During the second half of the nineteenth century, it became common to speak of a war between science and religion. But over the course of the twentieth century, that hostility gradually subsided. Following in the footsteps of the Second Vatican Council, John Paul II at the beginning of his pontificate established a commission to review and correct the condemnation of Galileo at his trial of 1633. In 1983 he held a conference celebrating the 350th anniversary of the publication of Galileo's Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences, at which he remarked that the experience of the Galileo case had led the Church "to a more mature attitude and a more accurate grasp of the authority proper to her," enabling her better to distinguish between "essentials of the faith" and the "scientific systems of a given age."
From September 21 to 26, 1987, the pope sponsored a week of study on science and religion at Castel Gandolfo. On June 1, 1988, reflecting on the results of his conference, he sent a positive and encouraging letter to the director of the Vatican Observatory, steering a middle course between a separation and a fusion of the disciplines. He recommended a program of dialogue and interaction, in which science and religion would seek neither to supplant each other nor to ignore each other. They should search together for a more thorough understanding of one another's competencies and limitations, and they should look especially for common ground. Science should not try to become religion, nor should religion seek to take the place of science. Science can purify religion from error and superstition, while religion purifies science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each discipline should therefore retain its integrity and yet be open to the insights and discoveries of the other.
In a widely noticed message on evolution to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, sent on October 22, 1996, John Paul II noted that, while there are several theories of evolution, the fact of the evolution of the human body from lower forms of life is "more than a hypothesis." But human life, he insisted, was separated from all that is less than human by an "ontological difference." The spiritual soul, said the pope, does not simply emerge from the forces of living matter nor is it a mere epiphenomenon of matter. Faith enables us to affirm that the human soul is immediately created by God.
The pope was interpreted in some circles as having accepted the neo-Darwinian view that evolution is sufficiently explained by random mutations and natural selection (or "survival of the fittest") without any kind of governing purpose or finality. Seeking to offset this misreading, Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, the archbishop of Vienna, published on July 7, 2005, an op-ed in the New York Times, in which he quoted a series of pronouncements of John Paul II to the contrary. For example, the pope declared at a General Audience of July 19, 1985: "The evolution of human beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality which arouses admiration. This finality, which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible, obliges one to suppose a Mind which is its inventor, its creator." In this connection, the pope said that to ascribe human evolution to sheer chance would be an abdication of human intelligence.
Cardinal Schonborn was also able to cite Pope Benedict XVI, who stated in his inauguration Mass as pope on April 24, 2005: "We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary."
Cardinal Schonborn's article was interpreted by many readers as a rejection of evolution. Some letters to the editor accused him of favoring a retrograde form of creationism and of contradicting John Paul II. They seemed unable to grasp the fact that he was speaking the language of classical philosophy and was not opting for any particular scientific position. His critique was directed against those neo-Darwinists who pronounced on philosophical and theological questions by the methods of natural science.
Several authorities on these questions, such as Kenneth R. Miller and Stephen M. Barr, in their replies to Schonborn, insisted that one could be a neo-Darwinist in science and an orthodox Christian believer. Distinguishing different levels of knowledge, they contended that what is random from a scientific point of view is included in God's eternal plan. God, so to speak, rolls the dice but is able by his comprehensive knowledge to foresee the result from all eternity.
This combination of Darwinism in science and theism in theology may be sustainable, but it is not the position Schonborn intended to attack. As he made clear in a subsequent article in FIRST THINGS (January 2006), he was taking exception only to those neo-Darwinists--and they are many--who maintain that no valid investigation of nature could be conducted except in the reductive mode of mechanism, which seeks to explain everything in terms of quantity, matter, and motion, excluding specific differences and purpose in nature. He quoted one such neo-Darwinist as stating: "Modern science directly implies that the world is organized strictly in accordance with deterministic principles or chance. There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature. There are no gods and no designing forces rationally detectable."