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The Vatican's View of Evolution: The Story of Two Popes

by Doug Linder (2004)

The relationship between the papacy and scientists has sometimes—just ask Galileo—
been testy. Interestingly, however, the Catholic Church has largely sat out the cultural
battle over the teaching of evolution. One of the reasons Catholics have remained
largely on the sidelines is the well-established system of parochial schools in the United
States, which make state laws relating to the public school curriculum of much less
concern to Catholic clergy and parents than to Protestant clergy and parents. A second
reason is that the Catholic Church, at least in the twentieth century, takes a more flexible
approach to the interpreting Genesis than do several Protestant denominations.

H. L. Mencken expressed admiration for how Catholics handled the evolution


issue:

[The advantage of Catholics] lies in the simple fact that they do not have to decide either
for Evolution or against it. Authority has not spoken on the subject; hence it puts no
burden upon conscience, and may be discussed realistically and without prejudice. A
certain wariness, of course, is necessary. I say that authority has not spoken; it may,
however, speak tomorrow, and so the prudent man remembers his step. But in the
meanwhile there is nothing to prevent him examining all available facts, and even
offering arguments in support of them or against them—so long as those arguments are
not presented as dogma. (STJ, 163)

A majority of American Catholics probably sided with the prosecution in the Scopes trial,
but—with one notable exception, defense attorney Dudley Field Malone—all the major
participants in the controversy, from the author of the Butler Act, to the defendant, the
judge, the jury, and the lawyers were either members of Protestant churches or were
non-churchgoers. Catholics tended to be viewed with some skepticism in Dayton; local
prosecutor Sue Hicks discouraged William Jennings Bryan’s suggestion that Senator T. J.
Walsh of Montana, a Roman Catholic, be added to the prosecution team. (SOG, 131-32)
The Catholic Press Association did take enough interest in the case, however, to send a
top correspondent to Dayton to cover the trial for diocesan newspapers. Writing from
Tennessee, reporter Benedict Elder wrote, “Although as Catholics we do not go quite as
far as Mr. Bryan on the Bible, we do want it preserved.” (SOG, 127)

Pope Pius XII, a deeply conservative man, directly addressed the issue of evolution in a
1950 encyclical, Humani Generis. The document makes plain the pope’s fervent hope
that evolution will prove to be a passing scientific fad, and it attacks those persons who
“imprudently and indiscreetly hold that evolution …explains the origin of all things.”
Nonetheless, Pius XII states that nothing in Catholic doctrine is contradicted by a theory
that suggests one specie might evolve into another—even if that specie is man. The
Pope declared:

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 experiences 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—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by
God.

In other words, the Pope could live with evolution, so long as the process of “ensouling”
humans was left to God. (He also insisted on a role for Adam, whom he believed
committed a sin— mysteriously passed along through the “doctrine of original sin”—that
has affected all subsequent generations.) Pius XII cautioned, however, that he considered
the jury still out on the question of evolution’s validity. It should not be accepted, without
more evidence, “as though it were a certain proven doctrine.” (ROA, 81)

Pope John Paul II revisited the question of evolution in a 1996 a message to the Pontifical
Academy of Sciences. Unlike Pius XII, John Paul is broadly read, and embraces science
and reason. He won the respect of many scientists in 1993, when in April 1993 he
formally acquitted Galileo, 360 years after his indictment, of heretical support for
Copernicus’s heliocentrism. The pontiff began his statement with the hope that “we will
all be able to profit from the fruitfulness of a trustful dialogue between the Church and
science.” Evolution, he said, is “an essential subject which deeply interests the Church.”
He recognized that science and Scripture sometimes have “apparent contradictions,” but
said that when this is the case, a “solution” must be found because “truth cannot
contradict truth.” The Pope pointed to the Church’s coming to terms with Galileo’s
discoveries concerning the nature of the solar system as an example of how science
might inspire the Church to seek a new and “correct interpretation of the inspired word.”

When the pope came to the subject of the scientific merits of evolution, it soon became
clear how much things had changed in the nearly since the Vatican last addressed the
issue. John Paul said:

Today, almost half a century after publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led 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 the theory.

Evolution, a doctrine that Pius XII only acknowledged as an unfortunate possibility, John
Paul accepts forty-six years later “as an effectively proven fact.” (ROA, 82)

Pope John Paul’s words on evolution received major play in international news stories.
Evolution proponents such as Stephen Jay Gould enthusiastically welcomed what he saw
as the Pope’s endorsement of evolution. Gould was reminded of a passage in Proverbs
(25:25): “As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.” (ROA, 820)
Creationists, however, expressed dismay at the pontiff’s words and suggested that the
initial news reports might have been based on a faulty translation. (John Paul gave the
speech in French.) Perhaps, some creationists argued, the pope really said, “the theory
evolution is more than one hypothesis,” not “the theory of evolution is more than a
hypothesis.” If that were so, the Pope might have been suggesting that there are
multiple theories of evolution, and all of them might be wrong.

The “faulty translation” theory, however, suffered at least two problems. Most obviously,
the theory collapsed when the Catholic News Service of the Vatican confirmed that the
Pope did indeed mean “more than a hypothesis,” not “more than one hypothesis.” The
other problem stemmed from a reading of the passage in more complete context. In the
speech, the Pope makes clear in his speech that he understood the difference between
evolution (the highly probable fact) and the mechanism for evolution, a matter of hot
dispute among scientists. John Paul said, “And, to tell the truth, rather than the theory of
evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution.” He recognized that there
were “different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution” and different
“philosophies” upon which the theory of evolution is based. The philosophy out of
bounds to Catholics, the pope indicated, is one which is “materialist” and which denies
the possibility that man “was created in the image and likeness of God.” Human dignity,
the pope suggested, cannot be reconciled with such a “reductionist” philosophy. Thus,
as with Pius XII, the critical teaching of the Church is that God infuses souls into man—
regardless of what process he might have used to create our physical bodies. Science,
the Pope insisted, can never identify for us “the moment of the transition into the
spiritual”—that is a matter exclusively with the magesterium of religion.

Most scientists would be content to let Pius and John Paul have their “ensoulment” theory
and walk away happy. Not Richard Dawkins, however. In an essay on the Pope’s
evolution message called “You Can’t Have it Both Ways” the controversy-loving biologist
accused Pope John Paul of “casuistical double-talk” and “obscurantism.” (SAR, 209)
Dawkins took issue with the Pope’s declaring off-limits theories suggesting that the
human mind is an evolutionary product. In his address the Pope said: "[I]f the human
body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately
created by God…Consequently, theories of evolution which…consider the mind as
emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter,
are incompatible with the truth about man."

In his essay, Dawkins paraphrased the Pope’s statement: “In plain language, there came
a moment in the evolution of hominids when God intervened and injected a human soul
into a previously animal lineage.” Dawkins expresses mock curiosity as to when God
jumped into the evolution picture: “When? A million years ago? Two million years ago?
Between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens? Between ‘archaic’ Homo sapiens and H.
sapiens sapiens?” Clearly, Dawkins finds the divine intervention implausible. He
suggests that the ensoulment theory becomes a necessary part of Catholic theology in
order to sustain the important distinction between species in Catholic morality. It is fine
for a Catholic to eat meat, Dawkins notes, but “abortion and euthanasia are murder
because human life is involved.”

Dawkins contends that evolution tells us that there is no “great gulf between Homo
sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom.” The Pope’s insistence to the contrary is, in
the biologist’s opinion, “an antievolutionary intrusion into the domain of science.”

Dawkins makes no secret of his distain for the distinction so critical to the Pope John
Paul’s 1996 speech on evolution:

I suppose it is gratifying to have the pope as an ally in the struggle against


fundamentalist creationism. It is certainly amusing to see the rug pulled out from under
the feet of Catholic creationists such as Michael Behe. Even so, given a choice between
honest-to-goodness fundamentalism on the one hand, and the obscurantist, disingenuous
doublethink of the Roman Catholic Church on the other, I know which I prefer. (SAR, 211)

Popes have had considerably less to say recently on the subject of the origin of the
universe than they have on the subject of human origins. In 1951, interestingly, Pius XII
(who so grudgingly acknowledged the possibility of evolution) celebrated news from the
world of science that the universe might have been created in a Big Bang. (The term,
first employed by astronomer Fred Hoyle was meant to be derisive, but it stuck.) In a
speech before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences he offered an enthusiastic
endorsement of the theory: "…it would seem that present-day science, with one sweep
back across the centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the
primordial Fiat Lux [Let there be Light], when along with matter, there burst forth from
nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into
millions of galaxies." (ME, 254-55)
But the Pope didn’t stop there. He went on to express the surprising conclusion that the
Big Bang proved the existence of God:

Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, [science] has
confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the
epoch when the world came forth from the hands of the Creator. Hence, creation took
place. We say: therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore, God exists!

The man who laid the groundwork for the Big Bang theory, astronomer Edwin Hubble,
received a letter from a friend asking whether the Pope’s announcement might qualify
him for “sainthood.” The friend enthused that until he read the statement in the
morning’s paper, “I had not dreamed that the Pope would have to fall back on you for
proof of the existence of God.” (ME, 255)

Other people, including Belgian astronomer Georges Lamaître and the Vatican’s science
advisor, had a different reaction. They understood that the Big Bang in 1951 remained
very much a contested theory and worried what might be the effect if the Pope pinned
the Catholic faith too much on its proving true. They spoke privately to the Pope about
their concerns, and the Pope never brought up the topic again in public.

Big Bang theories become a problem for Catholic theology only when they consider “the
moment of creation.” That, at least, is what Pope John Paul allegedly told Stephen
Hawking and other physicists during an audience that followed a papal scientific
conference on cosmology. (Some scientists dispute Hawking's account, and say that the
Pope suggested no limitations on their inquiry.) The Pope told the physicists they should
not inquire into the Big Bang itself because that was “the work of God.” Stephen W.
Hawking, in his A Brief History of Time, reported that he was among those physicists
whom the Pope privately addressed. He wrote:

I was glad then that he did no know the subject of the talk I had just given at the
conference—the possibility that space-time was finite but had no boundary, which means
that it had no beginning, no moment of Creation.

notes:

SOG= Summer for the Gods by Edward J. Larson (1997)

SAR= Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (edited by Paul Kurtz)(2003)

ROA=Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life by Stephen J. Gould
(1999)

STJ= H. L. Mencken on Religion by S. T. Joshi (2002)

ME= Measuring Eternity by Martin Gorst (2001)