It would be hard to name two more radically different men than the late Pope John Paul II and New York Times columnist Frank Rich.
Nevertheless, the acerbic culture-beat scribe did his best to say something positive when biding the pope farewell. At least, said Rich, John Paul II had seen the light on the "core belief of how life began."
"Though the president of the United States believes that the jury is still out on evolution," he wrote, "John Paul in 1996 officially declared that 'fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis.' "
America's newspaper of record underlined this in its obituary, claiming that the pope believed "the human body might not have been the immediate creation of God, but was the product of evolution, which he called 'more than just a hypothesis.' "
Thus, the cultural powers were flummoxed when Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, an editor of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, wrote a recent New York Times essay that included this statement: "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."
Schonborn emphasized 1985 remarks by John Paul about the "evolution of all things" in which he said it is impossible to study the universe without concluding there is "a Mind which is its inventor, its creator."
John Paul II continued: "To all these indications of the existence of God the Creator, some oppose the power of chance or of the proper mechanisms of matter. To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements and such marvelous finality in its life would be equivalent to giving up the search for an explanation of the world as it appears to us. In fact, this would be equivalent to admitting effects without a cause."
In the wake of Schonborn's essay, a circle of scientists petitioned Pope Benedict XVI seeking a clarification. The letter was written by Case Western Reserve University physicist Lawrence Krauss, author of an earlier New York Times essay on the compatibility of Christian faith and Darwinian orthodoxy.
"The Catholic Church," the letter said, must not "build a new divide, long ago eradicated, between the scientific method and religious belief." It was especially crucial to reaffirm that "scientific rationality and the church's commitment to divine purpose and meaning in the universe were not incompatible."
Part of the problem is the 1996 papal address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, with its familiar quotation that "new knowledge leads us to recognize that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis."
The question is whether John Paul said "theory" or "theories." According to official translations, the pope said: "Rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based."
The pope then rejected all theories arguing that humanity is the product of a random, unguided process of creation. Thus, he said that "theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man."
At the time John Paul II spoke these words, the National Association of Biology Teachers had officially defined evolution as an "unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process ... that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments." Critics said this definition veered beyond science into theological speculation. Thus, in 1997 the association's board reversed itself and removed the words "unsupervised" and "impersonal."
This is still the crucial issue today, said Michael J. Behe, author of ``Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.'' He is a Catholic who teaches at Lehigh University.
"The problem is that people can't agree on what 'evolution' means," he said. "Common origins are not the problem. What the church has never accepted is the idea of a blind, random, meaningless process of creation. The church cannot accept that, because that would be atheism."