CARDINAL Christoph Schonborn, archbishop of Vienna, is far removed from Dayton, Tenn., the scene of the Scopes "monkey trial" of 80 years ago, but he's right in there pitching.
The archbishop, who doesn't have to worry too much about placating militant creationists, offered some new thoughts on the subject of Darwinian evolution, which holds that natural selection of the fittest organisms is the key to, among other things, the ascent of man and other biological phenomena. Creationists say it is but one of many theories about the origin and development of life on earth.
Mark Ryland, a vice president of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, had urged the cardinal to write the article, which contains this passage: "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."
The Austrian churchman is on the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education. He has said he does not intend to issue new rules of guidance to Catholic teachers, but his words surely will place a heavy thumb on the scales of Catholic education.
Many scientists simply have given up any efforts to debate with ardent proponents of creationism, which in its newest guise is called "intelligent design."
Meanwhile, many biology teachers find it expedient to omit or pare down teaching on evolution, even though Darwin's formulations are widely accepted in the scientific community. Many scientists also are practicing Christians who see no conflict between biblical teachings and evolution, though many will assert that there is no way that intelligent design - the notion that a divine Creator set the universe in motion - can be tested scientifically.
The cardinal is not a scientist, and although his beliefs may sway many Catholics, they also will drive a wedge between the church and many of its members who see no conflict between evolution and the intervention of a divine creator. His words could do genuine harm when many children are growing up as scientific illiterates.
Perhaps the issue is not really widely debated in his homeland of Austria, but his words could have the effects of grenades in the United States where a sizable percentage of churchgoers, whether they know much about the subject or not, profess to reject Darwinian thinking.
Surely, the cardinal has not forgotten that his church once taught that the Earth was the center of the universe, a fallacy dispelled by the calculations and observations of Copernicus and Galileo.