Pope Francis recently gave a talk to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (27 Oct 2014), in which he mentioned evolution and the Big Bang theory. There has been some confusion among my fellow Catholics about the meaning of the Pope’s words, so I thought I’d address the topic in question and answer format. The Vatican website currently gives the talk only in Italian and a French translation. The media have presented some English quotes from the talk, with some translation errors.
1. Q: Are Catholics required to believe in evolution, or to reject it?
A: No. The Church teaches on the subjects of faith, morals, and salvation. The Church has no teaching on whether or not to believe in evolution. A Catholic may hold a personal opinion either accepting or rejecting evolution.
2. Q: May a Catholic believe in the theory of evolution?
A: Yes, with some reservations or modifications to the theory. A Catholic must believe that God had a role in the creation and development of life. Catholic teaching is that God is the Creator of all that exists, the whole universe and all life. God may have used evolution as one natural process for that life to unfold and develop. But His providence encompasses all things. Life on earth did not occur and develop by accident.
3. Q: May a Catholic believe that the human race is the result of evolution?
A: Only with respect to the human body. As Pope Pius XII wrote:
For these reasons 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, 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. (Humani Generis 36)
Furthermore, Catholics may not hold that the human species developed solely as an accident of evolution. The Church teaches that God chose to create the human race out of love for us. We are not the result of chance, nor of unthinking natural processes. God may have used evolution as a way to prepare the form of the human body, but, if so, this occurred by the will of God and under the providence of God.
4. Q: Are Catholics required to believe in the Big Bang theory?
A: No. Pope Francis mentioned the Big Bang theory, but he did not teach it as a doctrine. The doctrines of the Church concern only faith, morals, and salvation.
5. Q: May a Catholic believe in the Big Bang theory as a personal opinion?
A: Yes. The Big Bang theory was devised by a Roman Catholic priest, Monseigneur Georges Lemaître, who was also a physicist. As he proposed the theory, it is compatible with Roman Catholic teaching. He believed that God created a starting point for the universe, and that starting point exploded in the Big Bang, and then expanded into the universe as we know it today.
However, a new corollary to the Big Bang theory has recently been proposed, which claims that the starting point for the universe was spontaneously created by itself, as if nothingness could create a universe. This claim is incompatible with Catholic teaching that God is the Creator of the universe.
6. Q: Does the Church have any teachings on science?
A: Yes. Sometimes faith and science overlap in their areas of concern. For example, the creation of the universe and the creation of the human race are matters of faith, since God is the Creator of heaven and earth (and of the human race). Whenever faith overlaps with science, the Church has the ability and authority to teach on that subject. However, the Church does not have the role to decide all questions of science, only those questions that pertain to faith, morals, or salvation.
7. Q: Is a Catholic ever required to reject a well-established teaching of science?
A: Yes. The First Vatican Council taught and defined:
9. Hence all faithful Christians are forbidden to defend as the legitimate conclusions of science those opinions which are known to be contrary to the doctrine of faith, particularly if they have been condemned by the Church; and furthermore they are absolutely bound to hold them to be errors which wear the deceptive appearance of truth.
For example, prior to the arrival of the Big Bang theory of Fr. Lemaître, most scientists, including Albert Einstein, believed that the universe in some form had always existed. They denied that the universe was created, and therefore had a beginning in time. This idea is contrary to Catholic doctrine on God as the Creator of all that exists, and so Catholics cannot accept such a theory. Fortunately, this idea fell out of favor, and is no longer the majority opinion of scientists.
8. Q: Did Pope Francis really say: “God is not a divine being or a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life,” as some media reports claim?
A: Not exactly. The word in Italian being translated as “a divine being”, or in other reports “a creator”, is “demiurgo” (the demiurge) derived from a Greek term. The demiurge was a Platonic idea, also found in other philosophies, of a being who is a caretaker (literally “public worker”) of the universe. The demiurge was not viewed as an all-powerful God, nor as the Creator of the universe. The translations of that term as “a diving being” or “a creator” are translation errors. A correct translation would say something like “God is not a caretaker or a magician….”
Read this good opinion piece from Breitbart.com correcting some media distortions of the Pope’s words.
9. Q: Are Catholics required to believe that Adam and Eve were two real historical persons?
A: Yes. The dogma of original sin and therefore also the dogma of the Immaculate Conception depend, of necessity, on the existence of Adam and Eve as two literal historical persons, who committed original sin and from whom all members of the human race are descended. We cannot hold that Adam and Eve are mythical figures, nor that their story is entirely fictional. The story of Adam and Eve contains some figurative elements as well as some literal historical elements.
In my book, Adam and Eve versus Evolution, I explain how science and faith can be reconciled on questions such as the creation of the universe and the theory of evolution. I believe that faithful Catholics can accept the theory of evolution, with some exceptions and modifications on certain points. I also believe that Adam and Eve were two real historical persons.
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