different 'darwinism' - one stripped of the ideaologies and metaphysical commitments that has made it so popular in some quarters - does not seem to be a conclusion Schonborn has overlooked. Rather, I think that's the whole point. nullasalus
Would it be fair to say that Teilhard de Chardin espoused a form of front-loaded evolution? I think perhaps if we look at his writings carefully, we could claim his a design theorist. TelicOrdem
For example, in asking whether or not our tremendous increase in scientific knowledge has perhaps left us less prone to the numinous and more willing to discard a Creator, This may be true in a way it wasn't intended. The more comfortable we are and the more entertained we are, the less likely we are to petition God, or ponder suffering since we are less likely to experience it. The less likely we do these things the more likely we are to forget God. This doesn't mean He doesn't exist. And of course, the less we pray the less we are likely to get a divine answer. tribune7
Stephen B, In think your comments on Aquinas and this "false contingence" are valid and insightful. Thanks. Flannery
Let me respond to Barry A's three points: 1) The problem isn't that the cardinal calls Darwin a "genius" (I agree Darwin can still be a genius and still be wrong); the problem is he let's the imputed genius largely stand without really analyzing the paradigm. True, he objects to Darwin a certain key points, but he side steps a thorough critique (implying that Darwin's biology is sound), which in a book-length study I would have expected more; 2) Using "creatures" in the archaic sense is precisely the kind of stylistic awkwardness I am talking about. If Schonborn wants to quote the King James version, all well and good; it IS beautiful. But we're not in living in 1611; if the Cardinal wants to make that Elizabethan reference he should at least parenthetically alert the reader. I note that the New King James version writes "creation" in those relevent verses. It's mainly a stylistic point I'll grant you, but I found it jarring (but then again I abandoned the King James for the New King James long ago so it's probably me); 3) Faith, of course, always remains an essential part of understanding, in that I do not disagree. But I DO think Schonborn is contradictory here. He doesn't use the term "arguments alone," he uses the term "arguments utimately." That is a big difference to me. I don't see how one can deny the ultimate value of arguments dealing with the problem of evil and then proceed to offer them. Maybe this is just a semantic I cannot see, but I do think there's a real difference between these two phrases. Flannery
Barry A: thanks for the tip, I will check it out. I consider Barr to be as big of a problem as Miller. StephenB
StephenB, I don't think it is Miller and Co. so much as Stephen Barr over at First Things who has turned Schönborn around. You can see their exchange It is sad, because Barr, for whom I otherwise have a great deal of respect, is one of those who abuse the Angelic Doctor as you say. You can see their exchange on the pages of First Things here http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=71&var_recherche=Sch%F6nborn+barr and here: http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=87&var_recherche=Sch%F6nborn+barr and here: http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=238&var_recherche=Sch%F6nborn+barr BarryA
As a Catholic, I am always bothered when a Catholic prelate misunderstands the foundational issues involved. Much of this foolishness about trying to reconcile Darwin with God stems from a misunderstanding of the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. First, it must be noted that Aquinas was Mr. Design himself, so appealing to him as a means of arguing against design is beyond ironic. Incredibly, some Catholics attempt to do just that. Biologist Ken Miller and others have pointed out, on occasion, that Aquinas posited that God can created through “contingency,” which is true in a conditional way. However, Aquinas also recognized that God creates through design, a point that is obvious enough in his famous “five proofs for the existence of God.” But Miller and company assume that Aquinas meant that God creates everything through contingency, which is obviously not the case. God creates snowflakes and moon craters through contingency, but he creates the DNA molecule through design. By using this false foundation of contingency and randomness and by scandalously misrepresenting the views of a great philosopher, they imply that a purposeful, mindful, rational God could have used a purposeless, mindless, irrational process to create life. While calling themselves Christians, they reject a fundamental tenet of the Christian religion, which holds that God’s handiwork is “manifest in nature.” In other words, they deny the traditional Catholic position that God leaves clues about his presence and His creative effort. It was always assumed that if the clues were there, scientists could pick up on them. That is why science began to flourish in Catholic monasteries, as Rodney Stark has pointed out in his book, “How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.” As everyone knows, all the great scientists of the past insisted that they were “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” Apparently, the Catholic scholars who know the truth have not stepped up to the plate to state these obvious facts, or else they have been drowned out by the Miller contingency. Miller is very, very, aggressive and is all over youtube. Why is it that the truth haters have all the passion? With all due respect to the cardinal (again he is one of my guys), appealing to Teilhard De Chardin demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the world-view problem. The gap between Chardin and Darwin is immense. Chardin’s macro-evolutionary scheme works from the inside out; Darwin’s scheme works form the outside in. Chardin’s evolution “unfolds” purposely according to a pre-ordained plan; Darwin’s evolution adapts mindlessly according to the whims of the environment. Chardin’s evolution knows where it is going; Darwins evolution is totally random. Trying to justify Darwin by appealing Chardin is like trying to justify Karl Marx by appealing to Adam Smith. Chardin’s evolutionary scheme may qualify in some respects as “Theistic evolution; Darwin’s paradigm does not qualify as theistic evolution in any sense of the term. Naturally, Miller and company have dishonestly hijacked that term and twisted it to mean that God and Darwin can be reconciled, when, of course, no such reconciliation is possible. Apparently, it is this group that has influenced the cardinal, because he was not talking this way two years ago. These duplicitous scientists always hasten to remind us all how “devout” they are, even as they renounce the basic teachings of the Church they claim to be a part of. As a Catholic, it is hard for me not to resent this. StephenB
"Thus, Schönborn’s attempt to distinguish between evolution and what he calls evolutionism – i.e, an evolution of science versus an evolution of ideology — is doomed to failure. The two where not conceived apart; the science is the ideology and ideology is the science and a good deal of both are suspect." Exactly right. This is the theme of Phil Johnson's Darwin on Trial and is, it seems to me, all but irrefutable. BarryA
"So which is it? Will or will not arguments provide a means for dealing with the problem of evil?" You are accusing the Cardinal of a contradiction he did not commit. He says that arguments alone will not "convince," and that is true. We can never approach God through pure reason. There is always an element of faith, a reasoned faith to be sure, but faith nevertheless. And we can never deal with the problem of evil through pure reason; I think this is the whole point of "Brothers." That does not mean that we cannot come up with arguments to "deal with" evil, but no such arguments are completely convincing. Perhaps the best explication of this issue I've ever read is Tsunami and Theodicy here: http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=166&var_recherche=tsunami BarryA
"I would not have thought of stars, stones, plants, and trees as 'creatures'" In archaic English useage "creature" means any created thing. In the King James version of Romans chapter 8, for example, the entire universe is referred to as "creature." 21Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. BarryA
Flannery writes: "he appears to defend Darwin’s Origin as a “stroke of genius.” Freeing himself from the dogma of independent creations, Darwin developed a theory of natural selection and common descent that was, according to Schönborn, a product of 'honest and intense intellectual struggle'" We can conceded that Darwin might have been a genius and that his theories might have been the result of honest and intense intellectual struggle. Both of these things could have bee said about Ptolemy. Neither of these things make either Darwin or Ptolemy any less wrong. BarryA

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