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Pope to debate evolution with former students

Written by: Staff

Paris, Aug 31: Pope Benedict gathers some of his former theology students tomorrow for a private weekend debate on evolution and religion, an issue conservative Christians have turned into a political cause in the United States.

Benedict, who taught theology at four German universities before rising in the Catholic Church hierarchy, has pondered weighty ideas with his former PhD students at annual meetings since the late 1970s without any media fuss.

But his election as pope last year and controversies over teaching evolution in the United States have aroused lively interest in this year's reunion on September 1-3 at the papal summer residence of Castel Gondolfo outside Rome.

Religion and science blogs are buzzing about whether it means the Vatican will take a more critical view of evolution and possibly embrace ''Intelligent Design,'' which claims to have scientific proof that human life could not have simply evolved.

But Father Stephan Horn, a German theologian organising the pope's meeting with 39 former students, said that reflected a misunderstanding of how the so-called ''student circle'' works and what the Catholic Church teaches about evolution.

''We've never drawn any conclusions in our student circle,'' he told Reuters by telephone from Rome. ''This is an open exchange of ideas that does not aim for a conclusion.

''It has nothing to do with creationism,'' he added, referring to a fundamentalist Protestant view that God created the world in six days as described in the Book of Genesis. ''Catholic theology does not endorse creationist views.''

Darwin under attack

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution has long been rejected in the United States by conservative Christians who want to have a Bible-based view of creation taught in public schools, where the church-state separation bars the teaching of religion.

More recently, Darwin's critics have campaigned to have ''intelligent design'' taught as a scientific alternative to evolution. President George W Bush and other conservative politicians support this drive to ''teach the controversy.'' The ''ID movement'' does not name the designer as God, but its opponents -- including scientists who are believing Christians -- call this an unacceptable bid to sneak God into the teaching of science, which should only focus on empirical knowledge.

Catholic teaching accepts evolution as a scientific theory and does not read the Biblical story of creation literally. But it disagrees with what it calls ''evolutionism,'' the view that the story of life has no role for God as its prime author.

''The possibility that the Creator used evolution as a tool is completely acceptable for the Catholic faith,'' Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, one of the two main speakers at the meeting, said last week.

Schoenborn, a close associate of Benedict, raised eyebrows last year with an article in the New York Times suggesting the Catholic Church supported the Intelligent Design movement.

He did not endorse it outright, but agreed with the ID movement's view that scientists who say evolution rules out God draw an ideological conclusion not proven by the theory.

Benedict has argued this way since his teaching days. At his inaugural mass after his election last year, he declared, ''We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God.'' Horn said Benedict and his students would probe further into this issue at their meeting, ''We have to ask what is really scientific in Darwin's theory and its later development and where there are ideological elements that are unscientific.''


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