The news coming out of the recent, and much trumpeted, Vatican-sponsored conference on evolution isn’t that good, according to a brief article that appeared in Science magazine on November 14. Molecular biologist John Abelson commented on the most controversial figure at the conference, Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn: “He believes there are gaps in evolution and [that] God acts in those gaps.” Oh boy, not the “gap theory” again?

Schönborn is infamous for an op-ed piece he published in the New York Times, “Finding design in nature,” in which he referred to neo-Darwinism as a “dogma,” a word that really should never be uttered with contempt by any member of the Catholic Church, ever. Despite Pope John Paul II’s conciliatory statements toward science in general (he pardoned Galileo) and evolution in particular, Schönborn dug himself deeper and deeper in the editorial: “Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.” Ah yes, as opposed to those most empirically based of all doctrines, the teachings of the Catholic Church!

Apparently, good ol’ Christoph gave an acceptable talk at the Vatican conference, making the distinction between “evolution” (ok) and “evolutionism” (bad). The problems started during the following Q&A session, when the Cardinal apparently felt more free to speak his mind, so much so that even Francis Collins complained! Collins, you might remember, is the former director of the human genome project, who recently flirted with intelligent design in his book, “The Language of God,” nonsensically subtitled “A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” Even so, Collins wasn’t too happy about Schönborn’s reservations concerning evolution’s ability to explain “all aspects of biology.”

The above mentioned Abelson, on his part, didn’t mince words: “It was preposterous … a step backwards.” For Gereon Wolters, a philosopher at the University of Konstanz in Germany, Schönborn “is just repeating this creationist gibberish” so popular in the USA. Just about the least damaging statement that the Science reporter could find for Schönborn was from director of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Peter Raven, who commented that the Cardinal’s lecture was “confused.”

Why, why, why, one would want to ask. Why is Schönborn insisting in picking a fight with science, knowing full well the past history of such conflicts, where the Catholic Church has invariably come out looking foolish? On the part of the scientists, why did eminent cosmologist Stephen Hawking agree to lend credence to the conference, and even to be touched on the head by the Pope? (What for, a benediction of the man who famously said that his theories allow him to look into God’s mind?)

The answer to the question of why scientists are so complacent with the Church is that it is hard to refuse a free trip to Rome and the occasion to schmooze with the Pope. Heck, even I would have accepted the invite, though I might have tried to steer clear of any head touching by Ratzinger and his associates. The answer to the question of why people like Schönborn keep spouting patent nonsense is more complex, but it must have a lot to do with the realization that if the Church were to fully embrace the Darwinian view of the world it would be really hard to hang on to silly notions like the trinity, original sin and my favorite, transubstantiation. The God-of-the-gaps retreat is a desperate position, but it does allow Schönborn to keep both face and a steady income. Which is why scientists should not attend religious conferences: let the religionists deal with “the problem” as best as they can, but do not lend them a crutch on which to fool the world into thinking that what they are saying makes any rational sense at all.