The Vatican's View of Evolution: The Story of Two Popes

by Doug Linder (2004)

The relationship between the papacy and scientists has sometimes—just ask Galileo—been testy.  Interestingly, however, the Catholic Church has largely sat out the cultural battle over the teaching of evolution.  One of the reasons Catholics have remained largely on the sidelines is the well-established system of parochial schools in the United States, which make state laws relating to the public school curriculum of much less concern to Catholic clergy and parents than to Protestant clergy and parents.  A second reason is that the Catholic Church, at least in the twentieth century, takes a more flexible approach to the interpreting Genesis than do several Protestant denominations. 

H. L. Mencken expressed admiration for how Catholics handled the evolution issue:

[The advantage of Catholics] lies in the simple fact that they do not have to decide either for Evolution or against it.  Authority has not spoken on the subject; hence it puts no burden upon conscience, and may be discussed realistically and without prejudice.  A certain wariness, of course, is necessary.  I say that authority has not spoken; it may, however, speak tomorrow, and so the prudent man remembers his step.  But in the meanwhile there is nothing to prevent him examining all available facts, and even offering arguments in support of them or against them—so long as those arguments are not presented as dogma.  (STJ, 163)

A majority of American Catholics probably sided with the prosecution in the Scopes trial, but—with one notable exception, defense attorney Dudley Field Malone—all the major participants in the controversy, from the author of the Butler Act, to the defendant, the judge, the jury, and the lawyers were either members of Protestant churches or were non-churchgoers.  Catholics tended to be viewed with some skepticism in Dayton; local prosecutor Sue Hicks discouraged William Jennings Bryan’s suggestion that Senator T. J. Walsh of Montana, a Roman Catholic, be added to the prosecution team.  (SOG, 131-32)  The Catholic Press Association did take enough interest in the case, however, to send a top correspondent to Dayton to cover the trial for diocesan newspapers.  Writing from Tennessee, reporter Benedict Elder wrote, “Although as Catholics we do not go quite as far as Mr. Bryan on the Bible, we do want it preserved.”  (SOG, 127)

Pope Pius XII, a deeply conservative man, directly addressed the issue of evolution in a 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis.  The document makes plain the pope’s fervent hope that evolution will prove to be a passing scientific fad, and it attacks those persons who “imprudently and indiscreetly hold that evolution …explains the origin of all things.”  Nonetheless, Pius XII states that nothing in Catholic doctrine is contradicted by a theory that suggests one specie might evolve into another—even if that specie is man.  The Pope declared:

The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experiences in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.

In other words, the Pope could live with evolution, so long as the process of “ensouling” humans was left to God.  (He also insisted on a role for Adam, whom he believed committed a sin— mysteriously passed along through the “doctrine of original sin”—that has affected all subsequent generations.) Pius XII cautioned, however, that he considered the jury still out on the question of evolution’s validity.  It should not be accepted, without more evidence, “as though it were a certain proven doctrine.”  (ROA, 81)

Pope John Paul II revisited the question of evolution in a 1996 a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.   Unlike Pius XII, John Paul is broadly read, and embraces science and reason.  He won the respect of many scientists in 1993, when in April 1993 he formally acquitted Galileo, 360 years after his indictment, of heretical support for Copernicus’s heliocentrism.  The pontiff began his statement with the hope that “we will all be able to profit from the fruitfulness of a trustful dialogue between the Church and science.”  Evolution, he said, is “an essential subject which deeply interests the Church.”  He recognized that science and Scripture sometimes have “apparent contradictions,” but said that when this is the case, a “solution” must be found because “truth cannot contradict truth.”  The Pope pointed to the Church’s coming to terms with Galileo’s discoveries concerning the nature of the solar system as an example of how science might inspire the Church to seek a new and “correct interpretation of the inspired word.”

When the pope came to the subject of the scientific merits of evolution, it soon became clear how much things had changed in the nearly fifty years since the Vatican last addressed the issue.  John Paul said:

Today, almost half a century after publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.  It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge.  The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.

Evolution, a doctrine that Pius XII only acknowledged as an unfortunate possibility, John Paul accepts forty-six years later “as an effectively proven fact.”  (ROA, 82)

Pope John Paul’s words on evolution received major play in international news stories.  Evolution proponents such as Stephen Jay Gould enthusiastically welcomed what he saw as the Pope’s endorsement of evolution.  Gould was reminded of a passage in Proverbs (25:25): “As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.”  (ROA, 820)  Creationists, however, expressed dismay at the pontiff’s words and suggested that the initial news reports might have been based on a faulty translation. (John Paul gave the speech in French.)  Perhaps, some creationists argued, the pope really said, “the theory evolution is more than one hypothesis,” not “the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis.”  If that were so, the Pope might have been suggesting that there are multiple theories of evolution, and all of them might be wrong.

The “faulty translation” theory, however, suffered at least two problems.  Most obviously, the theory collapsed when the Catholic News Service of the Vatican confirmed that the Pope did indeed mean “more than a hypothesis,” not “more than one hypothesis.”  The other problem stemmed from a reading of the passage in more complete context.  In the speech, the Pope makes clear in his speech that he understood the difference between evolution (the highly probable fact) and the mechanism for evolution, a matter of hot dispute among scientists.  John Paul said, “And, to tell the truth, rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution.”  He recognized that there were “different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution” and different “philosophies” upon which the theory of evolution is based.  The philosophy out of bounds to Catholics, the pope indicated, is one which is “materialist” and which denies the possibility that man “was created in the image and likeness of God.”  Human dignity, the pope suggested, cannot be reconciled with such a “reductionist” philosophy.  Thus, as with Pius XII, the critical teaching of the Church is that God infuses souls into man—regardless of what process he might have used to create our physical bodies.  Science, the Pope insisted, can never identify for us “the moment of the transition into the spiritual”—that is a matter exclusively with the magesterium of religion.

Most scientists would be content to let Pius and John Paul have their “ensoulment” theory and walk away happy.  Not Richard Dawkins, however.  In an essay on the Pope’s evolution message called “You Can’t Have it Both Ways” the controversy-loving biologist accused Pope John Paul of “casuistical double-talk” and “obscurantism.”  (SAR, 209)  Dawkins took issue with the Pope’s declaring off-limits theories suggesting that the human mind is an evolutionary product. In his address the Pope said: "[I]f the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God…Consequently, theories of evolution which…consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man."

In his essay, Dawkins paraphrased the Pope’s statement:  “In plain language, there came a moment in the evolution of hominids when God intervened and injected a human soul into a previously animal lineage.”  Dawkins expresses mock curiosity as to when God jumped into the evolution picture: “When?  A million years ago?  Two million years ago?  Between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens?  Between ‘archaic’ Homo sapiens and H. sapiens sapiens?”  Clearly, Dawkins finds the divine intervention implausible.  He suggests that the ensoulment theory becomes a necessary part of Catholic theology in order to sustain the important distinction between species in Catholic morality.  It is fine for a Catholic to eat meat, Dawkins notes, but “abortion and euthanasia are murder because human life is involved.”

Dawkins contends that evolution tells us that there is no “great gulf between Homo sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom.”  The Pope’s insistence to the contrary is, in the biologist’s opinion, “an antievolutionary intrusion into the domain of science.”

Dawkins makes no secret of his distain for the distinction so critical to the Pope John Paul’s 1996 speech on evolution:

I suppose it is gratifying to have the pope as an ally in the struggle against fundamentalist creationism.  It is certainly amusing to see the rug pulled out from under the feet of Catholic creationists such as Michael Behe.  Even so, given a choice between honest-to-goodness fundamentalism on the one hand, and the obscurantist, disingenuous doublethink of the Roman Catholic Church on the other, I know which I prefer.  (SAR, 211)

Popes have had considerably less to say recently on the subject of the origin of the universe than they have on the subject of human origins.  In 1951, interestingly, Pius XII (who so grudgingly acknowledged the possibility of evolution) celebrated news from the world of science that the universe might have been created in a Big Bang.  (The term, first employed by astronomer Fred Hoyle was meant to be derisive, but it stuck.)  In a speech before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences he offered an enthusiastic endorsement of the theory: "…it would seem that present-day science, with one sweep back across the centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the primordial Fiat Lux [Let there be Light], when along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into millions of galaxies.(ME, 254-55)

But the Pope didn’t stop there.  He went on to express the surprising conclusion that the Big Bang proved the existence of God:

Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, [science] has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the world came forth from the hands of the Creator.  Hence, creation took place.  We say: therefore, there is a Creator.  Therefore, God exists!

The man who laid the groundwork for the Big Bang theory, astronomer Edwin Hubble, received a letter from a friend asking whether the Pope’s announcement might qualify him for “sainthood.”  The friend enthused that until he read the statement in the morning’s paper, “I had not dreamed that the Pope would have to fall back on you for proof of the existence of God.”  (ME, 255)

Other people, including Belgian astronomer Georges Lamaître and the Vatican’s science advisor, had a different reaction.  They understood that the Big Bang in 1951 remained very much a contested theory and worried what might be the effect if the Pope pinned the Catholic faith too much on its proving true.  They spoke privately to the Pope about their concerns, and the Pope never brought up the topic again in public.

Big Bang theories become a problem for Catholic theology only when they consider “the moment of creation.”  That, at least, is what Pope John Paul allegedly told Stephen Hawking and other physicists during an audience that followed a papal scientific conference on cosmology.  (Some scientists dispute Hawking's account, and say that the Pope suggested no limitations on their inquiry.) The Pope told the physicists they should not inquire into the Big Bang itself because that was “the work of God.”  Stephen W. Hawking, in his A Brief History of Time, reported that he was among those physicists whom the Pope privately addressed.  He wrote:

I was glad then that he did not know the subject of the talk I had just given at the conference—the possibility that space-time was finite but had no boundary, which means that it had no beginning, no moment of Creation.

SOG= Summer for the Gods by Edward J. Larson (1997)
SAR= Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (edited by Paul Kurtz)(2003)
ROA=Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life by Stephen J. Gould (1999)
STJ= H. L. Mencken on Religion by S. T. Joshi (2002)
ME= Measuring Eternity by Martin Gorst (2001)

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