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.
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.
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.