UPDATE: Reader Christopher Lake has kindly referenced statements supportive of Theory of Evolution by Popes Pius XII and St John Paul II. I have added Christopher’s comments below as an addendum to this blog entry.


ORIGINAL BLOG: I was reminded the other day, while challenged by a group of Catholic Young Earth Creationists, that some of Pope Francis’s most controversial statements are those reconciling faith and modern science. In particular, Big Bang Theory and the Theory of Evolution.

As documented by Catholic apologists David Palm and Karl Keating, some Catholics even go as far as to deny that the sun is at the centre of our solar system. In the name of biblical literalism, these neo-geocentrists (of both flat earth and ball earth variety) insist that Catholics are doctrinally bound to uphold geocentrism as infallible Catholic teaching.

Pope Francis disagrees.  

As reported in the Independent when the Holy Father first addressed Big Bang Theory and Theory of Evolution before the Pontifical Academy for Sciences:

“When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so,” Francis said.

“The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but, rather, requires it.

“Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

As the husband of a biologist, and the father to teenaged daughters who share their mother’s curiosity of the natural sciences, I felt immense relief. The Church must be capable of engaging today’s generation that often considers natural sciences more authoritative than religion. Catechists and theologians do us no favours when, in the name of biblical literalism, they deny the two most foundational scientific theories in our day for which there is overwhelming evidence. Instead they do us the disfavour of creating a generation of young earthly atheists.

Thus in his comments before the Pontifical Academy, the Holy Father is addressing not only

 scientists, but today’s generation of young believers. Moreover, Pope Francis is addressing young skeptics with the potential of becoming young believers.

Here I would quote Dr Kenneth Miller, the Ivy League evolutionary cell biologist and devout Catholic, who has written extensively defending both Theory of Evolution and his Catholic belief as as a respected scientist.

In Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, Miller addresses those who in the name of biblical literalism dismiss evolution as merely a theory.

“Evolution is both a fact and a theory. It is a fact that evolutionary change took place. And evolution is also a theory that seeks to explain the detailed mechanism behind the change,” Miller states.

Dr Miller then addresses those who deny faith in the name science, as well as those who deny science in the name of faith. In doing so, he appeals to St Augustine, who instructed early Christians not to engage in cosmological controversy in the name of scriptural literalism.

As St Augustine warns:

Often, a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances, … and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, which people see as ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant person is laughed at, but rather that people outside the faith believe that we hold such opinions, and thus our teachings are rejected as ignorant and unlearned. If they find a Christian mistaken in a subject that they know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions as based on our teachings, how are they going to believe these teachings in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think these teachings are filled with fallacies about facts which they have learnt from experience and reason.

Reckless and presumptuous expounders of Scripture bring about much harm when they are caught in their mischievous false opinions by those not bound by our sacred texts. And even more so when they then try to defend their rash and obviously untrue statements by quoting a shower of words from Scripture and even recite from memory passages which they think will support their case ‘without understanding either what they are saying or what they assert with such assurance.’ (1 Timothy 1:7)

This brings us back to Miller’s book and what I believe Pope Francis was saying in affirming the scientific theories of Big Bang and Evolution, as well as their consistency with biblical Christianity. At least when the Christian scriptures are understood within proper context.

“As a scientist, I know very well that the earth is billions of years old and that the appearance of living organisms was not sudden, but gradual,” Miller states. “As a Christian, I believe that Genesis is a true account of the way in which God’s relationship with the world was formed,” he then adds.

“And as a human being, I find value in both descriptions. In order to reveal Himself to a desert tribe six thousand years ago, a Creator could hardly have lectured them about DNA and RNA, about gene duplication and allopatric speciation. Instead, knowing exactly what they would understand, He spoke to them in the direct and lyrical language of Genesis,” Miller concludes.

Pope Francis understands. More than any other pope since Charles Darwin first proposed the Theory of Evolution (the father of Big Bang Theory is Belgian priest and astronomer Monsignor Georges Lemaître), our present Holy Father is scientifically educated. Prior to entering the Jesuits he obtained a college diploma as a chemical engineering technician.

Pope Francis also worked as a janitor and as a bar bouncer. Thus he has kept his pulse on the intellectual leanings of the average person. It should come as no surprise that Pope Francis addressed the topics Evolution and Big Bang Theory in the way he did. He is keeping the Christianity relevant for the next generation of Catholic.


ADDENDUM: Reader Christopher Lake states in the comments below:

Catholics who struggle with Pope Francis for his statements on evolution must also come to terms with similar statements of earlier Popes on the same issue. Francis is simply following in the faithful footsteps of his Papal predecessors in affirming both Biblical truths of faith and the fruits of scientific research.

In his 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII affirmed that it is *at least permissible* for Catholics to believe that human beings have evolved from antecedent beings, as long as said belief is not one which excludes God as the Source and Ground of all being itself, and as long as it is affirmed that human beings were/are given individual, specific souls by God at time of their conception.

In 1996, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed that Catholics may believe in evolution (although, as Pius XII had stated 50 years earlier, *not* in an atheistic form of evolution, which would obviously, logically, be out of bounds for Christians!), and he also went on to say that evolution can now be recognized as “more than a hypothesis”.

Well before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger affirmed the compatibility of Catholic teaching on creation with a God-grounded understanding of evolution. This article gives some details on his early work on this matter, as well as his continued thinking on it as Pope.

Pete Vere is a canonist, author, and catechist. His books include Surprised by Canon Law (volumes 1 & 2), More Catholic Than The Pope, and Annulments: 100 Questions and Answers. Pete and wife Sonya are blessed with seven children. In his spare time Pete enjoys camping with his family, riding his Indian Scout motorcycle, and refereeing professional wrestling.

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16 Responses

  1. Christopher Lake says:

    Catholics who struggle with Pope Francis for his statements on evolution must also come to terms with similar statements of earlier Popes on the same issue. Francis is simply following in the faithful footsteps of his Papal predecessors in affirming both Biblical truths of faith and the fruits of scientific research.

    In his 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII affirmed that it is *at least permissible* for Catholics to believe that human beings have evolved from antecedent beings, as long as said belief is not one which excludes God as the Source and Ground of all being itself, and as long as it is affirmed that human beings were/are given individual, specific souls by God at time of their conception. http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_12081950_humani-generis.html

    In 1996, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed that Catholics may believe in evolution (although, as Pius XII had stated 50 years earlier, *not* in an atheistic form of evolution, which would obviously, logically, be out of bounds for Christians!), and he also went on to say that evolution can now be recognized as “more than a hypothesis.” https://www.ewtn.com/library/papaldoc/jp961022.htm

    Well before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger affirmed the compatibility of Catholic teaching on creation with a God-grounded understanding of evolution. This article gives some details on his early work on this matter, as well as his continued thinking on it as Pope: http://www.integratedcatholiclife.org/2015/03/trasancos-pope-benedict-creation-evolution/

    • Pete Vere says:

      Christopher, thanks for your informative comment referencing previous popes on this issue. I had actually intended to do an update this evening where I added to the two papal statements you references, so your comment saved me some work. I hope you don’t mind me making it an addendum to my blog.

      • Christopher Lake says:

        Yes, of course, please feel free to add anything from my comment which would be helpful to your points!

  2. Ed De Vita says:

    I find it curious that those who insist on adopting a literal interpretation of Genesis don’t also go on to adopt the whole biblical cosmology (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_cosmology#Heavens,_earth,_and_underworld ). Also, its seems to me that there is a misunderstanding of the Christian idea of creation. We seem to think of it as some act that occurred millions of years ago. This is not and cannot be the case. Since the act of creation brings time into being, it cannot be an event that occurrs within time. Creation is, in fact, the act by which God continually “brings” us into existence out of nothing. That is why we can truly say that we are created directly by God even though we know that we come from the pre-existent matter of our parents.

    • Pete Vere says:

      As a Byzantine Catholic, one theory I have heard proposed is that we are still living in the sixth day of creation. That is, we are still being created by God.

    • Pedro Gabriel Pedro Gabriel says:

      I highly recommend a book called “The Lost World of Genesis 1” by John Walton (though I must warn that its sequel “The Lost World of Adam and Eve” contains concepts of polygenism and Original Sin incompatible with Catholic doctrine).

      Basically, the gist of it is that we are projecting unto the Creation narrative a mentality which is modern and western (as if the Genesis account was a factual and objective account, like a scientific report), but foreign to the thought processes of the ancient Hebrews who actually wrote the books (who were more interested in knowing where everything fitted on the grand scheme of things, or to derive practical wisdom for a virtuous life).

      Even your account of a creatio continua (continuous creation) is a later medieval addition, owing to Aquinas and other scholastics.

      But the mentality of the Hebrews of the time was heavily influenced by other things, like Temple theology.

      So, it’s not that we are currently living the sixth day, as Pete said, but rather the seventh.

      In ancient Semitic culture, when a god “rested” on a place, it was not to get a vacation from work (this is typical western modern mentality), but to sanctify a particular place.

      When Genesis says that God created the World in six days and rested on the seventh, it means that the whole World is God’s Temple and that He dwells in that Temple to this day.

      So, the six days of Creation mimic the consecration of a Temple, where God blesses first the structures (where the liturgies take place) and finally the functionaries (priests that perform functions on said structures)

      So we have:
      Day 1 – Day and Night (function 1)
      Day 2 – Waters from Heaven and from the Below (function 2)
      Day 3 – Earth (function 3, which includes fertility)

      Then we get another set, parallel to the first:
      Day 4 – Sun, Moon And stars (functionaries attributed to function 1)
      Day 5 – Birds and Fish (functionaries attributed to function 2)
      Day 6 – Animals and Man (functionaries attributed to function 3)

      On the seventh day, God rested on this Universal Temple, which remains in function to this day.

  3. Marthe Lépine says:

    Would it make sense for me to say that God might still be creating, or evolving, new creatures, or different types of existing creatures, as the need arises, such as, for example, those recently discovered plastic-eating bacteria, or animals that could become new sources of food?

    • Pete Vere says:

      Absolutely! In fact, even humans are evolving, as witnessed in a reality television I read about a few years ago in which people were paid to live as Medieval peasants for a period of time.

      Ultimately, as I recall, the producers shortly into the first season had to make exceptions for modern tap water and sewage treatment. The reason being contestants no longer had whatever enzyme their ancestors had that prevented their bodies from getting sick on the water back then.

  4. M says:

    Hi! I think my spouse know you personally from years ago. I have a question. I shared this article with him, because we tend to argue about evolution, and he took issue with this quote: ““Evolution is both a fact and a theory. It is a fact that evolutionary change took place. And evolution is also a theory that seeks to explain the detailed mechanism behind the change,” Miller states.” This does seem to be a tautology of sorts, and he says that in all his years of reading on the subject he has never found an evolutionist to provide anything resembling real evidence for the theory. He says they all say the same thing: “I am a scientist with a lot of letters after my name. Evolution is true because it is is true, I have said it and so have others. Discussion closed, because you are silly.” I can’t really argue the point, because my belief in evolution is really not evidence-based, but to my mind just seems to be more in line with the G-d I know and how He seems to operate- in other words, my belief is based entirely on subjective feeling. Does Miller back up his claim that evolution is fact with hard evidence?

    • Pete Vere says:

      M, one thing to keep in mind is that nobody believes in evolution. At least not in the same sense we believe in God.

      Rather, one accepts evolution as the best explanation based upon the evidence gathered.

      In terms of the overwhelming scientific evidence that makes evolution predictable, and thus more than a theory or hypothesis, BioLogos has an entire section devoted to this topic:

      https://biologos.org/common-questions/scientific-evidence/evolution-evidence

      • Mom says:

        Hi again- I finally checked out the link to the article. Unfortunately, it provides, yes, a “compelling picture,” as it says- but I can’t see any hard evidence, more suppositions. I come at this from totally “disinterested” angle, I really don’t care who is right, just would like to find the Truth. I wish to see evidence for my arguments as I study this, but find myself growing more convinced *against* by reading evolutionary websites! I am disappointed here, I have to say, this article- as I want to be able to hold up what I think- unfortunately, I think I may have to give way here and consider the possibility that evolutionists are actually…wrong! I see no evidence in article linked. Just some random thoughts, here. Not intending to pick a fight, just a curious reader.

  5. M says:

    Thank you- I will check that out!

  6. Joseph Shephard says:

    You will know them by their works. A bad tree can’t produce good fruits. The big mistake people make in these discussions is by placing Darwinism on the same level as the hard sciences like physics and chemistry where you have rigorous theoretical predictions and precise confirmation with experiment. Evolution offers nothing of that kind. The only fact we know of is that there is variation within species. The gene pool evolves and I fully accept the evidence for the origin of subspecies. Anything beyond that has not been observed. Evolution is the only so called science that needs evangelists, apologists, prophets, holy books, inquisitions and catechism texts. Many people don’t accept quantum mechanics or relativity and the specialists in those fields simply don’t care. There is something else going on here and it is a war on the Christian worldview. The chief promoters of evolution admit that themselves. Evolution has produced nothing of value for humanity, only bitter angry atheists. Relativity has been the same for a century. Evolution keeps on changing with each decade. The numerous failed predictions are quickly forgotten and swept under the carpet.

    There is a reason why intelligent design is growing and evolutionists fear it. As more evidence arises, it becomes clear that cells are complex machines and by the laws of probability can not arise from random chemical accidents. Any attempt to address this results in fraud and obfuscation by the Darwinians. In the meanwhile, I will believe what our saints have always believed, most especially about humans being created directly by God from the dirt of the Earth. The reality of Adam is tied in with Original Sin and the need for a redeemer.
    Also, the Noachian Flood was a real event, even if all the species can’t fit on the Ark. The technical details are irrelevant. The New Testament authors and Church Fathers treated like a real event just like the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden? Why should I believe differently to court the approval of godless blasphemers?

  7. Hugues says:

    Thank you for sharing your views. My question is whether, in the process of evolution, the first man was born from an animal. Did a man once call an animal his mum?

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