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On Evolution, Pope Francis Speaks and the Media Get it Wrong

Ann Gauger


In a statement to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope Francis conceded that evolution, defined as change over time, has happened. But he denied the materialist belief that evolution is by itself sufficient to account for all of life as we see it today. This sparked considerable excitement in the media and commentary across the Internet, as if the Pope were signaling a change in view.

At Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne writes ("Pope Francis gives evolution the thumbs up, but still avows creationism"):

When [the Church] jettisons the idea of the soul and of God’s intervention in the Big Bang and human evolution, and abandons the claim that Adam and Eve are our historical ancestors, then Catholicism will be compatible with evolution. But then it would not be Catholicism.

Meanwhile at Townhall, Christine Rouselle observes ("MSNBC Falsely Claims Pope Francis Has "Gone Rogue" on Evolution"):

The media clearly adores Pope Francis, which I’m okay with. It’s nice to have positive media coverage of my faith. I’m not okay, however, with them twisting the pontiff’s words and claiming he’s "gone rogue" when he has done no such thing. Pope Francis has not changed any Catholic doctrine. Period.

The two writers quoted above have both come to the same opinion of Pope Francis’s recent statement to the Pontifical Academy of Science, namely that the over-enthusiatic media has got it wrong. But only one has the right take on it. I invite you to read their essays, and guess which one comes closest to the truth. For a hint, read on.

When Popes give statements on a particular subject, they are usually very carefully phrased. The exact words in the statement have to be read carefully.

According to Pope Francis, evolution per se still requires a Creator and cannot be the result of purely physical causes, for God is "the Creator who brought all things into being." He continues by saying that the world, indeed the whole universe, come "from a supreme Principle of creative love," and not from chaos.

Further, he said, "Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve." The Creator "created beings and let them develop in accordance with the internal laws that He has given to each one, so that they could arrive at their fulfillment."

Notice, Pope Francis never states that all changes are the result of evolution. He simply says that God created life in such a way that it can evolve, or change over time to reach its full potential. What its full potential means is not clear, and could cover quite a few different interpretations, everything from guided evolution that produces all the panoply of present life, to special creation of each species, genus, or family that then develops to its full potential, within the bounds of its type.

In particular with regard to human origins, he said, "God created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment."

"God gives human beings a different sort of autonomy from that of nature, which is freedom," the Pope said. "No matter how limited, man’s activity partakes of the power of God and is able to build a world fit for his dual life of body and spirit, to build a humane world for all human beings."

What can we take from this? Evolution occurs, but the Pope doesn’t specify its extent or mechanism. He does place clear limits on the idea that evolution accounts for everything we see. He says firmly that God is the Creator of all things, including the universe at the time of the Big Bang, and all life as we know it. He truly creates, not as a demiurge or magician that manipulates existing matter, but rather as the Author and Creator of all things, including the very matter of the universe. This is nothing new, and is not a change in direction from previous popes, who have allowed discussion of evolution, with the clear understanding that our creation is from God, we are all descended from two first parents, and that we each receive our souls from God (Humani Generis, 1950, Pope Pius XII).

As I recall there was the same flurry of excitement from the press surrounding Pope St. John Paul II’s statement to the same Pontifical Academy, where he spoke of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis, but one that still required further careful study. As we all should know, a theory is not proven fact, and it is not a law either. It is a working model for how things happen, but it is always open to further evidence that might disprove or modify it. In particular, he urged that scientists and theologians work together to arrive at the truth, in light of both divine revelation and human reason. So far it really hasn’t happened, but we can hope.

Image source: Wikipedia.

Ann Gauger

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Ann Gauger is Director of Science Communication and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture, and Senior Research Scientist at the Biologic Institute in Seattle, Washington. She received her Bachelor's degree from MIT and her Ph.D. from the University of Washington Department of Zoology. She held a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, where her work was on the molecular motor kinesin.