|Christoph Cardinal Schönborn's First Catechetical Lecture for
2005/2006: Sunday, October 2nd, 2005, St. Stephan's Cathedral, Vienna.
Annotation: It has come to our attention that the content of
Cardinal Schönborn's first catechesis has been misreported in the
English-speaking press as somehow drawing back from his essay in The New
York Times. This is inaccurate, as will be apparent from the full text.
In order to clear up this misunderstanding, we are posting here an
initial draft of an English translation. (Official and final German and
English versions will follow when the lectures are compiled into book
It is with a measure of heartfelt trepidation that I begin the
catechetical lectures for this working year, for the topic with which I
have resolved to grapple is creation and evolution. I do not intend to
delve into the scientific details; in that domain I would doubtlessly
not be qualified. Instead, I shall examine the relationship between
belief in creation and scientific access to the world, to reality.
Thus, I begin with the first words of the Bible: "In the beginning, God
created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1) These should be the
first words of instruction as well. Belief in God the Creator, belief
that He created the heavens and the earth, is the beginning of faith. It
launches the credo as its first article. That already implies that here
is the basis of all, the foundation on which every other Christian
belief rests. To believe in God and, at the same time, not to believe
that he is the Creator would mean, as Thomas Aquinas puts it, "to deny
utterly that God is." God and Creator are inseparable. Every other
Christian conviction depends on this: that Jesus Christ is the Savior,
that there is the Holy Spirit, that there is a Church, that there is
eternal life: they all presuppose belief in the Creator.
For that reason, the catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes the
fundamental significance of belief in creation. In Article 282, it tells
us that here we are dealing with questions that any human being leading
a human life must sooner or later pose: "Where do I come from? Where am
I going? What is the goal, what is the origin, what is the meaning of my
life?" The belief in creation is also crucially related to the basis of
ethics, for implicit in that faith is the assumption that this Creator
has something to say to us —
through His Creation, through His work —
about the proper use of that work and about the true meaning of our
lives. Thus, from the earliest days of the Church, creation catechesis
has been the basis of all doctrinal teaching. If you examine the
patristic instruction given to the first catechumens, you will see that
this teaching stood at the very beginning. During this year, we shall
therefore endeavor to ponder the matter.
If it is true that the question of the origin (whence do we come?) is
inseparable from that of life's goal (where do we go?), then the
question of creation also concerns that of its purpose or end. Likewise
related is the "design" of the plan. God not only is the Maker of all;
He is also the maintainer of His creation, directing it to its goal.
That too will be a subject of these lessons, for the question is quite
an essential part of basic Christian convictions. God is not only a
creator who at the beginning set the work in motion, like a watchmaker
who has fashioned a time-piece that will tick on forever. Rather, he
preserves and guides it towards its goal. The Christian faith further
teaches that the creation is not yet complete, that it is in statu viae,
in transit. God as Creator of the world is also its guide. We call this
"providence" (Vorsehung). We are convinced that all of this —
that there is a Creator and a guide —
can also be perceived and recognized by us. Christian belief decidedly
and tenaciously clings to the human capacity to discern both these
divine aspects, though certainly neither in toto nor in every detail.
How do we know about it? A blind faith, one that would simply demand a
leap into the utter void of uncertainty, would be no human faith. If
belief in the Creator were totally without insight, without any
understanding of what such entails, then it would likewise be inhuman.
Quite rightly, the Church has always rejected "fideism" —
that very sort of blind faith.
Belief without insight, without any possibility of perceiving the
Creator, of being able to grasp by means of reason anything of what He
has wrought, would be no Christian belief. The Biblical Judeo-Christian
faith was always convinced that we not only should and may believe in
the Creator: there is also much about Him that we are capable of
understanding through the exercise of human reason.
Allow me to cite a somewhat lengthy passage from Chapter 13 of the Book
of Wisdom, an Old Testament text from sometime at the end of the second
or the beginning of the first century BC:
1 For all men were by nature foolish who were in ignorance of God, and
who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing him who is, and
from studying the works did not discern the artisan;
2 But either fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circuit of the
stars, or the mighty water, or the luminaries of heaven, the governors
of the world, they considered gods.
3 Now if out of joy in their beauty they thought them gods, let them
know how far more excellent is the Lord than these; for the original
source of beauty fashioned them.
4 Or if they were struck by their might and energy, let them from these
things realize how much more powerful is he who made them.
5 For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original
author, by analogy, is seen.
6 But yet, for these the blame is less; For they indeed have gone astray
perhaps, though they seek God and wish to find him.
7 For they search busily among his works, but are distracted by what
they see, because the things seen are fair.
8 But again, not even these are pardonable.
9 For if they so far succeeded in knowledge that they could speculate
about the world, how did they not more quickly find its LORD?
(Book of Wisdom, 13:1-9)
This classic text is one of the bases for the conviction, subsequently
made dogma, i.e., affirmed as an explicit principle of faith as taught
by the Church, in the First Vatican Council of 1870: that the light of
human reason enables us to know that there is a Creator and that this
Creator guides the world. (1 Vatican, Dei Filius, Chapter 2; CCC 36)
From the text I might first bring to the fore the following: The Bible
reproaches the Gentiles, who do not worship the true God, for deifying
the world and Nature, for seeking mythical, magical power behind Nature
and natural phenomena. Of stars, from fire, from light and air, they
make gods. They allow themselves to be deceived. Their fascination with
creation has led them to the apotheosis of creature. In this sense, the
Bible is the first messenger of enlightenment. In its own way, it
disenchants the world, strips it of its magical, mythical power,
"de-mythologizing" and "dis-deifying" it.
Are we aware that without this dis-deification, modern science would be
impossible? That the world has been created and is not divine, that it
is finite, that it is, to put in philosophical language, "contingent"
and not necessary, that it could also not exist, only this belief has
made it possible for that same world to be studied —
what it consists of and who inhabits it —
as an end in itself. There we encounter finite, created realities and
not gods or divine beings. In this disenchantment of Nature there is, of
course, something painful. Behind the tree, behind the well, there are
no longer any nymphs or deities, mythical, magical powers, but rather
that which the Creator has endowed in them and which human reason can
explore. Thus, already in the Old Testament, the Book of Wisdom, in an
astoundingly dry and sober manner, that God has created everything
according to measure, number, and weight. That is the basis of all
natural scientific endeavor to understand reality.
Behind everything in world stands the transcendent reason of the
Creator. All things are made by him and not of themselves. They are
willed by Him, and that is the great mystery of the creation doctrine.
They are, so to speak, set free into their own existence. They are
themselves, not of themselves but rather because the Creator in a
sovereign exercise of His volition has willed them. In this sense, as we
shall see in the next lesson, they have their autonomy, their own laws,
their independence, their own being. It is the belief in the doctrine of
creation that makes it possible to grasp this.
Whereas pagan antiquity for the most part "divinized" the world, made it
a god, a philosophical movement reacting against this idea, at the time
that Christianity arose, was the so-called "Gnosis," which denigrated
the world. The world, above all matter, was the product of an "accident"
(Unfall) a "downfall" (Abfall). It is, in fact, nothing at all good. It
is not something that is willed, that ought to be; it is pure
negativity. Christianity just as decisively rejected the Gnostic vision
as it did the deification of the world. It is precisely because the
world has been created that early Christendom emphasizes without any
hint of ambiguity that matter too has been created, that it is good,
that is meaningful and is not simply, as the result of an "accident"
within the godhead, "debris" from what was originally a single, monistic
divine being, something driven through, so to speak, an "excretion" (Ausscheidung)
into the void. Matter is not something purely meaningless, which should
be overcome, put aside. Matter was created. "God saw that it was good."
Man in this material world has not fallen into a region of darkness, as
the Gnosis teaches, a divine spark that has fallen into filth from which
he must extricate himself by returning to his divine origin. Rather, he
partakes of creation. He is willed by God, as a material but also
spiritual-physical being, as a microcosm, as an image of the macrocosm,
as a being on the border between two realms, combining the spiritual and
the material. The account of creation in Genesis tells us: "And God saw
that it was very good." (Genesis 1:31) Man belongs to creation and yet
transcends it. We shall make this a subject of discussion when we come
to the question: Is man the crown of creation?
Both Gnostic and divinizing visions are incompatible with the Biblical
doctrine of creation. The greatest stumbling block for antiquity was
certainly the belief that God creates out of nothing, without
prerequisite: ex nihilo. I think that this question is still today the
key question in the entire debate about creation and evolution. What
does it mean to say that God creates? The great difficulty that we have,
the point —
I am convinced and will also demonstrate —
at which Darwin faltered and failed, is that we have no concept, no
vision, no idea of what it means is to say that God is the Creator. That
is because everything that we know is strictly a matter of changes,
alterations. The makers of this cathedral did not construct out of
nothing. They shaped stone and wood in marvelous fashion. All
extra-biblical creation myths and epics take it for granted that a
divine being made the world within a preexisting framework. Creatio ex
nihilo, the absolutely sovereign act of creation, as the Bible attests,
and I believe one can also say this in terms of the history of religion —
something unique. We shall see how fundamentally important this is for
the understanding of creation as something that God wills to be
independent. That will be our next topic of discussion.
Today I wish to point out that I am not the only one who is convinced of
this. The belief in creation stood like a godfather beside the cradle of
modern science. I shall not demonstrate this in detail, but I am
convinced of it and for good reasons. Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton
were certain that the work of science means reading in the book of
creation. God has written that book, and He has given men the power of
understanding, in order than they may decipher it. God has written it in
legible form, as a comprehensible text. It is admittedly not easy to
understand, and the writing is not easy to decode, but it is possible.
The entire scientific enterprise is the discovery of order, laws,
connections, and relationships. Let us say, using this book metaphor: It
is the discovery of the letters, the grammar, the syntax, and ultimately
of the text itself that God has put into this book of creation.
The proposition that the relationship between the Church and science is
a bad one, that faith and science, since time immemorial, have been in a
state of interminable conflict, belongs to the enduring myths of our
time, indeed, I would say, to the acquired prejudices of our time. And,
of course, the notion that generally goes along with it, like a musical
accompaniment, is the notion that the Church has acted as an enormous
inhibitor, with science the courageous liberator. Above all, the Galileo
incident is usually portrayed in the popular version in such a way that
he is seen as a victim of the sinister Inquisition. Such belongs to the
chapter of legenda negra, the "black legend," which developed primarily
during the Enlightenment but which does not correspond entirely to the
historical record. The reality appears somewhat differently. Many
historical examples demonstrate how the creation faith served as the
rational foundation for scientific research. Of these, Gregor Mendel,
the scientist of Brünn, is but one of a multitude whose endeavors remain
indelibly with us today.
It is not true that belief in God the Creator in any way hinders the
progress of science! Quite the contrary! How could the belief that the
universe has a maker stand in the way of science? Why should it be an
impediment to science if it understands its research, its discoveries,
its construction of theories, its understanding of connections and
relationships as a "study of the book of creation"? Indeed, among
natural scientists there are numerous witnesses who make no secret of
their faith and openly profess it, but who also expressly see no
conflict between faith and science. Again, quite the contrary. The fact
that conflicts nonetheless have existed and continue to exist is an
issue that would require separate treatment.
Allow me to quote two short texts that express this fundamental
conviction of the Church. First, there is again the First Vatican
Council of 1870, where we read:
Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real
disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who
reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human
mind with the light of reason. God cannot deny himself, nor can truth
ever be in opposition to truth. (I. Vat., Dei filius, Chapter 4, CCC
The conclusion to be drawn is that neither the Church nor science should
fear the truth, for, as Jesus says, the truth sets us free (cf. John
8:32). The second excerpt comes from the Second Vatican Council. In the
conciliar constitution, Gaudium et spes, there is more particular
emphasis on the question of "Natural Science and Faith":
Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided
it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override
moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the
world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and
persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it
were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the
conserver of all things, who made them what they are. (Vat. II, Gaudium
et Spes 36:2, CCC 159)
Why then do we continually find ourselves caught up in conflicts —
or at least, as a consequence of my short article in the New York Times
on July 7, 2005, for example, though such can be quite productive and
further the discussion —
to vehement polemics?
Conflicts can arise from misunderstandings. Perhaps we do not express
ourselves with sufficient clarity; perhaps our thoughts and ideas are
not clear enough. Such misunderstandings can be resolved. I have just
mentioned one of the most frequent, that which concerns the Creator
Himself. I shall soon touch upon this with reference to Darwin. Today
there seems to me no real danger of an attempt on the part of the Church
to take a dictatorial or patronizing attitude toward science. Yet again
and again the difficulty arises on both sides that borders are neither
recognized nor respected. Thus, they must constantly be assessed and
In this regard, the grand achievements of the natural sciences have
again and again encouraged the temptation to cross borders. The
impression arises that in the face of science's powerful advance,
religion is constantly retreating, being forced by the ever greater
explanatory capacity of science to yield ever more of its territory.
Questions that previously were elucidated in supposedly "primitive
supernatural" terms can now be treated in "naturalistic" terms, and that
generally means resorting to purely material causes. When Napoleon asked
LaPlace where in his theory there was still a place for God, he is said
to have replied: "Sire, je n'ai pas eu besoin de cette hypothèse ("Sire,
I have had no need of that hypothesis.") Such is the notion that God is
a superfluous hypothesis, a crutch for the infirm, incapable of standing
on their own feet. Increasingly, human beings win their freedom from
ancient dependencies. They emancipate themselves, no longer needing God
as an explanation or perhaps in any way at all.
When in 1859 Darwin's famous book The Origin of Species appeared, the
basic message was indeed that he had found a mechanism that portrays a
self-acting (selbsttätig) development, without the need of a creator. As
he said himself, his concern was to find a theory which, for the
development of the species from lower to higher, did not require
increasingly perfective creative acts but rather relied exclusively on
coincidental variations and the survival of the fittest. Here was thus
the notion that we have found a means for dispensing individual acts of
With this, his major work, Darwin undoubtedly scored a brilliant coup,
and it remains a great oeuvre in the history of ideas. With an
astounding gift for observation, enormous diligence, and mental prowess,
he succeeded in producing one of that history's most influential works.
He could already see in advance that his research would create many
areas of endeavor. Today one can truly say that the "evolution" paradigm
has become, so to speak, a "master key," extending itself within many
fields of knowledge.
His success should not be attributed entirely to scientific causes.
Darwin himself (but above all his zealous promoters, those who
promulgated what is called "Darwinism") imbued his theory with the air
of a distinct worldview. Let us leave aside the question of whether such
is inevitable. What is certain is that many saw Darwin's The Origin of
Species as an alternative to what Darwin himself called "the theory of
independent acts of creation." To explain the origin of species, one no
longer needed such one-by-one creative activity.
The famous concluding sentence added to the end of the second edition of
the work certainly provides a place for the Creator, but it is
substantially reduced. It reads:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having
been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one;
and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed
law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful
and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved. (Charles Darwin,
The Origin of Species) (All quotations translated from English are taken
from the original sources. (trans.))
I believe that Darwin sincerely intended this in a spirit of reverence,
but it is a conception of creation that in the realm of theology we call
"Deism." In the very beginning there is an act of creation: God breathed
into a seed, a single form, the germ of all life. It developed from this
primeval beginning, according to the laws that he, Darwin, had
endeavored to discover, describe, and formulate. No more divine
interventions are required. I think that we shall have to concern
ourselves with this question in particular from the aspect of faith.
Does creation mean that God does intervene here and there? What do we
mean, after all, by the idea of creation? One thing is certain: The
conflict of worldviews about Darwin's theory, about Darwinism, has kept
the world intensively busy over the years, now nearly a century and a
half. Here I shall offer only three examples of an interpretation that
is indisputably imbued with ideology.
1) In 1959, Sir Julian Huxley gave a speech at the centennial
celebration of the publication of the famous work: "In the Evolutionary
pattern of thought there is no longer either need or room for the
supernatural. The earth was not created, it evolved. So did all animals
and plants that inhabit it, including our human selves, mind and soul as
well as brain and body. So did religion. Evolutionary man can no longer
take refuge from his loneliness in the arms of a divinized father figure —
" I am convinced that this is not a claim within the realm of the
natural sciences but rather the expression of a worldview. It is
essentially a "confession of faith" —
that faith being materialism.
2) Thirty years later, in 1988, the American writer Will Provine wrote
in an essay about evolution and ethics: "Modern science directly implies
that the world is organized strictly in accordance with deterministic
principles or chance. There are no purposive principles whatsoever in
nature. There are no gods and no designing forces that are rationally
detectable." This too is not a conclusion derived from natural science;
it is a philosophical claim.
3) Four years later, the Oxford chemistry professor Peter Atkins wrote:
"Humanity should accept that science has eliminated the justification
for believing in cosmic purpose, and that any survival of purpose is
inspired solely by sentiment." Again, this is a "confession of faith";
it is not a strictly scientific claim. These and similar statements
could be heard this summer and are one reason that I said in my short
article in the New York Times concerning this sort of
"border-crossings," that they constitute ideology rather than science, a
But let us return to the Book of Wisdom, which elsewhere puts the
following words into the mouths of those who would deny God: "For we are
born of nothing, and after this we shall be as if we had not been: for
the breath in our nostrils is smoke: and speech a spark to move our
heart." (Book of Wisdom, 2:2) One could almost say that this is a
materialistic confession of faith that even at the time was not unknown.
Even my spirit is a only a material product.
What prevents man from recognizing the Creator? What prevents us from
deducing the Creator from the greatness and beauty of His creatures?
Today, 2000 years later, it ought to be much easier, to do so, for we
know incomparably more than we did two millennia ago. Who could have had
any inkling of the immeasurability of the cosmos? Of course, it says in
the Bible: "—
as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand upon the sea shore,"
(Genesis 22: 17), but could men have known then that the number of stars
does in fact correspond to the grains of sands on the shore? There are
so many suns in this universe! Could anyone then have known how
unbelievably complex, wonderful, incomprehensible the atom is? Could
anyone have conceived just how incredibly fascinating can be a single
cell and all its functions? Has this wealth of knowledge nonetheless in
some way forced us to abandon our belief in the Creator? Has this
knowledge driven Him out, or has it, on the contrary, rendered it all
the more meaningful and reasonable to believe in Him —
with much better supporting evidence, through deeper insights into the
marvelous world of Nature, so that faith in a Creator has really become
But perhaps it is simply this notion, one rightly rejected, that some
creator intrudes upon this marvelous natural work. Perhaps it is also a
matter of our knowledge about the faith not having kept pace with our
knowledge about the natural sciences. Perhaps some of us still have,
alongside an astoundingly developed scientific knowledge, only a
"childish faith." To that extent, I am glad that my short article has
sparked such a debate. Perhaps it will also lead to a deeper discussion
of the question of "creation and evolution," "faith and natural
I see no difficulty in joining belief in the Creator with the theory of
evolution, but under the prerequisite that the borders of scientific
theory are maintained. In the citations given above, it is unequivocally
the case that such have been violated. When science adheres to its own
method, it cannot come into conflict with faith. But perhaps one finds
it difficult to stay within one's territory, for we are, after all, not
simply scientists but also human beings, with feelings, who struggle
with faith, human beings, who seek the meaning of life. And thus as
natural scientists we are constantly and inevitably bringing in
questions reflecting worldviews.
In 1985, a symposium took place in Rome under the title "Christian Faith
and the Theory of Evolution." I had the privilege of taking part in it
and contributed a paper. Then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI,
presided, and, at its conclusion, Pope John Paul II received us in an
audience. There he said: "Rightly comprehended, faith in creation or a
correctly understood teaching of evolution does not create obstacles:
Evolution in fact presupposes creation; creation situates itself in the
light of evolution as an event which extends itself through time —
as a continual creation —
in which God becomes visible to the eyes of the believer as ‘creator of
heaven and earth.'" But Pope John Paul then added the thought that for
the creation faith and the theory of evolution to be correctly
understood, the mediation of reason is necessary, along with, he
insisted, philosophy and reflection. Thus, I should like to remind you
once more what I have said in various interviews. For me the question
that has emerged from this debate is not primarily one of faith vs.
knowledge but rather one of reason. The acceptance of purposefulness, of
"design" [English in the original], is entirely based on reason, even if
the method of the modern natural sciences may require the bracketing of
the question of design. Yet my common sense cannot be shut out by the
scientific method. Reason tells me that plan and order, meaning and goal
exist, that a time-piece does not come into being by accident, even less
so the living organism that is a plant, an animal, or, above all, man.
I am thankful for the immense work of the natural sciences. Their
furthering of our knowledge boggles the mind. They do not restrict faith
in the creation; they strengthen me in my belief in the Creator and in
how wisely and wonderfully He has made all things.
It is in the next catecheses, however, that we may be able to see this
story in greater detail. There I shall attempt to address what the act
of creation means in light of the Christian faith.
(© Kardinal Christoph Schönborn)