This week, Pope Francis declared statements that shocked believers and non-believers alike, awakening a seemingly undying debate over the origins of life and of the universe.
Speaking at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the official scientific research center of the Vatican, Pope Francis denounced the idea of creationism and stood for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. This was a bold move, according to some commentators, who noted that the previous stance of the Catholic church under Pope Benedict XVI was a strict endorsement of creationism and intelligent design.
Pope Francis further criticized the common visualization of God as a “magician,” wielding a magic wand that can spin the cosmos in six days.
“When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so. He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.”
The 77-year-old Pope, the first one to hail outside Europe, also did not shy away from giving support to the Big Bang Theory, saying that the popular explanation for the origin of the universe is consistent with the existence of a Supreme Designer.
“The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but, rather, requires it.”
Unsurprisingly, the declarations elicited expected responses from both the extreme sections of the faith v. science spectrum. A few creationists opined that the Pope is dangerously swaying away from the doctrine, while some so-called rational thinkers took advantage of the announcement to further their mockery of the “unscientific” faithful.
However, Pope Francis’ declarations of support for evolution and the Big Bang don’t really matter. It’s old news. The Catholic church has believed in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution for years. Here is Richard Dawkins’ interview with Fr. George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and astronomer for the Vatican Observatory. The latter explains that a significant number of Catholic thinkers, including himself, believe in the theory of evolution.
Although unofficial, the Catholic church’s stance on evolution, particularly on evolutionary creationism, is that it’s true. Basically, the church supports the Darwinian process of gradual inherited change over populations, as long as it is overseen by a divine being — or in the church’s case, the Judeo-Christian God. In fact, many scientists who have contributed to our knowledge of how evolution works were also catholic priests, like Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, whose work on heredity changed the landscape of evolution.
In the case of the Big Bang, the Catholic church’s stance becomes much clearer. First off, the scientist who came up with the idea of an expanding universe from a hot, dense state was Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest and astrophysicist, who did not see a clash between his scientific discoveries and his religious leanings. Secondly, Pope Pius XII declared in 1951 that the Big Bang does not conflict with the teachings of the Catholic church, creating a clear reconciliation between the church and the sciences. Sadly, this is a fact that many from both the rational and the faithful sides conveniently ignore or forget.
Pope Francis’ statements of support for evolution and the Big Bang do not change anything. Many will still ignore the fact that these theories exist. The Pope is just saying what all people should already know, that the theory of evolution and the Big Bang theory are scientific facts based on rigorous research and observable evidence.
Whether God exists or not is a different debate from whether evolution or the Big Bang happened or not. The former is open for debate. The latter — which involves scientific theories as factual and evident as heliocentrism or gravity — is not.
[Image from Catholic Church England and Wales/Flickr]