Pope sacks astronomer over evolution debate
By SIMON CALDWELL, Daily Mail 16:57pm 23rd August 2006
Pope Benedict XVI has sacked his chief astronomer after a series of public clashes over the theory of evolution.
He has removed Father George Coyne from his position as director of the Vatican Observatory after the American Jesuit priest repeatedly contradicted the Holy See's endorsement of "intelligent design" theory, which essentially backs the "Adam and Eve" theory of creation.
Benedict favours intelligent design, which says God directs the process of evolution, over Charles Darwin’s original theory which holds that species evolve through the random, unplanned processes of genetic mutation and the survival of the fittest.
But Father Coyne, the director of the Vatican Observatory for 28 years, is an outspoken supporter of Darwin’s theory, arguing that it is compatible with Christianity.
He has been replaced by Argentine Jesuit Father Jose Funes, 43, an expert on disk galaxies.
Although the Vatican did not give reasons for Father Coyne’s replacement, sources close to the Holy See say that Benedict would have been unhappy with the priest’s public opposition to intelligent design theory.
Father Coyne’s most notable intervention came after Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, a former student of the Pope, put the case for intelligent design in an article in the New York Times in July last year.
The cardinal, responding to an explosive debate on evolution in the US, had argued that Darwinian concepts of "random variation and natural selection" were incompatible with the Catholic belief that there is a divine purpose and design to nature.
The cardinal also said that the evolution had become an atheistic ideological dogma that was being used against the Church.
The views of Cardinal Schonborn, one of the authors of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, were criticised just a month later in an article written by Father Coyne for the London-based Tablet magazine.
God "is not constantly intervening, but rather allows, participates, loves," Fr Coyne wrote, adding: "Religious believers must move away from the notion of a dictator or designer God, a Newtonian God who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly.
"Perhaps God should be seen more as a parent or as one who speaks encouraging and sustaining words."
The priest later attacked intelligent design theory as a "religious movement" lacking any scientific merit.
Speaking at a conference in Florida a year ago, Father Coyne said that "intelligent design isn't science, even if it pretends to be".
Then in a November interview, the 73-year-old priest said the Pope should withhold judgment on the issue, saying he "doesn't have the slightest idea of what intelligent design means in the U.S.".
Benedict, one of the most respected theologians in the Catholic Church, is understood to be deeply interested in the evolution debate, and has referred to the cosmos as an "intelligent project".
One source indicated that Cardinal Schonborn’s New York Times article would not have been written without the Pope's permission.
The removal of Father Coyne also comes just weeks before the Vatican hosts a weekend seminar to examine the impact Darwin's theory on the Church's teaching of Creation.
The observatory has its origins in the observational tower erected at the Vatican by Pope Gregory XIII in 1578 during reforms of the Western calendar.
In 1800 the Church began to use the tower for astronomy and in 1891 Pope Leo XIII formally established the Vatican Observatory.
It has been entrusted to the Jesuits since 1934. Observatory staff work from facilities south of Rome and the University of Arizona in Tucson.