The Vatican gave the Creationist lobby a left right sign of the cross today, announcing it would stage a conference on Darwinism next month and declaring that it was one of the Fathers of the Church that thought up the idea in the first place.
At one point the conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University wasn't going to give Creationism or Intelligent Design a hearing at all. But apparently the organisers have relented, and will consider Intelligent Design as a "cultural phenomenon" rather than as a valid scientific theory, giving US-based IDers the chance to be smirked at by a room full of Monseigneurs, Cardinals and Bishops.
Previewing the conference yesterday, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Church's Pontifical Council for Culture, conceded the Church had been hostile to Darwin on occasion. But, he said, the Church had never formally condemned Darwin, and he noted that in the last 50 years a number of Popes had accepted evolution as a valid scientific approach to human development.
Indeed, he said, evolution could be traced back through Scholastics such as St Thomas Aquinas to St Augustine in the fourth century, who had noted that "big fish eat smaller fish".
Augustine is probably more famous for praying "God, make me good - but not yet." Which also has some evolutionary overtones if you think about it.
Marc Leclerc, a natural philosopher at the University went further, saying Creationists were mistaken in arguing that that Darwinism was "totally incompatible with a religious vision of reality".
The conference, and the Church's endorsement of Darwin, represents another curve ball from the Holy See at other, arguably more fundamentalist, streams of Christianity. In December Pope Benedict tipped his hat to Galileo - who definitely was condemned by the Church - while simultaneously going all New Age by blethering on about the Solstice.
Last May, the Vatican astronomer really went out on a limb, claiming there was nothing incompatible between being a Catholic and believing in Aliens. He even suggested Aliens could be free of the stain of original sin, the stubborn blemish that has condemned humanity to a progressive decline from the Garden of Eden, through slavery, the dark ages, religious strife, atomic war, and now, the credit crunch and Simon Cowell.
But a wholesale worldview rejig this is not. Other branches of modern science get shorter shrift, with genetic manipulation fairly high on the Vatican's current don't-like list. ®