Philosophers, scientists and other intellectuals close to Pope Bene-dict will gather at his summer palace outside Rome this week for intensive discussions that could herald a fundamental shift in the Vatican's view of evolution.
There have been growing signs the Pope is considering aligning his church more closely with the theory of "intelligent design." Advocates of the theory argue that some features of the universe and nature are so complex that they must have been designed by a higher intelligence. Critics say it is merely a disguise for "creationism" -- a literal belief in the Bible's account.
A prominent anti-evolutionist and Roman Catholic scientist, Dominique Tassot, told the US' National Catholic Reporter that this week's meeting was "to give a broader extension to the debate. Even if [the Pope] knows where he wants to go, and I believe he does, it will take time. Most Catholic intellectuals today are convinced that evolution is obviously true because most scientists say so."
In 1996, in what was seen as an unconditional capitulation to scientific orthodoxy, John Paul II declared that Darwin's theories were "more than a hypothesis."
Last week, at a conference in Rimini, Cardinal Christoph Schon-born of Austria revealed that evolution and creation had been chosen as the subjects for this year's meeting of the Pope's Schulerkreis -- a group consisting mainly of his former doctoral students that has been gathering annually since the late 1970s.
Apart from Cardinal Schonborn, participants at the closed-door meeting will include the president of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Peter Schuster; the conservative ethical philosopher Robert Spaemann; and Paul Elbrich, professor of philosophy at Munich University.
Last December, a US court ruling sparked controversy when it said that intelligent design should not be taught alongside evolution theory. Cardinal Schonborn said "the debate of recent months has undoubtedly motivated the Holy Father's choice."
But he added that, in the 1960s, the then Joseph Ratzinger had "underlined emphatically the need to return to the topic of creation."
The Pope also raised the issue in the inaugural sermon of his pontificate, saying: "We are not the accidental product, without meaning, of evolution."