NEWSPAPERS IGNORANT of history, to paraphrase Santayana, are condemned to reprint it. That maxim could explain a recent headline declaring, “Pope Says Evolution Compatible with Faith.”

Go back half-a-century and Pope Pius XII said the same thing. “The Teaching Authority of the Church,” he declared in his much-maligned encyclical Humani Generis, “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, insofar as it inquiries into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter.”

Not exactly a call to canonize Darwin. But certainly a tacit acknowledgment that, properly understood, the biological theory of evolution is not, per se, opposed to the Christian faith. Otherwise Pius XII surely would have repudiated it altogether, as he did many other errors. Fifty years later, Pope John Paul II says much the same thing about evolution as Pius XII and makes headlines. What's going on?

For one thing, the media has a penchant for fanning the flames of the alleged conflagration between science and religion. Depending on which side appears ahead at any given moment, we get stories on how the Big Bang proves God's existence (so much for those infallible scientists) or how evolution supposedly undercuts cherished religious views about man's origins (so much for the infallible Popes and theologians).

Then there's John Paul II himself. He's news because he perplexes the media. A narrow-minded, doctrinaire Polish patriarch (they say), on the one hand, a sophisticated philosopher and critic of the zeitgeist on the other. “How,” they ask, “can the same man who nixes women priests endorse Darwin?”

The careful observer will note, however, that John Paul II nowhere endorsed Darwin. What he really said was that evolution, so far as it concerns the origin of the human body, is a theological non-starter. Given certain qualifications, including the direct creation of the human soul by God and man's inherent dignity as a person, evolution isn't necessarily at odds with Christian revelation.

Yes, John Paul II went a tad farther than Pius XII. He seems to accept the view common (though not universal) among biological scientists that the scientific and fossil evidence tends to corroborate evolution. But that's no papal “endorsement”—it's not his job to bless any scientific theory. No doubt John Paul II would be the first to admit that he's a layman when it comes to science. Except where a scientific question impinges on theological matters, he has no special competency and claims none.

Which brings us to the most controversial part of the Pope's talk, the passage that declared that “new knowledge” has led to the recognition that evolution is “more than a hypothesis.” That seems to have sparked the headlines.

Critics of evolution argued that the Pope was mistranslated here. The proper rendering of the text, they insisted, asserts only that “new knowledge has led to the recognition of more than one hypothesis in the theory of evolution.” The Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, originally published a version of the Pope's talk to that effect. Shortly after, it corrected itself; the Pope had indeed said that evolution is “more than a hypothesis.”

Either way, a careful reading of the text makes clear that John Paul II thinks evolution is supported by the evidence. Speaking of evolution's progressive acceptance by “researchers,” John Paul concluded, “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.”

Does that mean faithful Catholics must accept evolution as fact? No, only that they may accept it without contradicting their faith. Whether man's body actually developed from a non-human species isn't, per se, a theological issue, even if it has some theological implications; it's mainly a matter of scientific evidence. The Pope may well concur, whether strongly or mildly, with those who think the evidence supports evolution. But Catholics, as Catholics, are only obliged to allow for certain forms of evolution; they aren't required to affirm evolution as scientific fact. The truths of the faith are one thing; scientific facts another.

Those who think the theory of evolution not only scientifically unsupported but theologically heterodox may not like that distinction. Fundamentalist Protestants will most certainly reject it. Catholics upset with John Paul II on the matter, however, should recall Pope Pius XII's teaching. In their anti-evolutionary zeal, they shouldn't think themselves more Catholic than the Pope.

Mark Brumley is managing editor of Catholic Dossier and The Catholic Faith.