Catholic theology has never really had a quarrel with the idea that the present species of plants and animals are the result of a long process of evolution--or with the idea that this process has unfolded according to natural laws. As the 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia put it, these ideas seem to be "in perfect agreement with the Christian conception of the universe."
Catholic theologians were more hesitant with respect to the origin of the human race, but even here, the old encyclopedia admitted, evolution of the human body is "per se not improbable" and a version of it had "been propounded by St. Augustine." The crucial doctrinal point was that the human soul, being spiritual, could not be the result of any merely material process: biological evolution any more than sexual reproduction. The soul must be conferred on each person by a special creative act of God. And so the Church is required to reject atheistic and materialistic philosophies of evolution, which deny the existence of a Creator or His providential governance of the world. As long as evolutionary theory confined itself to properly biological questions, however, it was considered benign.
This was the view that was taught to generations of children in Catholic schools. The first formal statement on evolution by the magisterium did not come until the encyclical letter Humani Generis of Pope Plus XII in 1950. The only point that the pontiff asserted as definitely dogmatic was that the human soul was not the product of evolution. As for the human body, Plus noted, its evolution from those of lower animals could be investigated as a scientific hypothesis, so long as no conclusions were made rashly.
This is how things stood for another half century. Then, in 1996, in a letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul II acknowledged that the theory of evolution is now recognized as "more than a hypothesis," thanks to impressive and converging evidence coming from a variety of fields. He reiterated what he called the "essential point" made by Plus XII, namely that "if the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter, [nevertheless] the spiritual soul is immediately created by God."
Some commentators in the scientific and popular press took this statement to mean the Church had once rejected evolution and was now at last throwing in the towel. The truth is that Plus XII, though cautious, was clearly willing to let the scientific chips fall where they might; and John Paul II was simply noting the obvious fact that a lot of chips had since fallen. Nevertheless, John Paul's statement was a welcome reminder of the Church's real attitude toward empirical science. It was followed in 2004 by a lengthy document from the International Theological Commission (headed by Cardinal Ratzinger) entitled Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God. This important document contained, along with much else, a lucid and careful analysis of evolution and its relation to Catholic teaching.
So why did Christoph Schonborn, the cardinal archbishop of Vienna, lash out this summer at neo-Darwinism? In an opinion piece for the New York Times on July 7, he reacted indignantly to the suggestion that "the Catholic Church has no problem with the notion of 'evolution' as used by mainstream biologists--that is, synonymous with neo-Darwinism." Brushing off the 1996 statement of John Paul II as "vague and unimportant," he cited other evidence (including statements by the late pope, sentences from Communion and Stewardship and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and a line from the new Pope Benedict XVI'S installation homily) to make the case that neo-Darwinism is in fact incompatible with Catholic teaching.
In the United States, the harsh questions and mocking comments came fast and furious. Could it really be that the modern Church is...