National Catholic Register


Pope’s Nod to Evolution Deals Creationism Setback

BY Jim Cosgrove

November 3-9, 1996 Issue | Posted 11/3/96 at 2:00 AM


CONTRADICTING media images of an ailing, backward-looking papacy, Pope John Paul II told an international group of scientists Oct. 22 that the Church accepts evolution as“more than a hypothesis.”

Nearly a century and a half after Charles Darwinfirstpublishedhis “Originof Species”—and 50 years after Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical Humani Generis which indicated that Catholics might embrace evolution as long as it was not presented as“certain doctrine,“—John Paul told the plenary sessionofthePontifical Academyof Sciences that“today, … new knowledge leads to the recognition that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis.”There was evidence, the Pontiff asserted, in the fact that several scientific disciplines had come up with evidence of evolution independent of one another.

Lately, the Vatican has shown heightened interest in evolution theory. At a June symposium,co-sponsoredbythe Vatican Observatory and encouraged by the Pope, participants suggested that to view the development of human life in terms of an“ongoing creation”is a scenario that makes increasing sense, both scientifically and theologically. The theme of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences'session for which the Pope drafted his remarks on evolution was“The Origins and the Evolution of Life: Reflections on Science at the Dawn of the Third Millennium.”The Academyadvisesthe Pope on scientific matters.

“More than‘the theory’of evolution,”the Pope cautioned in his statement,“it is appropriate to speak of‘the theories' of evolution. This plurality accounts, on the one hand, for the diversity of explanations that have been proposed as the mechanism of evolution and, on the other hand, for diverse philosophies. We have thus materialistic and reductionist readings, and spiritualist readings.”

Here, the Pope echoed the concerns of his predecessor, Pius XII, who wrote about evolution against the 1950s backdrop of the spreadofcommunismandphilosophicalmaterialismin Europe—views which denied the existence of God and His role in creation. Pope Pius's essential point, John Paul noted, was that“if the human body has its origin in living material which preexistsit,thespiritualsoulisimmediatelycreatedbyGod.”Considering the evolution of human beings, the Pope said, one is confronted with an“ontological leap”that cannot be explained through observation or measurement.

These means of acquiring knowledge, he said, fail to explain“the moment of passage into the spiritual,”when the creature that became the modern human being acquired a soul. Only theology can fill that gap.

Interestingly, the Pope's message made no claim to have all the answers to some inevitable questions, such as how to reconcile the biblical account of creation with evolutionary science. Church observers were quick to note that the Pope was not basing his evaluation of evolution on his religious authority or presenting evolution as a teaching of the Catholic Church—but, rather on the scientific evidence in its favor.

“What belongs to science, belongs to science, and what belongstoreligionbelongstoreligion,” Msgr.Francis Maniscalco, a spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) told The New York Times Oct. 25. Religious truth and scientific truth must ultimately be in harmony, he said, but even when they have implications for each other, they rest on different grounds.

Ironically, while the Pope's position will likely have little effect in Catholic schools, where evolution is routinely taught, it threatens to add ammunition to the current debate in the United States over the teaching of creationism, or so-called creation science, in public schools.

A dispute going back to the 1920s and the famous Scopes“Monkey trial”between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, the creationism debate pits fundamentalist Christians who favor a reading of the Book of Genesis that renders it a literal, scientific account of creation against those who view evolution as the standard modern theory of the origins of life. The dispute has cropped up in school boards all across the country.

The Tennessee legislature this year narrowly defeated a bill that would have banned the teaching of evolution as fact rather than theory. In Alabama, textbooks now come with a disclaimer saying that evolution is just a theory, and in Draffenville, Ken., pages of a textbook teaching evolution have been glued together because they do not include the teaching of creationism.“Science will suffer for [what the Pope has said],”Bill Hoesch, public information officer for the Institute for Creation Research, a not-for-profit corporation in Santee, Calif., told the Register. The Institute promotes what it calls scientific creationism.“The Pope is recognized as a very influential figure, and it's unfortunate that he would choose to coincide with the popular culture. The Pope's statement makes [evolution theory] appear beyond dispute,”he said.

Hoesch criticized the Pope for declaring himself not at odds with evolution theory at a time“when there's a respected biochemist, Michael Behe, a Catholic, who calls into question the very fundamentals of Darwinian theory in his new book Darwin's Black Box.“

Hoesch also said that the Pope“shows abysmal lack of understanding about what the scientific community understands by evolution.”By definition, Hoesch said, it's an undirected process, a random process without a purpose:“That's the heart and soul of what the scientific community believes. So, how can evolution be both a directed and an undirected process?”Creationists are particularly alert to the public relations implications of the Pope's support for evolution, said Hoesch.“Obviously, what his statement does more than anything else is marginalize people like us even further.“

The Bible has to be taken at face value, Hoesch declared, when it talks about the events of earth history. The Pope says the opposite.“So, secularists will hold this up to say,‘See, religion and science are perfectly compatible. The only holdouts are those biblical fundamentalists’“

Not surprisingly, opponents of creationism warmly welcomed the Pope's action.“It reaffirms the message that devoutly religious belief and the teaching of evolution are not incompatible,”Deanna Duby, director of education policy for People for the American Way, told The New York Times. The organization, which campaigns for separation of Church and state, published a report in April on what it termed an alarming upsurge in efforts to stifle the teaching of evolution as scientific fact.

“That view [the compatibility of faith and evolution] has been part of the debate all along,”said Duby,“but it often gets lost. To have a religious figure as visible and powerful as the Pope make that argument is a very important step in getting out that point of view.“

Most commentators, however, see the Pope's evolution message less in terms of the long-running U.S. debate about creationism, than in terms of John Paul II's concern to bridge perceived gaps between science and faith, and align the Church in the 21st century toward a creative alliance between these two vast, and often competing, sources of knowledge.

Removing obstacles to the dialogue between the Church and science may not only stand behind the Pope's message on evolution, but also behind his 1992 statement to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences rectifying one of the Church's most infamous wrongs toward science—the persecution of Galileo for asserting, in contrast to the geocentricism of the Bible, that the earth moved around the sun.

Robert Russell, founder and director of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, sees the Pope's evolution statement in that light.“We applaud the position taken on God and evolution by Pope John Paul II in his recent message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences,”Russell, a professor of theology and science at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) and a United Church of Christ minister, told the Register.

“[The Pope's position], in our view, is the‘middle way', a third option between fundamentalist Christians who are conflicted about science and those reductionist scientists who claim that science can explain everything about the human person, that science is the only route to truth.”

Russell pointed to the need to have a moral voice about the technologies science makes possible—for example, the theological implications of gene research—as well as address the deeper spiritual questions that arise from science but which science itself cannot answer: Where we came from, why we're here.

What's so positive about the Pope's response, said Russell, is that, unlike fundamentalist Christians who view evolution as an atheistic construct, or scientists like Carl Sagan who also view evolution as atheistic,“here's a very robust response to evolutionary theory—namely, that God creates through it, that God is the ground of being on which it all depends.”

Gabriel Meyer, a Register contributing editor, is based in Los Angeles.