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.