FAITH Magazine January-February 2007
New Head of Vatican Observatory and Confusion over "Intelligent Design"
In mid August the Pope appointed a new head of the Vatican Observatory, an astronomical institution older than most such faculties in the world’s universities. It was formally founded by Pope Leo xiii in 1891, but originated in the late 16th century out of Pope Gregory xiii's need to establish an astronomically correct calendar. Since the 1930s, the astronomers of the Vatican Observatory have been drawn principally from the Society of Jesus, and indeed the new director is a 43-year-old Argentinian Jesuit, Fr José Funes, who replaces the director of 28 years’ standing, Fr George Coyne. The British tabloid press made much of the change of directorship, the Daily Mail screaming 'Pope Sacks Astronomer Over evolution Debate'. Their claim was that Fr George Coyne’s publicsupport for the Darwinian idea of biological evolution had brought him into conflict with other Vatican doctrinal officials, and so brought about his replacement. In fact after many years at the helm of a world-class observational institute, Fr Coyne had been asking for some time that his superiors find a younger director. Both he and Fr Funes denied the conspiracy theory dreamt up by the British press. The Daily- Mail article showed a total lack of understanding of the evolution debate. The following quotation indicates the typical errors which are foisted on the British public: “Pope Benedict XVI has sacked his chief astronomer after a series of public clashes over the theory of evolution. He has removed Father George Coyne from his position as director of the Vatican Observatory afterthe American Jesuit priest repeatedly contradicted the Holy See’s endorsement of ‘intelligent design’ theory, which essentially backs the ‘Adam and Eve’ theory of creation. Benedict favours intelligent design, which says God directs the process of evolution, over Charles Darwin’s original theory which holds that species evolve through the random, unplanned processes of genetic mutation and the survival of the fittest. But Father Coyne, the director of the Vatican Observatory for 28 years, is an outspoken supporter of Darwin’s theory, arguing that it is compatible with Christianity.” As we have often argued in this column, neither the Pope nor the Church advocates support for the U.S. idea of ‘Intelligent Design’, but on the other hand, neither does the Church accept that Darwinianevolution consists of only “random, unplanned processes” that have nothing to do with God. We must continue to be clear in explaining the actual teaching of the Church, so as to promote a true synthesis of science and Christian faith. More can be learnt about the Vatican observatory at its website,
Over a long period now, the Pope has continued to keep abreast of the issues surrounding the evolution debate. Although their deliberations were not made public, a symposium of former students of the Pope and invited guests, including Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, took place at Castel Gandolfo at the request of the Pope in early September. This continued the annual tradition he had begun as a theology professor in Germany many years ago, and which he was able to maintain both as archbishop in Munich and as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. This year’s three day symposium treated the subject of evolution and shows just how keen the Pope is to keep examining this question at the heart of the Church. Then in early November, the Pope addressed thePontifical Academy of Sciences as it gathered in plenary session to discuss the topic ‘Predictability in Science: Accuracy and Limitations.’ He commented on the ideological jump that some people falsely make from the success of science to the retreat of philosophy and religion. Insistence on the rationality of faith is a hallmark of this Papacy. He continues: “Christianity does not posit an inevitable conflict between supernatural faith and scientific progress. The very starting-point of Biblical revelation is the affirmation that God created human beings, endowed them with reason, and set them over all the creatures of the earth.” And he goes on: “If we think, for example, of how modern science, by predicting natural phenomena, has contributed to the protection of the environment, theprogress of developing nations, the fight against epidemics, and an increase in life expectancy, it becomes clear that there is no conflict between God’s providence and human enterprise. Indeed, we could say that the work of predicting, controlling and governing nature, which science today renders more practicable than in the past, is itself a part of the Creator’s plan.” Yet he explained, too, that science’s predictability has its limitations, and can never provide the ‘whole picture.’ The Pope made specific reference here to the relation between the biological playing-out of laws of nature and underpinning of that process by the Mind of God: “Science cannot … presume to provide a complete, deterministic representation of our future and of the development of every phenomenon that itstudies. Philosophy and theology might make an important contribution to this fundamentally epistemological question by, for example, helping the empirical sciences to recognize a difference between … evolution as the origin of a succession in space and time, and creation as the ultimate origin of participated being in essential Being.”