Cardinal Paul Poupard, who heads the Pontifical Council for Culture, made the comments at a news conference on a Vatican project to help end the "mutual prejudice" between religion and science that has long bedeviled the Catholic Church and is currently part of the evolution debate in the United States.
The Vatican project was inspired by Pope John Paul II's 1992 declaration that the church's 17th century denunciation of Galileo was an error resulting from "tragic mutual incomprehension." Galileo was condemned for supporting Nicholas Copernicus' discovery that the Earth revolved around the sun; church teaching at the time placed Earth at the center of the universe.
"The permanent lesson that the Galileo case represents pushes us to keep alive the dialogue between the various disciplines, and in particular between theology and the natural sciences, if we want to prevent similar episodes from repeating themselves in the future," Poupard said.
Poupard and others at the press conference were asked about the religion-science debate raging in the United States over evolution and "intelligent design."
Intelligent design's supporters argue that natural selection, an element of evolutionary theory, cannot fully explain the origin of life or the emergence of highly complex life forms.
Monsignor Gianfranco Basti, director of the Vatican project STOQ, or Science, Theology and Ontological Quest, reaffirmed John Paul's 1996 statement that evolution was "more than just a hypothesis." He was asked about comments by Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, who dismissed in a New York Times article in July John Paul's 1996 statement as "rather vague and unimportant" and seemed to back intelligent design. Basti concurred that John Paul's 1996 letter "is not a very clear expression from a definition point of view," but he said evolution was assuming ever more authority as scientific. A.M.