VIENNA – When Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn waded into a heated debate over evolution in the United States, his goal was not to persuade American schools to teach that God created the world in six days.
Nor was it to condemn Charles Darwin and his "The Origin of Species", a book that Schoenborn, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Vienna, considers a great work in the history of ideas.
His concern, Schoenborn told Reuters at his episcopal palace in central Vienna, was to stand up for common sense in a debate that had become ideological. He wanted to make clear where the Church thinks scientists overstep their bounds.
"The Church's task now is to defend reason," he explained, citing as his inspiration his former theology professor Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict.
"The theory of evolution is a scientific theory," he said. "What I call evolutionism is an ideological view that says evolution can explain everything in the whole development of the cosmos, from the Big Bang to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony."
Often tipped as a potential future pope, Schoenborn, 60, came under stinging attack by U.S. scientists after he published an op-ed article in the New York Times last July backing the "Intelligent Design" view of the world's origins.
The harsher critics charged he was a simpleton trying to replace science with creationism - the view that God made the world exactly as laid out in Genesis, the first book of the Bible - and throw American education back by a century.
Dismissing this censure with a smile, the cardinal spelled out a position that respects Darwin's achievements but rejects neo-Darwinist views he said go beyond what science can prove.
"The biblical teaching about creation is not a scientific theory," he said, restating a Catholic view that contrasts with the literal reading of some conservative U.S. Protestants opposed to Darwin. "Christian teaching about creation is not an alternative to evolution."
Schoenborn agrees with the Intelligent Design theory that the complexity of life clearly points to a superior intelligence that must have devised this system. He based this on reason, not science, as Intelligent Design theorists claim to do.
"The next step is to ask - which intelligence? As a believer, of course I think it is the intelligence of the Creator," he said.
Asked about the debate on teaching Intelligent Design in U.S. schools, Schoenborn declined to comment directly. A Pennsylvania school board was voted out this month for backing Intelligent Design in science classes, but Kansas decided to teach it.
He thought private and state schools in Austria should include in their science classes a mention of the "intelligent project that is the cosmos," as Pope Benedict put it last week in apparent backing for Intelligent Design.
Schoenborn, a good-humoured Dominican who was the editor for the Church's authoritative Catechism published in 1992, expressed surprise at the barrage of criticism he got for saying Darwin could not explain everything.
"If this is a scientific theory, it must be open to scientific criticism," he said. "What I'm criticising is a kind of strategy to immunise it, as if it were an offence to Darwin's dignity to say there are some issues this theory can't explain.
"There's a kind of ban on discussing this and critics of the evolution theory are discredited or discriminated against from the start," he said.
"What I would like is to see in schools is a critical and open spirit, in a positive sense, so we don't make a dogma out of the theory of evolution but we say it is a theory that has a lot going for it but has no answers for some questions."
He questioned neo-Darwinism, the scientifically updated version of Darwin's thesis first published in 1859, and its argument that natural selection - the so-called "survival of the fittest" - created life out of matter randomly.
"Can we reasonably say the origin of man and life can only be explained by material causes?" he asked. "Can matter create intelligence? That is a question we can't answer scientifically, because the scientific method cannot grasp it."
"Common sense tells us that matter cannot organise itself," he said. "It needs information to do that, and information is a manifestation of intelligence."
Although his reading on evolution has covered several scientific disciplines, Schoenborn stressed his objections to neo-Darwinism were essentially philosophical.
Like his mentor Pope Benedict, he is deeply concerned that materialism - the science-based view that matter is the only reality - is crowding out religious and spiritual thinking in modern man's perception of the world.
"It's all about materialism, that's the key issue," he said.