The Pope Speaks on Creation and Evolution

On October 27, Pope Francis inaugurated a bronze bust in honor of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and gave a talk to the assembled members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. After saying some nice things about Benedict, Francis spoke about science and faith.

The sound bites that got picked up by the press were mainly these:

When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining God as a magician, with a magic wand able to make everything. However, it was not like that.  He created beings and allowed them to develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one, so that they were able to develop and to arrive at their fullness of being.   He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time at which he assured them of his continuous presence, giving being to every reality. And so creation continued for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia, until it became which we know today, precisely because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives being to all things.


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 is not opposed to the notion of creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.

Pope Evol Speech Oct2014

These quotes by Francis were rightly taken as support of modern cosmology and of evolution. He also noted a distinction between humans and the rest of creation:

With regard to man, however, there is a change and something new. When, on the sixth day of the account in Genesis, man is created, God gives the human being another autonomy, an autonomy that is different from that of nature, which is freedom.

With privilege comes responsibility; on some level God holds man responsible for managing the rest of creation, so man is called to use his faculties to do good science in the service of all humanity:

…this makes him responsible for creation, so that he might steward it in order to develop it until the end of time.   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.       Then, although limited, man’s action participates in the power of God and is able to build a world suited to his dual corporal and spiritual life; to build a human world for all human beings and not for a group or a class of privileged persons.  This hope and trust in God, the Creator of nature, and in the capacity of the human spirit can offer the researcher a new energy and profound serenity.

A less polished English version of his whole speech is given here.  You can watch about a minute of this talk (in Italian, with English subtitles) here.

Evolution and the Roman Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century

This speech was not a radical departure from previous Catholic teachings. The Roman Catholic church has cautiously endorsed Big Bang cosmology and evolution for many decades. Pope Pius XII’s encyclical of 1950, Humani Generis, took a neutral position on human evolution:

The Church does not forbid that … research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter.

However, an individual Adam was stipulated as the progenitor of the whole human race. This is not really compatible with normal evolution, which operates on whole populations.   We know from the study of human genomes that there was never a time in the lineage of Homo sapiens when it bottlenecked down to just one man and one woman.

Pope John Paul II gave a more robust endorsement of evolution. In an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996, he referred to developments in science in the decades since Pope Pius’s encyclical:

Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.

While acknowledging the weight of evidence (“more than a hypothesis”) in favor of the physical evolution of living beings, John Paul critiqued the reductionistic view of humans which flows from purely materialistic world-views:

The theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.

John Paul distinguished among different approaches in the study of what it means to be human. While acknowledging the value of detailed physical observations, he noted that philosophical reflection is needed to analyze the bigger questions:

With man, we find ourselves facing a different ontological order—an ontological leap, we could say. But in posing such a great ontological discontinuity, are we not breaking up the physical continuity which seems to be the main line of research about evolution in the fields of physics and chemistry? An appreciation for the different methods used in different fields of scholarship allows us to bring together two points of view which at first might seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure, with ever greater precision, the many manifestations of life, and write them down along the time-line. The moment of passage into the spiritual realm is not something that can be observed in this way—although we can nevertheless discern, through experimental research, a series of very valuable signs of what is specifically human life. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-consciousness and self-awareness, of moral conscience, of liberty, or of aesthetic and religious experience—these must be analyzed through philosophical reflection, while theology seeks to clarify the ultimate meaning of the Creator’s designs.

Of Catholics and Protestants

The Roman Catholic church got off to a bad start at the dawn of the scientific era with burning Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600 (mainly for dodgy theology, but that was partly tied to his scientific view of an infinite universe containing other worlds), and then with forcing Galileo to abjure the heliocentric system under threat of imprisonment or worse. The Protestants of that era appeared to be less prone to suppress scientific findings on the basis of dogma.

In the 1500’s, the reformer John Calvin wrote that, in the Genesis creation narrative, God accommodated the story to the limited understanding of common people, rather than giving a scientifically precise account. “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere” – – meaning, the Bible was not written for the purpose of telling us about the physical universe. In Calvin’s view, the way to understand the stars and the planets was to go scientifically study them, not to rely on Biblical pronouncements:

Astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend… For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. Wherefore, as ingenious men are to be honored who have expended useful labor on this subject, so they who have leisure and capacity ought not to neglect this kind of exercise.

Four centuries later, the tables have turned: the Roman Catholic magisterium is fully cognizant of the physical evidence for the long history of life and of the universe, while the most fervent Protestants are mired in denial of reality, in the forms of young earth creationism and anti-evolution Intelligent Design.

About Scott Buchanan

Ph D chemical engineer, interested in intersection of science with my evangelical Christian faith. This intersection includes creation(ism) and miracles. I also write on random topics of interest, such as economics, theology, folding scooters, and composting toilets, at . Background: B.A. in Near Eastern Studies, a year at seminary and a year working as a plumber and a lab technician. Then a B.S.E. and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Since then, conducted research in an industrial laboratory. Published a number of papers on heterogeneous catalysis, and an inventor on over 100 U.S. patents in diverse technical areas. Now retired and repurposed as a grandparent.
This entry was posted in Evolution, Natural Theology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Pope Speaks on Creation and Evolution

  1. Johan Roos says:

    Here in the USA where my wife and I are temporarily staying in order to help my sister-in-law who has had a major back surgery, one TV channel hosted an atheistic professor of Biology who accused the Pope, and all who believe in both God and evolution, of being dualists. I find no dualism in the concept of a Creator-God who brought the embryonic universe into being and endued it with the potential of developing in accordance with His will and yet with the freedom to “do its own thing”!

  2. Reblogged this on gottadobetterthanthis and commented:

    Great insight.

    • Lonnie, glad it was helpful.

      I liked this from your most recent post:
      YEC provides the “scientific” capping to a “biblical Worldview”. This Worldview provides an all-embracing outlook on life and integrates every aspect of their lives. It also enables one to oppose non-Christian Worldviews and to be confident in the “Culture Wars” .

      So true. I wish there was a better way to get the word out to our fellow evangelicals that we don’t have to be afraid of reality.

  3. Pingback: Exposing the Roots of Young Earth Creationism | Letters to Creationists

  4. Pingback: Endogenous Retroviruses in Your Genome Show Common Ancestry with Primates | Letters to Creationists

  5. David Palm says:

    Scott, I wanted to write to tell you how pleased I am to have discovered your blog. I especially appreciate your irenic tone and generosity of spirit with your opponents — would that we could all be so generous. You and I have similar stories — I did my undergraduate work in Electrical and Computer Engineering, but then went on to complete an M.A. in New Testament studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I was raised evangelical Protestant and so firmly in the young Earth milieu, but in high school I read a number of formative works including Davis Young’s “Christianity and the Age of the Earth” which convinced me of the old Earth position. This was not always very comfortable in evangelical circles. (Shortly after my graduation from TEDS my wife and I converted to Catholicism, albeit not on account of my change of mind on the age of the Earth — that’s a whole ‘nuther story ;o).

    In another posting, regarding biblical hermeneutics you wrote: “God could have corrected this ancient science, but chose not to. This was not a mistake or “error.” Rather, God wisely and graciously accommodated His spiritual revelation to the existing physical understanding, in order to facilitate communication of vital spiritual and relational concepts.”

    I thought I’d interject on your posting here about the Popes that your statement meshes nicely with the teaching of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XII in their seminal encyclicals on sacred Scripture (Providentissimus Deus and Divino Afflante Spiritu respectively.) While upholding the inerrancy of Scripture, these Popes noted that the use of phenomenological language *does not constitute an error in Scripture*, since it was not the Holy Spirit’s intent to teach scientific details: “we must remember, first, that the sacred writers, or to speak more accurately, the Holy Ghost ‘Who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things (that is to say, the essential nature of the things of the visible universe), things in no way profitable unto salvation.’ Hence they did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even by the most eminent men of science. Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what comes under the senses; and somewhat in the same way the sacred writers – as the Angelic Doctor [Thomas Aquinas] also reminds us – ‘went by what sensibly appeared,’ or put down what God, speaking to men, signified, in the way men could understand and were accustomed to” (Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus 18).

    A final note: you use the geocentrism example many times in your various postings. But perhaps you have already seen from your more recent blog comments that there are indeed some believers who have sought an ever-greater consistency of literalism with regard to these physical phenomena by embracing strict Geocentrism, the belief that the Earth is absolutely motionless and the entire universe revolves around it. Some are ball Earth geocentrists, continuing to hold that the Earth is a sphere, while others have gone with the whole enchilada combo plate and based on an even more consistently literal hemeneutic are flat Earth geocentrists. They are quite sincere, convinced as they are that these passage must be taken literally or God be found a liar. And of course, faced with a massive body of observational evidence to the contrary, the entire enterprise becomes an elaborate exercise in special pleading, backed up by appeal to conspiracy theories which. You may wish to check out my web site, Geocentrism Debunked, which engages these views in some detail from the vantage of Scripture, theology, and science. God bless!

    • David, nice to hear from you. I took a quick hop over to your Geocentrism Debunked site. Nice work, sir. You have The Classic Quotes from Augustine, et al., and you have assembled some strong rebuttals to geocentrism. Too bad we have to put this much time into correcting reactionary errors, but I guess it keeps us sharp…

  6. Pingback: Evolution Before Our Eyes: Complex Mutations in Microbes Giving New Functions | Letters to Creationists

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s