ROME (AP) – The Vatican sought Tuesday to show that it isn’t opposed to science and evolutionary theory, hosting a conference on Charles Darwin and trying to debunk the idea that it embraces creationism or intelligent design.

Some of the world’s top biologists, paleontologists and molecular geneticists joined theologians and philosophers for the five-day seminar marking the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.”

Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the Catholic Church doesn’t stand in the way of scientific realities like evolution, saying there was a “wide spectrum of room” for belief in both the scientific basis for evolution and faith in God the creator.

“We believe that however creation has come about and evolved, ultimately God is the creator of all things,” he said on the sidelines of the conference.

But while the Vatican did not exclude any area of science, it did reject as “absurd” the atheist notion of biologist and author Richard Dawkins and others that evolution proves there is no God, he said.

“Of course we think that’s absurd and not at all proven,” he said. “But other than that … the Vatican has recognized that it doesn’t stand in the way of scientific realities.”

The Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI has been trying to stress its belief that there is no incompatibility between faith and reason, and the conference at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University was a key demonstration of its efforts to engage with the scientific community.

“The false contraposition between Darwinism and the Church,” is how the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, headlined its story on the conference.

Church teaching holds that Catholicism and evolutionary theory are not necessarily at odds.

Pope John Paul II articulated the church’s position most clearly in a 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy for Sciences, in which he said the theory of evolution was “more than a hypothesis.”

He noted the results of several independent discoveries across several disciplines, saying that convergence alone “constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.”

But the Vatican’s position became somewhat confused in recent years, in part because of a 2005 New York Times op-ed piece signed by a close Benedict collaborator, Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn.

In the piece, Schoenborn seemed to reject traditional church teaching and backed instead intelligent design, the view that life is too complex to have developed through evolution alone, and that a higher power has had a hand in changes among species over time.

He said John Paul’s 1996 speech was “rather vague and unimportant.”

Vatican officials later made clear they did not believe intelligent design was science and that teaching it alongside evolutionary theory in school science classes only created confusion.

Francisco Ayala, a former priest and professor of biological sciences and philosophy at the University of California, Irvine, called intelligent design and creationism “blasphemous” not only to science but to the Christian faith.

“It is not only not compatible with Christian faith, it is just blasphemous because it predicates from the creator attributes that we don’t want to have from the creator,” he said.

He cited as an example the fact that the human jaw is too small for all its teeth, requiring wisdom teeth to be extracted. “An engineer who designed the human jaw would be fired the next day. Are we going to blame God for that?”

Proponents of intelligent design say theirs is merely a theory to detect whether the apparent design in nature is a genuine design or the product of a process like natural selection. They reject being labeled as creationists and say recent research suggests that design is the best explanation for complexity in the natural world.

In his remarks, Levada referred to both Dawkins and those Christians who have a “fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible which they want to see taught to their children in the schools alongside evolution or instead of it.”

But he declined to pinpoint the Vatican’s views on intelligent design, saying merely: “The Vatican listens and learns.”

AP-ES-03-03-09 1434EST

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