Pope Challenges Big Bang Theory!

Yes! It’s true!

If you believe all the nonsense there is on the Internet.

Take for example, this story from NBC’s station WTHR and its “Eyewitness News” team:

Pope Challenges Big Bang theory

Vatican City - Pope Benedict is offering his thoughts on how the universe was created.  Thursday, the Pope said God’s mind was behind the complex scientific theories such as the Big Bang, and Christians should reject the idea the universe was created by chance.

The Pope has rarely talked about specific scientific concepts such as the Big Bang, which scientists say caused the formation of the universe some 13.7 billion years ago.

The Pope added scientific theories on the origin and development of the universe and humans leave many questions unanswered.

And that’s all there is to this story, which was picked up and echoed in other locations in the mainstream media’s vast news echo chamber.

The dateline of the story, you will note, says “Vatican City,” and given journalistic praxis for datelines, that implies that the story was written by somebody in Rome, allowing this to fall under the “Eyewitness News” heading.

But not all eyewitnesses have eyes to see or wits to think—or ears to hear for that matter. And not all editors compose (or approve) headlines that accurately reflect the story.

I held back on commenting on this until the English translation of the homily was available, but even looking over the Italian original I was scratching my head, saying, “This doesn’t seem to say what the press accounts are saying it says.”

This story does have a nucleus of truth to it. Pope Benedict did give a homily for the feast of the Epiphany (when the Magi showed up, following the star) in which he reflected on the fact that God created the universe, but that’s got to be the ultimate dog-bites-man story, right? The pope describes God as the Creator? It’s not exactly like this story is without precedent.

But guess how many times Pope Benedict mentions the Big Bang in his homily?

That’s right! NONE!

And while it’s true that “The Pope has rarely talked about specific scientific concepts such as the Big Bang,” if by “rarely” you mean “not every single day,” you’d be right—though specific scientific concepts do come up rather often in papal statements (every time the Pope addresses the Pontifical Academy of Sciences . . . or the Pontifical Academy of Life . . . or the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences . . . or, you get the picture. But the ironic thing is that on this occasion the Pope did not address any specific scientific concepts. Not the Big Bang (or anything else except for a mention of novas, which I’ll get to in a minute).

What he did was say was . . .

The universe is not the result of chance, as some would like to make us believe. In contemplating it, we are asked to interpret in it something profound; the wisdom of the Creator, the inexhaustible creativity of God, his infinite love for us.

We must not let our minds be limited by theories that always go only so far and that — at a close look — are far from competing with faith but do not succeed in explaining the ultimate meaning of reality. We cannot but perceive in the beauty of the world, its mystery, its greatness and its rationality, the eternal rationality; nor can we dispense with its guidance to the one God, Creator of Heaven and of earth.

This is hardly the Pope “challenging” the Big Bang. Not only does he not mention it, he acknowledges that scientific theories “always go only so far” and that some “are far from competing with the faith.” If anything, that would be an endorsement of the idea that the Big Bang is compatible with the Christian faith—a papal claim that is hardly without precedent.

While the Pope is certainly aware of the Big Bang, and while it forms part of the background to his remarks, his point is a more general one about the world arising from chance. This claim is not restricted to advocates of Big Bang cosmology. There have been people claiming the world is the result of randomness since ancient times and many advocates of non-Big Bang cosmologies have held the same. For that matter, apart from the question of how the cosmos first came into being, many advocates of biological evolution maintain that the world came to have its present form purely through chance. These theories also form part of the background to what the Pope said. It’s not just about the Big Bang, it’s about the world in general.

So . . . thanks to the media for covering this. It’s always good to get the message out about God being the Creator and him loving us and so forth. But could the message be communicated a little more clearly next time? Pretty please? With sugar on top?

Oh, and speaking of communicating the message clearly, a couple of thoughts for the folks responsible for getting the Pope’s homilies up on the Vatican web site (translators, web guys, whoever):

1) What’s the major international language these days? Hint: It’s not Italian.

It’s also not French, or Spanish, or even Chinese. It’s English. English has 450 million native and secondary speakers. It is an official or the majority language in fifty-seven countries (nearly twice that of its closest competitor, French, which has this distinction in 31 countries).

If you want to get the Pope’s message out to the world and avoid (or at least mitigate) him being misunderstood due to difficulty checking what he actually said, devote the resources needed to get his speeches on the web site in English in a timely manner! Don’t make us wait over a week, as in this case, by which time the media story has grown cold and sewn whatever misunderstandings it contained. Also . . .

2) Make sure that your translation into English is correct.

Because it isn’t always.

There have been any number of cases when people point to a sloppy translation that has been posted on the Vatican web site and come away with a misimpression. This is particularly bad because people will say—and often have said—“Hey, this is what it says on the Vatican’s own web site!” It’s understandable that they’d think that what they find on the Vatican’s web site is accurately translated, and they have every right to think that, because it should be.

But too often it’s not, and it creates a mess for those of us who are trying to help get the Vatican’s actual message out, in spite of mistranslations appearing on its web site.

So lest anybody be too sure that just because something appears on Vatican.va, it must be an accurate translation, consider this passage from the English version of Pope Benedict’s Epiphany homily:

And so we come to the star. What kind of star was the star the Magi saw and followed? This question has been the subject of discussion among astronomers down the centuries. Kepler, for example, claimed that it was “new” or “super-new”, one of those stars that usually radiates a weak light but can suddenly and violently explode, producing an exceptionally bright blaze.

These are of course interesting things but do not guide us to what is essential for understanding that star.

Here the Pope asks a question we’ve all wondered about: What was the Star of Bethlehem? He notes as an “example” (presumably one among several) an idea Kepler had and says it is “interesting” (which means he finds it interesting, not that he’s endorsing it as the truth), and all that’s fine.

What is not fine is the way whoever translated this rendered the Pope’s description of Kepler’s idea.



You don’t have to have a doctorate in astronomy (or Italian) to recognize this for what it is: a mistranslation of nova and supernova.

I mean, just look at the Italian:

Keplero, ad esempio, riteneva che si trattasse di una “nova” o una “supernova” . . .

It’s got the words “nova” and “supernova” right there! And notice it doesn’t have a bare presentation of these words without the indefinite article (un, una = “a, an”). It’s got the indefinite article right in front of both nouns! That tells you these are nouns, not adjectives. “A nova,” not “new”; “a supernova,” not “super-new.”

The translation is so bad that one wonders if the Italian was plopped into a machine translation program or something. If so, it wasn’t Google’s, because that churns out:

Kepler, for example, believed that it was a “nova” or a “supernova” . . .


So, Google’s machine translation wins hands down on this one.

While even Homer nods, it is hard to imagine how such an obviously erroneous translation could be made by someone with a functional grasp of Italian and English, much less how it could survive any kind of review.

So, it’s not just the mainstream media that needs to shape up in how it presents the Pope’s message.

The Vatican’s translation service needs to, too.

Or that’s my opinion.

What do you think?