Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

FAITH Magazine July-August 2006

Vienna Catecheses

Cardinal Schönborn’s Vienna-Cathedral catecheses continue their monthly pattern, and he has now delivered eight substantial lectures on his theme “Creation and Evolution.” His fourth and fifth catecheses are now available in English on-line at, and are worth a close reading.
In his fourth catechetical lecture, entitled “He upholds the Universe by His Word and Power,” the Cardinal discusses our understanding of God’s action in the world, the Providence by which He rules the universe. He continues to take the argument, begun last July, to those who see ‘Darwinism’ not only as a scientific theory but, ideologically, as a system of thought that rules out the presence of the Creator. He makes the preliminary point very robustly, that there is no room in Catholic theology for any hiatus at all between our scientific understanding of the world, and our faith.
“I too think that theology and science need not contradict each other, but not because their subject-matters are so different that they practically never come into contact. I am convinced that they must come into contact without contradicting each other… Why this fear of coming into contact? If it is true that the creator constantly supports, preserves, and renews His world, if everything new that appears in the world has come and continuously comes from His plan for creation and from His creative power, then in some way it has to come into contact with the reality that forms the object of the sciences.”
In considering the Providence of God alongside the workings of the
natural laws he goes on to explain: “It is crystal clear that the Christian faith presupposes that God’s providence is not just general but is very concrete, reaching down to the smallest and most unlikely details, even to the point that “all the hairs of our head” are numbered. Even the death of a sparrow does not fall outside of the care of the Creator. Is He not also concerned with atoms, molecules, and matter? These are questions that we cannot evade if the proclamation of Jesus and rational investigation are not going to break entirely apart.”
Schönborn is willing, then, to explain in detail how we might understand the interplay of God’s creative action and the conditions and causes within nature. He shows first how the material universe is manifestly ‘contingent’ (i.e. does not exist of necessity) and therefore how it requires an ultimate explanation which cannot itself be a part of that material reality. Only God can provide that explanation, the power that holds all things in being at all. Schönborn says: “It is this power that we call the creatio continua, the ongoing creation. This is what ‘holds the world together from within.’ If God were to ‘let go’ of creation, it would back into the nothingness from which it came. It does not exist through itself, it is held in being.” God’s creative activity exists, then, first andforemost in the underpinning of reality’s very existence, its being held in being. God is not a ‘god of the gaps,’ reduced to being the explanation for the inexplicable; instead He is the very reason for there being explanations at all. Schönborn is very firm about this:
“This is why it is important to remember that faith in the Creator does not start at the point at which our knowledge stops, but rather starts just where we do indeed have knowledge. The right approach is to consider all that we do know today… We should not look towards that which remains inexplicable, trying to leave there some place for God, but we should look towards what we do know. And we should ask: what is the ultimate basis of this?”
The Cardinal’s main point, is that God is the ultimate cause of what is and what occurs in the material universe. The whole of the natural universe operates according to its laws as the conditions and the co-causes of what occurs, but behind and beyond it all is the reason for any causality. Science does not ‘find’ God as such, because it is always and only investigating these secondary causes, their interrelation and unity. One has indeed to take a step back from the science to see the bigger picture, to see that there is something else going on above and beyond, which is the context for the working-out of the scientific principles. Schönborn again:
“Within this perspective of divine causality God does not act as a deus ex machina, as someone who plugs holes, who is invoked to explain that which is “not yet” explained. We do not think of His acting as an occasional intervention coming from the outside, but rather as the transcendent creative activity of God who alone makes it possible for our world to “hold together” and to rise, in accordance with His plan, step by step higher, so that really new things appear in it and finally man appears in it. Whoever wants to replace the Creator’s realization of this plan by a totally autonomous evolution, inevitably either ascribes some mythic creative power to evolution, or else abandons any attempt at rational understanding and explains everything as the blind play of arbitrary chance. Thisis what I called the ‘abdication of reason’ in my New York Times article of July 7th, 2005.”

Faith Magazine