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July 22, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 41

John L. Allen Jr.


Schönborn and science vs. theology; Questions to an academician, an astrophysicist, and a biochemist; CDF acts against a religious founder; Hard times at British embassy; In defense of Harry Potter


NOTE TO READERS: Due to computer problems, all of my recent e-mail correspondence has been wiped out, including details of upcoming speaking engagements. Representatives of venues where I have agreed to speak in 2005-2006 are kindly requested to be in touch with me to reconfirm details at

A July 7 op/ed piece by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna in The New York Times on evolution has caused no small amount of ferment in both scientific and theological circles. In it, Schönborn challenges the widely held perception that the Catholic Church has reconciled itself to the theory of evolution.

I've written a story about the Schönborn piece for NCR that will be posted to on July 26.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna
In speaking to a number of Catholic scientists and theologians, the consensus seems to be that Schönborn has a valid point if his argument is read on a theological level. Christianity cannot accept the idea of a universe without an active, personal God, and evolutionary theory has sometimes been used to justify not only atheism, but also immanentism (God as a vague life-force) and Deism (that God set the universe in motion and has nothing more to do with it).

Richard Dawkins, one of the most widely read popularizers of evolutionary theory, has written that Charles Darwin "made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist."

On the other hand, if Schönborn's statements are read as claims about science, things quickly become murkier. At face value, Schönborn seems to suggest it is a matter of Catholic faith that design and purpose can be empirically discovered in nature. If so, the widely held (though certainly not undisputed) scientific understanding of evolution as a process driven by random genetic mutation and natural selection would be, in itself, irreconciliable with Christianity, driving a serious wedge between science and the church.

In this regard, it seems important to clearly distinguish two questions:

  • What is the best scientific explanation for the origins and development of organic life, based on data such as the fossil record, genetic studies, and so on?
  • Does evolutionary theory, whether true or not, pose a conflict with Catholic theology?
  • Most observers would say that the church is competent to answer the second question, but not the first. To try to settle the scientific dispute, they say, would take the Catholic Church close to what is conventionally known as "creationism," the belief that a scientific analysis of nature requires the inference of a creator.

    What Christianity can affirm instead, some Catholic scientists and theologians say, is that whatever the process by which life originated and developed, it did so in accord with the plan of God. Even if it turns out to be correct, from an empirical point of view, that evolution is "unguided," that does not rule out divine providence as the "cause of causes."

    To talk these issues through, I sat down this week with Professor Nicola Cabibbo, president for the past 12 years of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. A 78-member panel of distinguished scientists from around the world, the academy advises the pope on scientific matters. It's descended from the "Academy of the Lynxes," founded in 1603, making it the oldest scientific academy in the world.

    The full text of my interview with Cabibbo can be found here: Interview with Professor Nicola Cabibbo.

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    The following are excerpts from that interview.

    Q: What did you think of Cardinal Schönborn's article in The New York Times?
    Cabibbo: … The theory of evolution can be disturbing to Christians because it seems to clash with the idea of divine creation. However, this is not true. What clashes with divine creation is an extension of the theory of evolution into materialistic interpretations, the so-called "evolutionism." What evolutionism says, and here I'm thinking about people such as Dawkins, is that there's no need for God. But that is not science, it's not part of what has been discovered by science. … The great intuition of Darwin was that there is an evolution, that different species evolved over time, even if he could not understand the mechanism. … To this, there are two different reactions. One is the atheistic view, saying that we know how it works now, we don't need God. This goes beyond the scientific facts because it is a metaphysical conclusion. The other is the theistic response, believing that God is the cause of this process. … In reality the contrast between evolutionism and creationism has nothing to do with science. They are instead two very different religious and philosophical positions.

    What troubles many people is that scientists use words such as 'unguided' and 'unplanned' in referring to evolution. As a scientist, what do those terms mean to you?
    Let me come at it from a distance. In Italian, there is a popular saying, non cade foglia che Dio non voglia. ["No leaf falls unless God wants it."] What science does is to try to explain the mechanism by which the leaf falls. … This doesn't mean that what happens doesn't have its own logic, its own way of happening. It's not like we're all puppets in God's hands. It would be debasing to think that God is directly causing every leaf to fall from the tree. Instead there is a system, a mechanism, by which things happen. I think there is no philosophical, no theological, problem here. This was the thought of John Paul II -- there is no a priori reason to see a clash between science and religion.

    When Cardinal Schönborn says that purpose and design can be clearly discerned in the natural world, would you agree?
    Not scientifically. As a scientist, I cannot draw this conclusion. What I can say is this: If the will of God was to create man, he certainly organized things in a beautiful way to do it. Of course, we know that God wanted to create man by revelation, but we don't know how he did it. This is what science attempts to explain. There should be no problem. There cannot be any clash or controversy between science and religion, because they do different things.

    Some creationists argue that on the basis of an examination of the scientific facts, you can conclude that there must be a creator.
    This is not believed by any serious scientist. … They have found some renegade scientists, or people with some scientific education, to give them some credibility. … You can certainly construct an argument about how beautiful creation is, how intelligent it is, but these are not scientific concepts. It's aesthetic, not scientific.

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    I also had the chance to speak with Jesuit Fr. George Coyne, an American astrophysicist who has served as director of the Vatican observatory since 1978. It's one of the oldest observatories in the world, whose roots in some sense go back to astronomical observations commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII as part of his reform of the calendar in 1582.

    I reached Coyne in Tucson, Arizona, where he spends part of each year.

    Coyne said he was disappointed in the way Schönborn dealt with a 1996 message of Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in which the pope referred to evolution as "more than a hypothesis." In his New York Times piece, Schönborn called this text "rather vague and unimportant."

    Coyne said the pope's 1996 message was carefully considered.

    "The academy had brought together the world's best researchers to study the origins and early development of life, along with some philosophers and theologians," Coyne said. "Moreover, the circumstances were dramatic. Just a week before, an announcement had been made of the discovery of possible bacterial life on Mars. That turned out to be wrong, but it created an atmosphere of great interest."

    In that context, Coyne believes, what John Paul II said in 1996 "is very important."

    Coyne said he's never understood why some people associate evolution with atheism.

    "Why God cannot work with purpose through an evolutionary process that has stochastic features, I don't know," he said, invoking a term from mathematics that essentially means "random."

    "Chance is the way we scientists see the universe," Coyne said. "It has nothing to do with God. It's not chancy to God, it's chancy to us."

    Coyne said phrasing the debate over evolution as a contest between necessity and chance is misleading.

    "You have to recognize a third element, which is the fertility of the universe," Coyne said. "The universe is some14 billion years old, containing 10 to the 22nd stars and some150 known planetary systems. The birth of planets is not a miracle, but a routine physical process. The universe is constantly spewing out the chemistry for life."

    "We would not be here if stars were not routinely being born and dying," he said. "There would not be enough carbon in the universe to make an amoeba, or a toenail. "

    "What happens is that two hydrogen atoms meet, on the basis of chance. Then, by necessity, they make a hydrogen molecule, assuming that the pressure, temperature conditions and so on are right. Then the molecule continues to wander around until it finds oxygen, and then, again by necessity, it has to make water."

    "This process of increasing chemical complexity continues," Coyne said, "until out comes the human brain."

    "We don't know everything about the process," he said, "but the interplay between chance and necessity in a fertile universe is the best explanation for everything that has come out of the universe, including ourselves."

    " I haven't come to believe in God from my scientific knowledge of the universe," Coyne said. "But as a believer, I necessarily want to make a relationship with that knowledge. So I ask, what kind of God would have made a universe that scientifically I see in this way?"

    "What does it mean that certain things are not pre-determined, that there is chance involved? To me it suggests a very scriptural God, one who, like a parent, nurtures a child through necessary processes, but for whom there also comes a time, and I suspect it is the most difficult time of parenting, of letting go. I look upon God dealing with the universe that way."

    In that sense, Coyne said, he believes evolution underscores God's glory.

    "I see a God who caresses the universe, who works with the universe, who has put into the universe some of his own dynamism and creativity," Coyne said.

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    * * *

    One frequently overlooked resource for this discussion is a 2004 document of the International Theological Commission, the chief advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, called "Communion and Stewardship: Human Beings Created in the Image of God."

    That document, which was published with the specific permission of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, took up the issues posed by evolution in paragraphs 62-70.

    The heart of its argument comes in paragraph 69, where the document suggests that theology does not have to settle the argument between design and contingency in the development of life -- following St. Thomas Aquinas, the document argues that divine providence can work through either one.

    The document can be found here: Communion and Stewardship: Human Beings Created in the Image of God.

    This approach, several scientists and theologians say, creates the possibility for Catholics to accept the basic framework of evolutionary theory, without thereby creating a Trojan horse for philosophical materialism.

    This does not mean evolutionary theory is true, merely that it is not necessarily inconsistent with Catholic theology.

    On this score, I was struck by a conversation I had with Professor Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and author of Darwin's Black Box, perhaps the most-read scientific challenge to evolutionary theory.

    Behe is a Catholic and a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a think tank that supports the intelligent design argument. A public relations firm associated with the Discovery Institute, according to reporting in The New York Times, helped place Schönborn's piece in the newspaper.

    Yet Behe told me he believes a Catholic in good faith can accept the scientific mechanisms posited by evolutionary theory.

    "I'm a biochemist, not a theologian," he said. "But it seems to me that belief in mutation and natural selection is compatible with Catholicism, as long as the underlying premise is that God set it up that way. That seems to me an orthodox Catholic position."

    "I'm critical of evolutionary theory not because it's unorthodox," he said, "but because it can't do what it purports to do."

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    A recent decree by a Vatican congregation removing the well-known founder of a religious order from active ministry could indicate how Pope Benedict XVI will handle the sexual abuse crisis.

    The action also may provide some hint of how the Vatican could handle other high profile cases of a similar nature, including one involving the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a worldwide religious order.

    The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the decree May 27 in the case of 73-year-old Italian Fr. Gino Burresi, founder of a religious order called the Congregation of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The contents of the decree, which drew little public notice, were announced by the Italian bishops' conference on July 19. It specifies that:

    • Burresi's faculties to hear confessions are revoked;
    • He is definitively prohibited from providing spiritual direction;
    • He is barred from preaching, as well as from celebrating the sacraments and sacramentals in public;
    • He is barred from giving interviews, publishing and taking part in broadcasts that have anything to do with faith, morals, or supernatural phenomena.

    The decree, in effect, amounts to removal from public ministry. The only thing left is private celebration of the Mass.

    The original Vatican decree, which was not released publicly, but a copy of which was obtained by NCR, was signed by Archbishop William Levada, the new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as well as Archbishop Angelo Amato, the secretary. It stipulates that in an audience given by Benedict XVI to Amato on May 27, the pope confirmed the decree in forma specifica, meaning that he made its conclusions his own, and that no appeal is possible.

    Though the decree cites abuses of confession and spiritual direction, Vatican sources told NCR in mid-July that another motive for the action against Burresi were accusations of sexual abuse with seminarians, dating back to the 1970s and 1980s.

    The case has significance for at least three reasons: it's the first such decree under Levada and the new pope; Burresi is a widely known mystic and Fatima devotee sometimes compared by his followers, including groups in the United States and Canada, to the Capuchin mystic and saint Padre Pio; and finally, because it involves action against a widely known founder of a religious community on the basis of decades-old accusations.

    This last point, observers say, could potentially have implications for how the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith eventually handles similar cases, such as charges of sexual abuse against Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. Maciel has been accused by a number of former seminarians of sexual abuse. His case is reportedly under investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

    Until 1992, Burresi was a member of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, an order founded in 1816 by Italian priest Bruno Lanteri. Burresi became a devotee of the Fatima revelations in the 1950s, and was the driving force behind the creation of a Marian sanctuary in San Vittorino, outside Rome. At the time he was a brother; he was not ordained as a priest until 1983. In the 1960s and 1970s, Burresi acquired a worldwide reputation as a mystic. He was alleged to be able to read souls, to carry the stigmata (the wounds of Christ), to have the "odor of sanctity," and to be able to produce paintings and other artwork miraculously.

    Critics later charged that Burresi faked these phenomena, using, for example, rose-scented perfume to produce the odor.

    Burresi attracted a number of vocations to the Oblates, as well as a larger circle of adherents. One person who came to know Burresi in the 1970s was Fr. Nicholas Gruner, who has gone on to become an ardent champion for the Fatima message, often clashing with church authorities. In September 2001 the Vatican issued a press release stating that Gruner, whose canonical status has long been ambiguous, is suspended a divinis (i.e., barred from performing priestly functions but not removed from the cleric state), and that his activities do not have the support of the Holy See.

    Burresi left the Oblates of the Virgin Mary in 1992 amid a bitter internal dispute and founded a new order, the Congregation of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Currently the Servants number some 150 members.

    The May 27 decree against Burresi is the culmination of a long ecclesiastical battle. Accusations of sexual misconduct with seminarians first emerged in June 1988, at which time Burresi was removed from San Vittorino and sent first to an Oblate residence in Austria, and then to Tuscany. The Oblates conducted a lengthy investigation. In the end, 11 accusations surfaced, though no canonical process against Burresi was launched. These accusations generally involved sexual contact between Burresi and young adult seminarians, not minors.

    Sexual misconduct, however, is not the primary charge. On May 10, 2002, a tribunal within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concluded a penal process against Burresi that had been launched in 1997, five years after his split with the Oblates. The process resulted in a decree signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and his secretary Tarcisio Bertone, today the cardinal of Genoa. That decree, similar to the one issued on May 27, was never applied because the criminal process on which it was based had been annulled by a 10-year statute of limitations in canon law.

    A 20-page report from the tribunal, a separate document from the decree, was obtained by NCR. It cites seven offenses by Burresi:

    • Direct violation of the seal of the confessional;
    • Indirect violation of the seal of the confessional;
    • Soliciting the violation of the seal of the confessional;
    • Illegitimate use of knowledge acquired in the confessional to the detriment of the penitent;
    • Illegitimate injury to one's good name and violation of the right of personal privacy;
    • Soliciting aversion and disobedience against superiors;
    • Pseudo-mysticism, as well as asserted apparitions, visions and messages attributed to supernatural origins.

    Sources told NCR that the charges of violating the confessional stemmed from Burresi's practice of encouraging penitents to repeat their confessions for purposes of transcription, and if they declined, sometimes making his own notes, with names included.

    The report also mentions that in 1989 a commission of cardinals was created to examine accusations against Burresi, including "homosexuality."

    In its conclusion, the report urged the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to take administrative action against Burresi despite the statute of limitations. One concern, the report suggested, was that if no action resulted, Burresi's followers would interpret the investigation as evidence of unfair hostility against him.

    "It should not be forgotten that during this process some persons said that the accused 'would come out of it triumphant, more esteemed than ever, and thus without any shadow, indeed more glorious than before,' " the judges wrote.

    "[They said] 'that the Secretariat of State defends Fr. Gino, thus victory is assured.' If no new limitation is applied to his ministerial liberty simply due to the fact that the proven offenses have been prescribed [by the statute of limitations], probably the sentence of this court will be used as an instrument of propaganda in favor of the accused. He will be able to continue to do harm to those psychologically weak persons who place themselves under his spiritual direction."

    The findings were signed by a four-judge panel. The president of the panel was Velasio De Paolis, now a bishop and secretary of the Apostolic Signatura, the Supreme Court of the Catholic church.

    Though the document does not clarify the reference to the Secretariat of State, a member of the Congregation of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the order founded by Burresi, is Fr. Angelo Tognoni, a mid-level official in the Secretariat of State. Tognoni sometimes appears with the pope at the Wednesday General Audience, reading greetings in Italian.

    Burresi currently resides in Tuscany. Efforts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.

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    Times are a bit tough at the English embassy to the Holy See.

    The embassy's headquarters have been dislodged from their traditional location overlooking the Spanish Steps, and have been consolidated into the existing British embassy to Italy. The ambassador will maintain a separate staff and offices, to honor the letter of the 1929 Lateran Pacts that require countries with diplomatic relations with the Holy See to maintain separate embassies, but the English press has nevertheless referred to the move as a "downgrading."

    Speaking of the ambassador, the incumbent, Kathryn Colvin, is nearing the end of her term, and Her Majesty's Government therefore needs to name a replacement. Normally the selection of an ambassador is a highly discreet process, often involving delicate questions of diplomacy, geopolitics, and both political and personal interests.

    In this case, however, the English have opted for a much more direct route: they took out a "help wanted" ad in the newspaper.

    On July 19, the following advertisement ran in The Times of London:

    The Holy See has the status of a sovereign state. It plays an important role on international issues of importance to HMG such as Africa, development and the fight against poverty. As Ambassador, you will act on instructions from the UK Government, report on the Holy See's response, advance HMG's overseas priorities, and represent the UK at official functions and ceremonial events (including religious ceremonies).

    We require a high caliber individual, with proven political and strategic awareness, diplomatic and interpersonal skills, and in-depth knowledge of government. You must be able to deal with complex issues, build effective and lasting relationships, and be able to communicate in Italian and French to a high standard.

    Supplementary materials note that the applicant must be a British citizen, and must be "acceptable to the Vatican." The salary range in U.S. dollars, by the way, is $74,000-$105,000.

    Applications are due by Aug. 9.

    Many in the diplomatic world around Rome have snickered at the announcement, though one potentially optimistic Vatican official theorized that perhaps casting a wide net would result in non-traditional candidates with unusual strengths, such as a deeper theological sophistication than one often gets from career civil servants or political appointees.

    Finally, three former British ambassadors to the Vatican have issued a public appeal against what they regard as neglect of the embassy. The July 16 letter in the Times from Mark Pellew, Andrew Palmer and John Broadley reads:

    The timing is unfortunate. Pope Benedict XVI shows signs of wanting closer relations with Britain. The Holy See's agenda is largely centred on global issues of poverty, development and debt relief, coinciding with our own G8 priorities.

    The Vatican is influential and well informed, a first-class listening post in which all other G8 countries have resident diplomats….

    The reason is, of course, cost-cutting. Yet the post has always been one of our least expensive. This proposal is cheese-paring in the extreme. Let us at least continue to staff it with a properly supported professional diplomat of sufficient standing to make his or her voice heard in Whitehall.

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    If you're reading this, it's despite the best efforts of much of the world's media to convince you that the only literature worth perusing this summer is the new Harry Potter book.

    Perhaps the only dark cloud surrounding the book's release in mid-July was the news that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, wrote to a German author in March 2003, praising her criticism of the Potter books.

    The books contain "subtle seductions," Ratzinger wrote in a private letter, that "deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly."

    For anyone familiar with the pope's views on other facets of pop culture -- he once excoriated rock music as a "vehicle of anti-religion" -- the verdict is probably not much of a surprise.

    On the other hand, it is also not a magisterial judgment, and Catholics are free to take other views.

    One such perspective came on Vatican Radio on July 14, in an interview with Msgr. Peter Fleetwood, a former official of the Pontifical Council for Culture who now works in the Council for European Bishops' Conferences in Geneva.

    Fleetwood is no stranger to the discussion over Harry Potter. Back in 2003, he appeared at a Vatican press conference to discuss a document on the New Age movement. I asked him about the Harry Potter books, and he delivered a basically positive judgment, which, in the style of secular reporting, soon made the rounds under the headline of "Vatican OKs Harry Potter," causing some minor consternation.

    On July 14, he once again took to the defense of the Potter series.

    "I remain firmly convinced that the Harry Potter novels are very well written," Fleetwood said. "They are written on the classical plot of good versus evil in the standard way that the old myths were written. The characters are built up around that: the goodies and the baddies so to speak, and I can't see that that's a bad thing for children, when goodness, and the people on the side of goodness, are portrayed as the ones who will eventually win. Harry's enemies resort to all sorts of evil things, and they are the ones who lose in the end. I don't see what's wrong with that, and I can't see that does any harm to children."

    "Maybe I'm blind, as one article about me said, maybe I'm stupid and doing the devil's work, as another article about me said. I have a funny feeling I'm not doing the devil's work, and I have another feeling I am not blind or stupid. I just think that there's a lot of scare-mongering going on, particularly among people who like to find the devil around every corner. I don't think that's a healthy view of the world. …"

    The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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