Were Pope’s evolution remarks a break from Catholic teaching?

Media coverage presented Francis’s speech as a move in a new direction, but it reflects long-standing Church ideas

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Pope Francis addresses faithful from the window of his study overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican during his Sunday Angelus prayer on July 13, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/FILIPPO MONTEFORTE)
Pope Francis addresses faithful from the window of his study overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican during his Sunday Angelus prayer on July 13, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/FILIPPO MONTEFORTE)

“Pope Francis schools creationists,” read the Salon headline, referring to what it called “an exciting declaration.” The Daily Mail wrote that the Pope “embraces modern science.”

The Pope did indeed make comments about compatibility of evolution and the bible, but his remarks continued Catholic teachings on science and God, a point missed by the coverage of his remarks.

In a speech Monday before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Vatican City, Francis said that the theory of evolution is not incompatible with the account of creation as recorded in the Bible, and the Big Bang does not contradict divine intervention but rather requires it.

“We run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything,” he said, arguing against young earth creationism. “But that is not so.”

But Francis emphasized that the world was not created from chaos by chance, but “derives directly from a Supreme Principle who creates out of love.”

“The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it. The evolution of nature does not contrast with the notion of creation, as evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.”

Francis emphasized the potential that scientific inquiry holds to discover God and his plan: “Therefore the scientist, and above all the Christian scientist, must adopt the approach of posing questions regarding the future of humanity and of the Earth, and of being free and responsible, helping to prepare it and preserve it, to eliminate risks to the environment of both a natural and human nature. But, at the same time, the scientist must be motivated by the confidence that nature hides, in her evolutionary mechanisms, potentialities for intelligence and freedom to discover and realize, to achieve the development that is in the plan of the creator.”

In this photo provided by the Vatican paper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis, right, and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI pray together in Castel Gandolfo Saturday. (AP Photo/Osservatore Romano, HO)
In this photo provided by the Vatican paper L’Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis, right, and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI pray together in Castel Gandolfo Saturday. (AP Photo/Osservatore Romano, HO)

Francis made his remarks during an address lauding Benedict XVI for promoting the harmony of science and faith, the National Catholic Register reported. He also unveiled a bust of his predecessor.

“As you know, (Benedict’s) love of truth is not limited to theology and philosophy, but is open to science… Surely we could never say of him that study and the science have withered his person and his love for God and neighbor, but on the contrary, that science, wisdom, and prayer have enlarged his heart and his spirit.”

“Evolution consciously reflecting upon itself”

Francis’s remarks were covered breathlessly in the media, but the coverage has not reflected that they are solidly consistent with previous Church teachings.

In fact, the Church doesn’t have an official teaching on evolution itself, explained Wheeling Jesuit University theologian Andrew Staron. “The Church’s primary concern is how we come to understand and value the human person created in the image of God in light of the findings of evolutionary biology and those of all other intellectual disciplines,” he explained.

Jesuit priest scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was influential in opening Catholic thinking to natural sciences, wrote extensively on the theology of evolution, Staron pointed out, speculating that spiritual development could be as much a part of human evolution as the development of the human mind — in other words, evolution consciously reflecting upon itself, moving the world into union with God.

The official position of the Catholic Church has been very clear, emphasized Murray Watson, cofounder of the Center for Jewish-Catholic-Muslim learning at Ontario’s Western University: Catholicism does not see an inherent contradiction between faith and any of the several leading theories of evolution, as long as those theories can allow room for a number of beliefs. First, that God is the ultimate source of evolution. Second, that God is ultimately guiding the process, even if indirectly through the laws of nature. And finally, that the human soul is God’s direct creation, not a random result of evolution.

“In that sense, all that the Catholic Church asks is that science limit itself to answer questions within its own purview, and not venture into the areas of philosophy and theology,” said Watson. “It isn’t the role of religion to pass judgement on scientific theories, but the Church wants to ensure that scientists don’t — accidentally or otherwise — stray into territory which is beyond the ability of the scientific paradigm to investigate, such as the existence of God, and/or the possibility of God’s having created the cosmos.”

Evolution as more than a hypothesis

Speeches and statements by leading Catholic clergy over the years have presented the same position regarding faith and science.

In a 1996 speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul II said  that “new knowledge leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.”

He built on Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, in which he wrote that “the teaching authority of the church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution.”

Catholic schools in the United States, for instance, teach evolution in their science classes.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, in 2005 Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo, chair of Committee on Science and Human Values of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote to all US bishops that the Church affirms “an understanding of evolution that is open to the full truth about the human person and about the world. Assured that scientific truth and religious truth cannot be in conflict, Catholic schools should continue teaching evolution as a scientific theory backed by convincing evidence.

“At the same time, Catholic parents whose children are in public schools should ensure that their children are also receiving appropriate catechesis at home and in the parish on God as Creator. Students should be able to leave their biology classes, and their courses in religious instruction, with an integrated understanding of the means God chose to make us who we are.”

Why, then, did many media outlets perceive Francis’s speech as breaking new ground for the Catholic Church?

Staron posited that too many observers still see “a deep conflict between religious faith and scientific inquiry.”

“Both sides of this perceived conflict posit a God who interacts with the world from outside of it by rearranging the laws of nature when it suits the divine will. Belief in such a God — whether embraced or rejected — does not take seriously enough the possibility of coming to know the Creator in and through creation and, importantly, in and through human reason.

“To posit a God who is only accessible to an irrational faith is to believe that we can only come to know God by denying one of the key elements of what makes us human — our reason. Instead, the Catholic Church teaches that human reason, when properly formed, opens to the divine.

Adiv Sterman contributed to this report. 

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