Religion is religion, science is science, and good fences make good neighbours. That seems likely to be the thrust of an expected clarification by the Roman Catholic Church of its position on biological evolution, according to a prominent biologist who spoke at a retreat on the topic held last weekend by Pope Benedict XVI.

This outcome would be a blow to supporters of intelligent design who had hoped that factions in the Vatican sympathetic to their ideas might prevail in an internal feud over evolution that has opened since the death of Pope John Paul II in April last year. That could have given a global axis to what has been largely a US cultural phenomenon.

Creative thought: Pope Benedict XVI is wrestling with how to square evolution with religion. Credit: T. GENTILE/REUTERS

John Paul II perhaps did more than any pontiff to reconcile faith and science, declaring in 1980 that there was no contradiction between the two. He subsequently described darwinian evolution as more than a hypothesis, and in 1992 officially rehabilitated Galileo Galilei, admitting the Church's fault. Benedict XVI, however, has long been more ambiguous on the topic. In his first mass as Pope, he stated that “we are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution”.

Last year, the prominent Cardinal Christoph Schönborn wrote an article in The New York Times expressing doubts about darwinism. He also seemed to advocate intelligent design, a movement whose advocates seek to give creationism scientific credibility by arguing that the complexity of science can be explained only by divine intervention in the process of evolution.

Although Schönborn has since back-pedalled on the way his ideas were expressed in the article, the piece fuelled rumours that Rome, which currently endorses darwinian evolution and rejects any literal interpretation of biblical creation, might instead endorse intelligent design.

Speculation increased last month when Schönborn announced that creation and evolution would be the topic of the Pope's annual retreat, to be held in Castel Gandolfo near Rome. As a former cardinal and German theology professor, Joseph Ratzinger has long held this informal gathering, where he discusses a hot topic with his past students. But the retreat has taken on new significance since Ratzinger became Pope.

Bruce Chapman, president of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, which represents the intelligent-design movement, welcomed the choice of topic in a press release published on the institute's website last week. In it he wrote: “What's good about all this is that they're taking up the issue will be conducted at a very high level and I think it should give cheer to people who are critics of Darwinism.”

Schönborn was one of four invited speakers at the meeting, which also included Robert Spaemann, a conservative German philosopher, and Paul Erbrich, a Jesuit priest who questions the random nature of evolution. The fourth speaker, the only working scientist present, was Peter Schuster, a molecular biologist and president of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

In a break with tradition, the proceedings of the meeting will be published later this year, says Schuster, with a preface written by the Pope. The message will be to promote dialogue between faith and reason, Schuster says. Given the power struggles within the Church, however, the precise outcome of the overall debate is impossible to predict, he says: “We have to wait.”

I got the impression that there was general agreement that evolutionary biology is a undeniable science and not a hypothesis.

But discussions at the meeting suggest that the Church will probably affirm a form of theistic evolution, which posits the general principle that biological evolution is valid, although set in motion by God. At the same time, it seems likely to reject the fundamental intelligent-design principle that God was a watchmaker, intervening in the details. “Intelligent design as an intervention of God during evolution will not be an outcome,” predicts Schuster. “I got the impression that there was general agreement that evolutionary biology is a undeniable science and not a hypothesis.”

The Pope in particular “immediately accepted that theology is not going to interfere with science”, Schuster adds. “He is not a scientist, but I was surprised by the sharpness of his intellect. He wanted to be informed; he was very interested in science.”

But although there is likely to be agreement that the Church should not attempt to question the basic theory of evolution, those at the meeting were also adamant that science should not stray into theology. Schuster says there was a wide desire to address the Church's concern that darwinism is being extrapolated as a wider metaphysical stance. This argues that we are random products of evolution, and that there is therefore no need for God. “I agree that, as in science, everyone should stay within their realms of competence,” says Schuster.