Stephen Hawking to address Vatican conference on evolution

Vatican City - Stephen Hawking, the cosmologist and author of the bestselling A Brief History of Time, is to take part today in a conference at the Vatican on Darwin, evolution and intelligent design.

Pope Benedict XVI this morning opened the conference, organised by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which will last until next Tuesday. He said that like modern Popes before him, he saw no contradiction between the Christian concept of Creation and science. He cited Galileo, whom, he said "saw nature as a book whose author is God in the same way that Scripture has God as its author." He added: "To "evolve" literally means "to unroll a scroll", that is, to read a book. The imagery of nature as a book has its roots in Christianity, and has been held dear by many scientists."

Professor Hawking, 66, recalled that he had taken part in a Vatican scientific conference 30 years ago, when he had observed that since the universe had no identifiable beginning, there had been no creation. He joked that he hoped the Pope was unaware of this, "otherwise I might share the fate of Galileo".

Last month, the Vatican said the theory of evolution was compatible with the Bible but there was no need for a posthumous apology to Charles Darwin, who, in the 19th century, was attacked by the Church of England for theories which contradicted the Biblical account of the Creation.

The Catholic Church accepts evolution, but sees it as part of the divine plan. Pope Benedict has been described as a "theistic evolutionist" who believes that God created life through evolution, and thus that there is no inherent clash between religion and science.

The Catholic Church does not take the Genesis story that God created the world in six days literally, regarding it instead as an allegory. However some Christians - not least in the United States - do take the Genesis account literally and object to evolution being taught in school.

Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican Council for Culture, said scientists, theologians and philosophers would gather next March at a conference organised by the University of Notre Dame and six pontifical universities to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's "Upon the Origin of the Species".

Cardinal Paul Poupard, Monsignor Ravasi's predecessor as head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said that Genesis and Darwin's theory of evolution were "perfectly compatible" if the Bible was read "correctly". The real message of Genesis was that "the universe didn't make itself and had a creator" he said.

He said: "Maybe we should abandon the idea of issuing apologies as if history was a court eternally in session" . He noted that unlike Galileo, Darwin had never been formally condemned by the Catholic Church, "nor was his book ever banned".

In additional remarks to the conference, the Pope told the scientists that "in choosing the topic 'scientific Insight into the evolution of the universe and of life', you seek to focus on an area of enquiry which elicits much interest. In fact, many of our contemporaries today wish to reflect upon the ultimate origin of beings, their cause and their end, and the meaning of human history and the universe."

He added that his predecessors Pope Pius XII and Pope John Paul II had noted "that there is no opposition between faith's understanding of creation and the evidence of the empirical sciences......In order to develop and evolve, the world must first be, and thus have come from nothing into being. It must be created, in other words, by the first Being who is such by essence."

Quoting from St Thomas Aquinas, the Pope said that "to state that the foundation of the cosmos and its developments is the provident wisdom of the Creator is not to say that creation has only to do with the beginning of the history of the world and of life. It implies, rather, that the Creator founds these developments and supports them, underpins them and sustains them continuously."

The world, far from originating out of chaos, "resembles an ordered book" the Pope said. "Notwithstanding elements of the irrational, chaotic and the destructive in the long processes of change in the cosmos, matter as such is "legible". It has an inbuilt "mathematics"...... We may not at first be able to see the harmony both of the whole and of the relations of the individual parts, or their relationship to the whole. Yet, there always remains a broad range of intelligible events, and the process is rational in that it reveals an order of evident correspondences and undeniable finalities".

He said: "thanks to the natural sciences, we have greatly increased our understanding of the uniqueness of humanity's place in the cosmos." He quoted John Paul II as observing that "scientific truth, which is itself a participation in divine Truth, can help philosophy and theology to understand ever more fully the human person and God's Revelation about man, a Revelation that is completed and perfected in Jesus Christ. "