Spotlight on evolution

Charles Darwin is pictured at Down House in Kent, England, in this photo circa 1880. The English naturalist formed the theory of evolution by natural selection. (CNS/English Heritage, National Monuments Record/HIP/Art Resource)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican is about to unveil another upcoming international conference on evolution, this one  on the topic, “Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories. A Critical Appraisal 150 Years after `The Origin of Species.’”

Scheduled for March 3-7, 2009, the Rome conference is being organized by the Pontifical Gregorian University and the University of Notre Dame, under the sponsorship of the Pontifical Council for Culture. Next Tuesday, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the council for culture, and other Rome academics will present the initiative to Vatican journalists.

The Rome conference will take place a few weeks after the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the English naturalist who wrote “On the Origin of Species” in 1859. The work established evolutionary theory as the dominant explanation of biological diversity in the world.

The Vatican’s interest in the question of evolution has intensified in recent years. This fall, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences will take its most systematic look at evolution in an Oct. 31-Nov. 4 conference on the theme, “Scientific Insights Into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life.”

Over the summer, the Vatican newspaper ran a series of articles on Darwinism, creation and intelligent design. In a nutshell, they said evolution and Christian faith are compatible as long as evolutionary theories do not exclude a greater divine plan.

Pope Benedict XVI has also shown a keen interest in the issue and its implications for the faith. He described creation as an “intelligent project” in 2005 and hosted his former doctoral students in a symposium about evolution in 2006.

Last-minute Vatican visit by Mrs. Cheney

VATICAN CITY – On my way to the Vatican press hall this morning, waiting for the crosswalk light to turn green, I was kind of shocked to see a large convoy of black vehicles with U.S. plates and insignia speed by.

Big burly men with flak jackets leaned out of SUVs and scoped pedestrians — I suddenly realized it probably wouldn’t be a very good idea to stick my hand in my bag just then to pull out my sunglasses. So I just squinted in the glare trying to catch a glimpse of who the visiting dignitary might be.

Turns out Lynne Cheney, wife of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, was being escorted away from the Vatican after an unofficial visit to the tomb of St. Peter. The event was planned at the last minute, according to an official at the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the office responsible for the upkeep of St. Peter’s Basilica and the vast necropolis below.    

The vice president, who has been meeting with Italian officials this week to discuss U.S. concerns over Russia’s actions against Georgia, did not take part in the private tour of the Vatican necropolis.

The second-century subterranean burial ground includes the spot where St. Peter’s tomb has been venerated since early Christian times. For the past decade, the Vatican has been using state-of-the-art techniques to repair, restore and conserve the tombs and funerary artwork.

After making obligatory reservations in writing in advance, most visitors interested in seeing the necropolis have a long wait to get in on a tour. However, exceptions are obviously made for visiting VIPs.

One official at the Fabbrica told me they were quite proud so many high-level government officials and their family members from around the world have come to visit the underground mausoleums and the tomb of St. Peter, adding it was hoped these government leaders “get inspired” by the life and example of the martyr buried there.

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