Vatican Astronomer Dismisses Media Frenzy Over Pope’s Words on Big Bang Theory
The Holy Father reaffirmed Church teaching in address.
ROME — A leading Vatican astronomer said that although some see Pope Francis’ recent words on the Big Bang as signifying a change in the Church’s stance on the issue, the Holy Father was reaffirming Church teaching.
“It is important to emphasize that Pope Francis was not saying anything new or ‘breaking with tradition,’ as I saw one commentator put it,” Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno told CNA Oct. 29.
Brother Consolmagno is a U.S. research astronomer and planetary scientist at the Vatican Observatory, which is an astronomical research and educational institution supported by the Holy See.
Storms of media reports initially arose following a speech Pope Francis gave at the unveiling of a bust of retired Pope Benedict XVI for the plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Monday.
In his speech, Pope Francis said, “The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but, rather, requires it.”
He also touched on evolution, saying that the “evolution of nature does not contrast with the notion of creation, as evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.”
Due to the explosion of headlines on the Internet saying that the Pope had officially endorsed a change in the Church’s position on these two theories, Brother Consolmagno said that it’s important to remember that both theories came as a result of the work of a Catholic priest and a Catholic monk.
“The genetic basis of modern evolutionary theory is based on the work of Gregor Mendel, a Catholic monk; and the modern Big Bang theory was first proposed by Georges Lemaitre, a Catholic priest,” he said.
Brother Consolmagno explained that the theological basis for these theories can also be found in Scripture and cited St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians as one biblical source.
What Pope Francis said, he noted, is “completely consistent” with what numerous other popes in recent history have said, including St. John Paul II in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences entitled “Truth Does Not Contradict Truth” and his 1988 letter to the director of the Vatican Observatory on science and religion.
Pope Pius XII also spoke about these theories in his 1952 address to the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union.
An important thing to keep in mind surrounding these topics is that “the Church does not take ‘positions’ on matters of science,” the astronomer observed.
Therefore, “science is left free to propose explanations and descriptions of the working of the natural world, knowing that none of these descriptions are the final word and that all of them are based on the assumption of a rational universe whose very existence depends on the creative action of God.”
Confusion over Pope Francis’ words also arose when he said, “When we read in Genesis the account of creation, we risk imagining God as a magician, with a wand able to make everything.”
After this statement, the Holy Father said that God allowed creation and created beings to develop throughout history according to the internal laws that God gave them at the beginning of creation, and because of this, “God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the creator who gives being to all things.”
In response to those who took the Pope’s words as meaning that God is not divine, Brother Consolmagno explained that all the pontiff said was that the Christian notion of God is not the same as other, pagan understandings of the divine being.
He referred to Pope’s use of the term “demiurge,” which comes from a gnostic tradition and has been considered a heresy since ancient Roman times.
“This was the idea that God was some sort of ‘artisan’ who formed the universe out of pre-existing materials,” he said, which is basically the same notion as the pagan nature gods, who were thought to oversee the activities of nature.
In light of this understanding, the astronomer said that what the Pope was most likely implying is that the Christian concept of God is “not a ‘nature God’” like that of the pagans.
Catholics, he continued, “embrace the idea of natural laws to explain how nature works — science — precisely because we do not confuse the actions of those laws with the actions of God.”
God is the reason why the universe exists, time and space included, and why it has laws, the religious brother observed, saying that science merely seeks to describe how these laws function.
Helpful resources for understanding these theories, he said, can be found in the Vatican Observatory’s 2009 book The Heavens Proclaim: Astronomy and the Vatican. as well as the recent Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? which is authored by the Jesuit brother and physicist Father Paul Mueller.
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