Evolution and the Pope John Paul
by Mark Brumley
To paraphrase Santayana: Newspapers ignorant of history are condemned to
reprint it. How else should we interpret the recent headline, describing Pope
John Paul II's address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, "Pope Says
Evolution Compatible with Faith"?
There's not much "news" there. Fifty years ago Pope Pius XII said almost the
same thing in the encyclical Humani generis: "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
experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution,
insofar as it inquiries into the origin of the human body as coming from
pre-existent and living matter."
While not exactly canonizing Darwin, Pius XII did imply that the theory of
evolution isn't necessarily inimical to Christianity. Certainly he didn't reject
evolution altogether. How then do we explain the big headlines when John Paul II
says basically the same thing in 1996?
One answer: the alleged war between science and religion is good copy. So any
chance to chronicle another fight between them is pounced on by the media. The
That proves God's existence-so much for those infallible scientists
who think they can explain everything without God. Evolution? That proves human
beings come from slime-so much for those infallible theologians with their dogma
about man being the image of God.
Which side gets the better play depends on who
appears ahead at the moment. That's why John Paul II's recent address on
evolution was cast as a concession speech in many stories; a supposed
acknowledgement that science was right all along.
But there's another reason for the present media hoopla: John Paul II
himself. He's a living contradiction to many in the media. They see him as a
dogmatic, dominating Polish patriarch on the one hand, and brilliant philosopher
and cultural critic on the other. "Can the same man who put the kibosh on women
priests endorse Darwin?" they wonder.
But he didn't endorse Darwin. He said that evolution, so far as it concerns
man's bodily origins, is really a theological non-issue. With certain
qualifications such as God's ultimate role in man's creation, the direct
creation of the human soul by God and man's inherent dignity as a person, the
theory of evolution needn't be seen as contrary to Christian revelation. So
we're really back to Pius XII with one proviso.
John Paul II's Assumption
John Paul II apparently accepts the idea widely (but not universally)
held among biologists that the scientific evidence corroborates evolution. But
that hardly amounts to a papal "endorsement" of Darwin.
John Paul II would be
the first to admit that, when it comes to science, he's a layman. Only when a
scientific hypothesis or theory impinges on theological matters does he have any
special authority regarding science.
In his talk to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the pope reportedly stated
that evolution is "more than a hypothesis." At first, some critics of evolution
argued that the pope was mistranslated into English here.
What he really said,
they argued, was that "new knowledge has led to the recognition of more than one
hypothesis in the theory of evolution.
"Even the English language edition of the
Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, seemed to concur, until a
corrected translation was published. John Paul II did say evolution was
"more than a hypothesis," according to the paper.
In any event, it seems clear that the pope thinks evolution is supported, at
least to some extent, by the evidence. Noting various discoveries and
evolution's progressive acceptance by "researchers," he concluded, "The
convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was
conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this
Perhaps John Paul II was making a subtle distinction, sometimes made by
philosophers of science, between a hypothesis and a theory. A hypothesis, on
this view, is simply a possible explanation of a phenomenon; a theory is an
explanation with some evidential verification, usually based on testing and
research. The pope appears to think there's evidence to support evolution, hence
it is "more than a hypothesis."
Catholics and Evolution
Must faithful Catholics accept evolution as true? No, but they
may accept it, with the proper theological qualifications in place,
without contradicting their faith.
Whether man's body actually evolved from a
subhuman species isn't, as such, a theological issue even if, indirectly,
it may have some theological implications; it is mainly a question of scientific
evidence. Perhaps John Paul agrees with those who think the scientific evidence
supports evolution. But Catholics, as Catholics, are not obliged to hold that
In recent years the theory of evolution has been challenged by critics who
contend that the scientific evidence doesn't support it. Some critics even
attack the theory as a form of naturalism, the philosophical view that nature is
all there is-no God, no supernatural, no transcendental order of being.
is that human existence can, at least in principle, be wholly explained
in terms of scientific laws. Evolution, on this view, wholly accounts for
human origins, in purely physical terms.
Whatever the scientific evidence for evolution, a purely naturalistic
formulation of the theory won't hold up philosophically or theologically,
anymore than a purely naturalistic account of human nature as it exists today
will. Human beings possess spiritual souls.
That means, among other things, that
we have intellects and wills, neither of which can be entirely reduced to merely
natural, scientific explanations without jettisoning the reliability of all
human thought and human freedom.
For, as C. S. Lewis and others have argued,
unless at least some of our thoughts aren't explicable wholly in terms of
the physical processes of the natural world, the very scientific idea of nature
itself is unreliable. For it, too, would be merely the product of biochemically
And unless at least some of our choices aren't
wholly produced by the operation of purely natural, physical laws, all our
choices, including moral decisions to kill, lie, cheat or steal, would be mere
products of nature. We would make them because the physical, biochemical
processes of the universe compel us to; we couldn't do otherwise.
Now we all think people's thoughts or decisions are at least sometimes
explicable in terms of mere physical processes. When, for instance, a drunkard
tells us he's seen a pink elephant, we explain it entirely in terms of alcohol's
effect on his nervous system.
Or when a captured loyal soldier divulges
strategic secrets to the enemy under the influence of conditioning and drugs, we
don't consider him a traitor. We say he was brainwashed, and explain his actions
that way rather than as a free decision to betray his country.
Those who would reduce the human mind to matter- philosophical
naturalists-claim that all human thoughts and decisions are similarly reducible
to particular states of brain chemistry.
But no naturalist really thinks all
thoughts as unreliable as his theory suggests and few, we can suspect, would
deny human freedom altogether. For doing so, as we have seen, would undermine
science-indeed, all knowledge.
If, therefore, a particular version of evolutionary theory assumes a
complete, purely natural continuity between human beings and other animals,
including the emergence of the human mind from mere matter apart from any
more-than natural-(or supernatural) cause, that view must be false.
who claims to explain everything about man in terms of evolution winds up
explaining nothing, for there is no basis for thinking anything he says
about man is true. He traps his theory-not to mention himself-in a naturalistic
He must hold that he himself theorizes as he does simply because
the whole universe and its physical, biochemical laws move the molecules around
in his head that way, not because he's discovered some "truth" about the way
A Crucial Distinction
Obviously, John Paul II distinguishes between evolutionary theories
compatible with sound philosophy and theology, and those, such as naturalism,
which aren't. In his talk to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he spoke of
"theories of evolution," rather than simply the theory of evolution, to
make the distinction. Believers who defend or attack evolution should make the
When a philosophically or theology unsound version of evolution is proposed,
it should be challenged on those grounds. But when a view of evolution doesn't
contradict sound philosophy or theology-when it is compatible with what John
Paul II calls "the truth about man"-then its validity depends on the scientific
Ultimately, the evidence will either corroborate or undermine the
theory. Those who accept or reject such a theory should do so on scientific,
rather than philosophical or theological, grounds.
That distinction will, no doubt, displease those who think the theory of
evolution not only scientifically false but theologically
erroneous. Little can be said to persuade Fundamentalist Protestants
But Catholics who criticize Pope John Paul II for not condemning
evolution should recall Pope Pius XII's now half-century old teaching, and avoid
trying, in their anti-evolutionary fervor, to be more Catholic than the pope.
Mark Brumley, a convert to Catholicism from Evangelicalism, is the
managing editor of Catholic Dossier.
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