Editor's note: The first of two columns.
Vatican watchers pay close attention to the sermons a pope preaches during the historic rites that immediately follow his election.
Yet few flinched when Pope Benedict XVI made the following comment on the origin of human life during the Mass marking the inauguration of his pontificate.
"The purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men," he said, in St. Peter's Square. "And only where God is seen does life truly begin. ... 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."
That sounded innocent. But a direct statement about evolution later inspired howls of outrage when it appeared in the sacred pages of the New York Times. Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, a member of the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education, said he was trying to stop what he believes are media attempts to plant Rome firmly in the Darwinist camp.
"The Catholic Church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world," he wrote. "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense -- an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection -- is not."
Scientists -- Catholics and non-Catholics alike -- on both sides of the Darwin wars said it was crucial that Schonborn claimed to have written his essay after consulting with Pope Benedict, at that time an influential cardinal. The new pope, he told reporters, shares his concern that many are confused about the church's stance on an "unguided," "random" approach to evolution. It was also significant that the cardinal was, in part, responding to a Times essay by Case Western Reserve University physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, who posited the compatibility of Christian faith and Darwinism.
In that May op-ed, Krauss wrote that the Roman Catholic Church "apparently has no problem with the notion of evolution as it is currently studied by biologists. ... Popes from Pius XII to John Paul II have reaffirmed that the process of evolution in no way violates the teachings of the church. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, presided over the church's International Theological Commission, which stated that 'since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism.' "
The problem, according to Schonborn, is that this quotation is only part of the commission's statement on philosophical questions linked to Darwinism. In particular, its statement warned that a much-quoted -- and misquoted -- 1996 letter on science by Pope John Paul II cannot be "read as a blanket approbation of all theories of evolution, including those of a neo-Darwinian provenance which explicitly deny to divine providence any truly causal role in the development of life in the universe."
The commission's verdict was especially blunt: "An unguided evolutionary process -- one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence -- simply cannot exist."
Once again, stressed Cardinal Schonborn, the crucial distinction for Catholic believers is that they are not supposed to embrace versions of Darwinism that teach that evolution was and is an impersonal and random process.
Thus, he noted, the doctrinal bottom line is stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance."
What infuriates the church's progressive wing, according to liberal Catholic critic Andrew Sullivan, is the possibility that this public effort to argue that God guided evolution represents another initiative by traditional Catholics to join forces with cultural conservatives.
"Now we have Benedict in charge and the rush back to the Middle Ages, already seen in fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Protestantism, looks as if it is going to be endorsed in the Vatican," wrote Sullivan, in an online commentary. "I expected reactionary radicalism from Benedict. But this kind of stupidity? ... And so we return to the 19th century."
NEXT WEEK: What did Pope John Paul II say and when did he say it?